“It’s important to have reporters based in parts of America where some people feel misunderstood,” she said. “It just helps us get a greater understanding of who we are and who our neighbors are.”
Report for America fellowships last one to two years, and the pay is about $40,000, with half covered by the program and the rest split between participating news organizations and donations. Two media veterans, Steven Waldman and Charles Sennott, started the project with funding from sponsors.
“People are applying for the same reason people want to go into the Peace Corps: There’s an idealistic desire to help communities, and there’s a sense of adventure,” Mr. Waldman, 55, said. “They want to try and save democracy. People keep saying that.”
Historically, reporters would start their careers at small publications and move on to progressively larger ones. These days, young journalists tend to find work right out of college — but the jobs they end up with often don’t require them to spend time talking to story subjects face to face or learning about different communities.
“Maybe they have done that Brooklyn thing, where you spend a year or two in a cubicle working for a blog,” Mr. Sennott, 55, said. “But that’s not the same as being on the ground doing the real work, knocking on a door and walking into someone’s kitchen.”
In 1990, daily and weekly newspaper publishers employed about 455,000 people, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. By January 2016, that number had fallen to 173,000.
Before the creation of Report for America, Mr. Waldman ran Beliefnet, a site dedicated to faith and spirituality, and worked for the Federal Communications Commission as a senior adviser. In 2015, he wrote a paper funded by the Ford Foundation arguing for the creation of a national service program for journalists.
The other founder, Mr. Sennott, once worked as the Jerusalem-based Middle East bureau chief for The Boston Globe. He has covered wars and insurgencies in more than a dozen countries. In 2014, he founded GroundTruth, a nonprofit organization that trains foreign correspondents. He decided to join Mr. Waldman in establishing Report for America after the 2016 election.
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“I was focused on reporting on divided societies and struggling democracies,” Mr. Sennott said. “Then I realized we live in one.”
Because they had seen how Facebook and Google contributed to the destruction of the advertising-based business model that had long kept local newspapers afloat, they asked them to kick in to their project. While Google has committed money and training, Facebook has yet to sign on.
“Mark Zuckerberg could solve the local news problem with the money that’s falling between his couch cushions,” Mr. Waldman said. “Folks like Facebook and Google and the other winners have the money to solve this problem, and it is a solvable problem.”
In parts of the country where newsrooms are filled with empty desks, tracking down stories can be depressingly easy, the organizers said. Will Wright, a reporter who was placed at The Lexington Herald Leader through the program, helped break a major story simply by attending a community meeting in eastern Kentucky and talking to residents who had been without running water for days.
Soon after his reporting, the person in charge of the water district went into retirement, and the state found $3.4 million to fix the water system.
“You don’t need a 20-year veteran investigative reporter to have this impact,” Mr. Waldman said. “It’s so barren out there that just being on the ground can have a really big impact.”
“He showed up,” Mr. Sennott said. “He was just there.”
For the nine reporter slots, 85 newsrooms applied asking for corps members, describing a crucial beat that needed filling. Reporters who make the cut start with eight days of training before joining their host newsrooms. They must also fulfill a service requirement, such as working as mentors to student journalists, during their stints.
The founders refer to those who take part in the program as “corps members,” rather than fellows, an attempt to signal that Report for America is not meant to be simply a chance to burnish a resume.
“It’s not a reward for bright young graduate students,” Mr. Sennott said. “It’s a call to get in there.”
I climbed out of my truck so he could look the rifle over while I counted the money he’d left on his seat. He was about my age, somewhere in his early to mid-30s, white guy with a thick beard. He spoke with a heavy Southern accent not much different from my own. Said he built houses for a living, and that was about all the small talk between us. He liked the rifle. I needed the cash. We shook hands, and off we went.
There is rarely a moment when I’m not within reach of a firearm. When I lie down at night, there is an old single-shot New England Firearms Pardner leaned against the headboard, a loaded Smith & Wesson M&P Shield pistol on the nightstand. When I sit on the couch to work on an essay or a novel, there is a CZ 75 pistol on the coffee table. When I go to town for groceries, one of those two pistols is concealed inside my waistband.
