I applaud PAW for celebrating Princeton alumni still pursuing local watchdog journalism and re-imagining the news business in the digital age. I want to highlight another way Princetonians are helping, and can help in the future, to reverse this decline: a groundbreaking new initiative called Report for America, which places emerging journalists in news outlets across the U.S. to report on under-covered issues in under-resourced communities.
The decline of local, public-accountability journalism is an urgent crisis for our democracy and the health of our communities. It is the reason citizens may not know they are drinking dirty water, which schools are failing our children, what local candidates stand for, the risk of disease outbreaks, or where disaster relief funds really go.
To put the crisis in perspective, we’ve lost a third of U.S. manufacturing jobs over the past two decades, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Over the same time, U.S. newspaper jobs fell by half. Almost 1,800 newspapers have folded or merged since 2004, and there are now 1,300 communities that have no local news coverage at all.
As Report for America recently told The New York Times, “studies have now validated what we all know intuitively: The disintegration of community journalism leads to greater polarization, lower voter turnout, more pollution, less government accountability, and less trust.”
Report for America, now in its fourth year, will field 250 reporters across the U.S. in 2020 at newspaper, radio, digital, and TV outlets. We are ramping up to 1,000 reporters by 2022. We treat local journalism as a public service and we raise national and local philanthropy to assist media outlets that can no longer afford labor-intensive, public-service journalism as ad dollars decline. The response has been tremendous: 20 journalists applied for every spot we funded last year.
I spent two decades as an investigative reporter at The Wall Street Journal and local reporter at The Miami Herald. I now work as an investigative research analyst for investors. I advised Report For America on its 2017 launch and now serve on the governing board of its parent organization, The GroundTruth Project.
I urge Princeton students to consider public service in journalism much as they’ve embraced Teach for America, Americorps, and the Peace Corps, and I challenge Princeton alumni to support local news-gathering.