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July 15, 2019, 10:11 a.m.
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How Free Press convinced New Jersey to allocate $2 million for rehabilitating local news

“I really believe in the power of people to organize and advocate from the bottom up to create some solutions to this. I don’t think these solutions are going to come out of commercial media.”

When the state of New Jersey was about to make more than $300 million off of the FCC’s spectrum sale auction — sort of like money falling from the sky for once in your life, really — it was a moment that Free Press had been waiting for.

Founded in 2003, Free Press is an advocacy group focused on getting the public more involved in the future of journalism and information-sharing, which often involves community organizing, research, and lobbying the government. Sometimes that means convincing officials to set aside millions of dollars in support of local news — and sometimes that also means shepherding the money all the way through the legislative process, watching it get approved but not actually funded by the governor, and finally getting the money allocated a year later, days before you head out on vacation.

This was Mike Rispoli’s process, as the News Voices director at Free Press. New Jersey is so far the first state to provide public money for local news innovations, aside from traditional funding for PBS and NPR stations. (Massachusetts and Colorado are in the works in different ways.)

“We’re hopeful that no matter what the state of the consortium in New Jersey, it will serve as an example for not only policies that can be passed to strengthen local news, but that when you engage the public in these conversations that they will actually begin to organize and take action in support of policies that strengthen local news,” Rispoli said.

The bill was originally introduced in 2017, approved by the legislature in 2018, and funded by the governor days ago this summer. (If you’ve ever watched Schoolhouse Rock’s bill-sitting-on-Capitol Hill bit, yes, that’s faster than I would’ve thought too.) Rispoli attributes it to: the fact that local legislators saw their own news outlets withering away in their districts; ongoing newspaper acquisitions and layoffs; the longstanding overshadowing of New Jersey news by its neighboring markets of Philadelphia and New York City; collaborations with dozens of other civic groups; and the fact that they built up public support and got people involved in a much more engaged way than just subscription revenue.

The final amount allocated, though, is between $1 million and $2 million, way down from the originally proposed $100 million (a third of what New Jersey expected to bring in from the sale), which was then chopped to $5 million in the group’s second ask, as most of the money went to plug a hole in New Jersey’s budget. The amount will be distributed through grants to people working on projects that support the info needs of underserved New Jerseyans, decided by a Civic Information Consortium comprised of 15 board members. Those include political appointees from both sides of the aisle as well as university and journalism industry members.

I talked with Rispoli about what that process of navigating government bureaucracy was like (tip: his background as a statehouse reporter helped), what the consortium will look like in action, and what other states can learn from New Jersey’s example.

Christine Schmidt: How did the whole process of this project get started? Where did the idea come from?

Mike Rispoli: Back in 2015, Free Press started the News Voices project in New Jersey as a way to bring communities into the conversation with newsrooms about the future of local news in the space. Through that work, we began building up a statewide network of community organizations, activists, students, journalists, and others to really be talking about what media should look like in New Jersey and what’s working and not working.

As we were doing that, this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity presented itself in New Jersey where the state was participating in this national spectrum auction where it was selling off its old public TV licenses. At the time, people were saying the state could net upward of a billion dollars. We saw this money coming into the state as we were building up this network of people who were really interested in talking about the future of media in New Jersey.

So we decided to launch a campaign where a portion of the proceeds from the sale of the state’s TV licenses would be reinvested back into public interest media, specifically using that money to meet the needs of underserved communities in the state, communities of color, immigrant communities. We felt like as New Jersey was going through this local news crisis, that there would be a role government could play in addressing that, using state money specifically to ensure that communities across the state could get the news and information they needed.

Schmidt: What was the gameplan? You started with community outreach — how did you pitch it to people?

Rispoli: From the start, we knew if this campaign was about “bailing out the journalism industry in New Jersey,” it wouldn’t go anywhere — nor did we want to run it a campaign like that. We knew that at the heart of this campaign was that communities across the state were really feeling the loss of local news and how that was actively harming those communities. If you look at all the studies that have been done around the disappearance of local news, you’ll see that when local news is deficient or disappears altogether, civic participation drops. Fewer people vote, volunteer, or run for office. Local governments wind up spending more money because there’s no watchdog there to really keep an eye on how they’re spending tax dollars.

