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Stalled by Budget Mix-Up, State Funding Now in Offing to Help Local Media

Aim is to foster local journalism in New Jersey and fill the void created by newspaper cutbacks. $5 million in aid is being sought

Reporters

Several weeks after Gov. Phil Murphy signed legislation earmarking $5 million for an innovative media-funding consortium that is trying to boost local journalism in New Jersey, a state budget mix-up has kept the group from getting off the ground.

By all indications, Murphy and lawmakers remain committed to the local-journalism initiative, which is intended to help fill the void created by newspaper cutbacks and other media struggles that have left many communities in New Jersey with little to no local news coverage.

But Murphy said in a recent bill-signing statement that the proposed New Jersey Civic Information Consortium cannot now be funded in the way lawmakers had originally intended because the pot of money they identified as a revenue source has already been committed to other purposes.

Lawmakers have since introduced a new measure that seeks to use the state’s General Fund to provide the consortium with the $5 million in seed money. Supporters of the media initiative — considered to be the first of its kind in the nation — hope to see that bill get to the governor’s desk as soon as possible.

Mike Rispoli
Mike Rispoli of the Free Press Action Fund’s News Voices project

“The only way for the consortium to succeed is if it’s fully funded,” said Mike Rispoli, director of Free Press Action Fund’s News Voices project, which helped organize grassroots support for the proposed consortium.

A nonprofit venture

Under the legislation enacted by Murphy last month, several New Jersey-based colleges and universities would help administer grants that would be awarded to groups proposing ways to bolster local news coverage in the state. They are The College of New Jersey, Montclair State University, New Jersey Institute of Technology, Rowan University and Rutgers University.

The law calls for the consortium to operate as a nonprofit, with a 13-member board consisting of two appointed by the governor, and one each by the leaders of the state Assembly and Senate. The five college and university leaders would also each get to pick a board member, and another four would then be selected by the original group of nine.

The law requires some board members to have backgrounds in media and technology and for there to be overall partisan balance among the 13. Language in the law also stresses that those receiving grants must operate “independently from the influence of the State, a member university, and any other grantor or contributor of funds or outside source.”

Supporters say the consortium would build on efforts launched by the state decades ago when it bought public-broadcasting licenses and created a public-television station in response to lax coverage of New Jersey issues by commercial stations based in New York and Philadelphia.

In fact, the original legislation for the consortium called for the seed money to come out of the more than $300 million the state received in 2017 after participating in a nationwide auction of broadcast airwaves. The auction was held by the federal government as part of an effort to free up more bandwidth for wireless providers; the state sold airwaves tied to stations based in Montclair and Trenton, but kept others based in Camden and New Brunswick to ensure service would not be impacted.

The money went to plug holes in state budget

But nearly all the money the state received from the auction — $332 million — was used by former Gov. Chris Christie’s administration to fill budget holes. That left only $10 million for the state’s Trust Fund for the Support of Public Broadcasting, and all those dollars have since been set aside for other purposes.

“After nearly $322 million in diversions by the previous administration, there was roughly $6.3 million left in the Public Broadcasting Authority fund, nearly all of which is already committed for critical capital needs and emergency repairs,” Treasury spokeswoman Jennifer Sciortino said yesterday.

Earlier this week, Assembly Majority Leader Lou Greenwald (D-Camden) introduced legislation that would direct $5 million from the state’s General Fund to get the consortium up and running. Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) has introduced a Senate version of the bill.

“The administration supports the concept behind the original bill and will review any new proposals by the Legislature,” Sciortino said.

Still, amid the funding uncertainty, Rispoli decided to put Murphy on the spot by calling in to the “Ask Governor Murphy” program that was aired earlier this week by several public-radio stations that broadcast across New Jersey. During their interaction, Murphy told Rispoli he considers the consortium to be a “no-brainer” and urged him to “stay tuned.” The governor also praised “the folks who do journalism the right way, who do the proper primary source research (and) consider all sources.”

“We’ve got to hold that model up; that notion of free press is more important than ever before with all of the noise out there,” Murphy said.

In an interview yesterday, Rispoli said Murphy’s response was encouraging and he also credited the governor for saying “all the right things.” Getting the consortium project this close to the finish line is a major accomplishment for its supporters, added Rispoli. “This is a really big deal,” he said.

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