Last week, on a Sunday night, lawmakers and Gov. Phil Murphy struck a $37.4 billion budget deal that averted a state shutdown.
Among the money promised in this year’s budget was $5 million to fund a pioneering effort to help strengthen local journalism in underserved New Jersey communities through the Civic Information Consortium.
The approved funding marked the triumph of several years of work by Free Press Action, a non-profit dedicated to keeping local journalism alive and reporting in communities. The advocacy group began its quest in 2015 when it started its local journalism project, News Voices, in New Jersey. The effort started in response to New Jersey’s shrinking press corps, racked by layoffs, consolidations and closings. Hoping to turn the state’s residents into advocates for local news, the group has held meetings in communities throughout the state the past three years, including one in December 2015 in Atlantic City.
Editors and reporters with The Press of Atlantic City participated in that forum, sharing our story and listening as residents shared their challenges, frustrations and desires to help their community. We left that meeting energized by a desire to strengthen our connections with the people we met that day. Hearing them speak passionately about their hometowns inspired us and that motivation led us to dig into issues such as poverty, domestic violence and rising sea level.
The job of connecting is never-ending. Meanwhile, the challenges grow, as we’ve not been immune to those shortages of resources. So, 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 their audience to no longer just consume news, but to advocate for the importance and existence of local news.
Mike Rispoli, state director for Free Press Action Fund, in a column last week, said those voices were heard in Trenton. As supporters of the project grew, they wrote letters and voiced their opinions, helping to convince lawmakers for the need to preserve journalism in their towns.
Here is how the Civic Information Consortium will work. Five state universities will lead a public charity and collectively make decisions on which projects they will fund. They are: the College of New Jersey, Montclair State University, the New Jersey Institute of Technology, Rutgers University and Rowan University.
These partners will work together to identify and bankroll worthy projects. Their decisions will be based on criteria. The first hurdle is that the applicants must themselves be a collaboration between one of the five state universities and either: a community or civic group; a media organization (non-profits and commercial are eligible); or someone from the state’s technology sector.
Another hurdle is that successful applications must show how their work will benefit the community.
The fund would be “the first of its kind in the nation,” Rispoli wrote, adding, “Trustworthy local journalism is the lifeblood of democracy; it allows people to participate meaningfully in decisions regarding local elections, public schools and policy decisions.”
The project enjoyed bipartisan support and strong advocacy from Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg and Assembly Majority Leader Lou Greenwald, as well as from Murphy.
Now it is time for the exciting part, and that is the work. We’ll watch the consortium and projects with high interest, as we continue to look for ways to forge partnerships to help tell stories that we — and our audience — believe need to be told.
W.F. “Buzz” Keough is managing editor.