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  • BOSTON — On Wednesday, Free Press Action’s Heather Franklin testified about Massachusetts’ local-news crisis before a hearing of the state legislature’s Joint Committee on Community Development and Small Businesses. The committee was convened to consider Bill H.181, which would establish a 17-member commission to study journalism in underserved communities across the state.

    “Despite the work of many talented journalists across Massachusetts, media coverage around the commonwealth has declined rapidly,” Franklin told lawmakers. “Since 2004, 15 percent of newspapers in Massachusetts have closed down, while newspaper circulation has declined by 39 percent. For the remaining media outlets, years of mergers and cuts have left newsrooms unable to conduct accountability journalism and public-interest reporting.”

    According to the legislation under consideration, the commission would consist of academics, elected officials and members of press associations, including members of organizations representing African American, Hispanic and Asian American journalists.

    “Studying how the crisis in local journalism is playing out in Massachusetts — and how it disproportionately impacts low-income communities — is a vital first step to building local news and information that Massachusetts communities need and deserve,” Franklin testified.

    She also called on lawmakers to strengthen the legislation in two critical ways:

    “First, the commission established by H.181 would benefit from the perspectives of people who are working with communities impacted by the dearth of local reporting,” Franklin said. “Second, we urge policymakers and others working to strengthen local news to engage the public in conversations around the kinds of reporting their communities need.”

    Through its News Voices initiative, Free Press Action has led efforts to deeply engage newsrooms with the communities they serve in New Jersey, North Carolina and Philadelphia. In 2018, Free Press Action helped develop and ultimately pass the New Jersey Civic Information Bill — groundbreaking legislation to fund local news-and-information initiatives across the state.

    Franklin’s full written testimony is available here (PDF).

  • TRENTON — Gov. Phil Murphy has approved up to $2 million in funding for the New Jersey Civic Information Consortium, a first-of-its-kind nonprofit designed to revive, strengthen and transform local media across the state.

    But the recently signed FY 2020 state budget leaves key questions unanswered about the funding available to support the consortium’s mission of keeping New Jersey residents informed and engaged.

    Funding for the consortium comes from two different sources. The budget appropriates “up to” $1 million in one section, but it’s unclear how much of that amount the Murphy administration will allocate to the consortium.

    The governor has also put on hold an additional $1 million approved by the legislature and will not release that money until the state collects additional revenues. The consortium could see all, part or none of this $1-million line item, depending on what the administration prioritizes in funding as revenues come in to the state.

    The Civic Information Consortium was created in 2018 when lawmakers and the governor approved the Civic Info Bill. At the time, it was hailed nationally as a bold new concept for local journalism and civic engagement, placing New Jersey at the forefront of innovation in local news and information while creating a funding model for other states to follow.

    After Gov. Murphy signed the bill into law last year, he said the $5 million in funding allocated to the consortium was no longer available. Since then, Free Press Action has worked with the governor’s office and legislative leadership to secure funding for this landmark initiative.

    While the funding in the FY 2020 budget falls short of the $5 million pledged last year, the appropriation will potentially allow the consortium to take a necessary first step to invest in projects that will revitalize local news, community information, civic engagement and technology across the state.

    Free Press Action developed the Civic Info Bill by drawing on several years of community input, including ways to ensure the consortium responds to the needs of New Jersey residents and protects the independence of the journalism it funds.

    Free Press Action News Voices Director Mike Rispoli made the following statement:

    “This is a pivotal moment for the future of local journalism not only in New Jersey but across the country. As local-news outlets continue to disappear, innovative thinking and bold action are required to revive, strengthen and transform media to meet the public’s needs. As the first of its kind in the nation, the Civic Information Consortium has the potential to do that in New Jersey, and serve as a model for other states to address their own news crises.

    “Governor Murphy called signing the Civic Info Bill a ‘no-brainer’ and, despite removing funding for the consortium last year, publicly pledged to securing the resources necessary for it to be successful. This year’s budget is a step toward getting the consortium off the ground, and we’re grateful that the governor and lawmakers for two years in a row have approved funding for this historic nonprofit.

    “But, for the second consecutive year, there’s a lack of certainty about the amount of funding available for the consortium to begin its critical work. As the Murphy administration determines its funding priorities as it collects additional revenue, the Civic Information Consortium needs to be at the top of the list.

    “Here’s why: Study after study has shown how the loss of local news harms our communities — and few states have been hit as hard as New Jersey. As each day passes, there are countless communities across the state that are left in the dark about important decisions elected officials are making; left out of discussions about how their tax dollars are being used; and left without information about what’s happening in their local schools.

    “Thousands of people across New Jersey have told us how their communities have suffered from years of media consolidation and neglect: Media conglomerates have stripped local outlets of the resources they need to provide essential news and information to towns and cities across the state.

    “Our state cannot function without a vibrant local-media system. That’s why New Jersey was heralded for creating the Civic Information Consortium last year — it was an official declaration that governments have an essential role in ensuring the local-news crisis doesn’t further harm our communities.

    “It’s vital that Governor Murphy invest the full $2 million set aside for the consortium in this year’s budget. We will continue to work alongside his administration, the legislature and our allies to ensure New Jersey residents have local news that serves their needs.”