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The Fate of Net Neutrality Hinges on the House

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The response has been gratifying, with media industry watchers and members of the public celebrating this win for more informed and engaged communities.

The state legislature late last month approved a bill to set up the New Jersey Civic Information Consortium. This nonprofit will help develop and provide seed money to innovative ideas to improve local news and civic information across the Garden State. A $5 million stake to begin the nonprofit’s work was included in the state budget signed by Gov. Phil Murphy, though Murphy has not yet signed the enabling legislation.

One of the prime sponsors of the bill, the Assembly’s Democratic majority leader, Lou Greenwald explained why the legislation passed both the New Jersey Assembly and Senate by healthy bipartisan majorities:

“Local news is the lifeblood of a community. It adds local context to stories and keeps those in power accountable. Supporting it is undoubtedly in the public's best interest."

The bill’s passage came after an energetic two-year effort by the Free Press Action Fund and Free Press’ News Voices: New Jersey initiative, which held 10 public forums across the state to test the concept and gather ideas on what New Jerseyans would like to see such a fund do.

The Press of Atlantic City’s managing editor, Buzz Keough, wrote in an Op-Ed that the bill’s passage came after an intense grassroots campaign, which gave community members a voice in conversations about the importance of supporting local news and information.

“It was good to see the efforts of Free Press pay off in a big way. Building their case over several years of barnstorming across the state, the group used their discussions among media, leaders and residents to convince people to no longer just consume news, but to advocate for local journalism.”

Media observers across the nation hailed the bill’s passage as groundbreaking:

“Wow,” said Jay Rosen, noted media critic from New York University, in a series of tweets. “Not the $ amount, which is modest, but the concept, which is not. This is like a wind that blew on one direction for 35 years. Then one day in July the trees start bending the other way.”

“I’m speechless,” tweeted Josh Stearns of the Democracy Fund, a foundation that supported the civic engagement effort in New Jersey and journalism around the country. “Make no mistake, this victory is the result of thousands of NJ residents standing up for local news. That’s a message we need now more than ever.”

Marlee Baldridge from Harvard’s Nieman Foundation wrote that the consortium was “an official statement that communities’ information voids are a problem worthy of government attention.”

Brian Stelter, CNN’s senior media correspondent and host of Reliable Sources, wrote about the national implications of the New Jersey model. “What if every state in the union provided some seed money for local journalism — as a way to rebuild some of what's been lost through years of budget cuts and layoffs? That's what New Jersey is on the verge of doing.”

Jan Schaffer, ombudsman for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the founder of the journalism incubator J-Lab, wrote “years of effort went into local news advocates in New Jersey winning a share of the public television auction proceeds. If others want to follow in their footsteps, the time to start is now.”

Mike Rispoli, head of News Voices: New Jersey and the person who spearheaded the campaign for the bill, stressed that the legislation received such broad, enthusiastic support from the state’s residents for two reasons: First, they know their state has long been an underserved afterthought of the New York and Philadelphia media markets; and second, they’ve noticed an upsurge in independent digital news operations and grassroots storytellers across New Jersey and want to see that sustained and spread.

Rispoli acknowledges the $5 million amount is less than was originally hoped and not nearly enough needed to address fully the local news crisis in New Jersey. But, he told NJ Pen, this initial investment by the state is not the end of the story:

“We designed the consortium as a public charity so it could raise funds outside of that initial investment. For it to be long-term, to be more impactful, to reach as many communities across the state as possible, we want to be able to raise more money past this initial investment.”

He also notes that the goals of the fund will extend beyond local news gathering to other aspects of civic information: “This is really about identifying the needs of communities when it comes to news, and then investing in that need. It might be civic technology; it might be civic literacy.”

As with any idea that’s novel and innovative, some misconceptions have arisen as people across the nation react to news of the bill’s passage.

It might be useful to address a few of them one by one.

Misconception No. 1: Government funding of news media is unprecedented

Since the 1960s, the federal government has supported public broadcast media, including PBS and NPR, through allocations to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. A number of state and local governments have supported their PBS and NPR stations as well.

And the public likes the journalism public media produces. A recent poll found that three out of four Americans support maintaining or increasing federal support for public television, including two out of every three Republicans.

Misconception No. 2: Government support will lead funded news outlets to “pull their punches” or, worse, peddle the official line of those in power

The New Jersey Civic Info Consortium will have operating rules and a professional staff that will act as a buffer between media producers and anyone seeking to influence content for political purposes.

The legislation states that grantees, “shall be independent from the influence of the State, a member university, and any other grantor or contributor of funds or outside source; and any grantor or other contributor of funds to the grantee shall acknowledge in writing the grantor’s or contributor’s understanding that the grant or donation does not entitle the grantor or contributor to dictate or influence the content of any work the grantee produces or may produce.”

Content produced through the public-media system has often proved to be bold, creative and of high quality. Government funding of media helped bring America programs such as NOVA, The NewsHour, Fresh Air, This American Life and Radiolab. Public-media programs such as Frontline and Reveal go hard after investigative stories.

The structure of the consortium was also set up to insulate it from outside influence. The consortium will have a staff that oversees day to day operations, meaning that political appointees won’t have any say in the everyday functions of the organization. And even though the 15-member board of the consortium will have state appointees, they do not have a majority and the board is primarily made of representatives from universities, media, technology, and New Jersey communities.

Every good working journalist has to learn to tune out outside pressures seeking to shape the news. Such pressures are not unique to public media. In commercial media, the pressure not to offend the interests of advertisers or to further the views of corporate owners can be quite insistent.

Misconception No. 3: This sets up universities as competitors to existing media outlets

This is simply not true.

The consortium board and staff will not “do news” or run media operations themselves. The fund will operate like a foundation or even a venture-capital fund; it will solicit smart ideas to improve local news and information, help applicants develop those plans and find useful partners, then make seed investments. The university and general public representatives on the consortium board will bring expertise in the fields in which the fund will invest: local news, community information, civic technology and civic engagement. Faculty members at the participating universities include experienced journalists who’ve run major newspapers, innovated in digital journalism, and won awards for investigative journalism and column writing.

Misconception No. 4: The consortium has a built-in political tilt

The bill, which the legislature passed by overwhelming bipartisan majorities, includes safeguards against any one political party dominating the consortium’s board. What’s more, local issues and local news, the focus of this effort, tend not be soaked in partisanship the way national issues are now. As the old saying goes, there is no Democratic nor any Republican way to fix a pothole.

Misconception No. 5: The consortium won't pay attention to what people really want

Few initiatives have been based on more extensive, energetic listening to the public than this one. Free Press Action Fund held 10 forums over the last two years to ask New Jersey residents what they thought of this idea and how they would like to see funds invested. Of the more than 400 people who took part, not one opposed the idea of public money being used to enhance local news and civic information. They did offer dozens of ideas on how to deploy the money effectively, ideas that will be built into the DNA of the consortium.

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