Amazing Projects a Groundbreaking Journalism Fund Could Support

If you had $10 million a year to invest in meeting the news-and-information needs of New Jersey residents, what would you do?

That’s not an idle question.

New Jersey may soon get a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to build a system of public-interest media that could serve as a national model.

The state has put its four public-television licenses up for sale in a nationwide FCC auction of broadcast spectrum. The agency is selling a portion of the public airwaves to telecom companies that want to use this spectrum space to enhance 5G service.

Given that New Jersey’s public-TV licenses are among the most valuable in the nation, the state stands to gain a windfall of hundreds of millions of dollars.

Free Press’ News Voices project recently launched a campaign to urge lawmakers to invest some of the proceeds in a public fund that would establish long-term support for responsive local journalism, community media, civic technology and other projects that serve the public. The fund would prioritize the needs and participation of people of color and other underserved communities.  

It makes sense: Take a portion of what you gain by selling off your 20th-century media assets and use it to build a 21st-century fund supporting the news and information New Jersey residents need.

The need is clear: Traditional newsrooms across the state have laid off hundreds of reporters, a trend that’s compromised local and statehouse coverage.  Public-media funding in New Jersey has been slashed under the Christie administration.  Some promising startup digital sites have shown the continuing value of energetic local and state coverage, but they struggle to find stable financial footing.

Free Press’ News Voices project plans to nurture a statewide dialogue this year about our goal of creating a community-information fund. In the process we expect to generate lots of good ideas for how such a fund might work.

A first step occurred in December at a gathering we organized of journalists, media executives, activists and researchers at Montclair State University. Participants were asked: What fantastic things of clear benefit to Garden State residents could be produced with a little help from this fund?

For attendees, this question tied neatly into their daily challenges as practitioners covering New Jersey and coping with the changes cascading over the news industry.

Despite pre-holiday pressures, turnout was good. Most major newspapers covering New Jersey were represented. So were all four public-radio operations: WNYC (New Jersey Public Radio), Newark’s WBGO, Jersey City’s WFMU and Philadelphia’s WHYY. Several of the state’s key digital news startups — from NJ Spotlight to Brick City Live — were in the room, while other digital-news entrepreneurs tried to attend but were foiled by a very New Jersey phenomenon: an epic, rain-induced traffic snarl on the Garden State Parkway. Montclair State, Rutgers and Rowan Universities were represented, as were the Citizens Campaign and the Media Mobilizing Project.

We organized the participants into four teams to brainstorm ideas on how to use the fund. Each team then pitched its ideas to the rest of the group, Shark Tank-style. We told the teams to explain how their ideas would benefit New Jersey residents, and to think of any grants the fund might bestow as seed capital for initiatives that could become self-sustaining.

Here are some of the ideas the brainstorming sessions generated:

  • Unleash a N.J. Law Tracker. Create an app and a digital reporting team that would track progress and milestones on all state laws. Statehouse reporters, and some digital tools, traditionally focus on the politics and process of getting bills passed. But these reporters rarely circle back to check on whether that bill that caused all the fuss a year ago is actually being enforced, is actually working, is actually doing what it was supposed to do. Audiences often tell journalists that they crave this kind of follow-up.
  • Create a ProPublica for New Jersey. ProPublica is the Pulitzer Prize-winning nonprofit investigative-reporting outfit that does deep dives into data and emerges with important stories that it often co-produces with major newspapers, magazines and broadcast outlets. The idea is that New Jersey taxpayers deserve a watchdog with a strong bite and time to dig.
  • Set up a New Jersey Right-to-Know Institute. This institute would deploy the time and expertise of seasoned journalists and attorneys to help New Jersey residents gain access to key information about how their government is functioning. This is information they legally have a right to access,  but are often blocked from seeing — thanks to red tape, cost and outright bureaucratic resistance.
  • Help birth “Community-Information Districts.”  Many towns, in New Jersey and across America, have “special districts” where taxpayers within the district pay an extra fee to get particular services like sewers, business-corridor development, watershed protection or libraries. The idea here is for the New Jersey fund to fashion a model for towns to set up their own community-information districts. Revenue from a small, per-capita fee would be used to support a better information infrastructure for the town; that might include an open-date website, a hyperlocal news site, a regular podcast — whatever town leaders felt was most crucial.
  • Launch “AmeriCorps for Journalists.”  This would create fellowships for a diverse cohort of young journalists who would make a two-year commitment to covering local news in underserved areas while working in concert with established news organizations.
  • Tell the state’s chief executive: “Hearken, Governor.” Modeled on Hearken, a project that crowdsources questions for newsrooms to investigate, this effort would enlist media outlets around the state to crowdsource which question New Jersey voters most want their governor to answer each month. All participating media outlets would then publish or air the answer.

One team delved not into a particular idea, but the structure for how the fund should operate. This team’s suggestions, which track fairly closely to Free Press’ thinking, were:

  • Set up a review board of informed residents and media professionals to vet applications to the fund and make recommendations to its politically appointed board.
  • Give preference to proposals that a) have a clear local focus, b) stress collaboration among partners and c) have a plan to generate sustaining revenue.
  • Be open to applications from entities that aren’t traditionally regarded as part of the news media, such as libraries, arts groups and civic-tech organizations.

These are just some of the possible projects a community-information fund could support.  We hope reading this list gets your creative juices flowing and that you’ll add your voice this year to Free Press’ statewide dialogue on how to build a modern news-and-information system worthy of New Jersey residents.

You can get started right now by letting us know what you think of the ideas summarized here. Share any questions you have. Give us your feedback about how this fund could serve New Jersey communities by emailing News Voices: New Jersey Director Mike Rispoli at  mrispoli@freepress.net.

We’ll try to answer your questions while incorporating your feedback into our work.

Chris Satullo is a civic-engagement consultant working with Free Press on the News Voices project. He formerly was a top news executive at the Philadelphia Inquirer and WHYY Inc.

People + Policy

= Positive Change for the Public Good

people + policy = Positive Change for the Public Good