Nieman Foundation at Harvard
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July 10, 2019, 2:23 p.m.
Business Models
LINK:  ➚   |   Posted by: Christine Schmidt   |   July 10, 2019

Over the past few years, New Jersey has been the outlier in getting — or even trying to get — a local government to pony up money for local journalism. Garden State-based civic info advocacy group Free Press convinced the state legislature to originally commit $5 million in its budget last summer:

The Civic Info bill, pushed by the advocacy group Free Press, devotes funds from the sale of two old public-television licenses to start a nonprofit news incubator called the New Jersey Civic Information Consortium; it’ll seek donations and grants to grow from there…

The consortium will use five of New Jersey’s universities — the College of New Jersey, Montclair State University, the New Jersey Institute of Technology, Rowan University, and Rutgers University — as collaborators and as infrastructure. The idea is that they can supply the sort of established, institutional resources and partnerships that startups or new news projects lack. [Free Press’s Mike] Rispoli told me this help might take the form of interns, academic resources, or expertise. The schools will also provide an additional 10 percent to the amount of grants the consortium funds. This, Rispoli said, “provides a path for sustainability.”

But then the $5 million went down to $2 million, caught up in a “procedural dispute between the governor and the legislature.” From Free Press in June:

While the money already set aside in the budget is a critical first step, it should be seen as the floor. As the governor considers the budget, he shouldn’t cut this item, which amounts to a tiny fraction of the state’s multibillion-dollar budget. Never before has a state taken the lead to address the growing crisis in local news. Trustworthy local journalism is the lifeblood of our democracy: It allows people to participate meaningfully in decisions regarding local elections, public schools and other crucial matters.

Here we are today: The governor has officially approved the funding! But now the total is floating around $1 million to $2 million:

Still, this accomplishment is remarkable. New Jersey is the first but may not be the last state to invest in local media. Massachusetts’ legislature now has a bill under consideration to organize a 17-member commission to study the state’s news deserts. According to Columbia Journalism Review, the group would meet five times a year to “sift through data and ‘existing literature’ about journalism in Massachusetts” and present a summary of their findings and policy recommendations to the state at the end of one year. [Disclosure: The bill calls for Nieman Lab director Joshua Benton to be one of those commissioners. —Ed.]

And at the federal level, a California congressman has proposed a bill to ease the process of earning nonprofit status for news organizations, like the Salt Lake Tribune is working on. The change, if Congress ever agreed on something, would define news as a public good rather than having news outlets pursue 501(c)(3) status under the educational benefit qualification and allow outlets to classify future ad revenue as non-taxable income. (The Salt Lake Tribune has told the IRS it is willing to put ad revenue forth as unrelated business taxable income.)

More and more efforts are working on rebuilding local news outlets; now local officials are stepping up.

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