How a youth Reporter Corps could help reinvigorate local journalism

Emma asked if I would write her a recommendation for AmeriCorps. Usually, I would have said yes without hesitation, but this request struck a nerve. The recent college graduate was among a dozen or so young adults who wrote about their predominantly immigrant community for the news site I edit, Alhambra Source. She told me that she wanted to join AmeriCorps to serve a city across the country that the federal government determined was in need. My instinct was that this was not the best use of her skills: She could probably make a more meaningful contribution reporting on her own Los Angeles community.

That conversation started me thinking about the need for a program in the style of AmeriCorps — or Teach for America or Peace Corps — for journalism in under-reported and diverse communities. Call it Reporter Corps. The service-learning model would train young adults in journalism and teach them how their government works, pair them with a local publication in need of reporters, get them some quality mentors, provide a stipend, and set them loose for six months or a year reporting on their own community.

Just about a year after my conversation with Emma, I am very pleased that the first class of six Reporter Corps members started this month at Alhambra Source, with support from USC Annenberg and the McCormick Foundation.

Broadly speaking, the Reporter Corps goals are not that different from AmeriCorps, the national service-learning umbrella program that supports 80,000 people annually:

  • Get things done
  • Strengthen communities
  • Encourage responsibility
  • Expand opportunity

But unlike AmeriCorps, which addresses education, environment, health, and public-safety needs, Reporter Corps focuses on news and information needs. If journalism is a public service crucial to democracy, the demand for such a program is clear: Local news coverage — despite a recent flourishing of online community sites — has been in decline for years.

Reporter Corps members tour the Alhambra Police Department. From left, Captain Cliff Mar, Albert Lu, Esmee Xavier, Alfred Dicioco, Irma Uc, Jane Fernandez, Javier Cabral.

In many immigrant communities and less affluent areas, the result has been that mainstream reporting has all but disappeared or been reduced to sensationalism. Alhambra, an independent city of about 85,000, lost its local newspaper decades ago. More recently, the Los Angeles Times and other regional papers have slashed their coverage of the area. Local television rolls into town when there is a murder or the mayor’s massage-parlor-owning girlfriend flings dumplings at him in a late-night squabble (yes, that happened). The Chinese-language press is active, but very few decision-makers can read it. All of this, in turn, has contributed to a population with low levels of civic engagement.

Despite, or perhaps due to, the lack of quality news coverage, I found a ready supply of young Alhambra residents interested in reporting opportunities. Students navigating a depleted community college system or recent college grads un- or underemployed and facing the lowest employment rate for 18- to 24-year-olds in 60 years came to the Alhambra Source eager to contribute. Although they had limited journalism experience, in many ways they have proven to be natural reporters for a multiethnic community. They are all immigrants or children of immigrants, speaking Arabic, Cantonese, Spanish, Tagalog and more. As a result, they can cross ethnic and linguistic lines better than many reporters. They also often have a deeper understanding of what stories matter to fellow residents, from the challenges of not being able to communicate with your parents because you’re not fluent in the same language to the need for a local dog park.

For the first class of Reporter Corps, we selected six high school graduates — four in local community colleges, and two recent college graduates — based on their connection to the area, growth potential, and passion to improve their community. In the spring we plan on expanding the project to work with another USC community news site, Intersections South LA.

The approach appears to fall into a larger trend in youth media initiatives to work increasingly with high school graduates rather than solely younger students.

“Within the youth media groups we’re hearing more and more a thirst that involves the grads. The job market in many of the neighborhoods these groups are active in is really abysmal. Some go to community college, some don’t,” said Mark Hallett, the senior program officer for the journalism program at the McCormick Foundation. “Neighborhoods aren’t finding coverage.”

Across the country, local news sites are working in diverse ways to put this population to work. Many have small internship programs. In an example similar in spirit to Reporter Corps, New American Media has teamed up with the California Endowment to work with 16- to 24-year-olds in California communities such as Fresno, Coachella, and Long Beach for youth-led media efforts.

The Endowment also funds some successful high school journalism programs, such as Boyle Heights Beat in East L.A. (which is also affiliated with USC Annenberg), but Senior Program Manager Mary Lou Fulton notes, “it requires a greater investment in teaching, mentoring and support.”

Unlike high school students, who tend to be busy and sometimes lack maturity or real-life experience, grads often have an excess of time and more advanced critical-thinking skills. “For these youth, this work is a part or full-time job, meaning they are able to spend more sustained time on reporting and develop deeper community relationships to inform their reporting,” Fulton told me via e-mail, noting that all of the students in their programs also receive either an hourly wage or stipend. “All of this increases the chances that the content they create will be more timely and have greater depth.”

What if we united efforts like this on an even larger scale — with the vision that Teach for America applied to failing schools in the 1990s — and adapt it to local journalism? Would the nation see a boost in engaged citizens, more young people at work, new jobs, and — we can dream — even new models for how local news outlets can make money? We see Reporter Corps as a step in that direction, with a focus less on taking smart, highly achieving young people and placing them in at-need communities, and more on training young people to report on their own communities. Whether or not participants go on to become professionals, they will be exposed to new opportunities in the government, legal, education, and social service sectors. In the process, local news, often considered a dying art form, might just be reinvented and reinvigorated by their energy.

