On July 1, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy approved dedicating $5 million to the Civic Information Consortium, a first-of-its-kind nonprofit with the mission to strengthen local news coverage and boost civic engagement in communities across the state.
Free Press Action Fund conceived this historic bill, which Gov. Phil Murphy is expected to sign into law in the coming weeks.
The bill has drawn widespread support from thousands of residents who have participated in public forums, submitted ideas on how to better inform their communities, and lobbied their representatives.
And if you’re wondering what it will actually do, keep reading to find out more.
What’s the Civic Info Bill?
This bill (S2317/A3628) would create the New Jersey Civic Information Consortium, a nonprofit that would provide funding to support quality journalism in New Jersey, promising media startups and other efforts meant to better inform communities.
The initial investment could help fund innovative media and technology projects in New Jersey for decades to come.
In 2017, Free Press Action Fund launched a campaign to pass an earlier version of the Civic Info Bill using the proceeds from the state’s sale of its old public-television licenses. Thanks to an outpouring of public support, Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg and Assembly Majority Leader Lou Greenwald reintroduced the bill in 2018.
Tell me more about the Civic Info Consortium. How would it work?
The consortium would be set up as a public charity and would 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.
To be eligible for a grant, applicants would have to propose a collaboration connecting at least one of the five higher-education partners with at least one off-campus partner: a community organization or civic institution (e.g., a library), a media outlet (nonprofit or commercial), or a member of the state’s technology sector.
Winning proposals would have to offer a clear benefit to communities (i.e., no purely academic research). The academic institutions would gain deeper connections to their communities by putting their research and expertise to real-world use.
The consortium would have its own staff to manage the fund, with a board of directors to set strategic priorities and approve of grants. The governor would choose two board members, as would the legislature. The five participating higher-education institutions would select representatives, and the remaining board members would represent community groups and the media and the technology sector.
The staff and board would be dedicated to transparency and accountability.
This nonprofit fund would be the first of its kind in the nation.
As a public charity, the consortium would attract grants and donations from across the country to supplement and replenish the state’s initial investment and further its groundbreaking work in New Jersey. And universities would have to kick in an additional 10-percent contribution to any grant.
Let’s say the Civic Info Consortium becomes a reality. What would it fund?
The consortium’s mission would be to meet the information needs of residents around New Jersey, especially in underserved communities, low-income communities and communities of color.
For example, it would provide grants for collaborative projects to:
- Improve the quantity and quality of civic information in New Jersey communities.
- Offer residents enhanced access to useful government data and public information through innovative applications and platforms.
- Train students, professionals and other community members in journalism, storytelling and media production.
- Nurture better civic engagement and dialogue within and among New Jersey communities.
- Research and share innovations to help media outlets connect better to their audiences and gain sustaining revenue.
In 2017, we held 10 public forums, where participants had the opportunity to share their own ideas for projects the consortium could fund and to review ideas generated by a task force of prominent New Jersey journalists that Free Press Action Fund consulted.
Some of their ideas included municipal-website templates designed for easy navigation, media-literacy programs for students and adults, mini-grants for reporting projects, young-journalist fellowship programs serving overlooked communities, and local data apps to provide mobile access to key government data, e.g., restaurant-inspection records, social-service contacts, environmental data, and roadwork and traffic data.
How would this bill serve the public interest?
There’s a local-news crisis in New Jersey.
While news outlets of all sizes are still producing quality journalism in the state, 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.
This situation isn’t just bad for journalism. It also harms the civic health of our communities.
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. Studies have shown that when news coverage disappears, people are less informed, civic participation drops and political corruption increases.
Most importantly, the bill emphasizes the importance of fulfilling the information needs of communities of color. Mainstream media outlets have long underserved people of color, who have also been misrepresented in news coverage of their communities.
By supporting new ways of lifting up unheard voices — and investing in projects and ideas led by people of color — the consortium would seek to create a more equitable and just media system in New Jersey to represents the state’s increasingly diverse population.
The Civic Info Bill would make New Jersey a model for the rest of the nation. It would reimagine what public investment in media can do by helping to jumpstart countless community-based projects that are responsive to the needs of New Jersey residents.
What are people in New Jersey saying about news coverage of their communities?
For the past three years, Free Press Action Fund has toured New Jersey and listened to community members discuss what’s working — and what isn’t working — in their local news. We’ve also solicited residents’ ideas about how they would improve local news and information.
Below is a small sample of what they’ve said (go here for more information):
“I live in a news desert [Warren County] that became a news desert because of layoffs and cutbacks in coverage by mainstream media that used to cover us pretty well. We actually have a contested local election in my township, first time in a while, but the only place I can get any information is on Facebook and what I read there I don’t trust.” —Montclair forum participant
“I need more information that connects the political stuff that goes on in Trenton and down in Washington back to me, my family and my community.” —Camden forum participant
“Too many people talk only to people who already agree with them. We have to find more ways to get people to talk with one another where it’s OK to disagree.”—Asbury Park forum participant
“I’m a council person in my town, and there aren’t any reporters at any of our meetings anymore. In the past, the Gloucester County Times used to be there, more often than not. Now all I see are a lot of rumors posted on Facebook, and a lot of them have nothing to do with reality.” —Rowan University forum participant
“Local news is just missing. You won’t know about local decisions, but you will feel the effect.”—College of New Jersey student
What are others saying about the Civic Info Bill?
Sixty organizations, including representatives of the state’s leading Hispanic civic and media organizations, signed a letter calling on the governor and legislative leaders to pass the bill.
Signers include: Action 21 Immigrants Rights Advocacy Group, Action Together New Jersey, Alliance for Community Media, Alliance for Media Arts and Culture, Anti-Poverty Network of NJ, Citizens Campaign, Colombian American Congress, Color Of Change, Dominican American Leadership Council, Dominican Times News, Ecuadorian-American Chamber of Commerce, El Americano News, El Coqui-Puerto Rican/Latino News, El Nacional News, Free Press Action Fund, Guatemalan Merchant Association of New Jersey, Hispanic American Commerce Association of Hudson County, Hispanic American Political Action Committee, Hispanic Women Entrepreneurs and Networking Association of Essex, Hudson, Passaic and Union Counties, International Association of Hispanic Journalists & Entertainment, LAP Latino Alliance for Progress, Latin American Democratic Association, Latino Chamber of Commerce of Essex County, League of Women Voters of New Jersey, Media Mobilizing Project, New Jersey Policy Perspective, New Labor, New Jersey Public Interest Research Group, Peruvian American Coalition of New Jersey, Negocios Hispanos USA, Newark Hispanic Merchant Association, and the Newark Hispanic Pastors Association, among others.
Others in the media have come out in support of the legislation. Below are some excerpts from news stories and Op-Eds that called for the passage of the Civic Info Bill:
“It is the kind of thinking our country needs as we figure out the future of journalism.” —Editor and Publisher
“The seed money would allow the consortium to attract other philanthropic investment, helping to build a more sustainable information ecosystem and establishing New Jersey as a national leader in finding new ways to inform its communities and its civic life as the old one-way models of information continue to crumble.” —New Jersey Policy Perspective, writing in Gannett New Jersey newspapers
“Are more, and more diverse, notebook-carrying, smartphone-bearing digital and yes, print, journalists of all sorts — students, citizens, full-time professionals — needed? And could a New Jersey Civic Information Consortium help meet that need? Absolutely!” —Philadelphia Inquirer