Where I live in the mountains of North Carolina, I am not alone. With fewer than a dozen guns in the safe, I wouldn’t even be considered a gun nut. Most of my friends have concealed-carry licenses and pistols on their person. If there are 10 of us in a room, there are most likely 10 loaded firearms, probably more, with a few of us keeping backups in ankle holsters. Rarely do we mention what we carry. We don’t touch the guns or draw them from their holsters. They are unseen and unspoken of, but always there.
I can’t remember a time in my life when I wasn’t around guns. When I was a kid, there was a gun rack hanging on the wall in the living room. My father kept a single-shot .410 and an old bolt action .22, small-game guns, though he didn’t hunt anymore. I can remember watching older boys shoot skeet at a junkyard in the woods behind my house, my fingers plugged in my ears while orange clays turned to smoke against a backdrop of post oak and poplar. I can remember the first time my father taught me to shoot a rifle, how he had me sit on the concrete driveway and use my knee for a rest, aiming for a cardboard target in a honeysuckle thicket across the road. I think I was 8 or 9. I pulled the stock in too high on my shoulder, and craned my neck awkwardly to line up the iron sights. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I knew the rules: Always assume a firearm is loaded. Always keep the gun pointed in a safe direction. Know your target and what’s beyond it.
I come from a country people whose culture was destroyed by bulldozers and buildings. My father’s family settled in and around Charlotte in the late 1700s. As a child, I would ride around with my grandmother in her light blue Oldsmobile. Where Winn-Dixies and Food Lions stood, she remembered fields where she worked tobacco and picked cotton. I grew up in a tiny holdout spot of country where I ran through a pasture of chest-high field grass to fish a farm pond most evenings, where just a mile down the road my uncle still kept a kennel of hounds to run rabbit each fall.
Guns were often a bridge between father and son. But my dad didn’t keep a .38 Special on the bedside nightstand like my best friend’s father down the street. I never walked into the house and found him cleaning and oiling a dozen pistols at the kitchen table the way I did with my next-door neighbor’s dad. For my family, guns had always been a means of putting food on the table. My father never owned a handgun. He kept nothing for home defense.
I was in eighth grade the first time I had a gun put to my head. It was December 1997, a year and four months before Columbine, at my middle school in Charlotte.
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A teacher named Mr. Madison sent me and three other boys outside to look for stuff to put under a microscope — rocks, tree bark, empty snail shells, anything we could find. The school was located in a neighborhood three miles from downtown. A sewer line ran parallel and cut a wide trail through the woods between two residential streets. We were at the edge of the clearing. I saw someone walking up with a hood over his head. When he got close, he pulled the gun and jammed it into my temple.
I can remember that it was a little snub-nosed revolver, a brushed-steel frame. I can remember what it felt like pressed into the side of my head, how my heart raced when I went for my wallet, how I couldn’t breathe. I had $50 my grandmother sent me for my birthday. My mom was going to take me to a skateboard shop after school to buy a new deck. There have been times I wondered what might’ve happened if it’d been like every other day, if I hadn’t had a dollar to my name. If my wallet had been empty, would he have just walked away or become so frustrated that he pulled the trigger? Luckily, I had the money, and he took the $50 and ran.
When he was gone, the four of us rushed for the classroom and tried to tell Mr. Madison what happened, our words broken by shattered breath, him screaming: “Slow down! Slow down!” The rest of the day we recounted our story over and over to the principal. In the end, what happened was swept under the rug. My parents said the school was probably trying to keep the story off the news.
