How to Strengthen Local Journalism? New Brunswick Offers Ideas

Chris Satullo, a veteran journalist who works with the media advocacy group Free Press, speaks during a May 30 forum at Rutgers University in New Brunswick.

NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ — Hire a state transparency officer to help people request public records. Empower marginalized communities to tell their stories. Build a university research program that solicits advice from—and works with—your average Joe.

These ideas most energized the crowd at a News Voices: New Jersey forum held by the media advocacy group Free Press on May 30 at Rutgers University’s school of communications, off College Avenue and Huntington Street in New Brunswick.

Roughly two dozen journalists, academics, librarians, public relations professionals and activists attended the gathering, where they broke into two groups and brainstormed how to improve local news in the Garden State. Proposals centered on both the business and reporting ends of the industry, and targeted independent blogs, hyperlocal news sites like TAPinto and the state’s largest newspapers.

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But this crowdsourced wish list wasn’t an exercise in fantasy.

“Only in New Jersey do we have the opportunity to dream the dreams you’re going to dream tonight,” Chris Satullo, a Philadelphia journalism veteran who works with Free Press, told the audience.

Why? Because New Jersey was the only state to recently auction off two media licenses, one for a TV station in Montclair and the other in Trenton, which will be used to increase broadband access. The sales brought in $332 million, according to Free Press.

Where that money will ultimately go is unclear. Media advocates said they worry it will vanish come the end of the month, used to plug holes in the state’s notoriously porous budget.

But Free Press, state universities and various activists are pushing lawmakers to set aside $100 million to create the New Jersey Civic Information Consortium. The entity—a coalition of public colleges, including Rutgers—would oversee a fund designed to boost community journalism, media studies and civic engagement, advocates said.

Several state lawmakers planned to propose a bill this week to make that vision a reality, Free Press staffers said. Whether the consortium finds life will be decided before the adoption of the state budget, they said.

Free Press and its partners hope for the journalism fund to serve many projects, communities and generations of New Jersey residents.

“This could run for decades to come,” Mike Rispoli, who leads News Voices: New Jersey, said. “This would mean that New Jersey would be a leader in an innovative, forward-thinking media landscape.”

Media thinkers and residents opened the forum by discussing what they broadly want from local media. Some urged for stronger coverage of the state’s 21 counties, while others said they wanted more in-depth reporting.

Crime reporting—good for attracting clicks but less important than municipal coverage—had become too prevalent, they said. And journalism in New Jersey had grown timid and overcrowded, they added.

Satullo, who for years worked at The Philadelphia Inquirer, noted Jersey’s “long history as a stepchild” of news outlets based in Philly and New York City. He said those publications and stations merely “pretend” to cover the state.

So how could the New Jersey Civic Information Consortium change that?

Free Press kicked off the problem-solving session with a few ideas: Build a smartphone app and a reporting team to cover the long-term impact of state laws. Create an “AmeriCorps for journalists,” which would send young muckrakers to cover media deserts under the guidance of seasoned mentors. Establish a “Right to Know” institute that would arm people with the resources and knowledge to access public information.

As the evening went on, attendees posed and debated their own plans. Among the proposals were media literacy programs for news consumers, training for citizen journalists and funding for documentary films.

Participants then voted on which ones they preferred most. But whether any options gain traction depends on the birth of the public information consortium.

Its backers argued that the civic information fund’s benefits will extend beyond the news and into much of public life.

“Unfortunately, it is the common good and the public that are so profoundly under attack by economic, political and technical forces—forces that are seemingly beyond the control of our communities and the individuals that make those communities, forces that undermine diversity and drive inequality,” Mark Aakhus, associate dean of research and a communications professor at Rutgers, said. “And this initiative is one important opportunity to rediscover and invent common goods that push back against such forces.”

Free Press plans to hold a rally in Trenton in the next week or so. For more information, check out its website.

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