Tom Lappas of the Henrico Citizen is looking forward to his paper’s partnership with Report for America. Recently, he learned that his newspaper has been selected to participate as a host newsroom.
The two-year program helps pay half the salary of a full-time reporter in the first year, up to $25,000, and a smaller percentage in the second year. The newspaper and donors fund the remainder of the reporter’s salary. Some of the required funding will come from community support.
Lappas raised more than $10,000 from his community during the pandemic to support the newspaper’s efforts, something he said is encouraging.
Report for America helps the newspaper with pre-screening emerging journalists who meet an individual newspaper’s staffing needs.The final reporter selection is decided by the newspaper.
“We’ve never had a full-time reporter,” the publisher said. “That’s awesome for me. I can focus on some other things. It will help us allocate resources.”
The Henrico Citizen is the second Virginia newsroom to benefit from the program, which was expanded this year to more than 200 newsrooms across the country, according to Report for America’s website.
Rappahannock News entered the program last spring, and Dennis Brack, owner and president of Rappahannock Media, is glad that they did.
One-fourth of the funding for the reporter position has been augmented by Foothills Forum, a nonprofit organization dedicated to generating community support for local news. The newspaper has partnered with the nonprofit since 2015.
Brack said that Rachel Needham, whom Rappahannock News hired last summer through Report for America, has been a major asset in providing coverage to the community the newspaper serves.
Needham assists the editor, who was the only full-time reporter before her arrival, with covering a wide variety of news in the community ranging from local government to schools to enterprise features.
“In the past year, we’ve become this 24/7 news engine,” said Dennis Brack, owner and president of Rappahannock Media.
“In addition to a lot more journalism, it’s given the editor help,” Brack said. “In the past year, we’ve become this 24/7 news engine.”
Rappahannock News produces a daily newsletter, pushes news out by text message and posts two or three news articles on the website each day.
“This extra set of hands has obviously helped us produce the news in real time and helped the editor on some days focus more on the print newspaper,” Brack added.
Having Needham on board has benefited the newspaper immensely by adding an extra set of eyes with proofing and handling the little things that anyone working at a small paper needs to pitch in with every day.
“I also think that, as a younger person, it helps in the community to reach and connect with some folks that we might not necessarily,” Brack said.
While surrounded with the contest entries he planned to submit into the VPA News and Advertising Contest recently, Brack said he is in particular proud of an article that Needham wrote about a local COVID-19 outbreak.
“It was our biggest outbreak. It was linked to one church,” Brack said.
A reader who was connected to someone affiliated with the church reached out to Needham. This reader had requested information from the Virginia Department of Health through the Freedom of Information Act and was provided 18 pages of email correspondence.
“This reader gave it all to Rachel,” Brack said. “It led to a really good story.”
“Anatomy of an Outbreak” was published by the Rappahannock News on Aug. 28, 2020, which provided a thorough account on how many of Rappahannock County’s cases and deaths were linked to a week-long revival in June that brought between 50 and 100 people to the church.
“We got feedback both ways, as you would expect,” Brack said. “It was an important story and the great thing about it was the documents told the story.”
This is the type of journalism that Report for America strives to promote by placing journalists into newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and communities.
At the Henrico Citizen, Lappas hopes to hire a reporter by June so that the paper’s education coverage can be expanded. Lappas envisions the new education reporter drilling down and looking at education in the community through a variety of lenses including equity and geography.
“Education is a beat unto itself,” Lappas said. “It impacts quality of life and property values.”
Lappas said the initial focus will be on how COVID-19 has impacted education—both positively and negatively.
“We hear a lot about kids that don’t have parental support or kids that are doing virtual learning at home by themselves at young ages because mom and dad are working,” he said. “ That’s an issue I want to delve into.”
The reporter he hires will not only cover school board meetings and look at data and spending, but will also be expected to be out in the community talking to real people and making connections to help with “really telling the story.”
One thing he is deeply interested in is the school-to-prison pipeline, a process by which students are pushed out of schools and into prisons by disciplinary policies and practices within school systems.
“If you look at the typically under-performing schools, it tends to be majority minority schools. How do we address that?” Lappas asked. “That’s an issue the school board is looking at.”
Since the pandemic, the Henrico Citizen has moved from print to digital, has a strong list of email subscribers and has bolstered its presence on social media. They also produce a podcast, “Henrico News Minute.”
The ability to produce more good journalism for readers is a welcome one for Lappas.
“We’re thrilled to be a part of this program because it’s such a great national program,” he said.
To learn more about Report for America, visit www.reportforamerica.org. Brack invites VPA members to contact him at (202) 316-0306 to talk more about the program.