Op-Ed: Will NJ Remain Trailblazer in Support of Local News?

Josh Stearns | March 13, 2019 | Opinion
Governor signed law creating a ‘Civic Information Consortium’ but the promised $5 million is not in his budget

Josh Stearns
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie cut public broadcasting from the state budget nine years ago, pulling $11 million in state funding for local news and noncommercial media. In response to this, and to the continued struggles of newspapers and commercial media, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation convened philanthropic and journalism stakeholders around the state to develop a bold plan to rebuild the news and information ecosystem in the Garden State. Since then, New Jersey has become a laboratory for the future of news.

Just before leaving office, Christie went a step further, selling a portion of the public airwaves that had been licensed to the state for public TV back to the federal government. The state made $332 million on that deal and rolled most of that money into the general budget.

This sparked a grassroots public campaign calling on the state to dedicate a portion of those dollars to support local news and civic information. Thanks to that activism, in August 2018 the state passed the Civic Information Bill, a first-of-its-kind piece of legislation in the United States. The new law establishes a Civic Information Consortium, and allocates $5 million in funding, to meet the information needs of New Jersey residents, especially in underserved and low-income communities. (Read more about “Why the Civic Info Bill Is Such a Huge Deal.”)

The overwhelming public support for the Civic Information Consortium manifested as broad bipartisan support in the Senate and state Assembly. When the bill passed, it did so with an overwhelming majority of votes from both Republicans and Democrats. The legislation received sweeping national acclaim for its trailblazing approach to funding local news while also protecting it from political influence.

But so far, Gov. Phil Murphy has not allocated the $5 million in the current state budget. That is sowing uncertainty and threatens to slow down the remarkable momentum we are seeing in New Jersey.

Investing in the future of local news

The Democracy Fund has been investing in the New Jersey news ecosystem for about five years, through efforts led by the Dodge Foundation. Our investments have focused on supporting new business models for local news, community engagement efforts to rebuild trust between communities and journalists, and fostering more collaboration between newsrooms in service to the diverse communities across New Jersey. In addition, Democracy Fund Voice, a 501(c)(4) sister organization to the Democracy Fund, supported some of the advocacy and lobbying campaigns that made the Civic Information Bill possible.

At a time when trust in national media is dramatically low, a remarkable number of New Jersey residents called their lawmakers, attended events and lifted up their voices in support of local news. The public interest group Free Press, whose NJ News Voices campaign has been connecting newsrooms and communities across the state, helped to ensure the bill included strong checks and balances that protect the journalism from undue political influence. New Jersey’s colleges and universities, including the College of New Jersey, Montclair State University, the New Jersey Institute of Technology, Rowan University and Rutgers University, rallied around the bill, understanding the role that campuses can play in fostering innovation and problem-solving in local communities. This remarkable movement was built on years of investments in local journalism by the Dodge Foundation.

Five million dollars may seem like a small win, but the dollars and the process to get them are both meaningful not only as a catalyst for innovation in local news, but because they represent a new social contract between journalists and the people of New Jersey. The bill, and the consortium it established, create a new infrastructure for supporting innovation and experimentation in the state which can be built upon and expanded in future years. It has also served to change the discussion about new models for local news, opening up space to imagine new and different modes of public support.

Since the inception of public broadcasting 50 years ago, we have seldom seen new policies that support media and civic information, protect press freedom and independence like this. A healthy democracy requires access to reliable, diverse, local news sources. Citizens and interested parties need the news to help them make informed decisions when doing their civic duties like voting or running for public office. That’s why foundations, journalists and lawmakers around the country have their eyes on New Jersey — a state rich with opportunity for enhancing local news and democratic civic engagement.

Gov. Murphy should respond to the passion and energy of thousands of New Jersey residents who advocated for this Civic Information Consortium and deliver on the promise the state made when it passed the bill. Funding the Civic Information Consortium is not just an investment in local news, it is also a down payment towards a healthy democracy.