Montclair Residents Want More Info About What's Going Right -- and Wrong -- in Their Communities

From the busy streets of Camden to the flat farmlands of Gloucester County to the tree-blessed avenues of Montclair, the message is consistent.

At Free Press Action Fund forums, New Jersey residents say they crave information about their communities that existing media outlets don’t provide.

They want more information about what’s going right in their communities — as well as what’s going wrong. They want watchdogging of their tax dollars, coverage of school curricula and text alerts about road closings that could foul their morning commutes.

In some cases, folks hark back to a prior time when well-stocked local newsrooms did those jobs for their towns reasonably well. Other residents see the recent layoffs and cutbacks in New Jersey media as just another grim chapter in a long tale of neglect of their communities.

Either way, forum participants have offered some very specific ideas for how to make news deserts flower.

And they express strong support for the idea of a state-funded nonprofit that would make investments in smart, bold ideas to improve civic information and local news.

The latest Free Press Action Fund forum, at Montclair Public Library on May 16, happened just as finishing touches were being put on a bill in Trenton calling for the creation of the New Jersey Civic Information Consortium.

This is the nonprofit, affiliated with four state research universities, that Free Press Action Fund is pushing the legislature to set up and endow with a piece of the $332-million windfall that New Jersey received this year from selling two of its old public-TV stations.

As in previous forums in Camden and near Glassboro, we first asked participants to identify their chief local information needs and to say whether they were being met.

Here was one representative comment from one of the 20 people taking part in the Montclair dialogue:

“I’m here tonight because I live in a news desert [Warren County] that just became a news desert because of layoffs and cutbacks in coverage by media that used to cover us pretty well. We actually have a contested local election in my township, first time in a while, but the only place I can get any information is on Facebook, and what I read there I don’t trust.”

Concerns about how Facebook dominates the community-information scene, but doesn’t make it easy to distinguish fact from rumor and bias, have come up at all three of our forums.

At the Montclair gathering, people showed a sophisticated grasp of the economic factors that have pummeled the news industry and made it tough to sustain old news outlets or launch new ones. But, just like industry executives, participants struggled with how to write a new recipe for sustaining income.

They were much quicker with ideas for improving coverage and with feedback on the six sample ideas for using the fund that we supplied to get their creative juices flowing.

Two of the ideas we offered got vigorous support:

  • Setting up an AmeriCorps-like program with fellowships for talented young journalists to come to New Jersey. In Montclair, the idea got a popular twist from an Essex County man who runs a Low Power FM station for the Caribbean-immigrant community. He suggested tweaking the fellowship idea to also pay for local ethnic media to conduct journalist exchanges with media outlets in their native lands.
  • Creating a template for media-literacy training, customized for youth and adults. This has been one of the most consistently popular ideas.

Here are some of the ideas participants suggested that got the most support in the voting that concluded the forum:

Community-information districts

This idea would extend to local news the practice of creating “special services districts” in towns to underwrite specific purposes (e.g., sewers, business-district improvements, etc.). Voters in a given town would agree to pay a small annual fee (e.g., $20) to support the creation and execution of a plan to provide better community information and quality local news coverage. The consortium would provide templates, research and evaluation to communities trying to set up such districts, which could support anything from a local podcast to a digital news site to a text-alert system.

In-depth reporting teams

Statewide reporting teams specializing in key issue areas — the environment, health care, education, etc. — would explain how decisions at the federal and state levels ripple down to the local level. This idea got full-throated support in one breakout group. This was ironic in that John Mooney, founder of NJ Spotlight — the one digital-news enterprise in the state that does just that — was sitting across the room taking part in the other breakout group.

Media cooperatives

Recognizing that startup and back-office costs often become a tough fiscal burden, the group suggested that New Jersey think about setting up the kind of centralized media-support cooperative that undergirds the work of the Alaska Energy Desk, a joint effort among Alaska’s public-radio stations to report on environmental and energy issues. The co-op could provide support in the areas of bookkeeping, graphic design, IT development, sales and legal advice.

Livestream government meetings

Create a program to provide equipment and tech support for municipalities and school districts to offer live video streaming of their meetings.

Ballotpedia” for local offices

This site or app would do the kind of work Ballotpedia does for national elections and offices, providing information on officeholders’ responsibilities, political districts and upcoming elections.

Set “informed community” standards

Think about how cities set health standards for restaurants. The state could establish standards for local news and information in a given community. These standards could be based on questions like: Do towns livestream town halls? Is there a regular newsletter on issues of note? Are there community alerts? The state could issue a report card with grades for every municipality.

Free Press Action Fund plans four more community forums in the coming weeks to harvest ideas for the civic information fund.

The next event will be held on May 30 from 7–9 p.m. on the Rutgers campus in New Brunswick. RSVP to join us. After that we’ll be at the Johnson Public Library in Hackensack.

And urge New Jersey lawmakers to support the creation of the New Jersey Civic Information Consortium.

Click here to read the moderators’ reports from the Montclair forum.

People + Policy

= Positive Change for the Public Good

people + policy = Positive Change for the Public Good