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TRENTON — On Monday, Free Press Action Fund News Voices Director Mike Rispoli will testify before the Senate Higher Education Committee on behalf of the Civic Info Bill (S2317/A3628). The legislation would create a public fund to invest millions of dollars in innovative projects designed to revive local news coverage, community and municipal information, and civic engagement across New Jersey.

Lawmakers introduced the bill last year after New Jersey received $332 million from the auction of the state’s two main public-TV stations, WNJN and WNJT. The legislature missed an opportunity to pass the bill in 2017, but thanks to an outpouring of public support, lawmakers revived the Civic Info Bill this year.

The 2018 version of the Civic Info Bill is accompanied by a budget resolution that allocates millions of dollars as seed investment in the state's FY 2019 budget. Additional money will be allocated in subsequent years to ensure effective administration of the original investment.

“This could not come at a more urgent time. Despite the good work of many talented journalists across New Jersey, media coverage around the state has been declining rapidly this past decade,” Rispoli will say as part of his prepared testimony. “Thousands of newsroom jobs have been lost. Dozens of media outlets have closed down. Many are on the verge of collapse. Promising startups are on unstable financial footing. Huge parts of the state go days, weeks, or months with no news coverage whatsoever.”

If passed, the law would help improve the quantity and quality of information in New Jersey communities, which would benefit longstanding and startup news outlets alike while also launching statewide media-literacy and civic-engagement programs. It would also provide grants to support the information needs of the state’s low-income communities and communities of color.

Last month people across New Jersey met up with their state lawmakers to urge support for the legislation. Thousands more have written letters and called Trenton in favor of the Civic Info Bill.

Rispoli’s full written testimony appears below:

Testimony of Mike Rispoli in Support of the New Jersey Civic Information Consortium
Bill S2317

Chairwoman Cunningham, members of the committee, thank you for giving me this opportunity to speak.

My name is Mike Rispoli, and I am the state director for Free Press Action Fund, a nonpartisan, nonprofit media and technology advocacy organization that fights for the public’s right to connect and communicate. I am a lifelong resident of Monmouth County, and am a former reporter with Gannett newspapers and the Star-Ledger.

I am testifying today in support of Bill S2317, which would create the New Jersey Civic Information Consortium. This consortium would be a joint initiative among five higher-education institutions  The College of New Jersey, Montclair State University, the New Jersey Institute of Technology, Rowan University and Rutgers University. It would invest in ideas to strengthen local news, community information, municipal technology and civic engagement across New Jersey.

The New Jersey Civic Information Consortium would be the first of its kind in the nation  a fund that would help us reimagine what public interest media looks like in the 21st century. It could invest in meeting the information needs of residents around New Jersey, especially in underserved communities and low-income communities.

The grants from the Consortium would go to community organizations, media outlets, technologists, and others  all of whom would be matched with a partner university to provide research, expertise, and other resources.

This could not come at a more urgent time. Despite the good work of many talented journalists across New Jersey, media coverage around the state has been declining rapidly this past decade. Thousands of newsroom jobs have been lost. Dozens of media outlets have closed down. Many are on the verge of collapse. Promising startups are on unstable financial footing. Huge parts of the state go days, weeks, or months with no news coverage whatsoever.

The local news crisis in New Jersey isn’t just bad news for the journalism industry. It’s bad news for the future of our communities.

Studies have shown that when local news is deficient or disappears altogether, it is the public who suffers. In cities where local news has vanished, government costs have increased due to a lack of scrutiny over deals and contracts. It’s been shown that when a local media outlet closes, civic engagement drops.

And it’s been found that every dollar spent on producing news produces hundreds of dollars toward the public’s benefit.

The dwindling amount of quality, trustworthy, and basic information is deeply felt by people across New Jersey. For the past three years, my group Free Press Action Fund has held dozens of meetings and forums around the state. We’ve heard from people with a variety of backgrounds, ethnicities and political affiliations. And they’ve all told us the same thing: Media consolidation has harmed their communities. And they feel disconnected from what is happening around them and in the state.

Here are some of the things some of your constituents told us:

Carrie from Jersey City said, “Local news is vital to democracy and to thriving communities. ”

Alexandria of Paterson said, “The constituents of New Jersey deserve media that is locally-based and informative.”

Rose from East Rutherford said, “The public needs to know what is going on locally, not just nationally. This bill will keep citizens engaged and participating in the civic process.”

By passing S2317, you would help New Jersey move out from the shadows of New York and Philadelphia and help your constituents get the news and information they need to better participate in their community and democracy. I urge you to support this bill, and I thank you for allowing me this time to speak to you today regarding this important issue.

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