A Chance to Invest Millions in the News and Information People Need

Imagine, for a moment, that you were given millions of dollars to better inform your community.

How would you use the money? What kinds of media would you create? What tools would you build?

And — most importantly — what stories would you tell?

There’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity right now to make this a reality and reinvent how our communities and newsrooms interact with each other. But it doesn’t start with developing a new app, writing sensational headlines or advertising that clutters up your screen and tracks your every click. 

Rather, it starts with something we already have and should have a say over: the public airwaves.

Right now the FCC is auctioning off a portion of the public airwaves to free up more bandwidth for mobile data. This auction is expected to result in as much as $50 billion going to broadcasters around the country.

The auction includes noncommercial TV licenses belonging to public TV stations owned by states, local governments and universities. Some licenses will likely fetch hundreds of millions of dollars apiece, and analysts expect public TV channels to receive as much as $6 billion overall.

These are public TV stations using the public airwaves — and the licenses to operate them were handed out decades ago to benefit local communities. Instead of simply putting the auction revenues into state treasuries or university endowments, the funds could be used to establish long-term support for responsive local journalism, community media, civic technology and other projects that serve the public’s information needs.

This money could be used, in other words, to reimagine public media in ways that help communities, amplify previously overlooked voices and tell important stories.

That’s why today Free Press is launching a new campaign — announced on the New York Times Op-Ed page and featured on our revamped NewsVoices.org website — to build the public pressure and political will needed to invest some of the auction proceeds in a fund supporting local journalism and community-information projects.

Planting the seeds in the Garden State

There’s an urgent need for strong local journalism in New Jersey, where we’re kicking off this campaign. When it comes to news coverage, New Jersey is one of the most underserved states. Sandwiched between the New York and Philadelphia media markets, New Jersey receives little coverage of its state and local governments compared to its neighbors.

The state owns some of the most valuable licenses in the country — four public TV licenses that the FCC estimates are worth as much as $2.3 billion.

By dedicating a significant portion of the proceeds to the creation of a public fund — let’s say about $250 million — New Jersey could meet people’s information needs for decades to come.

Through our News Voices project over the last year, we’ve learned how people are craving better information about where they live. We’ve listened to residents’ stories and their concerns that disappearing news coverage has hurt not just an industry but their communities. And journalists have told us about the unrealistic pressures they’re under to do more with less — usually at the expense of building relationships with people who live in the areas they report on.

That’s why this auction is so important. There are 565 municipalities in New Jersey, each with its own information needs. With local media disappearing and consumer habits changing, it’s vital that state lawmakers make a significant investment to ensure these needs are met.

This opportunity is especially crucial for people of color, whom media outlets too often have misrepresented, ignored and harmed. This happens in both big cities, like Atlantic City, Camden, Newark and New Brunswick, and smaller communities like Asbury Park and Morristown. Any fund that is created must prioritize the needs and participation of people of color and other underserved communities.

We have a unique chance to reverse the downward spiral in local journalism and change what it means to cover and listen to communities. A public fund could support a variety of endeavors, including hard-hitting, locally focused investigative journalism; new tools to help the public sift through data; and robust community-engagement projects.

Opportunity in crisis

There are plenty of lawmakers, lobbyists and interest groups in New Jersey moving to get their hands on this money. Lawmakers have already held hearings to discuss how this windfall should be allocated within the state budget.

That’s where you come in: This kind of investment in local journalism and community-information projects will happen only if the public and newsrooms come together to fight for it.

Both the state legislature and the governor need to take action to move this project forward. We have a real shot at securing the money — but only if we act now. If you live in New Jersey, urge your local lawmaker to invest in the media you and your neighbors need.

We’re traveling across the state in the weeks and months ahead to gather input on what the fund should look like and what kinds of projects it could support. We’ll hold community forums to explain the concept of a public fund and invite ideas for how it could be used. We’ll pair our public dialogues with direct advocacy to build awareness and create political pressure to act.

We’re starting off in New Jersey, but we aren’t stopping there. Over the next few weeks, we’ll share more about our plans for organizing in other parts of the country.

We have the chance to ensure that people get the information and journalism they deserve. It’s up to us to act.

Click here to get involved.

People + Policy

= Positive Change for the Public Good

people + policy = Positive Change for the Public Good