When I was 14, I couldn’t imagine the impact that robbery would have on the rest of my life. I couldn’t foresee a grown man feeling uncomfortable when he was corralled by passers-by on the street, an unnerving anxiety turning him to stone when he was surrounded by strangers. I remember an afternoon in my early 30s at a therapist’s office describing the years that followed that incident, and she speculated that I surrounded myself with the people I did as a form of protection. There’s a part of me that thinks that’s too easy an answer, that it’s passing the buck instead of taking responsibility. But for those next few years, I ran around wild.
I sat in the back of a police cruiser praying the officers wouldn’t pop the trunk on the car parked in front of my truck, knowing my friend had a shotgun and a quarter pound of weed sitting on the spare. I rode in the passenger seat while a buddy rolled down the window and fired a pistol into the night, blowing off steam after a breakup, empty casings spitting against the windshield. I dropped to the ground as gunfire rang from a car at a bonfire party. I pushed friends behind the brick foundation of a house as a shootout erupted over pills. There were times when someone could have easily been shot and killed.
The second and last time I had a gun put to my head it was by the police. After a drunken fight, I left a friend’s apartment to walk five miles and sleep on the porch of a buddy’s house across the river. I was walking down the side of Wilkinson Boulevard in Belmont. I was carrying a shoe box. I saw a police cruiser pass me and make a U-turn at a stoplight up ahead. When the Crown Vic came back, the driver jumped the median and next thing I knew there were multiple cars, lights flashing, officers ordering me to the ground.
They had their guns drawn. There was a K-9 unit, and the German shepherd wouldn’t quit barking. I was lying flat on my stomach, and one officer came forward and put his knee in my back, his service weapon pushed into the base of my skull. They let the dog close enough that I could feel him barking against my ear. They said I matched the description of someone who’d burglarized some houses nearby. They asked what was in the shoe box, and I stuttered, “Papers.” They asked if they opened the box if there was anything inside that would hurt them. With my face in the grass and the officer’s weight making it hard to breathe, I was so terrified that I couldn’t mutter a single word. I just shook my head, and they opened that box to find nothing but a stack of notebook papers, a pile of half-assed stories I’d written. They told me I could get up, and I stood there trembling while they apologized. They gave me a ride across the river and dropped me off at the Mecklenburg County line, told me they were sorry but they couldn’t take me any farther.
I moved to the mountains not long after that. As soon as I arrived in Jackson County, I knew I’d never leave. A hundred and fifty miles west of where I grew up, I found a community that reminded me of my grandmother, where folks still kept big gardens and canned the vegetables they grew. They still filled the freezer with meat taken by rod and rifle — trout and turkey, dove and rabbit, deer, bear, anything in season.
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I keep a close-knit group of friends here, most of whom are at least 20 years my senior. Our generational difference is erased by a shared passion for wilderness and time spent in the field with gun in hand. This past Christmas, one of the men I hunt with, a man we call Son in Law, handed down a Model 94 Winchester to his grandson. The grandson would be the fourth generation to hunt with that rifle. A few weeks later, the boy took that .30-30 lever action into the field and killed his first deer with it — the same as his uncle, his grandfather and great-grandfather. Those types of things are rare now, even in places like Appalachia.
I’m the youngest member of my hunting camp — me 34, everyone else in their mid-to-late 60s, a few on up past 70. Among these men, there are centuries of experience gathered around the campfire each night. After more than 40 seasons wandering the same woods, they’ve come to know the land intimately. They toss around names — the Owl Boxes, the U.F.O. Hole, the Refrigerator Stand — places they’ve killed deer for decades. They tell stories about men who have died, hunters like Goat Man, who carried an onion in his pocket and plowed down trees in his beat-up Bronco; or Hawkeye, who ran moonshine and damn near drank a boy to death after the kid slapped a sack of weed on the poker table and declared, “Boys, that’s the shit that killed Elvis.” The old men talk, and I listen.
I killed my biggest deer to date on the 2nd of November from a tree one of those men sent me to. Fifteen feet up a hickory, I watched a tree line at the edge of a clear cut. I heard heavy footsteps and eased around the right side of the tree for a look, and there he stood. The buck walked to my left, and I slipped behind the trunk, shouldered the rifle and balanced the fore end on a tree step I’d augured into the opposite side for a rest.