We began to talk about the loss of local news in New Jersey, what could communities do in response so that we could promote civic engagement and make sure communities have the information they need about things in their neighborhoods. In 2017, we held 10 forums across the state of New Jersey talking to people about what local news looked like in their community, what their needs were, and how the money coming in could potentially be used to make sure that their community stayed informed. Through that public conversation process, as well as meeting with academics and lawmakers, we began to develop the idea that became the Civic Information Consortium, which would be a 501(c)(3) that would be created by the state and receive public funds to then invest in innovative and sustainable news and information projects.

We say “civic information” to not just make this exclusively about journalism. Journalism and local news play a huge part, but we also want to see if there’s a way to invest public funds in the development of technology and news literacy programs and training student journalists or whatever it may be. Doing that public consultation and those public forums was really essential to not only getting the sense of how the money could be used to respond to people’s needs but to also really build up people’s energy around the idea.

What we saw was really exciting, that through the course of this campaign thousands of people took action in support of the civic info bill. People participated in community forums, signed petitions, called their local lawmakers, testified in front of committees, and went to lobby days at the statehouse. It was really exciting to see how well the public responded to this idea and I think it really demonstrates the hunger from everyday people to do something about the loss of local news. They felt like if they organized and pressured their local representatives and lawmakers from the statehouse that they would respond to it.

And lawmakers did. You can look at who sponsored the civic info bill. It was the majority leaders in the Senate and the Assembly. There were 15 cosponsors of the bill. That was largely due to the fact that we went out into the communities, listened to them, and because we built this grassroots campaign there was actually a way for them to take action in support of the civic info bill.

Schmidt: What kinds of other organizations did you work with? It’s obviously tough for a news outlet themselves to do something like this, but there are trade associations — who else?

Rispoli: When you look at the organizations that participated in this campaign, they were civic engagement organizations like the League of Women Voters and local arts groups and service providers in communities. They were other social justice groups organizing around immigration in New Jersey. We put together a coalition letter that we delivered to lawmakers when the bill was getting introduced that had 60 signatures form community organizations around the state. Two-thirds of the signatories were people who represented immigrant communities in New Jersey. We saw a lot of energy behind this idea that there were real communities that were feeling the loss of local news and there were a lot of communities that felt the news was never really representing them or their perspectives or meeting their needs. They saw this opportunity as a way to get more money into local ethnic media to support those efforts that they felt like were more rooted in community and provided them with news that was beneficial to their community.

Schmidt: Can you walk me through how and with whom you started those first conversations, inside the legislature?

Rispoli: In the fall of 2016, we began reaching out to lawmakers in the state. The former president of the Dodge Foundation in New Jersey, Chris Daggett, wrote an op-ed in The New York Times about the opportunity of the spectrum auction and what that could mean for New Jersey. That was the first public thing that was written about the idea that some of our funders and allies had been working on behind the scenes for the past few months.

We began meeting with representatives in the legislature. Every single one of those meetings ended with lawmakers saying, “There’s no way this is going to happen. There’s no way that government is going to fund local news. There’s no way you’re going to get people to care about this.” We met with journalists, either journalists in newsrooms or their editors or associations in New Jersey, and they said the same thing: “There’s no way you’re going to get the state to dedicate this money.” From the start, there was a lot of skepticism toward the idea.

But we felt we had built up so much energy and momentum through our community engagement work over the past few years and this was such a huge opportunity that there was actually a path for this to happen. It wasn’t until we met with the assembly majority leader Lou Greenwald, who loved the idea from the start. He’s from South Jersey, which is pretty much a news desert that’s overshadowed by the Philadelphia market. He understood how the consortium could actually benefit his constituents, so he signed onto the bill. Senate majority leader Loretta Weinberg, who has a long history of supporting press freedom and open records, met with us. She got it instantly: She’s from Bergen County, which at the time was experiencing a real upheaval in local news where Gannett bought out the North Jersey Media Group and laid off a bunch of people. She was witnessing the harm that the media consolidation was having on her constituents.

