The model legislation allocates a portion of revenues to building a public-interest media nonprofit that will focus on underserved communities and local news-gathering operations.
By Matt Skoufalos | July 2, 2018
For the past two years, career journalist Chris Satullo has been working to help advance the New Jersey Civic Information Consortium bill, a state legislative action that would help fund local journalism efforts.
The proposal, which originally sought to seed the consortium with $100 million from the $332-million sale of unused public television licenses, had bipartisan appeal but kept getting whittled down in committee.
Until the final passage of the budget last weekend, Satullo wondered whether it would become a casualty of deteriorating talks between the governor and legislature.
“It was going nowhere for a long time, and then it happened all of a sudden,” he said.
But when the dust had settled, the Civic Info Bill got its $5-million springboard, landing on the governor’s desk largely on the strength of statewide testimony about the value of public-interest journalism.
In the age of media consolidation, the drop-off in the depth and quality of local reporting in New Jersey has been recognizable to everyone from average citizens all the way up to elected officials, Satullo said. Those effects are felt more deeply in ethnic and low-income communities, and anywhere independent media is lacking a presence.
“This is a way to provide support for storytellers,” Satullo said. “It wasn’t about funding failure on the part of major [media] chains, it was supporting success on the ground for many towns in New Jersey that may be fragile economically, but strong journalistically.”
In months of polling communities across the state, Satullo said Free Press Action Fund also gathered significant input to shape the structure and objectives of the entity the bill creates.
That paper trail will allow the group to keep the consortium accountable to voter priorities, which included everything from a homegrown public radio station to local investigations of statewide policy.
“Civic engagement and dialogue is part of the DNA of this whole idea,” he said.
“We wouldn’t have gone this far with this much comment and transparency to throw it in the lap of someone else.”
The group will also hopefully tackle sustainability issues that local media face, and could leverage an initial $5 million to generate broader support from national funders.
“The board and the staff they hire are going to have to get smart fast, and then make strategic investments that are going to have to pay off,” Satullo said. “If they show the value of the idea, we can do this elsewhere; maybe match the state’s $5 million with some philanthropic dollars.”
The Consortium will be led by a board of bipartisan political appointees as well as by members from each of five participating state universities: The College of New Jersey, Montclair State University, the New Jersey Institute of Technology, Rutgers University, and Rowan University.
Montclair State is also the home to the Center for Cooperative Media, an academic working group that provides technical, organizational, and financial support to local news-gathering organizations in New Jersey. Its associate director, Joe Amditis, said the Civic Info Consortium will help the center build more and greater partnerships statewide.
“Our mission is to grow and strengthen the local news ecosystem in New Jersey,” Amditis said.
“We’re a convener, a micro-funder, a connector, and a coach.”
Although the involvement of academic institutions could have been a complicating issue, the bill contains enough checks and balances to make those partnerships meaningful for everyone involved, he said.
Any funds disbursed by the Civic Info Consortium must involve collaboration with the universities, which must also provide either matching project funds or in-kind support of at least 10 percent of the total project award.
Funders may not dictate the content of any work, and the bill notes 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.”
“The grants are specifically structured for mutually beneficial arrangements,” Amditis said. “These were thought out and debated over and over.”
The bill exclusively would fund projects that:
- 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.
Mike Rispoli, New Jersey state director for Free Press Action Fund, said the $5 million initial allocation represents seed money that can be used to grow the consortium for years to come.
“We designed the legislation as a public charity so it could raise funds outside of that initial investment,” Rispoli said.
“In order 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.”
Rispoli also sees the university involvement in the project as contributing to its long-term sustainability.
The added resources and expertise can allow for new projects to find their footing, or longer-term work to improve upon itself.
The 10-percent kick-in also “makes sure that overhead costs aren’t going to eat up all this money.
“We’re not going to be the ones running [the consortium], but we are certainly going to be campaigning just as hard to make sure it’s accountable to the public,” Rispoli said.
“I don’t think we can afford for this to fail.”
The consortium isn’t meant to replace community support for local news, nor to re-hire staffers downsized by big media cutbacks, he said. Instead, it’s about finding better ways to tell stories that matter.
“This is really about identifying the needs of communities when it comes to news, and then investing in that need,” Rispoli said. “It might be civic technology; it might be civic literacy.
“It is not going to replace the need for paying subscribers and community support [of local news outlets].”
Rispoli sees the Civic Info bill as reflecting a popular push toward a new vision of local news. Investing in public-interest media can help improve community engagement and keep local power accountable.
“People who are outside of journalism are making a very clear statement about the value of journalism,” Rispoli said.
“Studies have shown what happens in a community when local news is deficient,” he said. “Fewer people vote; fewer people run for public office.
“Local news is good for democracy, and this is an example of people exercising their democratic rights to support local news,” Rispoli said.
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