Spectrum Auction and Journalism

A Once-in-a-Lifetime Chance to Strengthen Our Communities

In 2016, the Federal Communications Commission began a long-awaited auction to redistribute the public airwaves. The auction concluded in February 2017 and brought in $20 billion, with $10 billion going to broadcasters.

The auction included noncommercial TV licenses held by state and local governments and both public and private universities. Some of these public-broadcasting licenses could be worth tens of millions of dollars.

Among these broadcasters are public-TV stations, some of which may go off the air as a result of the auction, which would mean the loss of local programming and news coverage. And all of this is happening at a time of crisis in journalism.

Our communities are harmed when there are fewer news outlets that cover important local issues and provide a voice for their audiences. There’s evidence that civic participation drops, corruption increases and lawmakers bring in less funding for communities when local news disappears.

That’s why this auction is so important.

The sale of the public airwaves should benefit the public — and we believe a portion of the proceeds should be used to establish long-term support for responsive local journalism, community media and other projects that serve people’s information needs.

That’s where you come in: This kind of investment in local communities will happen only if the public fights for it.

Scroll below for more on why we think the auction proceeds should be used to strengthen coverage of our communities.

Investing in local journalism

Some public-TV license holders made a huge amount of money from the auction, but most haven’t yet committed to putting that money back into journalism or community programming. Instead of using these revenues to fill short-term holes in state budgets or university endowments, those funds could be used to fill important gaps in local news coverage and information needs.

At the moment, we think the best opportunity for making these kinds of changes is in New Jersey, which made a whopping $332 million from the auction and is one of the most underserved states when it comes to news coverage.

We’re currently lobbying New Jersey lawmakers to get them to invest a significant portion of the state’s auction proceeds in a newly created New Jersey Civic Information Consortium. The consortium would issue grants to benefit the state’s civic life and meet the evolving information needs of New Jersey’s underserved communities. The project would support Montclair State University, the New Jersey Institute of Technology, Rowan University and Rutgers University in partnering with media outlets, technology companies and community groups.

With a significant endowment, the consortium could help:

  • Improve the quantity and quality of civic information in New Jersey communities.
  • Give residents enhanced access to useful government data and public information through innovative applications, platforms and technologies.
  • Train students, professionals and community members in the practice of community storytelling, journalism and media production.
  • Nurture better civic engagement and dialogue inside and between New Jersey communities.
  • Better meet the information needs of low-income communities and communities of color that media outlets have underserved.
  • Invest in research and practices that can help media outlets become more closely connected to their audiences and more sustainable without government support.

It won’t be possible to create a consortium like the one we’ve proposed for New Jersey everywhere. In other places where stations are set to disappear, or even at public-TV stations that continue to operate after the auction, we see an opportunity to invest in public-engagement efforts or to create cutting-edge digital newsrooms focused on local issues and underserved communities.

It took $50 million to launch the Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative news operation at ProPublica. Now imagine what a similar level of funding could do for local journalism or civic technology projects in New Jersey and other places.

Each community is different, and so are its information needs. We hope that by working with residents and partnering with local allies, we can implement countless other ideas that could support strong local journalism and greater community involvement for decades to come.

People + Policy

= Positive Change for the Public Good

people + policy = Positive Change for the Public Good