The state has set aside $5 million for a trailblazing nonprofit group seeking to boost coverage of local news in New Jersey.
Advocates see the pilot project as an important and innovative way to use public money to encourage more local news reporting following a sharp decline in such coverage industrywide in recent years.
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Detractors worry the model could lead to government interference.
Lawmakers say the funding, which was included in the state budget signed Sunday by Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy, will help focus more reporting on local issues in a state dominated by the New York and Philadelphia media markets.
The idea for the initiative sprang from the efforts of the nonpartisan, nonprofit Free Press Action Fund, which held community forums on residents' concerns about dwindling local news coverage, leading to legislation creating the Civic Information Consortium.
The bill, which awaits the governor's signature, sets up a charitable and education organization with a 15-member board. The governor, the Democratic Assembly speaker, the Democratic Senate president and the Republican leaders in both chambers would all make appointments. The board would also include representatives from five state colleges, the news media, and the public.
Mike Rispoli, news director for Free Press, sketched a potential scenario for how the consortium might work: Suppose you live in a small New Jersey town whose local paper doesn't cover council meetings anymore because of cutbacks. Under the legislation, you could apply for a grant to set up a one-person newsroom, and one of the universities could provide office space.
It's an idea that resonated with lawmakers.
"When it comes to state news coverage and civic information, New Jersey is one of the most underserved states in the nation," Democratic Assemblywoman Carol Murphy said. "This lack of information makes it difficult for New Jersey residents to know what's happening in their communities."
The grant money comes from a fund supported by the sale of the public broadcast spectrum last year, which netted more than $300 million, most of which is going toward general state expenses.
Rispoli pointed to public radio and television as an already-established model that shows publicly funded journalism can work free from political bias.
He also noted requirements under the bill that the consortium issue a public report to the Legislature and hold meetings across the state with the aim of being responsive to the public.
"What we wanted to do is insulate (the consortium) as much as possible from undue government influence," he said. "We also wanted it to be accountable to the public."
Those assurances have not put everyone's concerns to rest.
Al Tompkins, a faculty member at The Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank and school in St. Petersburg, Florida, said he realizes public radio and TV rely on taxpayer dollars but that he had questions about how the planned consortium would be insulated from political pressure.
"When media does things that government doesn't like then government uses that as a sword," he said. "When you start taking public money you have to start with the suspicion that at some point the system will be corrupted by power."
Rispoli said it's worth engaging on that question. He said "doing nothing" in the face of news media consolidation wasn't a good option.
"I really want all the media industry watchers to watch this and hold it accountable," Rispoli said. "The stakes are too high for the consortium to fail."
Murphy's office declined to say whether the governor would sign the bill but Rispoli said he's optimistic he will. The budget money has already been allocated.