By Shereen Siewert, Editor and Publisher
Wausau Pilot and Review
At a time when newspapers are closing and cutting back staff, nonprofit news organizations like Wausau Pilot and Review have become the landing spot for more of the nation’s public service and investigative journalism.
So far in 2019, we’ve published more than 5,100 stories. We’ve earned both state and national recognition for our work. We’ve done it all with a staff the fraction of the size of other area news organizations.
And our content will always be free.
Our stories illustrate an often neglected point about journalism today: The key solution is not technology. It’s having more reporters — a lot of them — on the scene.
The crisis in journalism has turned into a crisis of democracy, one we are working hard to address. But what does that really mean?
Without local news, residents simply don’t have the information they need to hold institutions accountable. They don’t know if their leaders are corrupt, their courts are fair, their schools are underperforming, or if their tax dollars are being spent wisely.
Without local news, voters cast their ballots carrying only a shred of information about local candidates. That is, if they vote at all. Several studies have shown that voting turnout declines as reporting does.
Nationwide, the decline in local reporting has triggered a subtle, yet definite power shift toward elected officials. Here’s one example: A Pew Research Center study of Baltimore showed an increase in local stories based solely on press releases from elected officials. That means residents are increasingly reading only what elected officials want them to know.
There is also an argument that the lack of reporters helps erode the public’s trust in journalism. As a whole, news consumers are far more likely to reach out to local reporters they recognize, the reporters they see at meetings and at local events, with their questions and concerns. You hold US accountable.
You might think, well, sure — more reporters would be nice. But that’s not going to happen within the commercial model.
Actually, it can happen if we think differently. A public-service model like ours can be absolutely transformative. For instance, Report for America, a nonprofit initiative established last year as part of the GroundTruth Project, recruits talented emerging reporters from around the country, and then places them in local newsrooms. Report for America pays half the salary, and the other half is split between the news organization and local donors. News organizations, both commercial and nonprofit, apply to host these corps members. Their goal is to place 1,000 reporters in the field by 2022. Wausau Pilot and Review is a finalist for a Report for America reporter in 2020, but we must have the funding to support one if we are to move forward.
To underline their public service commitment, Report for America reporters also do volunteer projects — for instance, working in high schools to help with student-run news websites or podcasts.
I will say this: the nonprofit sector will need to rethink their role in ensuring local nonprofit journalism is sustainable. On the local level, many foundations are incredibly generous, and will pay for project costs, but they do not provide funding for staff. In a digital world, where the cost of doing business lies not in the hardware itself but in the people who report the news, that model must change.
In 2012, foundations put $2.1 billion into arts and culture but just $36.1 million into investigative reporting.
On a national scale, though, those attitudes are shifting. NewsMatch was created by the Knight Foundation in 2016, helping 57 nonprofit news organizations raise more than $1.2 million. In just three years, NewsMatch has helped nonprofit newsrooms raise more than $15.8 million and helped to bring 95,000 first-time donors to nonprofit news. And yes, that money is used to put boots on the ground. People who cover the news you rely on to make decisions for your family and for your community.
We’re proud to have been selected for NewsMatch, which is underway now. Until Dec. 31, every dollar donated to Wausau Pilot and Review, up to $1,000 per donor, will be matched by the national foundations. If you’ve ever read our stories, learned something from us, found our coverage valuable, now is the time to donate.
In a 2018 opinion piece, Steven Waldman and Charles Sennott of the Washington Post perhaps said it best:
“Whether it’s Report for America or some other model, a sea change is required: Local donors — and the community as a whole — need to view journalism as essential as local libraries, museums and hospitals. It’s not complicated. We need more reporters — not for the sake of journalism but for the health of America’s democracy.”
But it all depends on you.