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Six years ago, Free Press launched the News Voices project in New Jersey to work with local communities to figure out how journalism could serve them in better and more responsive ways.

Our belief is that an activated and people-powered constituency is a necessary ingredient to transform local journalism and reshape how communities stay informed and engaged.

This requires two interwoven strategies: building collaborative, community-powered media projects to meet needs and fill in coverage gaps, and mobilizing broad coalitions to dream up and win public policies that can sustain those projects.

Today, the landmark New Jersey Civic Information Consortium — which came to life thanks to thousands of New Jerseyans taking action to dedicate public funding for more informed communities — announced its first round of grantees. A total of 14 vital initiatives will receive grants of up to $35,000.

This is a moment of celebration — for a first-of-its-kind model to reimagine public media, and for the incredible grantees who will have resources to better inform people and solve deep-rooted issues in local media. To learn more about the grantees, go here.

The path here

The concept of the consortium has been ambitious from the start. Free Press Action, along with many allies, dreamed up this entirely new idea for public funding for media and organized a statewide campaign to pass legislation that would create a grantmaking body from scratch.

And the campaign we led to pass the Civic Info Bill faced many obstacles over the years — from getting lawmakers and skeptical journalists on board, to organizing communities who were rightfully hesitant to believe local media could be different, to building the political will within New Jersey’s statehouse to take a long-shot idea and turn it into reality. Not to mention that even after the bill passed by an overwhelming bipartisan majority, dedicated funding for it was pulled, then reduced, then pulled again, before the state allocated public funds to the consortium.

The perseverance of those committed to making this dream a reality — dozens of community allies, dedicated journalists, thought leaders like former journalist and public-media executive Chris Satullo, university partners like the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University, legislative champions like Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg and Assembly Majority Leader Lou Greenwald, and the thousands of people who supported the bill — helped push past all these obstacles and the naysayers.

We’re proud to see several of our longtime partners listed as grant recipients. Projects like the Bloomfield Information Project, Newark News and Story Collaborative and Stories of Atlantic City didn’t exist when we started the Civic Info Bill campaign, and came to be as a result of years-long grassroots organizing. They, along with the other consortium grantees, represent the future of New Jersey local news — creative community-led projects that will serve and activate those who have been harmed or ignored by mainstream legacy media.

These projects represent exactly why we started this campaign years ago, and in many ways exceed our wildest dreams of the impact the consortium could have.

A moment of reflection, a call to action

Any conversation about the “future of journalism” must include honest discussions about why the media system we have now exists.

Wealth and power inequities in our media system — inextricably linked to systemic racism going back to slavery in this country — have erected barriers that prevent people from being able to freely access, create and disseminate information. Bad public policy, resource-hoarding corporations and racist media coverage have harmed communities. Millions of people — disproportionately in Black and Brown communities — do not have a local-news source that reflects their experiences or speaks their language; they cannot access broadband internet at home; and they lack basic information that could help keep them safe, healthy and engaged in civic life.

These are serious, deeply rooted problems that call on all of us who work in media, community engagement and public policy to stop tinkering around the edges. When it comes to truly transforming media, we need to be ambitious, dream big and have a plan. That will require both cultural change within newsrooms and designing and winning public policies that will build a new media infrastructure that helps grow, support and sustain community-led projects.

So yes, let’s give journalists the tools to collaborate and build trust with the public. Let’s train newsrooms to be antiracist. Let’s build community capacity to create media. And we will need to organize so these new models of doing journalism — and the communities they serve — inform policies to make big innovative ideas like the Civic Info Consortium a reality.

What News Voices has been able to do in New Jersey can serve as a model of how an organized constituency of journalists and non-journalists alike is necessary to build an entirely new news-and-information infrastructure.

The consortium is one example of a policy that is rooted in and responsive to the communities it serves. And we’re seeing efforts pop up in statehouses and in Congress to address the local-news crisis and encourage innovative models.

For a long time, many have pointed out how our media system is overly reliant on commercial outlets that prioritize profits over people. This system was encouraged by specific policies that led to rapid consolidation and ownership that remains disproportionately white and male. Only structural solutions can adequately remedy these structural problems.

Solutions to the local-news crisis must pair bold policy with the abundance of inspiring new media models across the country, initiatives like City Bureau, Documented, El Tímpano, Outlier Media, Resolve Philly and the inaugural grantees of the Civic Info Consortium.

Initiatives like these are starting to build local media that actually listen to, serve and collaborate with communities that historically have been left out of journalism. Lawmakers need to look to these forward-thinking, community-based efforts when looking to do something about the local-news crisis.

Any progress we’re seeing is fragile.

We’re seeing corporate media lobby public officials hard to ensure that any policy centers their needs and preserves their bottom lines, ahead of the needs of the communities they’re charged with serving. Just as newsrooms can’t reinvent how they do their work without community engagement and participation, policymakers cannot adequately address the local-news crisis if they listen only to people representing the industry that created the mess we’re in.

The consortium’s success is critical to holding the old guard at bay so an entirely new media infrastructure can be designed and built. The state of New Jersey must continue to fund it, and private dollars must be dedicated to ensure the consortium’s sustainability. In New Jersey, other states and at the federal level, we should be building on and improving the New Jersey model. We must continue to dream up, push for and enact policies that foster new kinds of local news. And we must pay journalists fair and livable wages, support their well-being with equitable policies and transition to a system that prioritizes community needs over Wall Street stakeholders.

What happened in New Jersey can happen elsewhere. We can see an entirely different new media model on the horizon, and it’s going to require an organized, sustained effort that doesn’t just dream up new types of reporting, but entirely new policies.

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