A Champion for Community Journalism

Steven Waldman ’84 is bringing back small-town journalism. The veteran reporter and entrepreneur watched for years as community newspapers struggled and shrank and folded. In 2009, he authored a landmark report for the Federal Communications Commission about the implications of their collapse. “When you don’t have enough good local journalists, there’s no accountability for elected officials and people who might have polluted drinking water without even knowing it,” Waldman says. “It’s disaster on a local level and on a democracy level.”

Enter Report for America, Waldman’s nonprofit — launched shortly after the 2016 presidential election — that aims to reverse the damage. Modeled after AmeriCorps, RFA is a fellowship program framed as a call to public service. The goal is to install 1,000 journalists in understaffed newsrooms by 2022.

Waldman’s role as co-founder has a College connection. As an editor of Spectator, his goal was always to emphasize reporting on hyperlocal topics. “I felt that we really had to cover Columbia as a community,” Waldman says. “From fire violations to curriculum changes, we were right there with our reporters, because if we didn’t do that, no one else would.”

That job also taught Waldman the power of journalism.

“We very much viewed our jobs as holding the administration accountable in a respectful but firm way,” he says. “I remember doing a package on wasteful administrative spending, meeting with the president and having him accuse us of Nixonian tactics. He probably didn’t realize we were post-Nixon so that insult didn’t scar us as much as it would have an earlier generation.”

“I might be one of the few people who decided to go to Columbia
because of the school paper.”

Waldman’s relationship with the University began as a youngster growing up on Long Island — his mother graduated from the Journalism School and subscribed to the Columbia Journalism Review. In high school, he was an editor at his school newspaper and headed to Morningside Heights every year to attend the Columbia Scholastic Press Association conference. Those visits — and a desire to work for Spectator — sealed his interest in the College. “I might be one of the few people who decided to go to Columbia because of the school paper,” he says. Waldman ended his Spectator career as the editor-in-chief and publisher. “The paper was my life,” says Waldman, who is now on Spectator’s Board of Trustees.

After graduation, Waldman worked at U.S. News and Newsweek, and certain observations from those days led to him founding his first company, Beliefnet, a website that focused on faith and spirituality, in 1999. “Every time we put religion on a Newsweek cover, sales would go up,” he says. “I thought that was fascinating. I’m in an interfaith marriage — I’m Jewish and my wife is Protestant — so around 1997, 1998, I was really thinking a lot about religion, personally and professionally.”

In 2007, Waldman sold Beliefnet — by then the largest multi-faith spirituality website — to News Corp. He stayed at the site for a few years until Julius Genachowski ’85, an old friend from his Spectator days, became Barack Obama ’83’s first FCC chair, in 2009. Soon after, Genachowski asked Waldman to serve as a senior advisor.

Waldman spent two years at the FCC before creating his next two businesses: In addition to RFA, he launched LifePosts, a site that aims to preserve life stories digitally (whether via an online memorial, obituary or tribute biography). “With LifePosts I was thinking about ways to create revenue streams for local media while, on a spiritual level, I could solve the horrible problem that millions of people were leaving the earth without having their stories recorded or told,” he says.

Since RFA’s launch, hundreds of journalists have applied. The nonprofit, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project, is currently in its pilot stage, with three reporters in Appalachia and nine more placed in locations across the country this past spring. “There’s this passion among young people to help communities get better information and to save democracy in the process,” says Waldman, who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., with his wife and has two sons.

In a way, the work he’s doing today is the ultimate give-back for Waldman, who believes that it’s imperative for communities to view hyperlocal reporting as something that’s as essential as local libraries, museums and hospitals.

“Journalism has been great to me,” he says. “It feels like all of my experiences have pointed me in this direction, so it feels right to do whatever I can to help community journalism and solve the local news crisis.”