When It Comes to New Jersey Media, Crisis Breeds Opportunity

If you went by a recent New York Times story alone, you’d conclude that these are dark days for journalism in New Jersey, with no hope in sight.

The piece explores the impact forces like runaway consolidation have had on the state’s media. Newsrooms have closed, hundreds of journalists have lost their jobs and prominent papers from outside the state — like the Times and the Wall Street Journal — have also slashed their New Jersey coverage.

Then there's The Record, New Jersey’s second-largest daily. The paper — which uncovered the Bridgegate scandal — cut its newsroom staff by 20 percent in 2008. After Gannett purchased it last July, the paper announced that it would lay off more than 400 people. In an interview with the Times, communications scholar Richard A. Lee questioned whether the hobbled paper (or other similarly hamstrung New Jersey outlets) now has the resources to do this kind of journalism:

If Bridgegate happened today, would someone have covered it? … Because it was really a local reporter doing old-fashioned investigative reporting.

The trends the Times piece points to are certainly in force: When it comes to news coverage, New Jersey is one of the most underserved states. That’s why Free Press launched the News Voices: New Jersey campaign back in 2015. News Voices works on the ground to connect reporters and residents and help them work together to tell stories with impact. This project has led to all kinds of productive collaborations in the four communities where we’ve been active — Asbury Park, Atlantic City, Morristown and New Brunswick — and our outreach in Newark, where we began working two months ago, is already starting to bear fruit. (Next up: Camden.)

We’re not the only ones to take issue with the Times story. In its own post, Montclair State University’s Center for Cooperative Media notes that “what isn’t reported in [this article] is just as important — and far more encouraging — as what is.”

The Center, which is home to the NJ News Commons, a collaborative network of more than 150 news and information providers, highlights a number of promising local startups like Brick City Live and the Jersey Shore Hurricane News. Meanwhile, projects like Dirty Little Secrets and the Center for Investigative Reporting are doing good work across the state.

And in December News Voices launched a groundbreaking campaign to strengthen New Jersey media over the long term.

Right now the FCC is auctioning off a portion of the public airwaves to free up more bandwidth for mobile data. New Jersey is participating in the auction: The FCC estimates the state’s four public-TV licenses are worth billions. The News Voices initiative is urging lawmakers to invest a portion of the windfall in a public fund that could support innovative journalism and community-information projects for decades to come. The fund, which could release about $10 million a year, would prioritize the needs and participation of people of color and other underserved communities.

My colleague Mike Rispoli, the News Voices: New Jersey director, recently talked to Nieman Lab about the scope of this effort:

We want to be clear that we view this fund as having a mandate beyond journalism. It shouldn’t be viewed as a way for newsrooms that have significantly lost reporters to just hire people back. This isn’t enough money to do that, and we don’t think that would be an appropriate use of the fund. It’s really about how you write stories and deliver information that’s in the public interest.

Crisis breeds opportunity, and the airwaves auction is truly a once-in-a-lifetime chance to give New Jersey residents the news and information they need to stay informed and participate fully in our democracy. And if this effort takes off in New Jersey, News Voices will expand it to cities around the country, as Mike noted in his interview.

“Chicago, Denver, L.A.,” he said. “But also places like Flint. You can imagine what good local journalism could do in a place like Flint right now.”

Want to learn more? Email Mike at mrispoli@freepress.net.

Photo courtesy of Vanessa Maria Graber

People + Policy

= Positive Change for the Public Good

people + policy = Positive Change for the Public Good