Alhambra Source and Intersections South LA are cornerstone projects of the new Civic Engagement and Journalism Initiative at USC Annenberg, which aims to link communication research and journalism to engage diverse, under-served Los Angeles communities. USC Annenberg professors Sandra Ball-Rokeach and Michael Parks spearhead the Alhambra Project, and Professor Willa Seidenberg directs Intersections South LA. Daniela Gerson heads the initiative and edits Alhambra Source.

If Newsweek wants to survive, it should learn from its peers

Unsurprisingly, but sad nonetheless, Newsweek announced the last weekly print edition of the magazine will be December 31. Starting in 2013, it will join the ranks of U.S. News and World Report as an all-digital publication, leaving TIME Magazine as the only popular U.S. weekly still on the newsstand.

Printed Newsweek was in bad shape. According to The New York Times, it went from 3,158,480 paid circulation in 2001 down to 1,527,157 this past June. Barry Diller signaled earlier this year that IAC wouldn’t keep bleeding money to keep Newsweek alive.

Of course, we’ve seen this trend before. The advent of the web in 1994 killed the last prominent news monthly when LIFE magazine stopped printing and went to nothing but special editions in 2000.

Today, social and mobile media have taken it one step further, making the U.S. newsweekly an aging relic. It’s easy to focus on the losers in this game, but a number of folks have thrived in this same space. It’s not too late for Tina Brown and The Daily Beast to learn from successful peers.

Fundamentally, news lies at a triple-point that attempts to balance three goals: speed, accuracy and depth. Hitting the mark with any two translates into success. It’s a bonanza if you can hit all three.

Who has learned to adapt to the acceleration of these factors in a digital age, and who should Newsweek look to?


This is quite sobering, given that The Washington Post Company bought Slate in 2007 and subsequently dumped Newsweek in 2010. Since then, Slate has become an outlet of respected cultural and political commentary that has seen widespread linking across the Internet. It has effectively taken up the mantle of the old The New Republic magazine, as many of the same people and ideas have wound up on Slate’s site. For deep and timely analysis of legal affairs, it doesn’t get any better than their top notch writers, such as Dahlia Lithwick and Emily Bazelon.

But Slate has transcended its written-word roots. Slate’s weekly Gabfest podcasts represent the best audio news programming around, covering culture, politics, sports and women’s issues. The occasional Gabfest live shows at college campuses and cities around the country attract huge crowds and recently it has made the reverse jump &emdash; moving from online into traditional media by spawning a Gabfest Radio hour on WNYC public radio in New York.

It may be the best organization mastering speed, accuracy and depth at the same time.

The Atlantic

Here’s a news monthly that has managed to find relevancy in the digital age with a top notch blogging crew that includes veteran James Fallows. The publication figured out aggregation and embraced popular culture in a highbrow way with the launch of The Atlantic Wire, which has attracted a whole new audience in recent years. It bucked the trend of paywalls by tearing down its subscription-only system and has reaped rewards since.

How much? Mashable reported that in December 2011, “traffic to the three web properties recently surpassed 11 million uniques per month, up a staggering 2500% since The Atlantic brought down its paywall in early 2008.”

Not wanting to stay still, it is recruiting young tech savvy folks, such as their recently announced Digital Technology Internship program that seeks computer science majors to help “collaboratively solve problems with innovative technical solutions.”

The Economist

This one is straight-up competition: Newsweek pitted against another old-school newsweekly. The Economist is the rare beast – a print publication where subscription has grown in the digital era, to around 1 million subscribers. While this is technically below Newsweek’s numbers, these are highly coveted subscribers: roughly two-thirds of American subscribers make over $100,000 a year, and the income from subscriptions makes up the bulk of revenue.

Why has this particular print newsweekly survived? In the microblogged, instant punditry age of social media, readers appreciate the depth and accuracy it brings, even at the expense of speed. The Economist has made a niche of being a dense, weekly digest with thoughtful consideration of the week’s events away from the immediate gratification of tweets and updates.

The new platforms

It’s still early, but contrast Newsweek’s move with the launch of two high-profile efforts the last few months that are pushing the boundaries of news content:

  • Quartz from The Atlantic Media Company was created with a “tablet first” design, clearly inspired by the iPad and emerging mobile devices with larger screens.
  • from Ben Huh of the Cheezburger Network aims to provide “rolling” news coverage primarily for iPhone and mobiles.

There are a number of ways Newsweek can learn from these examples. Invest in an innovative platform or concept by bringing in people who can implement prototypes, fail, and iterate. Get younger contributors in house and let them play in the sandbox. Start getting into audio or video podcasting to get your star contributors seen and heard. Don’t stick with what’s commodity. One of the rare highlights for Newsweek the last ten years was Fareed Zakaria’s insightful commentary that helped explain non-American viewpoints to Americans. Get more unconventional analysis into the mix.

