By Julia Bell
New Jersey legislators have approved $5 million in funding that will create a Civic Information Consortium, a nonprofit to “meet the information needs” of New Jerseyans. The fund is intended to reinvigorate New Jersey’s local media outlets, especially in underserved communities.
Free Press Action Fund proposed the legislation (S2317) in response to community input and dwindling resources for local news outlets. The consortium will be a collaborative effort of five in-state universities, including The College of New Jersey and Rutgers University.
Led by Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, D-Bergen, and Assembly Majority Leader Lou Greenwald, D-Camden, the bill was approved by wide margins. It awaits the governor’s signature, but legislators and the governor are locked in a battle over the budget.
In a statement after the bill’s passage, Mike Rispoli, the state director for the Free Press Action Fund said, “Stories about how communities have suffered from years of media consolidation were the driving force to securing millions of dollars that will strengthen local news and information in towns and cities across New Jersey.”
Although jobs in Internet publishing and broadcasting have increased over the last quarter-century, the tech age has not found a ready replacement for local news coverage. U.S. employees of newspaper publishing companies have been whittled from 458,000 in 1990 to 183,000 in 2016—more than a 50% decrease (Bureau of Labor Statistics).
Advocates hope the Civic Information Consortium could serve as a model for other states, especially those without significant media production centers. Consortium grants are intended especially to focus on projects to improve coverage of communities often overlooked by the media, such as communities of color or low-income areas.
Because the Consortium is state-supported and two New Jersey politicians will serve on its board, political interference is a potential concern. However, while voicing his support for the bill, Assemblymember Greenwald stated there will be no political interests at play where news issues are concerned.
“It adds local context to stories and keeps those in power accountable,” Greenwald said of local media. “Supporting it is undoubtedly in the public’s best interest.”
Julia Bell is a senior studying English at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. She’s interested in media, especially in understanding how children understand culture through media.