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TRENTON — On Thursday, Free Press Action Senior Director of Journalism Policy Mike Rispoli testified before New Jersey’s Senate Budget Committee regarding Gov. Phil Murphy’s proposal to invest $2 million in state funding in the Civic Information Consortium, a groundbreaking program that supports local news-and-information initiatives.

The consortium, which funded its inaugural round of local projects in 2021, is the result of years-long efforts by Free Press Action and New Jersey allies to engage local journalists, organizers, universities, advocates, residents and lawmakers to support public funding for journalism and civic information.

The $2 million Gov. Murphy set aside doubles funding for this effort over the previous fiscal year. Lawmakers in other states are looking at the Civic Information Consortium as a model for how public policies can foster local journalism that centers community needs.

Rispoli also serves as a board member of the consortium. The following is his full testimony: 

“Chairman Sarlo, members of the committee: Thank you for the opportunity to speak today. My name is Mike Rispoli, senior director of journalism policy at Free Press Action, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that since 2015 has worked with New Jersey’s residents, journalists, university researchers and lawmakers to address the state’s persistent and accelerating local-news crisis. 

“I’m speaking today to request the legislature’s continued support for the New Jersey Civic Information Consortium, an independent nonprofit and higher-education collaborative created by the state to invest public funding into quality local journalism and promising media startups. The $2 million allocated for the consortium in Gov. Murphy’s proposed budget will lead to more informed and engaged communities. We ask that you include the $2 million in your proposed FY 2023 budget.

“New Jersey has been hit especially hard by the local-news crisis, with the loss of thousands of jobs at media outlets and dozens of newsrooms closing in the past two decades.

“But this isn’t about the woes of one industry. Study after study has shown that when local news declines or disappears, the effects on our democracy are profound: Fewer people vote, volunteer, run for public office or feel connected to their community. Local government spending and political polarization increase when there’s little-to-no local-news presence. We hear how everyone gets their news from Facebook, but a 2019 study found that two-thirds of New Jersey Facebook users live in a place where fewer than five news articles about their town are produced each month — twice the national average. Right now, many of your constituents have little-to-no information that can keep them locally connected, healthy and civically engaged. 

“In 2021 — the consortium’s first active year — it invested half a million dollars of public funding to promising and innovative media projects in every corner of the state, including communities many of you represent like Blairstown, Newark, Old Bridge and Princeton, and other BIPOC, immigrant, poor and rural communities which have been shown to be among the least served by media in the state. The projects funded by the consortium focused on expanding access to public health and COVID-19 information, making government more transparent and accountable to the public, and diversifying journalism’s pipeline so that the reporters serving New Jersey’s communities better represent the beautiful diversity of our state.

“In the next month, the consortium, where I also serve as a board member, will give out nearly $1 million in additional funding to new and existing grantees. This new round of funding is a sign of how great the need is and how effective the model created by the state has been in addressing the local-news crisis. In fact, the consortium is inspiring other similar legislation in states like California, Massachusetts and New York.

“With the $2 million in funding proposed in Gov. Murphy’s budget, the consortium can dedicate more money to strengthening local media in New Jersey and ensuring that the state’s residents have the news and information they need to thrive. I hope you continue to support this groundbreaking effort and include $2 million for the consortium in your FY2023 budget. 

“Thank you for your consideration and continued support for this innovative and impactful initiative. If you have any questions about the consortium and how your community can get involved, I hope you reach out to us. Thank you again.”

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