New Jersey Deserves What It Got

Jul 05, 2018

If ever there were a state that deserved a historic measure to support the growth of local public interest media, New Jersey was it.

And it got what it deserved earlier this week when the state’s governor approved an FY19 budget that includes $5 million to create an unprecedented Civic Information Consortium, a nonprofit that aims to seed capacity for both delivering and consuming local news. Gov. Phil Murphy is expected to sign the bill formally establishing the consortium soon.

“It’s a different way to think about government funding for media,” said Mike Rispoli, who spearheaded the legislative campaign for Free Press Action Fund, the media advocacy group. 

Why New Jersey? It’s tough to get local news when the state’s 565 municipalities are covered by fragile news startups and dwindling commercial news outlets operating in the shadow of the New York and Philadelphia media markets. Its public radio stations were sold off in 2011 to public broadcasters in those cities. And its public television stations were put under the wing of, which owns New York City’s flagship PBS station. 

But much has happened since then: New Jersey has become a petri dish for local news experimentation and collaboration, and it has built a unique infrastructure to support news entrepreneurs. The 6-year-old New Jersey News Commons, under the stewardship of Montclair State’s Center for Cooperative Media (CCM), now links some 250 media partners and freelancers who are collaborating on and exchanging stories throughout the state. It is the only codified state journalism network in the U.S. CCM has produced training, joint reporting, research and an impressive Voting Block NJ project during the 2017 governor’s race, the brainchild of WHYY and New Jersey Public Radio news executives. Fueling this work are the Dodge and the Knight Foundations and the Democracy Fund.

As important, Free Press, most known for championing net neutrality, has been doing a deep dive into New Jersey’s news landscape. The Free Press Action Fund built grassroots relationships with citizens and newsrooms by convening 10 public forums over the last 18 months, specifically asking people how they are affected by the lack of local news and how things might get better. Citizen input on the value of public-interest journalism was a key ingredient in its campaign to get the consortium funded. Some 60 civic and media organizations were also recruited to sign a letter urging the governor and legislature to approve the bill.

Rispoli credits the success of the campaign to “the years of work CCM and the Dodge Foundation did to build up the network of hyperlocal sites and the conversations about the importance of local journalism.”

“I don’t know that all of this would have happened without all of the work beforehand,” said Rispoli, the New Jersey state director for the Action Fund. He also credits the enthusiasm of the public-forum participants who were ”really eager to have a conversation about what do we do” about the decline of local news.

So where is the $5 million coming from? Ironically, it originates from former Gov. Chris Christie’s 2011 decision to halt state funding for public media. While the radio stations were sold off, the state held onto the public television licenses at the WNET-operated stations. Then in 2017, the state decided to sell off its two main public TV stations, WNJN and WNJT, in the spectrum auction, receiving a hefty $332 million.

A constant refrain in the campaign for the Civic Info Bill creating the consortium was that the local news landscape deserves some of the proceeds from the sale of public airwaves. Proponents initially sought $20 million a year, but not much was left when the bill finally passed, so future fundraising is expected.

Testifying last year to the state legislature, Rispoli said he envisioned the Civic Information Consortium as “helping us re-imagine what public interest media looks like in the 21st century.”

Earlier this week, he explained that the consortium will be set up as a public charity and will be a collaboration among the state’s five leading public higher-education institutions: the College of New Jersey, Montclair State University, the New Jersey Institute of Technology, Rowan University and Rutgers University.

To apply for a grant, an applicant must propose a project connecting at least one of the colleges and universities with an unrelated partner such as a community organization, a public library, a commercial or nonprofit media organization or a tech partner. Winning proposals would have to offer a clear benefit to communities (so, it must be more than academic research).

Some of the ideas put forth in the public forums called for municipal-website templates, media-literacy programs, mini-grants for reporting projects, journalist fellowship programs serving overlooked communities, and mobile apps to access to local government data.

To be sure, there will be newsrooms that won’t apply for funding that originates from the state government, lest it appear to ethically compromise their coverage.

“Over the years, we built great relationships with newsrooms, but some distanced themselves during the advocacy campaign, which I understand,” Rispoli said. He notes, however, that Free Press, as an advocacy group, “is able to do things that they can’t do.”

Rispoli stresses that the bill takes great pains to outline safeguards to prevent either the government or the universities from affecting grant decisions or news coverage resulting from consortium funding.

“Our No. 1 priority is to make sure all communities are informed and engaged,” he said.

Much of the script from the Free Press consortium campaign could have been taken right from the mission statements of many public broadcasters. And public media will need to figure out where it fits if new forms of public media financing take root.

Years of effort went into local news advocates in New Jersey winning a share of the public television auction proceeds. If others want to follow in their footsteps, the time to start is now.


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