Push to Find Funding for Local Journalism — While Trenton Is ‘out of Town’

Grass-roots effort to tap into cash from sale of public airwaves will continue through summer and into 2018 if need be, organizers say

New Jersey State House in Trenton
Supporters of a bill seeking to use state dollars to help bolster local journalism in New Jersey watched from the sidelines as their legislation stalled amid a messy budget impasse and government shutdown earlier this month.

Despite that, the backers of the proposed New Jersey Civic Information Consortium say they aren’t giving up.

The grass-roots organizing effort launched earlier this year will continue through the summer, with a new goal of securing the initial funding for the proposed consortium when the Legislature resumes a full schedule after the November election, said Mike Rispoli, journalism campaign director for Free Press, a nonprofit organization that has been leading the effort to create the consortium.

Continuing the effort into 2018, when the state’s next governor will take office, is also something the supporters are prepared to do, he said.

“Nothing good comes easy,” Rispoli said. “We’re going to have to keep pushing to make this happen.”

Cashing in on a windfall

The legislation seeking to provide state funds for the consortium was first introduced in early June after lawmakers were informed by Gov. Chris Christie’s administration during budget committee hearings that the state was expecting to receive more than $300 million from the recent sale of taxpayer-owned broadcast airwaves to wireless internet providers.

Without its own dominant media market, the state first got into the public-television business after lawmakers grew frustrated decades ago by how little New Jersey public affairs were being covered by the commercial television stations in New York and Philadelphia. The proposal to start a local-journalism consortium adopts similar logic, but with a modern twist. Supporters maintain revenue from the state’s airwaves windfall should now be repurposed to counteract the drop in local public-interest journalism that’s been occurring amid a decline in the state’s once-robust newspaper industry.

A five-year plan

The consortium bill proposes using $100 million from the windfall to support local public-interest journalism by funding a series of grants that would be distributed by a new consortium to be led by Montclair State University, New Jersey Institute of Technology, Rowan University, and Rutgers University. The $100 million in proposed funding would be provided in $20 million tranches over a five-year period, according to the bill, which is sponsored by key leaders in both the Assembly and Senate. The state funding could be used to help nurture locally focused online news sites and fund the development of tools to help citizens search public data, among other purposes.

Rispoli’s group organized a series of meetings in several communities throughout the state to demonstrate support for the consortium proposal in the run up to the start of the state’s new fiscal year on July 1. A petition signed by more than 2,000 New Jersey residents was also presented to leaders in Trenton in late June as the supporters converged on the State House.

But budget negotiations involving Christie and the top Democrats in Legislature dragged out beyond the constitutional deadline for a new spending plan this year, with issues like school funding and the state’s regulation of its largest insurer, Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield, contributing to the political deadlock. That caused a government shutdown that lasted for three days before ending during the early morning hours of July 4. The shutdown and efforts to end it forced many other issues like the proposed consortium legislation to be pushed to the sidelines, and now little activity is expected to occur in Trenton this summer with the governor’s office and all 120 legislative seats on the November ballot this year.

Setting a new target

Having missed the opportunity to get the full appropriation for the consortium voted on before the 2018 fiscal year started, Rispoli said the new goal for the proposal’s backers is to seek approval from lawmakers for a supplemental-appropriation bill this fall.

Since the original proposal called for a five-year commitment, with funding for the first year in fiscal year 2018 totaling $20 million, the supplemental appropriation would represent just a small fraction of the overall $34.7 billion spending plan that Christie signed into law to end the shutdown.

Yet even if the supporters are able to get the supplemental appropriation through the Legislature this fall, they know it may still end up facing a roadblock in Christie, a second-term Republican who never moved off a position that the airwaves windfall should only be used as revenue to support his own fiscal 2018 spending proposal.

The Christie factor

In fact, Christie has also been trying to convince lawmakers to pass controversial legislation that would no longer require governments in New Jersey to buy legal notices in newspapers to widely disseminate information about items like budgets and bid specifications to general public. Though newspaper publishers say that bill’s passage could lead to even more layoffs in an industry that’s already been hit hard by cutbacks in recent years, many expect Christie will make one last-ditch push to entice lawmakers to enact the legislation again this fall.

Rispoli, however, said backers of the consortium are prepared to continue their effort to win support for a supplemental appropriation for the local-journalism consortium into 2018 when the state’s next governor comes to Trenton.

“We are really proud of what we did already,” Rispoli said. “There is demonstrable support from the public that this is something they care about.”

“While the public may be sometimes critical of the media, they recognize there’s a value it brings to the community and the state,” he said.

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