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Op-Ed: A Great Idea Whose Time Has Come — Again

A bill being considered by lawmakers would provide the seed money for an initiative that would return control of local and community news, civic information to New Jerseyans

chris satullo
Chris Satullo

Last year, at the beach, New Jerseyans lost something they really valued.

Luckily, they have a chance to get it back, under the sunlight of a new day in Trenton.

That something is a proposal to rebuild the supply of useful news about their communities.

New Jersey residents cheered at forums last year when they heard about a one-of-a-kind, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make their state a national leader in innovation around local news and civic information.

It’s an idea called the New Jersey Civic Information Consortium. Behind that tongue-twister of a name stands a simple concept: If you want to grow something of value, you have to invest in it.

Quality local news is something that many New Jerseyans clearly value. The kind of news that some of them used to be able to take for granted, the kind that has eroded as the internet turned the media universe upside down, the kind that is the lifeblood of democracy and community.

A bill just introduced in Trenton calls for $20 million to be invested in starting up this consortium. What would it do?

This nonprofit would have a mission to spot, develop, and invest in ideas to improve the supply of accurate, in-depth local information in communities all over the state. That very much includes the disadvantaged populations often ill-served by traditional media.

A similar bill was introduced by powerful lawmakers last year. What happened to it?

It got lost inside the tiresome political squabbling that afflicted the end days of the Christie administration.

As you recall, the budget impasse culminated in ex-governor Christie’s infamous holiday, sunbathing at an otherwise closed state beach. In the end, to get a budget done, Trenton grabbed a $332 million windfall the state had gained from selling off parts of the former New Jersey Network in a federal auction. Instead of using that money to keep New Jerseyans informed and engaged, lawmakers dedicated almost all of it to plugging budget holes left by years of dubious fiscal policy. Lost at the beach, indeed.

This year, with a new governor, new Legislature, and new outlook in Trenton come a chance to revive this creative, forward-leaning idea for improving the flow of useful civic information to the state’s residents.

One of the major reasons that Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg and Assembly Majority Leader Lou Greenwald reintroduced the bill was the outpouring of public support for the concept last year. Hundreds of state residents attended community forums held last year by the Free Press Action Fund, which for the past three years has worked to build closer relationships between the public and the newsrooms that serve them.

Citizens told us about how keenly they felt the erosion of local news that’s been caused by economic woes and layoffs in legacy outlets. They gave us dozens of ideas for how they’d use the fund to address that problem.

Thousands took action in support of the bill — signing petitions, attending lobby days, and calling their state lawmakers in support. That’s not because they wanted to “save journalism.” They saw how it would foster healthier communities. They saw how it would propel New Jersey from stepchild of the New York City and Philadelphia media into a national leader in digital, public-interest media.

Here’s an irony: The same digital technology that exploded the media business models of the last century can now be deployed to radically improve the local news and information options of New Jersey residents.

What’s been missing is the seed money, the venture capital if you will, to help digital journalists and civic technologists persevere through the low-revenue periods of trial and error often involved in creating something new and exciting.

And make no mistake, thanks to investments by the Dodge Foundation and others and the work of organizations such as the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State, New Jersey has become a lively laboratory for digital-news innovation that’s closely watched around the nation.

Yes, one legitimate narrative about the state’s news media focuses on the dismantling of the public New Jersey Network and the radical shrinkage of newspaper newsrooms, leading to the gaps in local news that residents told us they feel acutely.

Another valid narrative, though, tells a more encouraging tale, about a surge of collaboration and experimentation among the state’s digital journalists, creating new forms of data-rich, in-depth story-telling on important issues such as immigration and environmental contamination.

And yet another narrative waits to unfold, needing only some timely investment. It could be an exciting tale of journalists teaming up with technologists to mine rich veins of public data and fashion apps that put that useful data right into the hands of regular citizens, when and where they need it to guide daily decisions.

We mentioned the role Montclair State has played in nurturing innovation in digital media. Academics on other campuses — Rutgers, The College of New Jersey, Rowan, and New Jersey Institute of Technology — have also undertaken civic information projects.

That is why the “Civic Info bill” gives these five universities a central role in the work of this nonprofit, working collaboratively with media outlets, community groups, and technologists. New Jersey residents told us last year that they don’t want their sense of what’s happening in their communities to be driven by Facebook rumors. They don’t want decisions on their tax dollars to be made with no watchdogs present. They said they’d love to see the things this Civic Info bill could bring to life.

This time around, don’t let this great idea get abandoned on a lonely beach. Tell your elected officials you want them vote to turn New Jersey into the nation’s great incubator of public-interest media for the digital age.

Chris Satullo is former editorial page editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer and former vice president of news at WHYY public media.

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