New Jersey to spend $5 million on reviving local journalism
New Jersey’s new state budget includes $5 million for a first-of-its-kind nonprofit effort to help finance local journalism in cities and towns where it has been decimated.
The campaign creating the investment originally sought $100 million – $20 million a year for five years, from some of the $332 million the state received from selling broadcast spectrum space that had been owned by its public television station.
That was scaled back to $5 million, but Mike Rispoli, the news voices director at the media reform advocacy group Free Press, said it’s “an incredible start” and helpful.
“Over the past decade, media consolidation and changes in the media industry have left a lot of communities in the dark. There are communities around the state of New Jersey with little to no local news coverage whatsoever,” Rispoli said.
“Studies have shown what happens when local news coverage dries up or disappears. Fewer people vote. Fewer people volunteer. Fewer people run for public office. Corruption increases,” Rispoli said.
“So really what this is about is making sure that people around the state can get news and information that they need in order to participate in democracy but to also ensure the health of the towns and cities where we live,” he said.
The approved budget includes language added by the Legislature that appropriates $5 million from the Trust Fund for the Support of Public Broadcasting to the New Jersey Civic Information Consortium to advance research and innovation in the field of media and technology.
That nonprofit consortium doesn’t technically exist yet, as it is to be created by a separate bill still on Murphy’s desk passed last week, 35-0 in the Senate and 52-22 in the Assembly.
The consortium will include The College of New Jersey, Montclair State University, the New Jersey Institute of Technology, Rowan University and Rutgers University, which will operate a grant program overseen by an executive director and 15-member board of directors.
Rispoli anticipates that the consortium will be organized by year-end.
“There is a local news crisis going on in New Jersey,” he said. “Every day that goes by something happens that people need to get information about. And I don’t think we have a lot of time to waste.”
Some of the money could be used to strengthen traditional media sources, such as newspapers and radio stations, and existing hyper-local websites. Funds might be used for seed investments in startups in areas without local news, or even media literacy programs and “civic technology” that promotes engagement, such as open data portals and legislative tracking software.
“It’s really a reimagining of what public interest media looks like in the 21st century,” said Rispoli, who said government has provided money to public media outlets, such as PBS, for years.
“What this idea really has a lot of promise for is not just having money go toward a single public media outlet but instead investing in media that spring up in communities around the state, so that all communities in New Jersey can get the news and information that they need,” he said.
The $5 million appropriation in the budget won’t necessarily recur in future years. Rispoli said the consortium might seek more government funding in the future but was structured as an educational charity so it can also seek money from donors and philanthropic groups.
The consortium will be required to hold three public hearings a year around New Jersey and make annual reports to the governor and Legislature listing all grant applicants, approved grants and a status report on the activities that were funded.
Its board is required to be politically balanced so that no more than eight of its 15 members can be members of the same political party.