News Voices: New Jersey

A Year of Fighting for Better News in New Jersey

Over 40 years in daily journalism, I always worked in a newsroom a stone’s throw from the Delaware River.

On the Pennsylvania side.

At each of my stops — The Express-Times in Easton, The Inquirer and WHYY in Philadelphia — New Jersey was part of the market and the mission.

And at each of those stops, New Jersey took second or even third place when it came to resources and attention.

Don’t misunderstand me; at each place, the journalists assigned to cover New Jersey brought skill and commitment to the task. But at the organizational level, neither the will nor the wallet existed to make New Jersey a priority.

In many of those years, newsroom resources were shrinking. That meant New Jersey coverage took the first hit, over and over. This, combined with the Garden State itself being hit by media consolidation and newsroom layoffs, left New Jersey residents ill-served.

My experiences trying to serve both sides of the Delaware fuel my belief in the New Jersey Civic Information Consortium, which would invest in strengthening local media. It’s a superb proposal for the state’s residents, its communities’ health and its business climate.

The idea for the consortium — a joint initiative among the state’s leading higher-education institutions in collaboration with the media industry, the state’s technology sector, and community organizations — began as a way to capitalize on the $332-million windfall New Jersey received from the sale of two of its public-television licenses in 2017.

The Civic Info Bill would have dedicated $20 million per year over five years from that windfall to a fund supporting news and information projects throughout the state. Introduced in June, the legislation went from impossible to achievable — thanks in no small part to an outpouring of public support. But the money from the sale ultimately went into the black hole that is the New Jersey state budget.

Taking note of the momentum behind the bill, lawmakers committed to reintroducing the Civic Info Bill in January.

Details will be worked out in the next few weeks, including the amount dedicated to the consortium. The bill still will aim to set up a nonprofit that would award grants to projects designed to strengthen news coverage, community information, civic technology and civic engagement across the state.

Only in New Jersey do lawmakers have the chance to propel their state, in one stroke, to national leader in local news innovation, public data and civic technology.

My years in commercial media taught me the value of obsessing over audience needs and embracing entrepreneurial innovation. Working at a nonprofit NPR station, meanwhile, underscored the value of a clear focus on journalism’s public-interest mission, one that isn’t in thrall to false gods such as clicks or ratings.

If it becomes law, the Civic Info Bill would build bridges between these two worlds.

The consortium would look to seed innovation and nurture fresh collaboration, instead of playing a doomed game of trying to restore staffing levels at traditional media outlets that have been bleeding talent for many years. With millions in possible grants, the fund could nudge entities that previously ignored or competed with one another into collaborating on promising experiments.

I can tell you this: Residents of New Jersey like this idea.

How do I know that? Because I collaborated with Free Press Action Fund to help plan and run a series of 11 public meetings all around the state in 2017.

From Glassboro to Hackensack, from Camden to Montclair, hundreds of people attended the sessions to talk about how local information sources alternately serve or fail them and to offer ideas for projects they’d like the civic info fund to support.

While forum attendees were more likely than the average bear to follow and value local news, it was surprising, indeed remarkable, that not one participant, not one, blasted the idea. Not one said, Absolutely not. Just use the money to lower my taxes, fix potholes or hire cops.

People saw that good civic information is an asset that builds community and enhances the business climate. They told us that they miss the solid information about elections, taxes, crime, community events and area businesses that their local news media provided in more robust days.

They also miss hearing about the town one highway exit away, the one with the different socioeconomic mix from their own. Where once they might have felt some connection with folks in that nearby town, now, they said, those fellow New Jerseyans just 10 miles away might as well be on Mars, for all they heard about them.

That struck them as a loss. A big one.

In these forums, ideas for how to fix these flaws percolated. From the old-school (“Newsletters!”) to the cutting edge (“Apps putting public data in your palm via augmented reality!”), residents got excited about the improvements in civic information this fund could support.

I loved the energy in those rooms. I was also moved by how deeply residents of struggling cities such as Camden and Newark feel the media’s neglect of their cities. They lament living in a news desert where the only stories that seem to merit outside coverage are sad, tragic or sordid.

Residents of such cities know from experience that information poverty is a very real form of scarcity, one that worsens the others.

Yet in those same cities, we met proud residents intent on making their own media, on telling the full story of their hometowns in all its complex richness — the tender shoots of hope as well as the jagged shards of tragedy.

It’s for those people more than anyone — the young hyperlocal publisher in Newark determined to celebrate points of light amid gloom, the documentary video-maker in Camden who said he’s buried so many friends he has no tears left for funerals — that I want this bill to pass.

It’s for determined storytellers such as these, and the resilient cities where they live, that I’ll keep working in 2018 to make the Civic Information Consortium a reality. Let New Jersey’s stories be told in all the vivid, connected ways that 21st-century technology makes possible.

Let the state become the national vanguard for public-interest media, no longer ignored or disrespected.

Free Press Action Fund’s year of aerobic listening around this state has taught me that this idea isn’t just possible.

It’s necessary.

People + Policy

= Positive Change for the Public Good

people + policy = Positive Change for the Public Good