He was broadside when I slid the cross hairs onto his shoulder. The clear cut, strewn with downed timber and studded with sawed stubs, was too rough to track and drag, so I didn’t want to risk a shot for heart and lungs and have the deer run a hundred yards. I wanted to drop him where he stood. Pin his shoulders together and buckle him.
Just before the deer strolled behind a cedar sapling, I touched the trigger, and the .308 blew apart the morning. A hundred and fifty grains of copper-jacketed lead hit just behind the shoulder and blood-shot the backside to pudding. The buck stooped forward and sprinted, back legs driving him over tangled ground. He made it 40 yards before he crashed. From my stand, I could just make out the white of his stomach through the brush. I watched his ribs rise with each breath, that breathing slowing, slowing, then gone.
There is a sadness that only hunters know, a moment when lament overshadows any desire for celebration. Life is sustained by death, and though going to the field is an act of taking responsibility for that fact, the killing is not easy, nor should it be.
I climbed down a half-hour later but didn’t walk straight to the deer. Instead I went to the place where I shot him, a yard shy of that cedar sapling, and followed the blood trail to where he lay. He was a big-bodied eight-point that would feed me for a year. I knelt there and ran my hands across his coat. It took nearly an hour to drag him back to the trail, another half-mile from there to the truck.
A few days later, I was driving back home from hunting camp in McCormick, S.C., with the head of that eight-point in a cooler in the truck bed, the rest of the deer hanging to age at the processor. On a long straightaway, I passed a state trooper driving in the opposite direction. In the rearview, I saw him slam on the brakes and make a U-turn in the middle of the road, blue lights flashing. I was running just under 60 in a 55 and didn’t think there was any way he was pulling me over.
The 9-millimeter I always carry was loaded and concealed on my side. Until that moment I’d never been pulled over while carrying a concealed weapon. I knew the protocol. I knew what I was legally obligated to say. But I was nervous as hell as the trooper stepped out of his cruiser, situated his campaign hat and approached the side of my truck.
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He was a young black man with braces on his teeth. He looked to be in his early 20s, had kind eyes and was built like a linebacker. He asked for my license and registration, and I told him I needed to inform him that I had a concealed-carry license and that there was a weapon on my person. He asked where the gun was located, and I told him roughly 4 o’clock. He asked if I could get to my wallet, and I told him the pistol was pretty close to my back pocket. There was a moment of hesitation when he considered what to do next. Then he told me to move slowly as I took my wallet from my pocket.
When the trooper had my license and registration, he went to his cruiser. In a few minutes, he came back to the window and issued me a warning for speeding. I asked if there was anything I could’ve done differently to make him more comfortable when he first approached the truck. The trooper told me what I’d said was fine. He said that some officers might have been uncomfortable with where the pistol was located, being holstered near my wallet, but that he felt we had a good rapport. Depending on the officer, some might have asked me to step out of the truck so they could remove the weapon. He smiled and told me: “But this is South Carolina. Most every car I pull over has a gun.”
As I headed toward the mountains, all I could think about was Philando Castile, the young African-American man who had a permit to carry and was shot to death in his car in front of his girlfriend and her young daughter by a Minnesota policeman after notifying the officer that he had a weapon. All I could think about was how things might have been different if the situation was reversed and that young black state trooper with braces had been behind the wheel, a white trooper cautiously approaching the car. It was impossible not to think that if I were black, I’d be too scared to carry a gun. It was impossible not to recognize how gun culture reeks of privilege.
Last summer I drove back to Charlotte to visit my father for his birthday. While I was there, I went into a Cabela’s store in Fort Mill, S.C., to buy him a new depth finder for his fishing boat. After I found what I was looking for, I headed across the store to see if there were any good deals on ammo.
