Free Press Action Fund Activists Lobby Lawmakers to Fix New Jersey's Local News Crisis

Anita Russell of Trenton, New Jersey, was one of the many Free Press Action Fund members who came to the New Jersey Statehouse on Monday to advocate for the Civic Info Bill, which represents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to address the state’s local news crisis.

“I’m here because as a citizen in the community … I think it’s really important that the channels of communication … between our local government, our community [and] individual citizens are available. The more informed citizenry we have, the more we have civic engagement, the better off we’ll be as a state,” she said.

The Civic Info Bill, which Assembly Majority Leader Louis Greenwald and Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg introduced on June 1, would establish the Civic Information Consortium, a nonprofit institution run by several state universities in partnership with digital innovators, community groups, local journalists and everyday people. The consortium would fund essential news-and-information projects throughout the state to benefit civic life and meet the needs of underserved New Jersey communities.

With a state-budget deadline looming on June 30, Anita and I joined more than two-dozen Free Press Action Fund members, staff and allies in Trenton to advocate for the Civic Info Bill (A4933/S3303). Groups like IDEA Performing Arts Center in Camden and the statewide organization Action Together New Jersey participated. They joined a list of more than 60 organizations, including representatives of the state’s leading Hispanic civic and media organizations, in advocating for the bill.

Many parts of New Jersey get no local news coverage; the consortium would help provide the kinds of information residents need to make important decisions and participate fully in their communities. The strength of this idea motivated Free Press Action Fund members to express their concerns to lawmakers on Monday.

We started the morning with a meeting in the statehouse café to finalize our plans for the day. From there, we split into three groups to position ourselves in strategic locations to talk to lawmakers, many of whom expressed appreciation for our work.

“You’re really only as good as the people that you serve … thanks for your effort,” Assemblywoman Patricia Egan-Jones said to Free Press Action Fund member Kimi Wei.

In New Jersey, lobbying doesn’t just happen in scheduled meetings — most lawmakers don’t have offices in the statehouse and you have to catch them where they are. It was genuinely inspiring to see our members in action as they stopped to talk to legislators in the hallways.  As a result of our efforts over the course of the day, two additional lawmakers agreed to co-sponsor the legislation, bringing the total number of co-sponsors to 15.

Our members and allies came from across the state, were well versed on the issues, and brought their personal experiences to bear in talking about their support for the Civic Info Bill. Ilya Arbit, a journalist and member from East Brunswick, said “It helps you to know what your lawmakers are going to be voting on, what decisions they’re going to be making — these are things that affect your daily life.” 

“The bill is important. It’ll help get information about local government out to communities,” said Melanie Hofstetter.

“I think that local journalism specifically is the foundation of our democracy,” said Simon Galperin, who’s attended many of the community forums we’ve held to gather feedback on projects the consortium could invest in. “...  [It’s] the information you need to live your life every day, make political choices, make economic and medical choices, everything from transportation to … [meeting] people in the community, all of that is underscored by local journalism.”

After breaking for lunch, we delivered a petition with over 1,700 signatures from New Jersey residents advocating for the Civic Info Bill as well as letters of support from dozens of allied organizations to legislative leadership. We’re grateful to all of our members and allies who signed on in support.

Free Press Action Fund Organizer James Thompson entered each legislator’s office, flanked by members, to deliver the petition and read comments from Free Press Action Fund members. “Better local news [and] information is crucial in enabling me to make better choices about being a citizen of New Jersey,” he said, quoting John from Clinton. As a South Jersey resident, James is well aware of the need for better coverage in the Garden State.

Among the allied organizations signing on to the letters of support were the Bergen County NAACP, Citizens Campaign, coLab Arts, the Latin American Democratic Association, New Jersey Policy Perspective and the League of Women Voters of New Jersey.

Time is running out in the campaign to secure funding for the consortium, and even supportive lawmakers have numerous competing priorities besides the Civic Info Bill.

With the budget deadline coming up on June 30, it’s more crucial than ever to let lawmakers know how you feel about the Civic Info Bill, as our members did on Monday.  When we wrapped up the day in Trenton with a debriefing session, people described how empowering the experience of talking to legislators was. As someone who worked on organizing the day’s activities, it was gratifying to hear how valuable members found it.

To call your state representative, click here.  Time is running out!

Scroll below for a few photos from our lobby day. The complete Flickr album is here.

Photos by Tim Karr

People + Policy

= Positive Change for the Public Good

people + policy = Positive Change for the Public Good