When we were able to get the support from majority leaders in 2017, that’s when the momentum behind the bill began. That was due to months of relationship building and groundwork and building up this campaign. In June 2017, the bill was introduced to create the Civic Information Consortium, and at the time we had an ask in there for $100 million — $20 million for five years — because the state had received $332 million from the sale of the TV licenses. It was less than maybe what was originally expected, but still a significant amount of money. We thought a third going to this idea was an appropriate ask. At the time, Governor Christie had other plans. He took all but $10 million of that money that came in through the sale and put it in the general fund and used it for a variety of different things. Only about $10 million was left from the sale when we went back the next year and got the bill reintroduced, which is why we asked for $5 million, half the remaining proceeds. It was last year the bill passed with wide bipartisan support and in the budget that the new governor, Governor Murphy, signed, he allocated $5 million for it.

Schmidt: That seems quick to me. I don’t know how this usually happens but like you said it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity with the spectrum sale. But in my mind, it’s SchoolHouse Rock’s bill sitting on Capitol Hill. Did it seem like a quick process for you?

Rispoli: At the time, it did feel fast. I’m a former statehouse reporter in New Jersey from Gannett. I knew how the legislature worked. I knew to have a process of building up public support for an idea, getting policy introduced, building up enough political capital in the statehouse to get something passed. I knew that might take a lot of time so on the one hand, yes, it seemed like from the point in which we had an idea to when the bill was actually passed — which was about two years — was maybe faster than other processes in politics.

But I also think that speaks to how this issue resonated with people across the state and as well as lawmakers, that they knew this was a really important issue for New Jersey. The state of local media in New Jersey has been a topic of conversation for a little bit of time, because it has the history of being overshadowed by New York and Philadelphia media markets. It’s always had a really strong print media presence and community media presence. As you’re seeing these outlets disappear over the past decade and thousands of journalists laid off, the crisis was real and being felt. That added to the urgency for something to be done about it.

Schmidt: How did it go from that point to getting the money allocated today? I know there was the blip of the consortium being passed but not in the final budget — how did that work out?

Rispoli: Essentially what happened last year was the legislature passed the civic info bill with wide bipartisan support. The governor signed the New Jersey state budget, which included a $5 million appropriation for the consortium. That was when a lot of the attention to the idea came and New Jersey was being lifted up as a potential model for other states. About six to eight weeks later, when Gov. Murphy signed the civic info bill into law, in his signing statement, he said “I fully support this idea. It is absolutely needed in our state. However, the $5 million allocated isn’t in fact there. I want to be able to find another revenue source.”

From the signing statement:

I believe it is extremely important to put in place a strong system to prevent a world in which popular but false news claims go unchallenged because of a lack of commitment or resources. This new law embodies precisely such commitment and establishes exactly such a system. Unfortunately, however, the same cannot be said about the resources provided to the Consortium under this bill and under the legislative budget…

Given the diversion of auction proceeds to the General Fund, most, if not all of the remaining balances are necessary to provide for capital projects and emergency repairs required by the New Jersey Public Broadcasting Authority to maintain its equipment and licensing as required by the Federal Communications Commission….

I would strongly prefer to establish a long-term priority list and to generate sufficient recurring revenues to pay for those priorities in a responsible manner. Nonetheless, I am hopeful that a sufficient amount of funding will be available to support the Consortium as it begins its important work. My signature today represents my unwavering commitment to strengthening news outlets in New Jersey at this very critical time in our history.

It was this very weird moment where we were celebrating that this thing we had been campaigning for for two years was signed into law, but it didn’t have any money. Since the consortium is really tasked with using public funds to invest in new ideas, it couldn’t work without money. For the past year, we’ve been working with the governor’s office and legislative leadership to find money for the consortium to work. A couple weeks ago, when the governor signed the budget, there were two line items for the consortium both for $1 million dollars each. The governor basically put half of that money: Out of that $2 million, $1 million he said he can’t dedicate it to the consortium until future revenue collections come in.

