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TRENTON — This week, Free Press Action New Jersey Organizer James L. Thompson will testify before the state’s legislative budget committees about the need to fully fund the Civic Info Consortium.

This innovative nonprofit, which Free Press Action conceived of, would ensure New Jersey residents have access to quality news and information about their communities. The bill establishing the consortium passed the state legislature with overwhelming bipartisan support in 2018 and was signed into law by Gov. Murphy. But while the governor dedicated $5 million for the consortium in the state’s FY 2019 budget, he later said that the earmarked funds were not available.

Last week, Gov. Murphy released his proposed FY 2020 budget, which includes $1 million in funding for the consortium. This is a positive step forward, but without the full $5 million allotment the consortium won’t be able to fulfill its critical mission.

Here is the testimony Free Press Action’s James L. Thompson will deliver before the Assembly Budget Committee on Wednesday and the Senate Budget Committee on Thursday:

My name is James Thompson. I live in Lindenwold, New Jersey, and I was raised in Camden and Gloucester Counties. I’m an organizer for Free Press Action, a nonprofit media-advocacy organization that fights for everyone’s rights to connect and communicate.

I’m here to respectfully request your support to fully fund the Civic Information Consortium in the FY 2020 budget, with a $5 million allocation. The consortium, the first of its kind in the nation, is a partnership between the College of New Jersey, Montclair State University, the New Jersey Institute of Technology, Rowan University and Rutgers University. It would invest in innovative local-news and civic-information projects that keep residents informed about their local communities.

The statehouse passed the bill creating the consortium with wide bipartisan support last year. We thank you for your support.

The bill’s passage drew national attention, and made New Jersey a model for other states facing the disappearance of local news. However, when the bill was signed into law by Gov. Murphy, he removed the $5 million allocated in the FY 2019 budget. The consortium can’t get off the ground and carry out its mission to strengthen news and information in our communities without this funding.

As some of you may know, New Jersey is facing a local-news crisis. Thousands of journalists have been laid off, newsrooms have shut down, and rampant media consolidation has dramatically reduced local coverage. All of these factors have left state residents without the information they need to better understand their communities, their neighbors, and their local governments.

Since the consortium was signed into law, there have been signs that it’s needed now more than ever.

Earlier this year, Digital First Media tried to purchase Gannett, the largest newspaper owner in New Jersey. Digital First is notorious for gutting newsrooms, censoring journalists and slashing local coverage.

While Gannett rejected this bid, Digital First Media keeps trying to purchase New Jersey’s largest distributor of news, so it’s clear that the vultures are circling. The threat of continued media consolidation looms, and it’s safe to say that there will be more cutbacks in local newsrooms in the months and years ahead.

For example: South Jersey television station SJN Today has announced that it will be eliminating its nightly newscast and cutting 20 newsroom jobs. This adds to the thousands of New Jersey journalists who have lost jobs over the past decade, a trend that’s only accelerating with time.

Some promising local-news startups have emerged in the state, but their path to economic sustainability is unclear. Through the seed money, partnerships, models and evaluation the consortium could provide, such startups could flourish, giving residents the news they need to stay informed and engaged.

We have the opportunity here in New Jersey to become the national model for how to address the local-news crisis affecting so many communities around the country. Gov. Murphy signaled in his proposed FY 2020 budget that he’s willing to dedicate $1 million in funding for the consortium. While this is a promising sign, without the full funding of $5 million the consortium won’t have the impact intended when you and others in the legislature passed the bill creating this historic nonprofit.

I respectfully urge you to fully fund the Civic Information Consortium at $5 million to ensure that New Jersey residents get the news and civic information they need and deserve. Thank you.


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