Business of News: New Jersey Introduces a Fund That Will Support Local Journalism

By: Tim Gallagher

In my final year of college, which only seems to be the time slide rulers were invented, I edited the student newspaper at the University of New Mexico and learned a valuable lesson about separation of “church and state.”

We sold advertising to raise about 90 percent of our budget for our free daily. The other 10 percent came from student fees that were allocated through the student government. My editorials had been unkind to the student senate and they took the opportunity at the budget hearings to remind me that they controlled a significant part of our budget and if our coverage didn’t improve…

Young and full of piss and vinegar, I told them what they could do with their 10 percent and only a late save by our production director allowed us to keep it. But I learned first-hand why separating the fourth estate was truly important. It’s all about the money.

As journalism continues in treacherous water, there’s an attempt in New Jersey to accept a life preserver from the state legislature. It is an innovative idea but I might tread water a little longer.

After New Jersey sold its public television licenses for $332 million, the Senate and Assembly majority leaders proposed establishing a fund that would pay for journalistic initiatives and civic information programs through partnerships with state universities. The state would put $20 million a year for five years into the fund.

The Free Press Action Fund supports the bill believing it would add local news and increase citizens interacting with their government. Local newspapers could compete for these funds (so could tech companies and citizens groups) to support ideas that embellish local citizens’ knowledge of their government and community.

There is a lot to like about the intent of this idea. It has the potential to strengthen reporting in small communities that have been hurt by the loss of reporting staffs. It is one thing for a large newspaper to cut back staff from 900 to 800. It is quite another for a small newspaper to trim its reporters from 14 to 7. How many statehouses are now covered by a handful of reporters?

Corruption in local government flourishes without watchdogs. Citizens do not engage with local school boards or water districts when no one reports on their actions.

Dozens of ideas outside the daily journalism model could flourish. Legislative bill trackers. Campaign donation reports that tie money to the legislator who sponsors a bill. Local water quality tests made available immediately.

“People rely on locally produced news and information to engage with their neighbors, learn about volunteer opportunities, make decisions about voting, run for public office, get information about small businesses and support their children in local schools,” said Mike Rispoli, the director of the News Voices: New Jersey model, in an article for News Voices. “The Civic Information Consortium would support projects that strengthen the kind of public-interest journalism and innovation in civic media that the people of New Jersey urgently need.”

The consortium idea is inherently fair.

I like the intent here, but I’m worried whenever government treads into the land of a free and unfettered press.

For instance, what if a public service journalism project funded through the state results in the ouster of a crooked mayor who also happens to be a leader in the state Democratic Party?  How much longer will the legislature support the effort then?

New Jersey’s outgoing governor is close to a White House that has declared the media the enemy of the people.

Rispoli, a former statehouse reporter, is realistic about political meddling. One of the key safeguards is a 13-member governing board that would decide on the grants. Four of the 13 are political appointees. The others are educators, local citizens, media representatives and people from tech companies.

The Free Press Action Fund is exciting and innovative. It is the kind of thinking our country needs as we figure out the future of journalism. Keeping the fox out of the henhouse is going to require an alert watchdog. But then again, that is the job of journalists.

Tim Gallagher is president of The 20/20 Network, a public relations and strategic communications firm. He is a former Pulitzer Prize-winning editor and publisher at The Albuquerque Tribune and the Ventura County Star newspapers. Reach him at tim@the2020network.com.

 

 

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Published: August 17, 2017

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