The Newsweek brand has clout and has the potential to be reborn as relevant to a new audience, but not if it remains a staid subsection of The Daily Beast.

Taking TV news to the next level in an era of disruption

In a media landscape defined by disruption, television news has pulled off a remarkable feat: it’s basically unchanged.

Sure, we’ve gotten more news choppers and better graphics on weather and politics. There are a few interesting TV news apps. But, for the most part, your local TV news broadcast looks much as it did a decade ago. It’s pretty much locked into its time slot of 5 p.m. or 10 p.m. You sit, you watch. The anchors work their way through weather, traffic, sports and the smattering of local stories brought to you from the roving news truck. If you stick around long enough, maybe there is a great story at minute 22.

Sixty years of TV news in two and a half minutes. | Credit: Leila Dougan

But what if you could harness all the emergent technologies to reshape TV news into a brand-new product, one that maximizes audience engagement, personalizes broadcasts to your interests and allows you to dig deep into digitized news archives?

We recently put that question to a group of technology executives and TV news professionals during a day-long workshop at the Annenberg Innovation Lab. The guest list included Cisco, DirecTV and several tech startups, as well as ABC, CBS, Univision, Frontline, the Los Angeles Times and Reuters. The goal was to see if we could come up with ideas for products that would take your TV news to the next level. We did. But first, why hasn’t this happened already?

One of the big problems for TV news, especially local news, is that, well, it still kind of works. Yes, national news broadcasts grab only about half of the 52 million viewers they had at their 1980 peak. But they are still making money by owning a coveted audience of mostly seniors.

Meanwhile, local TV news is, by many measures, thriving. It often accounts for as much as half of a station’s total revenue. Many local TV stations are producing upwards of five hours of live TV news a day. Some are even expanding. Around 74% of Americans either watch or check a local TV news web site at least once a week, more than any other news source. Though news snobs may snicker, Americans also rate local TV news as their most trustworthy source, giving it higher grades than 60 Minutes or NPR.

But success can breed complacency. And in an environment of constant upheaval, there is no clear path toward successful innovation. At the same time, the costs of doing nothing are sky high. Just ask any newspaper executive.

There are a few areas where TV news cleans everyone’s clock. On the local level, it’s weather and traffic. There are plenty of easier and even more accurate ways to get traffic updates, but TV news puts a narrative behind that backup on the freeway (it’s the jackknifed tractor-trailer which slammed into the guardrail) and serves up aerial views of the scene as well.

Also, for a live event, nothing beats TV news. Whether it’s the runaway balloon boy in Colorado (a hoax, it turns out) or coverage of a DC-9 dropping flame retardant on a wildfire in Southern California, TV news produces can’t-look-away coverage.

But it’s also shackled with issues that make it such a poor fit in an access-anywhere, news-on-demand environment. During the eight hours we spent cloistered together in a room, our group of TV news folks and techies pretty much agreed on the shortcomings.

First, there’s a total absence of viewer control when it comes to TV news. They are still producing a one-size-fits-all broadcast, which feels increasingly anachronistic to the viewer.

Also, appointment viewing – with the news stuck in a time slot – clashes with packed schedules and increasing competition for mindshare. I might DVR a sit-com, but news off the DVR gets stale quickly.

Breaking down 30 minutes of news. | Credit: Jake de Grazia

The good news is that there are solutions to both of these problems. And solving them might also help TV news crack another problem: how to directly connect with its audience.

One scenario the group came up with is an app that would allow viewers to build their own broadcasts throughout the day. As soon as the sun comes up, the app pushes out a list of five video stories. Viewers can choose which ones to put in their playlist and which ones to discard. As the day moves forward, viewers are given more choices. Some come from pushed breaking news alerts; others come from the viewers’ own social network or favorite topics. The playlist is dynamic.

Whenever the viewer has a free 20 minutes, he or she can watch the tailored broadcast on the device of choice – phone, tablet, computer or regular TV. The stories that play are the latest on a particular topic, so if you selected a story on the debt ceiling in the morning, then you’re greeted with the most up-to-date version when you decide to watch.

Reinventing the evening news at the Annenberg Innovation Lab. | Credit: Melissa Kaplan

The goal is to create a news package that is both customized and curated. Those two characteristics often appear to be at odds with each other. But it was clear from our day-long exercise that customers want both.

Another prototype that came out of the day was a news interface that allows you to pause the broadcast you’re watching in order to go deeper into a particular topic. After watching a two-minute piece on Syria, the viewer can choose to go back in time and learn more about the rebels, the Assad dynasty or other aspects of the story by instantly accessing a broadcaster’s digital archives from a list that pops up on the screen. When the viewer has had his or her fill, it’s back to the regular broadcast.

Other ideas for innovation emerged from the discussion. As usual, the technologists saw a sea of possibility while the news folks saw a wall of obstacles, such as content rights and a newsroom culture resistant to change. But the takeaway from the day was that TV news, if it chooses, has the potential to radically enrich the way it engages with its audience. Let’s hope they seize the opportunity. So stay tuned.