It’s been an interesting process to see so much enthusiasm for the idea of the consortium, but also be confronted with the reality of the financial situation in New Jersey. I imagine that is true for a lot of other states as well. While states are seeing local news disappear, if there’s an opportunity for them to do something, they have to face the reality of their budgets and have to make hard choices about what they can allocate money to.

Schmidt: One of our earlier articles about the consortium said that there would be outside money as well. Some universities said they’d put up money and you’d be seeking donations and grants as well. Is that still the case?

Rispoli: The civic info bill that was signed into law last year creates the Civic Info Consortium as an independent 501(c)(3) public charity that would be tasked with investing money into new and innovative media projects around the state. We always felt there was a role that government funding could play in helping start and maybe continue in it, but we wanted to make sure whatever the bill created that it wasn’t solely dependent on government funds. That’s why it’s an independent 501(c)(3) that receives government funds but would be able to raise money outside of that. The consortium would be a collaboration among five higher ed institutions in the state that would have representatives on the board and political appointees and other appointees from the media and technology fields and underserved communities in the state.

The past year, while we have been on the one hand working to ensure money for the consortium, we’ve been working with the Murphy administration, lawmakers, and universities to help create the infrastructure for the consortium. Almost all the initial board appointees have been put in place. We’re in the process of trying to figure out which of the universities would be home to the consortium. I think now that there’s funding there those conversations will begin to accelerate a little bit. When the consortium was created last year but the funding was pulled, it took a little bit of time to sort out what that actually meant for its future. While things have been a little slower than what we hoped for initially, the work has been progressing and we’re hopeful that now there’s actual funding there, we’ll be able to set the board up, select a home institution, and begin to hire for the independent staff that will oversee the day-to-day operations of the consortium.

Schmidt: Who are the appointees?

Rispoli: The Senate president and minority leader have made appointments and all the universities have made appointments. We’re waiting for the assembly and the governor to make their appointments. The board as it’s been formed so far has also been active in trying to secure funding. One board appointee testified in front of one of the legislative budget committees and wrote letters to legislative leadership and the governor during the budget session in support of the consortium and asking for funding to go to it. While we’re helping to create the infrastructure, the board has also been advocating for funding.

Schmidt: What the consortium in action would look like? What will it actually be doing?

Rispoli: We believe the consortium’s impact can be as a reimagining of the role of public funding in supporting public interest media. For a long time in this country, government has given public funds to support public interest media, both at the national and state levels. New Jersey has a history of funding public media, up until recently. We think that there’s absolutely an essential role for governments to play in addressing the loss of local news and that public funding is one way to make up for the market failure of commercial media and how that’s left many communities in the dark.

We’re hopeful the consortium will play a role in investing public funds into underserved communities to help meet the needs of those communities who have seen journalists stop covering local meetings, seen newsrooms close down, seen development projects happening where they live and having no idea who it actually benefits or how their tax dollars are being spent.

We think that this money that the consortium will grant out can absolutely be used for journalism, but also help get civic technology projects off the ground in certain communities, help some of the universities involved develop students journalists and create fellowships where they work with local newsrooms to cover communities that are no longer being covered by this outlet. We know that $2 million is not enough to solve the local news crisis in New Jersey but we do hope it will begin to invest in projects that will come up with different sustainability models or help support some of the emerging projects we’ve seen at the local level in a response to the demise of legacy media in New Jersey. This money can go to some of these really interesting emerging projects and give them more support as they figure things out.

