Civic Info Bill would create fund to spark local journalism projects

June 27, 2017


What would happen if you had the chance to reinvent local reporting?

A bill was introduced in the state Legislature earlier this month that would create a fund to promote local journalism projects, the kind imagined by residents at community forums hosted by Free Press as part of News Voices: New Jersey.

The Civic Info Bill, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg and Assembly Majority Leader Louis Greenwald, would establish the Civic Information Consortium, a nonprofit institution run by several state universities in partnership with digital innovators, community groups, local journalists, and residents.

The consortium would receive $100 million — $20 million annually over a five-year period — from the sale of New Jersey’s old public media stations, which netted the state $332 million. The consortium would be designed to fund essential news-and-information projects throughout the state to benefit civic life and meet the needs of underserved New Jersey communities.

The bill’s fate is to be decided this week, with a state-budget deadline looming on June 30.

In a New York Times op-ed late last year, Dodge President Chris Daggett called the public airwaves auction “an important opportunity to invest in new ways to meet the information needs of the public.”

“These airwaves are the public’s, and their use has always come with public-interest obligations,” Daggett wrote. “A significant portion of any proceeds should be deployed strategically to meet the public’s real need for news and for information that helps citizens live their lives.”

Free Press last week invited residents to join them in Trenton to urge support for the bill at Civic Info Bill Lobby Day, where they delivered a letter signed by more than 60 organizations and petitions signed by more than 1,700 New Jersey residents, according to its website.

“The hundreds of millions received from the recent sale of old public-media stations represents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to give New Jerseyans the news and information they need to participate fully in our democracy,” said Mike Rispoli, Free Press Action Fund’s journalism campaign director and the director of the News Voices: New Jersey project, which has organized public support for the Civic Information Consortium. “Thousands of newsroom jobs have disappeared and dozens of news outlets have shut down throughout New Jersey over the last decade. By passing this legislation, we can take a significant leap toward restoring local news coverage, elevating the voices of the state’s most marginalized residents, increasing civic participation, and making local politicians more responsive to the needs of their constituents.”

Through News Voices, Free Press has brought together residents and journalists to reimagine local news in Asbury Park, Atlantic City, Camden, Glassboro, Hackensack, Montclair, Morristown, Newark, New Brunswick, and Tuckerton.

The forums have provided residents an opportunity to share their thoughts on the type of local news reporting they’d like to see more of and brainstorm potential ideas for using the money.

In a blog post this week, Free Press shared the following ideas raised at the forums.

Potential ideas for using the money:

  • Squarespace for New Jersey: Create a set of user-friendly, attractive templates for town, county and school-district websites, built to convey the kinds of essential information residents crave. By choosing a template from this resource, a town or school system could quickly and cheaply do a much better job of providing needed information in a timely manner.
  • #ReadLocal campaign: Help New Jersey journalists and outlets doing good work grow their audiences and revenue by promoting quality homegrown journalism on legacy and social media. Working with an entity such as NJ News Commons at Montclair State University, the campaign could pick the best stories each week and share them statewide.
  • Media literacy: Create curricula and workshops to help people of all ages, from middle schoolers to adults, become discerning media users who are able to identify fake news. Forum participants saw the state’s libraries as a valuable ally in this effort.
  • Civic education institutes: Develop materials and a format for local communities to establish institutes where residents could learn how local governments and school systems really work, and how to engage with them effectively and appropriately.
  • AmeriCorps for journalism: Identify promising young journalists, initially via outreach to New Jersey high schools and colleges. After graduating from college, these individuals would receive two-year fellowships to report on undercovered communities or issues, working with established media outlets that would provide mentoring and training.
  • Mini-grants for reporting: Offer grants to independent journalists and newsrooms to enable them to work collaboratively on in-depth reports on topics that might otherwise go uncovered.
  • Digital public radio for New Jersey: Return quality audio storytelling to New Jersey by offering seed money for podcasts that would cover topics unique to New Jersey. A platform would gather all of these podcasts in one place for state residents to access.
  • Local data apps: Create a digital-app template that a community or county could use to provide mobile access to key government data, e.g., restaurant-inspection records, social-service contacts, environmental data, roadwork and traffic data, etc.

The Dodge Foundation supports Free Press for its News Voices project through its Informed Communities program. Photo at top courtesy of Free Press.