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On March 28, I testified before the New Jersey Assembly Budget Committee about the Civic Info Bill, which would strengthen local media throughout the state. My testimony follows below.

Good morning Chairwoman Pintor-Marin and members of the Assembly Budget Committee. My name is James Thompson. I live in Gloucester Township, New Jersey, and I was raised in this great state in Camden and Gloucester Counties. I’m an organizer for Free Press Action Fund, a nonprofit media-advocacy organization that fights for everyone’s rights to connect and communicate.

I’m here to respectfully request your support for A-3628, the Civic Info Bill. This bill would create the New Jersey Civic Information Consortium, a 501c3 public charity that would help innovate and transform the way that we get our local news and information here in New Jersey.

The consortium is a joint initiative of five of the state’s leading public higher-education institutions — The College of New Jersey, Montclair State, New Jersey Institute of Technology, Rowan University and Rutgers University — which would work in partnership with tech innovators, journalists and community groups. The consortium would be funded by a $20-million appropriation.

News and civic information are critical to our democracy and having trusted sources of information is just as important. Currently there are many cities, boroughs and towns in our state that have little to no local coverage at all. In the absence of trusted news sources, fake news has filled the void.

I believe that the Civic Information Consortium would help temper the proliferation of fake news by providing residents with timely and relevant news and information on important issues facing their communities.

Over the past 12 months, Free Press Action Fund has held 10 forums with residents in Camden, Hackensack, Newark, New Brunswick and other communities throughout the state. Residents at each of our forums talked about how the absence of local news coverage has harmed their communities.

People told us that they want information that they could rely on to participate more fully in their communities and to combat problems like fake news. Participants in many forums recommended that the consortium fund media-literacy curricula and workshops to help residents become discerning media users who could distinguish between accurate sources and fake ones.

This wasn’t the only idea we heard from residents around the state.

Forum participants also proposed creating mini-grants for independent journalists to provide in-depth coverage on underreported issues; civic information institutes that would provide residents with information on how local governments and school systems really work; and the establishment of an “AmeriCorps for journalists,” which could provide two-year fellowships for young and promising journalists to report on under-covered communities and communities of color.

These are just some of the ideas that we have heard from your constituents. But I would also like to emphasize that our communities of color are important as well. This bill would also help raise up voices in communities of color, which have been underserved for way too long, by funding projects that would give residents the ability to tell their own stories.

As the legislature develops the state budget for the next fiscal year, I urge you to support and fund A-3628 and give our residents the news and information that they need and deserve. Thank you.

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