There were floor displays of AR-15s, and probably a hundred or more other rifles and shotguns for anyone to walk up and hold. I watched a kid about 8 or 9 pick up one of those ARs and shoulder it to the center of his chest. He held the gun awkwardly, cocked his head hard to the side, squeezed one eye closed to aim and dry-fired the weapon. I watched two men, presumably his father and grandfather, smile and laugh, then break out their cellphones to snap a few pictures.
I remembered how when I was his age, I used to love going to the sporting-goods section of Walmart to look at fishing lures and camouflage clothes. I’d walk over near the register and push the manual turntable on the curio display to look at all the rifles and shotguns. There were usually a few big game guns — a gray stock Remington 783 in .30-06, maybe a Marlin 336 lever action — a couple of pump shotguns, a single shot .410 or 20-gauge. There were always Ruger 10/22s and Marlin Model 60s, the .22LRs kids unwrapped when their grandfathers gave them their first rifles for a birthday or Christmas. There were always guns, but nothing like the assault weapons that line the shelves today.
Maybe it’s how I was raised and the types of firearms my family kept, but the idea of owning a rifle designed for engaging human targets out to 600 meters just never interested me. I keep a Savage 10 in .308 to hunt whitetail and hogs. I have a CZ 920 that’s absolute hell on a dove field. I have a handful of .22 rifles that I use for plinking at the range and hunting squirrels and rabbits each winter. Then there are the weapons I keep for defense — the shotgun by the bed, the pistols — firearms whose sole purpose would be to take human life if I were left with no other choice. I’ve witnessed how quickly a moment can turn to a matter of life and death. I live in a region where 911 calls might not bring blue lights for an hour. Whether it’s preparation or paranoia, I plan for worst-case scenarios and trust no one but myself for my survival.
My friends see no difference between the guns I own and their ARs. One or two of them rationalize assault weapons the same way I justify what sits by my bed. When I ask if those rifles are really the best option for home defense, they joke about the minute hand of the doomsday clock inching closer to midnight. They post Instagram photos of Sig Sauer MCXs and tac vests loaded with extra magazines, their bug-out bags by the door as they wait for the end of the world.
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But a majority defend their ARs the same way I defend the guns I use for plinking and hunting. They say they own them because they’re fun at the range and affordable to shoot. They use the rifles for punching paper, a few for shooting coyotes. Every weekend they fire hundreds of rounds from custom rifles they’ve spent thousands of dollars building. They add bump stocks and Echo Triggers to increase rates of fire and step as close to Title II of the federal Gun Control Act as legally possible without the red tape and paperwork. They fire bullets into Tannerite targets that blow pumpkins into the sky.
None of them see a connection between the weapons they own and the shootings at Sandy Hook, San Bernardino, Aurora, Orlando, Las Vegas, Parkland. They see mug shots of James Holmes, Omar Mateen, Stephen Paddock, Nikolas Cruz — “crazier than a shithouse rat,” they say. “If it hadn’t been that rifle, he’d have done it with something else.” They fear that what starts as an assault-weapons ban will snowball into an attack on everything in the safe. I don’t believe that politicians are going to ban ordinary guns or overturn the Second Amendment, but I understand their reasoning because I understand what’s at stake. I think about that boy picking up that AR in Cabela’s, and I’m torn between the culture I grew up with and how that culture has devolved. There are changes I know must come, changes to what types of firearms line the shelves and to the background checks and ownership requirements needed to carry one out the door. And there is an unrelenting fear of what could be lost — a subsistence culture already threatened by the loss of public land, rising costs and a widening rural-urban divide; the right of individuals to protect their own lives and the lives of their families.
