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In 2018, New Jersey created the Civic Information Consortium, a first-of-its-kind nonprofit with the mission of strengthening local-news coverage and boosting civic engagement in communities across the state.

The New Jersey Legislature and Gov. Phil Murphy initially approved dedicating $5 million to the landmark initiative. However, when Murphy signed the bill into law he said the money was no longer available. A year later the state allocated up to $2 million in funding for the consortium.

Free Press Action conceived of the Civic Info Bill, which created the consortium and is now serving as a model for other states that are seeking to give people the news and information they need. The bill received wide bipartisan support from the New Jersey Legislature and also drew a strong endorsement from thousands of residents who participated in public forums, submitted ideas on how to better inform their communities, and lobbied their representatives.

And if you’re wondering what the consortium will actually do, keep reading to find out more.

What is the Civic Info Consortium?

The New Jersey Civic Information Consortium is a nonprofit that will provide funding to support quality local journalism, promising media startups and other efforts meant to better inform people. The hope is that the state’s initial investment could help fund innovative media and civic-technology projects in New Jersey for decades to come.

In 2017, Free Press Action launched a campaign to pass an earlier version of the Civic Info Bill to create the consortium, 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 and it was signed into law in August 2018.

How will it work?

The consortium is a public charity and 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 must 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 have to offer a clear benefit to communities (i.e., no purely academic research). The academic institutions will gain deeper connections to their communities by putting their research and expertise to real-world use.

The consortium will have its own staff to manage the fund, with a board of directors to set strategic priorities and approve of grants. The board will consist of: two appointees from the governor, four appointees from legislative leadership, five appointees selected by the participating higher-education institutions, and appointees representing both community groups and the media and the technology sector.

The staff and board will be dedicated to transparency and accountability. For instance, the consortium will issue regular reports about its work and how it spends its money. The organization is also required to host public hearings across the state to gather input from communities about the consortium’s funding priorities.

As a public charity, the consortium will 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 will have to kick in an additional 10-percent contribution to any grant.

What will the consortium fund?

The consortium’s mission is to meet the information needs of residents around New Jersey, especially in underserved communities, low-income communities and communities of color.

For example, it will 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 strengthen connections to their audiences and gain sustaining revenue.

In 2017, we held 10 public forums where people 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 consulted.

Some of the participants’ 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 providing mobile access to key government data (e.g., restaurant-inspection records, social-service contacts, environmental data, and roadwork and traffic data).

How will the consortium 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, since the early 2000s 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, which means that important local issues are often overlooked.

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 consortium will emphasize the importance of fulfilling the information needs of communities of color, immigrant communities and other marginalized communities.

By supporting new ways of lifting up unheard voices — and investing in projects and ideas led by people of color — the consortium will seek to create a more equitable and just media system in New Jersey to represent the state’s increasingly diverse population.

What have New Jerseyans said about local-media coverage?

Since 2017, Free Press Action 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 consortium?

In New Jersey, 60 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 and create the consortium.

Signers included: 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, 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.

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 that gave community members an important voice:

“It was good to see the efforts of Free Press [Action] 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. “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 of 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 ... doing.”

Is it problematic for governments to fund journalism?

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

And people like the journalism that public-media stations produce. A 2017 poll found that three out of four people in the United States support maintaining or increasing federal support for public television, including two out of every three Republicans.

In addition, the 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 is often bold and innovative. Publicly funded media helped bring America programs like Fresh Air, NOVA, PBS NewsHour, Radiolab and This American Life. Public-media programs like Frontline and Reveal go hard after investigative stories.

The structure of the consortium will also 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 organization’s daily functions. And even though the 15-member board will have state appointees, those representatives do not have a majority. The board is primarily made up of representatives from universities, community groups and the media and technology sectors.

Any working journalist approaching their work with integrity must learn to tune out outside pressures seeking to shape the news.

Such pressures aren’t unique to public media. In commercial news outlets, journalists are often pressured to please advertisers or to promote the views of corporate owners.

How can the consortium serve as a model for other states?

According to the U.S. News Deserts database, more than one in five newspapers have closed down since the early 2000s, and half of the counties in the entire country have only one newspaper. Many communities have no local media. And there are no signs that this trend is going to change any time soon.

Our communities need strong local media — and there’s an important role that governments can play to ensure people aren’t left in the dark.

By following New Jersey’s example, local and state governments can build off the decades-long tradition of public investments in media and target government funding toward news deserts and underserved communities. Since New Jersey passed the Civic Info Bill, we’ve seen lawmakers and thought leaders in states including Colorado, Massachusetts and Ohio examine how they can follow suit.

The future of local news is too important to be left to market forces, and the media conglomerates that got us into the local-news crisis aren’t going to get us out of it. That’s why we need more people-powered campaigns like the one behind the Civic Info Bill in New Jersey so that any decisions about local journalism respond to our needs and don’t rely on the systems that have failed us.

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