A $330M windfall could rebuild New Jersey media; here’s how you can help

Editor’s note: This post was republished with permission from Free Press. Montclair State University is a proposed member of the New Jersey Civic Information Consortium.

New Jersey’s local media is in crisis and — if we act fast — the state legislature can actually do something to fix it.

This week, the Federal Communications Commission announced the results of the national spectrum auction, which incentivized television stations to sell their airwaves.

And New Jersey is set to receive a huge windfall from the auction. The state sold off two of its old public-media stations — WNJN in Montclair and WNJT in Trenton — and brought in nearly $332 million. These were two of the largest individual payouts of any noncommercial stations.

Now it’s up the lawmakers to decide what to do with the money. Since these were the public’s airwaves, designed specifically to inform the residents of New Jersey, we believe these funds should go directly to rebuilding community media.

Advocating for New Jersey media

In my testimony before the New Jersey Senate Budget Committee this week, I urged lawmakers to support the creation of the New Jersey Civic Information Consortium. The consortium, a joint initiative between Montclair State University, the New Jersey Institute of Technology, Rowan University and Rutgers University, would invest the auction revenue in projects that strengthen public-interest journalism, advance research and innovation in the media field, develop and deploy civic technology, and promote civic engagement.

The opportunity to strengthen local journalism in New Jersey could not come at a more critical time. For the past two years, Free Press’ News Voices project has worked to connect newsrooms with the residents they’re meant to serve. In places like Asbury Park, Atlantic City, Camden, Morristown, New Brunswick, and Newark, we’ve heard from countless people that they want more coverage of their communities.

They’ve told us how the thousands of journalist layoffs over the last decade have led to reduced coverage. In some cases media consolidation and newsroom closings have left their communities completely uncovered.

When news coverage disappears, people are less informed, civic participation drops and political corruption increases. Spectrum revenues should be used to support those who 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.

Time to take action

That’s why the creation of the New Jersey Civic Information Consortium is so important.

These publicly owned airwaves came with the obligation to serve the people in the selling stations’ local broadcast areas. It’s only right that money from the sale of New Jersey’s 20th-century media outlets be used to create a new, forward-thinking media landscape for this century that’s attuned to residents’ needs.

We’ve started holding forums around the state, speaking with people about this idea, listening to residents about what they need in local coverage, and working with them to imagine how this fund could support their communities.

Creating the consortium isn’t going to be easy. Lawmakers are already scrambling to use the auction revenue for everything except supporting an industry that holds them accountable and serves the public’s interest.

This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get the media residents deserve. This opportunity will disappear if we don’t act fast.

New Jersey deserves better media — urge the legislature to fund the Civic Information Consortium today.

Mike Rispoli is the journalism campaign director and News Voices: New Jersey director at Free Press. Free Press is a partner of the Center for Cooperative Media. Learn more about News Voices: New Jersey.

About the Center for Cooperative Media: The Center is a grant-funded program of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. The Center is supported with funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation and Democracy Fund. Its mission is to grow and strengthen local journalism, and in doing so serve New Jersey residents. For more information, visit CenterforCooperativeMedia.org.

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