The New Jersey News Desert

In recent years the news coverage on WWOR-TV in New Jersey got so bad that local residents started a campaign to have the Federal Communications Commission take away the station’s broadcast license.

And now the station has canceled its remaining newscast. This means the only major commercial broadcaster in New Jersey has no news on its airwaves.

Well, not quite “no news.”

The New York Times reports that WWOR will replace its 10 p.m. news program with a “youthful newsmagazine” featuring a congressional candidate turned real estate executive as the host.

This is the latest development in a long fight that started in 2007. That’s when Voice for New Jersey filed a petition to deny WWOR’s broadcast license renewal. According to the station’s own data, WWOR ran less than three hours of New Jersey news coverage in the first nine months of 2006.

The late Sen. Frank Lautenberg took up the cause and demanded an FCC hearing to address the issue. Free Press was there and helped organize communities to respond. Hundreds of people attended the hearing to weigh in on the lack of local news coverage.

Flash forward six years, and the FCC still hasn’t done anything to fix the problems with WWOR. Public interest lawyer Andrew Jay Schwartzman, who worked with Voice for New Jersey, called the timing of WWOR’s decision, just a month after Sen. Lautenberg’s death, “unseemly.” (Schwartzman is an adviser to Free Press.)

After the hearing, the FCC launched a formal investigation but little else has happened. The agency has failed in its oversight role, even though the people of New Jersey have done everything they could to make their case.

Around the same time as the WWOR fight, the state public media system faced a crisis that saw Gov. Chris Christie strip funding for public broadcasting in the state and sell off the rights for all local public media signals to broadcasters in neighboring states. New Jersey looked as though it was becoming a news desert.

Thankfully, a unique collaboration of nonprofit journalists, public media newsrooms and local papers has formed. The New Jersey News Commons, based at Montclair State University, is trying to rebuild journalism in the state. It's done some terrific editorial collaborations, like a statewide immigration reporting project. (You can hear Debbie Galant, the Commons’ director, talk about news deserts and networked journalism collaborations at the National Conference for Media Reform.)

Unfortunately, New Jersey's only commercial TV station is more focused on the kind of  tabloid transformation Rupert Murdoch has ushered in at many of the newspapers he’s bought. According to the Times, WWOR hopes to apply “the look and feel of an entertainment show like TMZ to politics, business, crime and other topics.”

WWOR is part of a tangled web of TV and print properties that Murdoch owns in New York, and that consolidation should run afoul of the FCC’s media ownership regulations. An old waiver is the only thing that has allowed him to maintain cross-ownership of papers and broadcast stations in the New York City metropolitan area. And right now, lobbyists for Murdoch’s News Corp are pushing the FCC to erode those regulations even further.

The station’s decision to drop its only newscast in exchange for sensational coverage and celebrity gossip is perhaps the clearest sign yet that WWOR has abandoned New Jersey. While New Jersey may have lost one local media champion with the passing of Sen. Lautenberg, Rep. Frank Pallone is stepping up to lead the charge. Responding to the WWOR news, he called on the FCC to revoke the station’s broadcast license.

And according to Politico, Sen. Robert Menendez has written to Acting FCC Chairwoman Mignon Clyburn and asked her to investigate whether WWOR is meeting its public interest obligations. He’s planning to follow up with Tom Wheeler, Obama’s nominee to head the FCC, next week.

Original photo by Flickr user Jonathan Lundqvist

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