Local News Lab: Reimagining How We Get Community News in New Jersey

January 11, 2017


Imagine you were given an assignment. Here it is:

Two weeks before Christmas, gather the major legacy and new media players in your state for a brainstorming meeting that will take up the better part of their day. Just to make things more interesting, also lure a nice sampling of the academics and advocates who track trends in local media.

You’ve got three weeks to get it done. Go!

Could you nail that task — without losing hours of sleep and perhaps your sanity? How could you identify all the key players across a sprawling state? How would you persuade short-handed editors, busy pulling together year-in-review packages, to give up a day to make this meeting?  How do you get academics to leave campus in the middle of finals?

I had exactly that challenge late last year, trying to organize a session on Dec. 12 at the Center for Cooperative Media at New Jersey’s Montclair State University.

Guess what? It turned out to be a piece of holiday cake.

That’s a tribute to the coherent and collaborative a network of news outlets, both venerable and newbie, that’s been woven in New Jersey over the last five years, thanks to the efforts of the Dodge Foundation and the Center at Montclair.

I doubt that such a gathering could have been pulled together on such a tight timetable with such ease in any other state of the union.

Here’s who ended up agreeing to come (though, in full candor, a very typical New Jersey phenomenon – an epic, rain-induced traffic snarl on the Garden State Parkway – prevented some of them from ever making it to Montclair that day):

  • Representatives of the biggest newspapers covering the state.
  • Key players at all four of the public radio stations broadcasting in New Jersey: WNYC, WHYY, WBGO and WFMU.
  • A sampling of the impressive cohort New Jersey digital media startups that have hung in there (with dollops of help from Dodge) over the last five years: NJ Spotlight, Brick City Live, New Brunswick Today, NJ Shorebeat.
  • Academics from Montclair State, Rutgers, Rowan and CUNY.
  • Advocates who track media issues from organizations such as the Citizens Campaign and Media Mobilizing Project.

Admittedly, after 40 years spent working for news organizations that sit along the Delaware River and cover New Jersey, I had some relationships I could put to work gathering this crew. And people I knew well in turn had relationships with others whom they could assure, “This one sounds like it might be worth your time.”

Just as valuable, though, was the map of New Jersey’s news ecosystem that the Center for Cooperative Media has been putting together for much of this decade, supported by Dodge.

And, if you put a lie detector on everyone who said, “Yes, I’ll come,” they’d probably say the main reason they considered this a meeting worth scrambling to attend boiled down to two words: Dodge Foundation.   If Dodge was making a bet on an initiative involving the future of New Jersey media, then it was best to pay attention.

The topic of the meeting was an effort by the Free Press organization, funded by Dodge and the Democracy Fund, to persuade elected officials in Trenton to do something that they are not at first blush going to want to do:

  • Spend part of an anticipated windfall on something other than their pet concerns.

The windfall (as much as $1 billion) may come to New Jersey through the federal auction of broadcast spectrum that is now taking place, laboriously, under the auspices of the Federal Communications Commission.

In the auction, New Jersey is in a unique position among states. Under Gov. Christie, the state got out of the business of directly producing public television, but it hung onto ownership of four public TV licenses (i.e. rights to broadcast using spectrum bandwidth). The licenses are now leased to WNET public TV in New York City, which operates them as NJTV.

The goal of the auction is to free up a swath of spectrum that the FCC can then sell to telecom companies looking to improve 5G service. That makes the New Jersey licenses, smack in the middle of the populous mid-Atlantic, among the most valuable ones on the block. If the auction reaches any conclusion where buyers and sellers agree on a price, New Jersey stands to make some money.

Operating on default instincts, politicians in the state Capitol would use that money as a pain-free plug for various well-known holes in the state budget, such as pension costs.

But Free Press, backed by Dodge and the Democracy Fund, seeks a hearing for a different idea: Earmark a significant chunk of the proceeds for a new fund or endowment. The fund would provide seed capital to innovative proposals aim meeting the information needs of New Jersey residents and communities.

The logic is clean and powerful: This windfall got generated by selling off remnants of the 20th-century system of public media. At least some of it should be used to invest in building a 21st-century, digital/mobile model for public media.

