State Antes Up Funding for Local Journalism Project After Long Delay

Ron Marsico | February 11, 2020 | More Issues
A nonprofit information consortium hopes to foster civic engagement and help to fill the gap caused by decimation of news industry
Credit: Brano Hudak via FreeImages
Print reporting in New Jersey and elsewhere has been decimated by staggering newsroom cutbacks.

When Gov. Phil Murphy released the first $1 million last month for a project to support local journalism by seeking an increased flow of information and boost to civic engagement, it was a relief to supporters.

Their goal of journalism in the local public interest — funded by public dollars from New Jersey’s state coffers — had been stalled since 2018 by budget issues and spending priorities in Trenton.

While some dreamed of $100 million or more going to the nonprofit New Jersey Civic Information Consortium following the state’s $332 million take from a 2017 nationwide auction of broadcast airwaves, the state outlay is for a far more modest sum: $2 million.

“New Jersey was the first state to say we need to take action to make sure people and communities have the information they need,’’ said Mike Rispoli, director of the national Free Press Action Fund’s News Voices project, which coordinated local lobbying efforts to create the consortium in 2018. “It’s not sustainable with (just) $2 million. But it’s a good start.’’

Journalism — particularly print reporting — in New Jersey and throughout the country has been decimated by staggering newsroom cutbacks in the 21st century, as traditional media profits have sunk in the digital age. The Civic Information Consortium would provide grants to support local journalism, civic engagement and increasing the flow of information to communities — particularly those in disadvantaged areas — with little or no media presence.

What’s been lost: jobs and revenue

The impact in New Jersey of newspaper cuts has been magnified by the Garden State’s lack of a major commercial television station’s news presence, given the state’s wedged position between the larger New York and Philadelphia broadcast markets. Top state newspapers, including The Star-Ledger, The Record and Asbury Park Press, have endured huge editorial staff losses amid slashed ad revenues, downsizing and ownership changes.

“The purpose of the consortium is to advance research and innovation in the field of media and technology to benefit the state’s civic life and evolving information need,’’ according to the language in the legislation.

Consortium efforts to administer grants will be assisted by Rutgers University, College of New Jersey, Rowan University, Montclair State University and New Jersey Institute of Technology. (NJ Spotlight and its sister organization NJTV News would be eligible to apply for local reporting grants.)

A 15-member board of directors will run the consortium and set criteria for grant awards. The board would include two gubernatorial, four legislative and five higher-education appointees, as well as representatives of community groups, the media and technology sectors.

Chris Daggett, who championed financial help for local reporting during his eight-year tenure as president and CEO of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, said much work needs to be done to get the consortium up and running now with the initial $1 million earmark.

“We’re all trying to sort it out,’’ said Daggett, who is seeking a short timeframe before the first grants are awarded. “The hope is certainly by the end of the fiscal year in June. But I’m only one member of the board.’’

Daggett, who unsuccessfully advocated for using the state’s entire $332 million windfall from the airwaves’ sale for the consortium, will be Montclair State University’s board appointee.

It’s ‘about democracy’

“This, for me, is about democracy,’’ added Daggett.

The measure received widespread support in a letter to the governor and leading lawmakers before passage. Signatories included the League of Women Voters of New Jersey, New Jersey Policy Perspective, the Hispanic American Political Action Committee, Anti-Poverty Network of NJ, Action 21 Immigrants Rights Advocacy Group and the Alliance for Media Arts and Culture.

To help ensure editorial independence while using state funding, the law requires grant recipients work “independently from the influence of the state, a member university, and any other grantor or contributor of funds or outside source.’’

“The idea of public funding for media is not new — it has existed in this country for more than 50 years,’’ said Rispoli of the Free Press Action Fund, citing the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) and National Public Radio (NPR) as well-regarded models.

“I do not think there is one best model for journalism,’’ continued Rispoli, who would like the consortium to focus on informing “underserved and marginalized communities’ throughout the Garden State. “But I think we need to be having serious conversations about the use of public money in local news coverage.’’

In the wake of the print media’s meltdown, nonprofit journalism initiatives — funded by media centers, good-government charities and individuals concerned about the erosion of a watchdog press — have been on the rise over the past 15 years.

Nationally, for example, ProPublica has focused on investigative reporting, while starting a statewide version in Illinois and funding local reporting projects in various other states.

Advocates of the Civic Information Consortium say New Jersey’s efforts have sparked interest in public funding for local news coverage in other states, including Colorado, Ohio and Massachusetts.

 ‘A very noble idea,’ but…

Some, however, harbor doubts about the consortium’s prospects, despite its high-minded purpose.

Carl Golden, who served as a spokesman for former Govs. Tom Kean and Christie Whitman and previously was a newspaper reporter with the long-defunct Newark Evening News, questioned whether the initiative could obtain enough state funds to make a significant difference.

“It sounds like a very noble idea,’’ said Golden, recalling Kean’s support while in the Assembly for funding public television in the 1970s. “I just don’t know how impactful it’s going to be.’’

For Golden, who noted publicly funding media always has had some detractors in New Jersey, the larger issue is how much money would be eventually appropriated for the consortium given other pressing project and policy priorities among lawmakers.

Golden added, “In the competition for tax dollars, that’s not going to rank very high.’’ (Golden is a regular columnist for NJ Spotlight.)

Josh Stearns, a consortium proponent in his role as director of the Public Square Program at the national Democracy Fund, acknowledged the modest level of seed funding and the need for continued lobbying efforts to gain more. But he said he views the initial outlay and process to create the consortium as a catalyst for enhanced support and interaction between community residents and journalists.

“I think that’s the start of a new public contract,’’ said Stearns. “This is a new era of recognition of the role journalism plays in our democracy … I think we need to have an open mind of what’s going to propel the future of journalism. I think it’s a multi-faceted strategy.’’