A few days after the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., in February, I sat down with a buddy over coffee at the firehouse where he works. The news was on in the background. I told him I’d be fine with an assault-weapons ban. He cut a look in my direction as if I’d absolutely lost my mind. I asked him why anyone needs to own an AR, an AK, an SKS. He said that the question is irrelevant, that the reason doesn’t supersede the right. I could feel my blood pressure rising and my face getting warm. I could see in his eyes that he was equally agitated. Despite everything we have in common, despite the fact that he’s my best friend and we were going squirrel hunting in a few days, the two of us fundamentally disagree. Someone came into the room and changed the subject, and I could sense that he was as thankful as I was. As sad as it is to say, the silence is easier. While the two of us sat there sipping coffee, there were kids on the television in the background, high school survivors who were willing to say what we are not, and I was ashamed.
One recent afternoon I rode with my girlfriend, Ashley, an hour east to Asheville. It was the first week of March, but a warm spell had the willows green along the creek in the pasture at our house. It was one of those pretty, late-winter days with bluebird skies when the trees are still naked on the mountains and you can see every shadow and contour of the landscape. Knowing how I hate going to the city, she bribed me with a trip to the Field & Stream sporting-goods store if I would ride along.
As we pulled into the parking lot, I thought about the last time we were there, back before Christmas. Ashley didn’t grow up with guns as I did. She’d never owned one before I gave her a shotgun to keep by the bed when I’m away from home. For a year or so, she’d been considering a pistol. She’d held dozens of models but still hadn’t decided on anything.
We were at the back of the store looking in the glass case at 1911s. All of a sudden, her eyes got big and she raised her hands then ducked behind me and grabbed onto my arm. I turned and stared down the aisle where a kid who looked about 18 was aiming an AR-15 the salesman had handed him. The muzzle was pointed in our direction. Ashley was terrified. I’ve been at the counter enough to know the predicament — wanting to shoulder a rifle to test the feel but having nowhere sensible to aim. The kid lowered the rifle and went back to talking to the salesman, neither seeming to notice us standing there, Ashley frozen behind me.
On the way out, she just kept saying: “He was a kid. He looked like he should’ve been in high school. What does a kid need a rifle like that for? What does anybody need a rifle like that for?” And the truth was, I didn’t have an answer. The truth is, there are guns I feel justified in owning and guns I feel belong on battlefields. I know the reasons my friends give for owning these weapons, and I know that their answers feel inadequate to me. I know that part of what they’re missing or refusing to acknowledge is how fear ushered in this shift in gun culture over the past two decades.
Fear is the factor no one wants to address — fear of criminals, fear of terrorists, fear of the government’s turning tyrannical and, perhaps more than anything else, fear of one another. There’s no simple solution like pulling fear off the shelf. It’s an intangible thing. I recognize this, because I recognize my own and I recognize that despite all I know and believe I can’t seem to overcome it. I’m sure that part of why I carry is having a pistol put to my head when I was 14. I’m sure that part of it is having hidden behind walls while shots were fired. Maybe it’s a combination of those two things coupled with headlines and hysteria, the growing presence of mass shootings in American culture.
I don’t like being in places where I can’t find the exits. I don’t like crowds and being surrounded by more people than I can keep my eyes on. For the most part nowadays, I stay at the house. When I have to leave, I slide my holster into my waistband before I put on my boots. When a book tour sends me out of North Carolina, 36 states honor the concealed-carry license in my wallet. Unlike a lot of those who carry, I don’t buy into that only-way-to-stop-a-bad-guy-with-a-gun-is-a-good-guy-with-a-gun bravado. I have no visions of being a hero. Instead, I find myself looking for where I’d run, asking myself what I would get behind. The gun is the last resort. It’s the final option when all else is exhausted.
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When Ashley and I left the store, we headed toward the Levi’s outlet, where she planned to buy a new pair of jeans. The walkway narrowed, and the sidewalks were filled with people and noise. Even though I knew the risk was remote, my mind raced with all those questions of what I’d do if someone suddenly opened fire. As we walked, I could feel the pistol holstered on my side, the weight of my gun tugging at my belt. The fear was lessened by knowing that there was a round chambered, that all it would take is the downward push of a safety and the short pull of a trigger for that bullet to breathe. I felt safer knowing that gun was there.