Residents Congregate in Hackensack to Dream Up Ideas for Civic Information Consortium

North Jersey participants in the fifth in a series of Free Press Action Fund community forums hit all the notes of that old recipe for bridal beauty: something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue.

And a whole lot of green to boot.

June 7’s forum at the Johnson Public Library in Hackensack attracted 27 participants. The goal of these events is to elicit feedback on how a proposed Civic Information Consortium should invest money to meet local news-and-information needs.

Here are some highlights:

Something old

This group wasn’t ready to throw the daily print newspaper out with tomorrow’s trash. There’s a digital divide, many in attendance noted, meaning there’s still a need for a printed version of community news. What’s more, several participants said they still preferred getting ink on their fingers to clicking away with a mouse.

And they were skeptical that customer preference was driving the shrinkage in news staff at daily and weekly papers in their communities. They suspected this trend was about corporate executives cutting costs to appease shareholders.

This group supported the idea that the Civic Information Consortium could provide subsidies to help existing news organizations hire more reporters to do basic community coverage as well as in-depth beat reporting — as long as this didn’t become a zero-sum game resulting in less investment from the companies.

The appeal of an earlier era also cropped up in this forum in a way we hadn’t seen at our earlier events. Several participants said that they treasure — and miss — regular features about the history of their communities.  The idea of investing some money from the consortium to make local history come alive and stay relevant was a popular one in Hackensack.

So was the idea of providing training and support for people wanting to put together print and email newsletters about community events.

Something new

At the same time, participants were aware of and supportive of trends in digital journalism. They want to see work done to improve training and editorial standards for microbloggers. They liked a proposal to support app developers and data visualizers in putting valuable government data (e.g., information about restaurant inspections, hospital ratings, environmental warnings) at their fingertips via mobile devices.

One group backed an idea we provided: creating a right-to-know institute, as long as its main goal was helping New Jersey residents pry loose information from government — not just helping journalists file open-records requests.

Something borrowed

A couple of proposals that borrow concepts from other sectors triggered a lot of discussion, with some opposition but also much support:

  • “Americorps” for journalists: As at other forums, this idea, which we provided, provoked ambivalence. People liked the idea of a program that would attract and train young journalists while getting more media boots on the ground in underserved areas. But people worried about exploiting that young talent through low stipends and wondered whether existing media outlets would lay off seasoned journalists to replace them with these fellows. Attendees wanted controls built in to avoid those two problems.

    Several groups expressed more enthusiasm when the idea was tweaked in two ways. The program could a) reach into New Jersey high schools and colleges to identify and teach talented youths and b) provide fellowships to seasoned journalists who might otherwise be ejected from the profession via layoffs.

  • Community-information districts: This idea, which we raised at other forums, adapts the practice of using special-services districts to provide additional resources for things like watershed protection and sewer services. Here, the idea is that residents of a township, say, could vote to pay a $10–20 yearly fee to improve community information and local news inside the municipal boundaries. In the small group that discussed this, this was one of the most popular ideas in the “colored dot” voting that concluded the evening.

Something blue

Blue, as in liberal. There was significant concern about the rise of fake news (defined the way progressives, not the president, would define it). The idea we provided of funding a program to promote media literacy generated discussion and some support. While many liked the idea of public schools and colleges providing units on media literacy, some participants wondered how this training would reach others who need it — and whether it would “take” even if it did reach them.

And that dash of green

Participants ranked environmental concerns first when it comes to local issues the media need to do a better job on. People expressed the desire for more local coverage of flooding, environmental racism, the impacts of development and zoning decisions, water contamination, air pollution and oil trains.

The Hackensack forum was the fifth in a series of seven Free Press Action Fund events, which concluded on June 13 with a forum in Tuckerton.

Call on your lawmaker to support the Civic Info Bill.

People + Policy

= Positive Change for the Public Good

people + policy = Positive Change for the Public Good