Op-Ed: Sale of NJ’s Airwaves Could Address Local News Crisis

Mike Rispoli | March 15, 2017 | Opinion
When news coverage disappears, people are less informed, civic participation drops, and political corruption increases

Mike Rispoli
There’s a local news crisis in New Jersey.

Nearly 2,000 journalists and media professionals throughout New Jersey have lost their jobs over the past decade. Dozens of news outlets have shut down. Consolidation has left several swaths of the state without any real coverage.

Taken together, this crisis affects not only the business of journalism, but also how well our communities engage in civic life and with one another.

But there’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to rethink how people around New Jersey stay up to date with what’s going on in their communities and the state. The state’s participation in the recently concluded FCC spectrum auction, in which it sold off its old public-TV licenses, is bringing in hundreds of millions in new public revenues.

Gov. Christie on Monday said this money shouldn’t be used as “a one shot to balance the budget.” And he’s right. The sale of the public airwaves shouldn’t be used to plug budget holes. Instead, lawmakers should look for ways to strengthen local news and information.

That’s why Free Press Action Fund is urging lawmakers to support the creation of the New Jersey Civic Information Consortium, a joint initiative of four of the state’s leading universities, designed to advance research and innovation in the fields of media and technology and strengthen local news and information.

The consortium would work with Montclair State University, the New Jersey Institute of Technology, Rowan University, and Rutgers University to issue grants to the universities, media outlets, technology companies, and community partners for projects that benefit the state’s civic life and meet the evolving information needs of New Jersey’s underserved communities.

What could this money be spent on? The potential collaborative projects among universities, media outlets, community groups, and the technology sector are endless. But it’s crucial that this money go beyond supporting journalism outlets and instead more broadly serve communities’ information needs. Some projects that New Jersey residents have expressed interest in are the creation of locally focused digital startups; apps and tools that help the public sift through public data or complex academic research; robust community-engagement projects; and media-literacy programs that identify and combat the spread of so-called “fake news” and disinformation.

There’s an urgent need to invest in local news and information in New Jersey. When news coverage disappears, people are less informed, civic participation drops, and political corruption increases. A bleak future for the journalism industry means a bleak future for the towns and cities where we live.

People rely on locally produced news and information to engage with their neighbors, learn about volunteer opportunities, make decisions about voting, run for public office, get information about small businesses, and support local schools.

Gov. Christie said the state won’t publicize how much it is receiving from the auction until the FCC announces the national results sometime in April. However, the recently released budget shows $325 million in anticipated revenue from the sale of state assets, which Christie has said is made up partly, but not entirely, of the auction proceeds.

Our representatives have a responsibility to use this money to address the state’s growing information crisis. These airwaves were state assets and belonged to us. They came with an obligation to serve the public, and we should ensure that a significant portion funds projects like the New Jersey Civic Information Consortium.

For the past two years, Free Press’ News Voices: New Jersey project has been working to build strong connections between residents and reporters and ensure that local journalism serves community needs. We’ve consistently heard from people in places like Asbury Park, Atlantic City, Camden, Morristown, Newark, and New Brunswick that they want more trustworthy and quality information about where they live.

By enlisting the brightest minds of our state’s universities, the consortium would allow New Jersey to lead the way nationally in creating a forward-thinking media landscape focused on New Jersey and attuned to residents’ needs.

Unless something is done to address the news crisis now, there could come a time in the not-too-distant-future when a vast majority of New Jersey’s 565 municipalities get no local coverage at all.

That wouldn’t be a problem just for local news. That would hurt all of us.

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