KUNR is looking to widen its coverage on affordable housing and the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. In an effort to do so, the station hired Lucia Starbuck through Report for America, which places journalists in newsrooms across the country to elevate underserved voices from their local communities. KUNR’s Michelle Billman talked to Steve Waldman, one of the co-founders of Report for America, and Lucia Starbuck, about the program.
Michelle Billman: Steve, you are one of the co-founders of the Report for America program. Can you break down what the program is?
Steve Waldman: We describe it as a national service program that places talented emerging journalists into local newsrooms around the country to report on under-covered communities and issues. The key is that the newsroom has to identify a really important gap in their community in terms of the kinds of information that they want to try to do better at covering.
Billman: How different is this model for trying to beef up the staffing of local newsrooms?
Waldman: There really hadn't been any programs that were really directly geared at getting more boots on the ground, more reporters into communities, which we thought was really the central problem. We really are looking at this as, kind of, a public service program. We're trying to reestablish the idea, or strengthen the idea, that local news is a public service. To underline it, we also have the reporters, in addition to doing their regular work, covering a beat, they also do a community service project, usually working in high schools, or middle schools to help set up, or help a high school newspaper, or a podcast, or something like that.
Billman: Lucia, you were just wrapping up your degree at the Reynolds School of Journalism, you've been a student reporter at KUNR for over a year, and now you're joining our full-time staff through the Report for America program. What goals do you have for your year at KUNR as the Report for America corps member?
Lucia Starbuck: I'm really excited to be able to stay in Reno and to report on the issues impacting my community. My goals are to really get into my beat. I'm covering affordable housing, and poverty, and things like that. I'm really looking forward to talking to people in my community, to keep going back and to follow up. I'm really glad I get this year to do those things.
Billman: One thread that I've seen in your reporting has been your commitment to elevating voices of everyday community members, and people whose voices may not have traditionally been included in some conversations from local, and national media. I'm wondering if you can just briefly share with us, why you're so passionate?
Starbuck: I think that's really important to me because growing up, and watching [and] consuming news all the time, I just felt like it was missing. The more I talk to folks, either if they're living in a tent, or living in a motel, or anything like that, I'm learning they are part of our community too. They contribute to our community. They live in our community. They're being impacted by things. So, I think it's really important to not miss their voices because they also have their own stories.
Billman: Steve, for someone who's maybe not closely watching the field of journalism, I mean, I think it's coming into more normal conversation now with the pandemic because we are seeing more newsrooms shrinking or folding, but can you just break down how serious that situation is?
Waldman: There's a new term of art that we're hearing more and more, which is news deserts. That's referring to places where there just is no local news. Now, they're getting news as in they're watching cable TV, but when it comes to news about the water treatment plan in your neighborhood, or the school board, or the new important shift in policy in the schools, or just people running for office, and knowing who to vote for, or anything like that. I think the COVID-19 crisis has illustrated what its importance is. People don't just want to know general stuff of like, how to wash your hands, but they want to know where specifically in my community can I go to get tested?
Billman: It's a dire situation. We have a shining light here of a young person who's entering the workforce in the time of a pandemic. Lucia, how is this shaping your viewpoint of entering this field?
Starbuck: I'm covering county media pressers, press conferences, something that I've never really done before. At first, I was kind of scared because I'm young, I'm a student, there's TV news here, there's more prominent journalists, but it made me realize that it's important for me to be there, to relay information to the public, to tell people what's going on. I don't think people have the time to watch hour-long press conferences. I think just seeing the importance of hearing information from elected officials, and just saying: here's what's going on, here's what you need to know.
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