Tuesday Night: Connect with Journalists and Residents in Camden

This week Free Press’ News Voices: New Jersey project is taking the next step to bridge the gap between journalists and residents in Camden. Tomorrow evening at the Camden Conference Center we’re holding a public meeting with residents of Camden and other New Jersey communities about an opportunity to strengthen local media for years to come.

It’s no secret that New Jersey is in a local news crisis. Decades of media consolidation have shuttered media outlets and resulted in nearly 2,000 journalists losing their jobs. Too many outlets misrepresent or overlook communities of color. Free Press launched News Voices to ensure that local journalism serves community needs.

Our meeting tomorrow will explore the impact of a recently concluded FCC auction that could result in a windfall of as much as $325 million for New Jersey. The auction involved a major redistribution of the public airwaves, and we believe this sale should benefit the public. We’re urging lawmakers to support the creation of the New Jersey Civic Information Consortium to advance research and innovation in the fields of media and technology and improve local news and information.

The consortium would work with Montclair State University, the New Jersey Institute of Technology, Rowan University and Rutgers University to issue grants to the universities, media outlets, technology companies, and community partners for projects that benefit the state’s civic life and meet the evolving information needs of New Jersey’s underserved communities.

Free Press has been meeting with stakeholders from these universities, community-based organizations and lawmakers to gather support for this idea, and last week News Voices: New Jersey Director Mike Rispoli testified about it before the state Assembly Budget Committee. We’re charting a new path forward in the way New Jersey residents get news and information. And we’re excited to share it with attendees at Tuesday night’s forum in Camden — and to get participants’ ideas for how to use this money.

It’s no accident that the word “civic” is in the name of the consortium we’re hoping to create. We see this as an initiative that will spark innovation and foster new ways that residents access news and information — something that’s needed for people to become better informed about decisions and policies that affect their daily lives.

We believe that local media should hold local government accountable — whether it’s planning boards, zoning boards, city councils, school boards and other quasi-governmental bodies and commissions that make decisions about scarce resources.

But residents and community leaders don’t always find out about state and local policies that affect their lives while those policies are under consideration. Camden is the perfect example of that.

Camden’s unmet information needs

Camden is a city of around 75,000 people and the majority of the residents are African American and Hispanic. Camden has contended with the systematic and structural barriers to educational advancement and middle-class employment opportunities that have plagued so many of our urban centers. The less-than-acceptable educational outcomes and lack of viable employment have caused many residents to lose hope that they can empower themselves to become self-sufficient.

Camden has made some progress. In 2013, the New Jersey Assembly passed the Economic Opportunities Act — a set of performance-based tax-incentive programs that have encouraged large businesses to relocate to cities like Camden and make capital investments. The New Jersey Economic Development Authority (NJEDA) has been implementing the program around the state.

There’s been ample reporting on the $1.3 billion in tax incentives the NJEDA has given companies like American Water, Holtec and Subaru and teams like the Philadelphia 76ers. The capital investment has come to the city and companies are reaping benefits. But what about longtime residents who have stayed in the city through challenging times?

The waterfront and downtown have seen the bulk of the development and related news coverage. But neighborhoods like Centerville, Cramer Hill and Morgan Village — to name just a few — haven’t seen anywhere near as much development or positive media attention.

I know firsthand what it’s like to grow up in Camden and see the overwhelming amount of negative media coverage about the city. It can take away from youth’s efforts to become civically engaged and to retain a sense of hope and optimism. That’s one of the reasons we’re so motivated at Free Press to create the New Jersey Civic Information Consortium — to give people in communities like Camden the tools they need to tell their own stories.

What to expect in Camden

The consortium is about more than one city: It’s about how the state as a whole can be a 21st-century model for the rest of the nation when it comes to information sharing, news gathering, civic technology, research and diverse storytelling.

Public input is essential — which is why we’re inviting residents from Camden and surrounding communities to come to our event on Tuesday night, share their ideas and connect with others in the region.

Here’s what to expect:

  • At 6 p.m. we’ll introduce ourselves and talk more about this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to invest in local news and information.
  • At 6:20 we’ll organize breakout groups for people to brainstorm about ways to use the FCC auction windfall.
  • At 8:15 we’ll have a large-group discussion about the brainstorming sessions and talk next steps for this campaign.

Innovation, opportunity and inclusion are all at the doorstep of Camden, the region and the entire Garden State. This is our chance to work together to manifest a vision for strengthening our towns and cities.

It all starts in Camden. Join me on Tuesday at the Camden Conference Center. RSVP here.

Original photo by Flickr user John Sonderman

People + Policy

= Positive Change for the Public Good

people + policy = Positive Change for the Public Good