In a landmark moment for the future of local news, on Sunday night New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy approved dedicating $5 million to the Civic Information Consortium, a first-of-its-kind nonprofit with a mission to revive, strengthen and transform media in New Jersey.
The Civic Info Bill, which Free Press Action Fund conceived, passed the statehouse with strong bipartisan support and is on Gov. Murphy’s desk awaiting his signature.
The decision to fund the creation of the consortium marks a historic victory for all people across New Jersey. And it wouldn’t have happened without the thousands of people who took action over the course of nearly two years in support of the Civic Info Bill.
After suffering the effects of years of media consolidation and deficient local news, people decided to take action to ensure the civic health of their communities. The people who supported this campaign showed that they’re not content with being treated merely as “news consumers.”
Instead, this campaign created a constituency to support local news, and that constituency helped shepherd in a new vision for community-rooted, inclusive media.
A people-powered victory
Some of the best journalism around is being produced in New Jersey. The statehouse press corps’ round-the-clock reporting during final state budget negotiations is one example of that.
But while news outlets of all sizes are still producing quality journalism in the state, many communities around New Jersey are left in the dark. We’ve seen thousands of newsroom layoffs and dozens of outlets shutting down due to media consolidation. Our state is also in the shadow of the New York and Philadelphia media markets.
Something needed to change.
People rely on locally produced news and information to engage with their neighbors, learn about volunteer opportunities, make decisions about voting, run for public office, get information about small businesses and support our children in local schools. But studies have shown that when news coverage disappears, people are less informed, civic participation drops and political corruption increases.
That’s why the consortium will be set up as a public charity that will invest millions of dollars in innovative projects designed to strengthen local news coverage, community and municipal information, and civic engagement across New Jersey. It will be a collaboration among five of the state’s leading public higher-education institutions: The College of New Jersey, Montclair State University, the New Jersey Institute of Technology, Rowan University and Rutgers University.
Legislation initially met skepticism
Despite the real effects on communities when local news is insufficient or absent altogether, Free Press Action Fund encountered a lot of doubt when we launched our campaign to strengthen local journalism in New Jersey.
When we started this campaign 18 months ago, the landmark legislation was labeled a pipe dream, an impossible task, a hopeless campaign.
We were told that people didn’t care enough about local news to make it a political issue. We were told that the public’s stories didn’t matter. We were told that lawmakers would never take action to support local news. We were told that a grassroots campaign to strengthen local news coverage around the state would take years to bring to fruition, if it happened at all.
But the more we engaged the public, the more we heard residents express a real desire to do something about the local news crisis in New Jersey. We listened to their concerns, and we took their ideas on how to better inform their communities seriously. In turn, we collaborated on ways to create a local media system that was responsive to their needs.
People signed petitions; they showed up at the 10 public forums we held around the state. They called their lawmakers, they visited their representatives’ offices and they participated in lobby days at the statehouse.
They proved all the naysayers wrong. The dedication of millions of dollars to support the future of media in New Jersey is because of their work. And it shows the public has a lot more value to offer local news outside of being subscribers or paying for content.
A model for the nation
Never before has a state taken the lead to address the growing crisis in local news.
Trustworthy local journalism is the lifeblood of democracy; it allows people to participate meaningfully in decisions regarding local elections, public schools and policy decisions.
New Jersey is one of many states that has seen traditional ways of delivering news and information to communities erode away in the past decade. By providing a seed investment to the consortium, New Jersey is leading the way on how to keep the public informed and engaged. In reimagining what public-interest media looks like, and who it speaks to and represents, the state is now a model for the rest of the nation.
We’re grateful for the support of lawmakers like Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, Assembly Majority Leader Lou Greenwald and all the other sponsors of this historic legislation. And we thank Gov. Murphy for dedicating millions of dollars to launch the Civic Information Consortium.
Now we need to get to work. Free Press Action Fund will ensure that the consortium fulfills its mission of strengthening local journalism and fostering community engagement. With this initial investment of $5 million, we will work with the public, allies, journalists, lawmakers and others to get it off the ground, attract additional funding, hear how the consortium can support communities across the state and — most importantly — implement a new vision for local news in New Jersey.