Experimental journalism project Report for America announces Appalachian pilot program

Report for America, an experimental project supported by GroundTruth and Google News Lab, announced today the creation of a pilot program to recruit and install “top, emerging” journalists in “rural Appalachia.” First conceptualized in 2015 and billed as a “a new model for saving local journalism” that borrows from “national and community service programs,” Report for America is currently accepting applications for three positions with West Virginia Public Broadcasting, the Charleston Gazette-Mail, and the Kentucky Herald-Leader respectively, with the latter announcing a complimentary plan to re-open a reporting bureau in Pikeville.

As a centralized national organization eventually supporting journalists across the country, Report for America will subsidize the cost of recruiting and training journalists with the expectation that these journalists commit to a period of service of at least two years (one year for the pilot program) in an under-served area. Local employment partners are responsible for kicking in a smaller percentage of the wage-subsidy as well as supervising daily assignments and contributing to the cultural literacy of a new generation of journalists.

Sponsors present Report for America as an antidote to parachute journalism, one that will give local newsrooms better control of regional coverage and in the process help restore “trust in journalism at a time when it is in deep crisis,” according to GroundTruth CEO Charles Sennott. It’s clear that there’s an urgent need to collapse the divide in local and national reporting on Appalachia. When the Columbia Journalism Review reported in July 2017 that not a single outside journalist attended the West Virginia-based New Story 2017 media conference despite persistent outreach, the snub surprised few here. I’m happy to acknowledge that Report for America has correctly diagnosed a problem, but the larger question is whether or not their planned solutions are as original and sustainable as presented.

Let me make a disclaimer that I’m not a journalist and when I examine the context for this project I do so as a historian familiar with the longer arc of experimental programs and service projects in Appalachia. That said, the questions raised by Report for America are relevant to my field as well. Report for America uses Teach for America and Americorps as models for compensation and service and both projects have impacted the shape of work in cultural and education sectors in significant ways.

Although Report for America exists solely in the private sector (regional coverage of the announcement highlighted the financial support of Kentuckian L. Thomas Galloway’s Galloway Family Foundation), it shares in common with TFA and Americorps a stated commitment to the public good and prioritizes leveraging candidates into entry-level positions complimentary to an ethos to train-up the next generation of professionals. Applications to join Report for America’s pilot program are also open to individuals currently living in Appalachia and those successful can expect a salary commensurate with entry-level wages at their employment partner.

My local colleagues here and in the Rust Belt have long predicted a program like Report for America, not because such a program is necessary but because it’s a natural outgrowth of the logic that fuels a lot of experimentation in Appalachia – that enticing “emerging talent” to the region through philanthropy or corporate incentives will revitalize our stagnant economy, industries, or range of cultural products. It centers often imaginary or self-created labor shortages (many stemming from already weak pay) as justification for intervention. This logic contains promises to elevate compliant and welcoming locals. And, reflecting a more recent turn in Appalachian problem solving, presents neoliberal strategies as benevolent and infused with deep civic and moral purpose.

Not too long ago when I hit stumbling blocks in my employment search in Appalachia I turned to Americorps and found many partners in the region willing to take me on if I could support myself on $10,000 per year – the average stipend for a service year. One partner was a heritage organization dedicated to telling the stories of Appalachia’s labor uprisings. The price of my entry into a world that utilized my training to celebrate the dignity of labor in the past was my own exploited labor in the present. These are the kind of perverse situations that occur when neglected sectors must or choose to rely on subsidized workers. Common too in the region are stories of veteran teachers displaced by cheaper Teach for America recruits who help coast local school districts through budget crises, union disputes, and school board elections.

The Americorps-driven wage depression in Appalachia in my field still forms a dysfunctional barometer of the value of my labor, even in my own assessments. I am currently self-employed as a writer and consultant and often have to stop myself from believing that if I make over $10,000 a year then I’ve been successful. That’s fucked up, and yet when a powerful organization tells you that’s your maximum worth to both the federal government and your local community it’s difficult to operate differently.

GroundTruth’s Executive Editor Kevin Grant assured me on Twitter that the Report for America team is mindful of these pitfalls – and to be fair, the dimensions of the project are still developing. Few people in Appalachia can make a living as a writer or a journalist – I certainly don’t – and the national media frequently snubs regional reporting at the expense struggling news outlets and freelancers. These are dilemmas that Report for America aims to solve or at least mitigate through the alchemy of fresh talent, dynamic local/national partnerships, and a healthy chunk of private funding beyond imagining to most who live and work here.

It’s not surprising that my circle is guarded toward the project, but Report for America has boosters even in that narrow context. Much of this optimism, however, stems from a place of conceding that it’s hard to image how our range of options in Appalachia and the quality of our narrative could get worse. This kind of cynical optimism is well-earned and practical. Many of us are still recovering from an election season fatigued by serving as a hotline for established national reporters on the Trump Country beat and it’s not hard to give explicit promises to do better more than their fair share of weight in trust.

But whatever it might achieve, the existence of Report for America reminds us what a hard road it will be to see the solutions to our region’s precariousness decoupled from the industries that helped create it. The national media has profited for more than a hundred and fifty years from bitter narratives of Appalachia, although there have been many welcome individual exceptions to that trend. The media once treated us as nothing more than a third world nation within the heart of America, and while explicit associations with that argument have fallen out of fashion, it’s still remarkably easy to see the imprint of that colonialist logic not only in the stories it tells but also in the relationships it wants to have with the people who live here.

Report for America doesn’t annihilate the possibilities for other local creative projects (imagine a Higher Ground Theater project or Appalshop in every Appalachian region), but it does underscore us how far we are from their realization. It reminds us that you’re not somebody until Google wants to fix you or when toxic politics compel your region to the national spotlight. Perhaps that’s an unfair burden to place on a nascent project, but I’m sure that organizers who enjoy a living wage in their desired field and the creative support of wealthy donors can withstand such criticism.

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