I also think both the consortium and the campaign for the civic info bill will hopefully serve as a model for other states as they expand what they can be doing in response to the disappearance of local news. We’re seeing that happen in Massachusetts this week where there was a hearing on a bill to set up a commission for strengthening local news in underserved communities. We’re seeing the Colorado Media Project looking at possible public pathways to strengthen and support local news. We’re seeing at the federal level with bills recently introduced that could help create and support nonprofit media. We’re hopeful that no matter what the state of the consortium in New Jersey, that it will serve as an example for not only policies that can be passed to strengthen local news but that when you engage the public in these conversations that they will actually begin to organize and take action in support of policies that strengthen local news. We’re hopeful that these policies aren’t just created in the statehouse but lawmakers and policy makers are actually engaging the public throughout.

Schmidt: So what kind of upkeep — if that’s the best word — needs to happen going forward? What’s Free Press’s role now that the funding is there?

Rispoli: At least in New Jersey, there’s a lot of questions that remain about some of the funding that’s going to the consortium. We’ve been invested in New Jersey for quite some time and we’ll continue to work with the consortium as it emerges to make sure we’re helping it work with the public to set funding priorities.

Free Press is a national organization that, through its local journalism project, does place-based work. But as a national organization that focuses on media policy, we can support efforts in other states like Massachusetts and Colorado and at the federal level. We’re hopeful that we’ll help continue to put out different policy ideas and packages to open new possibilities for how governments can strengthen local news.

Realistically, there is no future for local journalism without some sort of government intervention. We have witnessed what happens when left to the market — it has created a really big mess. Communities are harmed in the process. Through funding or other sorts of policies, there is absolutely a role that public policy plays in supporting the future of local news. That is something I believe in and something I have kind of witnessed firsthand in New Jersey. I hope that the role Free Press and Free Press Action [their 501(c)(4)] can play in that, as states figure this out, is to use New Jersey as a model for new possibilities for the role of government in figuring out what happens when local news disappears. I don’t think the people who got us into this mess are going to be the ones to figure out how to get us out of it. I really believe in the power of people to organize and advocate from the bottom up to create some solutions to this. I don’t think these solutions are going to come out of commercial media. It’s going to have to come from communities advocating to their lawmakers to take bold action.

Schmidt: What else should I have asked about, or what else did you want to mention?

Rispoli: A lot of the criticism of the work that we’ve been doing in New Jersey — and we wrote a Nieman Lab prediction that government would begin to fund local news more — a lot of the pushback we get against that is that government shouldn’t be involved in funding journalism whatsoever. I think it’s really important for us to address that because, No. 1, as I mentioned before, there is a long history in the United States of public funding going toward public interest media. At the federal level, you’ve got the CPB. and in places all around the country, some of the best journalism produced is public media.

When you look at polls around trustworthiness, public media is always ranked at the top. I wouldn’t say Frontline pulls its punches in its investigation because PBS receives funding from the government. We have to recognize this already exists in the U.S. and what we have been advocating for is a reimagining of what does public funding look like when it comes to public media.

When you’re looking at commercial media many states including New Jersey there are laws on the books that require local governments to buy advertising for hearings, the public notice laws. Governments already give commercial media money, advertising dollars. That exists already. I think really what is at issue here is, no matter where funding comes from — whether it’s advertisers or benevolent billionaires or foundations or governments — the most important thing is that there are firewalls and safeguards in place that ensure that people with the money do not influence the end editorial product. We took that idea very, very seriously. It was something we talked about in all the communities we worked in. In the civic info bill, there are certain protections in place to prohibit government interference. There is a clause in the bill to prohibit government interference. There’s a 15-member board because we want to make sure that neither the political appointees nor the university appointees would have a majority. It’s a bipartisan board to protect against one party interfering with the reporting. And because it’s an independent 501(c)(3), it’s not actually part of government. It receives government funding, but it’s not actually solely run by the state of New Jersey.

While I really take some of those criticisms seriously, I also think they’re really misguided, and I think they’re really missing the point. The future of funding for local news is going to include a mix of advertising money, philanthropic support, and some public funding in that as well. You’re going to have to have a bunch of revenue streams to make that up.

1784 map of New Jersey via Rutgers University.

POSTED     July 15, 2019, 10:11 a.m.
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