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Reporting for America, And a Hungry Fort Smith

3 min read

A young reporter, fresh out of college and pursuing journalism as a public service, sat down to explain her job covering food insecurity in Fort Smith.

Listening was a grizzled and jaded reporter 40 years her senior. In an age when almost all news is bad news for the business of newsgathering, he grew inspired. Hopeful, even.

“One of the things I’ve learned I enjoy about journalism is getting to know people and just hearing their stories,” said Catherine Nolte, who graduated with honors from John Brown University in Siloam Springs in May and hired on in June at the Southwest Times Record under a community journalism project that pays half her salary.

“Just being an avenue to create positive change and give people notice for their impact on communities is great, highlighting the work that’s being done,” said Nolte, 23.

Report for America, a nongovernment service program to improve local news coverage, has partnered with newsrooms across America to beef up reporting on under-covered issues and communities. The program, an initiative of the media nonprofit GroundTruth Project, commits to paying half of each reporter’s salary and to work with community benefactors to raise another 25%. Donations and grants from foundations foot the bill.

The Times Record was selected as a partner organization last year, and Nolte got a spot as one of 300 corps members working in 200 newsrooms across the United States, in Guam and Puerto Rico. “It can be anywhere from one to three years,” Nolte said. “Each year the corps members, the newsroom and Report for America collectively decide on renewal.”

Founded by veteran journalists Steven Waldman and Charles Sennott, Report for America is on track to have 1,000 reporters in the field by 2024, mostly in small outlets including newspapers, radio stations and news websites.

But bigger organizations are involved as well. The Associated Press placed RFA reporters in 18 statehouses across the country, and newspaper chains McClatchy and Gannett, which owns the Times Record, have more than a dozen RFA reporters each. The commitment of public service resources to corporate chains raised some eyebrows, and media critic Dan Kennedy expressed unease with it, but Waldman told him the primary standard is helping communities. “So we have on occasion accepted applications from newspapers with the problems you mentioned if we were convinced that they would use the reporter to better serve their readers. If we can be a positive force in helping those newspapers tip more in the direction of great journalism, we view that as a real positive step.”

Report for America partnered with more locally owned for-profit organizations than news outlets owned by private equity interests or hedge funds, and half of the newsrooms are nonprofits. Nolte’s job is the only RFA position in Arkansas.

Selectors rewarded newsrooms that defined specific gaps in coverage and proposed ways to engage.

Beyond providing up to half of their pay, the program offers training, experienced mentors and membership in professional organizations.

“My topic or beat is food insecurity, and Report for America is all about local journalism being a public service,” said Nolte, who worked with food pantries as a student at Benton High School. “Local reporting on important topics is vital to democracy. Without it, we contribute to polarization and disinformation.”

Between 1990 and 2016, the number of local reporters across the United States plunged from 455,000 to 183,200, according to Report for America, and jobs cuts have only steepened at newspapers in the past five years. Residents no longer get the information they need to understand crucial community issues and hold local officials accountable, the group argues, calling the dearth of local journalism “a crisis for democracy.”

While Nolte is a Report for America corps member, she is a Times Record employee, directed by a Gannett manager, Dann Miller, news director of the Commercial Appeal in Memphis, who is also the chain’s Arkansas regional editor.

Nolte has written extensively on the River Valley Regional Food Bank and its partner pantries, as well as Antioch for Youth & Family, another Fort Smith food resource. “One recent story actually was about volunteer shortages at food pantries and other nonprofits, similar to the worker shortages a lot of companies are facing,” Nolte said. “Nonprofits are being hit, too.”

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