Why a sustainable future for journalism starts with supporting journalists
We interviewed Kevin Douglas Grant, co-founder of The GroundTruth Project, on the ethics of supporting journalists.
Kevin Douglas Grant is the co-founder and Chief Content Officer of The GroundTruth Project, a non-profit news organisation with the mission of supporting early-career journalists. To achieve its mission, The GroundTruth Project helps pay a portion of the salary and benefits of a local journalist at publications in the US, India, Nigeria and Brazil.
“If we weren’t taking care of the journalists and giving them more sustainable futures, how could we possibly create a more sustainable future for journalism?” Kevin told us at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia, Italy.
We spoke to Kevin about his work with The GroundTruth Project, and about the importance of partnerships in a media landscape. If you’d prefer to listen to the interview instead, click here.
In Old News: How would you describe the projects you’re working on right now?
Kevin: Our two signature programs are called Report For America and Report For The World. And with both of the programs, we partner directly with, local newsrooms in any country and create new positions to focus on covering news deserts, as we call them, and better covering coverage gaps and really key issues of relevance to communities.
So initially, we knew that given the importance of public interest journalism and there being a whole generation of people who wanted to make a difference by doing this work, that we could support those journalists through reporting fellowships. We really enjoyed working with more than 250 fellows in 50 countries over several years.
But we came to a point at which we realized that we could do, we thought, even more good by creating full-time positions with benefits, working with newsrooms. We essentially felt that if we weren't taking great care of the journalists and giving them more sustainable futures, how could we possibly create a more sustainable future for journalism?
In Old News: What are some of the harms or consequences of not providing journalists with benefits or support systems?
Kevin: If you put all of the risk on the journalist, all the risk on the reporter, you're doing an ethical disservice, but you're also making it less likely that the work will be very good over time. Because if a journalist is not well taken care of, if they're dealing with an ailment that they're not able to go see a doctor about, if they're not getting proper sleep because they can't afford to live in a place that's safe and secure, you know, they're not going to be able to stand the test of time with your organization. They're going to burn out.
So, yeah, we really require that our partner newsrooms have robust benefits, health insurance and so on. Typically, that hasn't been as much of an issue in the United States, though there still have been some cases where it has been. And, you know, depending on the countries where we're working, there are certainly varying levels of support that are provided.
But it's really essential. And, you know, we're just trying to stay humble. It's something that is important in terms of our values. And it's also something that we need. We know we need to understand the norms of the ecosystems where we're working.
In Old News: Because you work in an unconventional way with journalists, what are some of the unforeseen challenges that you had while setting this up?
Kevin: Because we work in a lot of different communities with both Report For America and Report For The World. There's a certain amount of cultural competency that we lack at first, and that is why we need to take the time to build trust build respect, and know that our partners are going to know more than we do. But we will learn.
One thing that we learned pretty early on with a Report For The World Program is that once we moved outside of India and Nigeria — where the vast majority of our journalists [and] our partners speak English — once we moved to Brazil and built some partnerships with Brazilian newsrooms, that it really wasn't going to cut it to speak only English. So we began hosting all of our events, all of our training, and now all of our communications are both in Portuguese and English.
So I would say that was a really good lesson for us to learn in the first year of the program and something that we will keep applying as we forge partnerships in other countries where English is not the primary language.
In Old News: Do you have any technical or logistical tips you have for others considering working with multiple newsrooms collaboratively?
Kevin: Advice I got from a colleague at the beginning of my career is something I think about all the time, which is over-communication is better than under-communication every time. So I try to remind myself of that, and we as a team try to remember that it's always better to go the extra mile to check-in, to see how people are doing, to make sure that people have the information that maybe they missed the first time.
We basically want to be as clear as we possibly can be about what are the expectations of the partnership. We create a memo of understanding with each one of our newsroom partners, and also each one of the reporters signed an agreement so they understand the work that they're agreeing to do and what sort of the values are that they agree to uphold.
So we do really get into the nuts and bolts of, you know, here's what's expected, here's how it's going to work. And then we make sure to check in quite frequently just to make sure that the project is going well, that reporters are doing good work in their own communities. And then when it comes time for us to work more directly, more collaboratively, that we have a good relationship with the reporters and the editors so that we can get off to a good start.
In Old News: What values do you look for in the people you partner with?
Kevin: We always start with editorial independence. We know that's a value that is shared by obviously journalists all over the world. And, you know, no matter who, say, our funders might be, no funder will ever have any influence over the stories that get told. And so that's sort of a reassuring thing when we're creating funding relationships on both sides.
And that is kind of our starting point is editorial independence. I would say trust, also mutual respect. Right. There is no one culture that, you know, has figured out how to do journalism best. And so it's truly a global calling and a global community that we know we're just a part of. And I guess the last thing I would just say is you can't go it alone.
So partnerships are everything. And the only way we're going to succeed as an organization and as an industry is that we work closely together with others.
In Old News: Any additional thoughts for people aspiring to be a part of the program?
Kevin: For any international journalists, any journalist based anywhere in the world, frankly, who might be interested in looking at Report For The World or Report For America, we have opportunities every year, both for newsrooms and for reporters. They can look [on our website] at how to get involved, how to sign up for a mailing list how to follow us on social media. And we really appreciate it just because we do love meeting journalists as often as we can.
In Old News: Was there anything that pleasantly surprised you about the work you’ve done with Report For America or Report For The World?
Probably the thing we've been most pleasantly surprised about is that without our influence, without us ever telling our partners what they should be covering, that some of the same beats keep being identified by our partners as being so important. So those would be, you know, gender equality, health, education, misinformation, and, you know, beats that many of our newsrooms are independently covering.
But because they have shared interests in a lot of these beats, it actually is sort of the perfect foundation for collaboration. And it just also means that we have a certain amount of cohesion as an organization focusing on a core group of topics. We're definitely finding that every time a partner teams up with a larger group of partners.
Every time there's sort of a consortium of journalists getting together to cover a big project, it gets attention. So there is a morale piece, which is even though partnerships can be difficult, there's a lot of joy in connecting with other colleagues. And then if, for example, a group of Black newsrooms in America all work together to do an in-depth reporting project about food deserts in the United States and how they disproportionately affect Black communities, that gets noticed.
So it's good for each partner newsroom. It's good for each journalist that worked on the project. And it becomes a thing where an audience is sort of a national and even a global audience now is aware that these newsrooms are doing this critical coverage. And in the case of the project, I'm talking about called ‘Barren Mile,’ which we did last year. It was actually the first time that a group of Black newsrooms had teamed up to produce an in-depth project since the civil rights era. So we made a little history. And so that was sort of a nice thing to do, along with the audience and the spotlight on the really important issue.