The University of Missouri School of Journalism announced today a $1.4 million, three-year grant from the Walton Family Foundation, a leading funder of environmental journalism in the United States, to create the Mississippi River Basin Ag & Water Desk – a collaborative network of journalists focused on increasing coverage of agriculture, water and environmental issues surrounding one of the world’s major river systems.
The needs are vast – the Mississippi River Basin covers more than 40% of the continental U.S., stretching east-west from Montana to Pennsylvania and north-south from Minnesota to Louisiana. Millions of people use the river system as their source of drinking water, and more than 90% of agricultural exports in the U.S. are grown there. Pollution, flooding, land use and climate change are some of the major issues across the region.
David Kurpius, dean of the School of Journalism, said the network will be a signature program of the School of Journalism’s emerging Center for Science Communication, which will include the development of student courses in immersive, multi-platform storytelling.
“In our service to the public, it is important that journalists are able to help translate these very complex ecological issues to the communities we serve,” Kurpius said. “We are deeply grateful to the Walton Foundation for the trust they are investing in us to tell these stories.”
Through a partnership with Report for America, the network will place 10 journalists in newsrooms throughout the region to cover these issues. The journalists will receive training and mentorship from faculty and staff at the Missouri School of Journalism, along with experts from the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ).
“We are thrilled at this opportunity to partner with the University of Missouri and the Society of Environmental Journalists on this important project that will enable us to field 10 corps members in the Mississippi River Basin and provide both the reporters and our partner newsrooms with extra support, training and editing,” said Steven Waldman, president and co-founder of Report for America.
In addition, the journalists will be supported by five veteran journalists from the region who will serve as advisors and collaborators. A distribution network will share content with a larger regional and national audience.
“This partnership offers an innovative model for philanthropic efforts to increase and improve environmental journalism in local news deserts,” said Meaghan Parker, executive director of the Society of Environmental Journalists. “SEJ is pleased to be a part of this effort to better inform communities across the Mississippi River Basin, while also helping to build more sustainable careers for journalists covering the critical environmental challenges we all face.”
As local newsrooms increasingly have limited budgets and reduced staffing, they cannot always devote adequate resources to cover agriculture issues. The Mississippi River Basin Ag & Water Desk aims to address that challenge.
“We believe that an informed public makes better choices for nature and communities, and objective, good journalism is key to that,” said Moira Mcdonald, director of the Walton Family Foundation’s Environment Program. “Roughly 70 percent of the world’s freshwater is used in the production of food. Protecting water while growing enough food to feed a growing population is the way of the future, and to get there, we need quality reporters who provide transparency and accountability on these issues.”
Newsrooms can apply for one of the 10 competitive positions starting July 12 with Report for America. Applications for five veteran journalist positions will open in August 2021. In addition, the School of Journalism will hire an editorial director and associate director to help run the program.
Sara Shipley Hiles, an associate professor in the Missouri School of Journalism, serves as executive director of the project. Earnest Perry, associate dean for graduate studies and research at the Missouri School of Journalism, and Ryan Famuliner, associate professor in the Missouri School of Journalism and news director at KBIA-FM, are project advisors.
University of Missouri School of Journalism: As the world’s first journalism school, founded in 1908, the University of Missouri School of Journalism brings unparalleled breadth and depth to the study and practice of journalism. With more than 2,000 students in programs at the undergraduate, master’s and doctoral levels, the J-School pioneered hands-on education through the “Missouri Method.” Today the school’s real-world newsrooms and agencies include the Columbia Missourian newspaper; Vox Magazine; KBIA, an NPR-affiliate radio station; KOMU, an NBC-affiliate TV station, and the AdZou and Mojo Ad advertising agencies. The J School’s 24,000+ alumni include some of the best journalists and communicators working in newsrooms, agencies and companies worldwide.
Walton Family Foundation: The Walton Family Foundation is, at its core, a family-led foundation. Three generations of the descendants of its founders, Sam and Helen Walton, and their spouses, work together to lead the foundation and create access to opportunity for people and communities. The foundation works in three areas: improving K-12 education, protecting rivers and oceans and the communities they support, and investing in our home region of Northwest Arkansas and the Arkansas-Mississippi Delta.
Report for America is a national service program that places talented emerging journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered topics and communities. Launched in 2017, Report for America is creating a new, sustainable system that provides Americans with the information they need to improve their communities, hold powerful institutions accountable, and rebuild trust in the media. Report for America is an initiative of The GroundTruth Project, an award-winning nonprofit journalism organization with an established track record of training and supporting teams of emerging journalists around the world, including the recent launch of Report for the World in partnership with local newsrooms in India and Nigeria.
Society of Environmental Journalists: With more than 1,400 members, the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ) is the largest network of professional journalists covering energy and the environment in North America. SEJ’s mission is to strengthen the quality, reach and viability of journalism across all media to advance public understanding of environmental issues. Through its annual conferences, grants, awards, webinars, online forums, and publications, SEJ increases and improves environmental journalism by supporting the people who cover the world’s most important stories.