Camden Residents Brainstorm About Ways to Strengthen Local Media

Ask people in Camden and nearby suburbs about what media and information they want, and here’s what they’ll tell you:

  • We feel betrayed by corporate media and the meager, unfairly negative coverage they offer about our community.  
  • We’d love to have a well-resourced multimedia outlet that covers South Jersey exclusively.
  • We yearn for journalism that clearly and consistently connects what’s happening in distant capitol buildings to our day-to-day lives.
  • We’re sure that outlets overlook many helpful services and positive efforts in our community. We’d like to see that useful information gathered in one place.
  • The newsrooms covering our communities should be more diverse and have more people who grew up here.  
  • We’re concerned about “fake news,” but we’re not sure what we can do to counter it.

These were all key themes to emerge from a community forum held by Free Press’ News Voices: New Jersey project at Camden County College on March 21.

More than 50 residents, a group diverse in age, race and background, participated.

To begin the evening, News Voices: New Jersey Director Mike Rispoli briefed the group on the little-understood news event that prompted the forum: New Jersey’s sale of some of its public-TV licenses in a federal auction.

While state officials are keeping the exact number secret, the best guess is that New Jersey received $325 million from the sale of licenses from the former New Jersey Network.

Free Press is leading a campaign to persuade state lawmakers to dedicate a significant portion of that windfall, derived from selling off 20th-century public media, into making New Jersey a leader in innovating 21st-century public media.

Free Press is advocating for the creation of a New Jersey Civic Information Consortium. Managed by several of the state’s research universities, the consortium would invest in promising ideas to improve local journalism, civic technology and civic engagement.

The forum’s purpose was to hear how community members would view such a fund and how they’d like to see the money invested.

And, boy, did the folks who showed up that night have ideas.

Participants were divided into four breakout groups, and moderators guided each through an idea-generating and voting process. Within an hour, the walls were covered with sheets of paper listing proposed uses for the money. Then each participant got a sheet of colored dots that they could spread around any way they liked to convey their preferences among the ideas. Each person also got one red dot that they could slap on to any idea that they really, really didn’t like and didn’t want the consortium to support.

Here are the participant-generated ideas that triggered the most excitement:

Training kids in both media literacy and media making

Invest in programs that would inspire students to become professional storytellers. This struck people as a way to address two huge problems they’d discussed a) the lack of ethnic diversity in newsrooms and b) the dearth of homegrown reporters who really “get” the communities they cover.

Free public Wi-Fi

One breakout group proposed this as the simplest approach to bridging Camden’s digital divide.

Political “baseball cards”

These portable cards would provide voters with contact info for their representatives from the local level up to the national level and would outline each politician’s responsibilities/duties. The cards would also include contact info for civic offices, complaint lines, service numbers, etc.

Media funding

Several breakout groups said they want to see more public funding for any deserving outlet, whether legacy or new media. One group expressed a distinct preference for earmarking some of this funding for community-access broadcast initiatives.

A South Jersey focus

Several groups expressed a strong yearning for a multimedia “hub” or a 60 Minutes devoted to South Jersey news and issues. They’d like this outlet to do two things at once: investigative, watchdog journalism to curb an epidemic of local and state waste and corruption — and energetic reporting on positive stories from places like Camden.

What does it mean to me?

Different breakout groups sketched different approaches to a shared goal: journalism that draws simple, clear and consistent connections between deeds in Trenton and Washington, D.C. and the life of local communities. People know the connections exist and are vital, but they say the way the media covers politics leaves them murky. Several people cited the recent “repeal and replace” health-care debate in Washington as a prime example.

A few ideas got slapped with multiple red “stop” votes. A proposal to invest in universities sharing more of their research with local communities garnered the most skeptical opposition. A proposal for a kind of AmeriCorps-style program to put young journalists into underserved communities had some strong backers, but others felt it would exploit young people and perpetuate inferior coverage.

The forum also featured two other forms of feedback. People were invited to put sticky notes up on a board to sum up their views of New Jersey media in six words or less.

Here were some of the memorable phrases:

  • No Diversity! Understaffed! Little understanding of Camden!
  • Stripped to the bones
  • NYC. Philly. Not here. Not local.
  • In someone’s pocketbook
  • Where is the investigative reporting?
  • Only bad Camden city coverage. :(
  • No Man’s Land” of media
  • Needs to be more humble
  • Needs voices of working people!!
  • Good, but not enough!

One of the things that stood out most was the participants’ desire to have a say in how this money is spent. A few remarked that they were disappointed that lawmakers were not engaging the public on this issue.

These are the public’s airwaves, and we should all have a say in how the money from their sale is spent. Attendees were encouraged to join Free Press’ campaign to support the Civic Information Consortium, and to take action by urging lawmakers to support local journalism.

Last week’s event was just the start. We plan on holding more public forums around the state to get additional input on what types of media residents want for their communities. More to come soon!

Scroll below for a few photos from our event:

Photos courtesy of Tim Karr

People + Policy

= Positive Change for the Public Good

people + policy = Positive Change for the Public Good