South Jersey Residents Brainstorm About the Journalism Projects an Expected Cash Windfall Could Support

People miss their watchdog once they notice they’re no longer hearing its bark.

And they miss that crusty old cliché known as an editor once they realize it’s now on them to do all the work of scouring the internet to find the nuggets of local news they need.

Those were two themes to emerge from News Voices’ May 2 community forum at Rowan University’s South Jersey Technology Park, where participants gathered to discuss the news and information they need.

The 25 participants voiced strong support for the idea of a state fund that would support enterprising reporting on local news while aggregating multiple types of information useful to South Jersey residents. They saw this happening in multiple ways: as grants to ambitious journalism projects; as an “angel fund” for news entrepreneurs; and as underwriting of internships and fellowships for newsrooms.

Free Press Action Fund is advocating for the creation of just such a fund — which we’re calling the New Jersey Civic Information Consortium.

With the state set to receive $332 million from the sale of two public-media licenses in an FCC auction, Free Press Action Fund is urging state lawmakers to dedicate some of this money to the consortium’s creation. Rowan, along with three other state universities — Montclair State, New Jersey Institute of Technology and Rutgers — would play a major role in the consortium’s operation.

The participants in last week’s forum at Rowan had plenty of ideas for how they’d invest the auction money. Some of these tracked with the opinions we heard at a similar forum held in Camden in March; others were new.

First, though, the members of the group — many of whom had ties to Rowan University, as teachers, students or graduates — talked about their dissatisfactions with the current information landscape.

Some of those concerns — like the feeling that South Jersey is a stepchild of New York City and Philadelphia media and that, within the state, it takes a back seat to Central and North Jersey — are of long standing.

Others have developed more recently as digital technologies have created new habits and ripped large holes in the business models of traditional media. No one proposed giving up their smartphones and going back to the old days of “print as king” and just three TV networks. But people said they miss the sure editing hand that used to sift through the daily deluge of information, cull out the trite, the distant and the false, and pull together the pertinent, the useful and the true into one package.

They’ve noticed it’s a lot harder to find information about local events, local governments, school boards, local candidates and where their tax dollars are going.

“I’m a council person in my town, and there aren’t any reporters at any of our meetings anymore,” one man said. “Now, all I see about our town is a lot of rumors posted on Facebook, and a lot of them have nothing to do with reality. Also, school taxes are still a huge issue, but there’s no unified coverage of school budgets.”

One woman — who said she knows how to use the internet to find facts she knows are out there — misses the “serendipity” that came with reading a good newspaper or listening to a well-done broadcast news show.

Another amplified that point by saying that her neighbors in Atlantic County “don’t know who lives next to them” because no news outlet regularly presents them with information about the needs and challenges of a different town, say, only five miles away.

One man said he misses the “power that a good letter to the editor” in a paper of record used to have to let a community know about an issue or point of view.

While concerned about the media landscape, the participants were not despairing.

They showed strong enthusiasm for the idea of a civic information fund fed by the auction proceeds.

They proposed a variety of related ideas for getting money from the fund into the hands of journalists who would use it do investigative or watchdog reporting on under-covered topics.

A fresh idea — inviting libraries to play a major role in improving the local news ecosystem by helping them hire “point people” to teach residents where to find accurate information on local news topics — did very well in the vote on ideas that concluded the evening.

Here are other suggestions that did well in the voting:

  • Setting up a local news aggregator (which might do original reporting, too) that exclusively serves South Jersey.  (In a generous mood, a man who advocated for this idea said that, sure, North Jersey and Central Jersey should get similar aggregators.)
  • Creating an “AmeriCorps for journalists.” The News Voices facilitators presented this idea, which emerged from previous dialogues with journalism leaders in the state.
  • Participants liked the idea of recruiting young journalistic talent from around the nation to come to New Jersey to serve two-year paid fellowships; reporters would get mentored within existing newsrooms while providing coverage to underserved areas.
  • Rebuilding New Jersey’s public radio network, perhaps on a more distributed model that’s supportive of independent producers, à la the Public Radio Exchange (creator of The Moth and Radiotopia).
  • Undertaking a concerted media-literacy campaign to train people to spot fake news. Participants suggested focusing this effort on local schools and enlisting libraries to be key players in it.
  • Creating an online portal to publish legal advertising from towns, counties and school districts and then using the proceeds to replenish the Civic Information Consortium. This idea provoked much discussion and some opposition. But it would redirect journalism-supporting revenue from legacy corporations into more innovative grassroots efforts.

The group struggled with this question: Should the fund focus its investments on nurturing innovative and entrepreneurial journalism — or on bolstering existing digital news organizations which at times have done great work for New Jersey?

No resolution was reached, but the discussion pointed to a key challenge for the consortium should it come to fruition.

Legislation to do just that, to create a New Jersey Civic Information Consortium endowed with some state funding, is expected to be introduced in the state legislature later this month.

Free Press Action Fund will rally New Jersey residents to urge their lawmakers to approve the bill by the time the state fiscal year concludes on June 30.

The next News Voices forum will be held on May 16 at the Montclair Public Library, and another will be held on May 30 on the Rutgers campus in New Brunswick. Other events are in the works for Asbury Park, Long Beach Island and Bergen County.

Stay tuned — and call on New Jersey lawmakers to give residents the news and information they need.

Click here to read the moderators’ reports from the Rowan University forum.

People + Policy

= Positive Change for the Public Good

people + policy = Positive Change for the Public Good