Civic Leadership

Strengthening local journalism one reporter at a time

Access to trustworthy and reliable sources of local news is essential to a functioning democracy. Through our Civic Leadership Fund, we've supported nonprofits that are strengthening local journalism.

Fake news allegations are rampant, politicians and candidates hire lawyers to kill damaging stories before they are published, and newsrooms often lack the bandwidth or money to give their reporters professional development beyond on-the-job, sink-or-swim training. Access to trustworthy and reliable sources of local news is essential to a functioning democracy.

The New England First Amendment Coalition (NEFAC) helps reporters know their rights while accomplishing its mission to advance understanding of the First Amendment, freedom of speech, and others. While it helps reporters from Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont, the Rhode Island Foundation’s Civic Leadership Fund dollars specifically assist reporters in our Ocean State.

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

- First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution

“We have a fairly long history with the Rhode Island Foundation, and that support really has been critical,” NEFAC Executive Director Justin Silverman said. “The Foundation’s help has a direct and profound impact on journalism.” With the $20,000 the Foundation gave NEFAC last year, for example, the money supported six of NEFAC’s programs, including its freedom of information tutorials, three-day intensive First Amendment investigative fellowship that one participant called “a game changer,” and local programming and events like “How to be Literate Citizens” that was held at the University of Rhode Island. The money also helped pay for a pilot newsroom certification and onboarding program that armed seven seasoned and new reporters with more knowledge about defamation, libel, privacy, and the critical Open Meetings Law that has changed since COVID.

Silverman said there is a genuine “eagerness to learn” from journalists, and “overall, we want to make sure news- rooms have these tools at their disposal.”

Rhode Island Monthly Magazine’s Associate Editor Lauren Clem was first a NEFAC First Amendment fellow, so when she heard about its mentorship program, Clem said she “jumped at the chance to continue furthering” her journalism skills.

When she applied, she had just left reporting at a weekly local newspaper and started her current position at RI Monthly.

“I wanted to continue using my reporting and investigative skills in this new role, but I was having trouble figuring out how to adapt them to the longer, narrative features now that I write for the magazine,” she said.

She chose longtime, award-winning investigative Providence Journal alum Mike Stanton as her mentor and said Stanton was “a great fit because he’s not only been known for his investigative work in Rhode Island, but also produced a lot of longer-format, narrative-style writing and even combined the two, as in his work on Buddy Cianci.”

Silverman said the six-month program is different from other journalism mentorship programs because the objectives of the pair are set by the mentee’s needs, and the mentee picks their mentor from NEFAC’s growing list of mentors, depending on availability.

“Lauren was my first NEFAC mentee, and she was great,” said Stanton, who is now a University of Connecticut professor. He described Clem as “bright, talented, and eager to learn and better herself as a journalist.”

The Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and author said the two met monthly over coffee as he gave her advice and suggestions and served as a sounding board for her to talk things through.

“I love NEFAC’s mentorship program,” he continued. “Newsrooms were larger when I was coming up, and so there were more opportunities for a young reporter to gain mentoring. Much of that was informal—just being around the newsroom—but we also had a formal program at the ProJo where experienced reporters were assigned to mentor young reporters. Today, with smaller newsrooms, a 24-7 work culture heightened by the Internet, and more people working from home since the pandemic, younger reporters can feel more isolated and not have those opportunities.”

Clem said Stanton weighed in on several of her pieces and was one of the few people outside the magazine who gave her feedback prior to publishing the monthly feature profiling the most powerful individuals in Rhode Island this past April.

Her biggest lessons from Stanton were to let ideas flow organically and find sources even if they were not the ones you expected initially. She also said she “just enjoyed hearing about his work and watching the trajectory his career has taken.”

When asked if she would recommend the program to others, Clem said, “Yes, absolutely. There’s nothing to be lost from working with a mentor and it’s always eye-opening to see your work through someone else’s perspective.”

She continued, “In Rhode Island, I think we have a very tight-knit, supportive journalism community, which is wonderful, but it also means you’re constantly trying to hide some scoop or angle from the very people you respect and interact with all the time online. A program like this takes things out of that competitive environment where you can just sit and talk with another journalist whose work you admire.”