In this way, New Jersey, long a media stepchild to New York and Philly, could become a national leader in modern local media.

This endowment — for now, let’s call it “the New Jersey Fund for Public Information” — might have something like $10 million a year to invest in creative ideas for how to scratch the local information itch.

Politically, that’s a long shot – but with a new governor being elected in 2017 and many in politics fretting over the “fake news” phenomenon and the fraying of the “honest broker” concept of news media – it’s not a hopeless quest.

To sell voters and taxpayers on the idea, however, you have to be able to show them clearly and succinctly how the fund could be deployed to meet their community’s information needs.

Getting a start on that creative task – that’s why we wanted to assemble the journalists, academics and advocates on Dec. 12 in Montclair.

They came, they brainstormed and they presented their ideas for critical evaluation by their peers in a lively, Shark Tank-like session in meeting room at Montclair that presented a stunning, though fog-shrouded view, of the Manhattan skyline.

Here’s what they came up with (think of this list not as a comprehensive list of possibilities, but as a first course to whet the appetite for more dialogue, more creativity, more great ideas):

  • Create an app, and a digital reporting team, that would track progress and milestones on all laws approved by Trenton.   Statehouse reporting has traditional focused on the politics of getting bills passed.  But those reporters rarely circle back to check on whether that bill that caused all the fuss a year ago is actually being enforced, actually working, actually doing what it was supposed to do.  Audiences often tell journalists that their lack of follow-up on stories is one of their most annoying sins.
  • Create a Pro Publica for New Jersey. Pro Publica is the New York City-based nonprofit investigative reporting outfit that does deep dives into data and emerges with important stories that it often co-produces with major newspapers, magazines and broadcast outlets.  The idea is that New Jersey taxpayers deserve a watchdog with a strong bite and time to dig.
  • Set up a New Jersey Right to Know Institute. This institute would deploy the time and expertise of seasoned journalists and attorneys to help New Jersey residents gain access to key information about how their government is functioning. This is information to which they have a right by law, but often get blocked from seeing by red tape, cost and outright bureaucratic resistance.
  • Innovate with “Community Information Districts.” Many New Jersey towns have set up “special services districts,” where taxpayers within the district pay an extra fee to get particular services, whether business corridor development, watershed protection, or libraries. The idea here is for the fund to help fashion a model for towns to set up their own Community Information Districts. Revenue from a small, per-capita fee would be used to support a better information infrastructure for the town: an open-date website; a hyperlocal news site; a regular podcast, whatever town leaders felt would scratch their residents’ information itch.
  • Initiate “AmeriCorps for Journalists.” Create fellowships for a diverse cohort of young journalists, who would commit for at least two years to covering local news in areas now underserved by media, working in concert with established news organizations.
  • Tell the state’s chief executive: “Hearken, Governor.” Modeled on Hearken, a public radio project that crowd-sources the questions it then investigates, this effort would enlist media outlets around the state to crowdsource which question New Jersey voters most want their governor to answer each month. All the media outlets would then publish or air the answer.

One team delved not into a particular idea, but the structure for how the fund should operate.  This team’s suggestions, which track fairly closely to Free Press’s thinking, were:

  • Set up a review board of informed citizens and media professionals to vet applications to the fund and make recommendations to its politically appointed board.
  • Give preference to proposals that a) have a clear local focus b) stress collaboration among partners and c) have a plan to generate sustaining revenue.
  • Be open to applications from entities not traditionally thought of as being part of “the news media” e.g. libraries, arts groups, civic tech.

Do you have thoughts or questions about any of these ideas? Do you have a better idea of your own? Either way, let us know and I’m make sure your feedback is incorporated into Free Press’ work.

Share your thoughts in the comments below or email News Voices: New Jersey Director Mike Rispoli at  mrispoli@freepress.net.

We’ll try to answer your questions while incorporating your feedback into our work.

Chris Satullo is a civic-engagement consultant working with Free Press on the News Voices project. He formerly was a top news executive at the Philadelphia Inquirer and WHYY Inc.

Photo at Top: Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University