Should New Jersey use nearly a third of a $332 million windfall to bolster and expand local journalism across the state?
That's what this veteran Jersey columnist/printasaurus said — to himself — while covering the "Growing Garden State Stories: A Community Call to Action" event Thursday in downtown Camden.
The gathering, one of nine held so far across the state, was hosted by Free Press, an advocacy group that opposes media consolidation nationally and is campaigning in the state on behalf of legislation to establish a New Jersey Civic Information Consortium.
The proposal to create this grant-making nonprofit is supported by top Democrats Loretta Weinberg in the state Senate and Louis Greenwald in the Assembly. Attendees at the Camden event got a primer on how best to contact their elected representatives and spread the word about the legislation.
The Free Press group has been in existence nationally for several years and began working in New Jersey in 2015. The consortium proposal is part of the organization's larger effort to "find new ways of disseminating local news and information so that folks can become more involved and engaged in their communities," organizer James Thompson said.
The consortium would be overseen by five New Jersey colleges and universities, including Rutgers and Rowan, and would get started with $100 million from the proceeds of the sale of broadcast licenses associated with the New Jersey Network (RIP). Gov. Christie was perfectly pleased to pull the plug on those state-owned TV and radio stations in 2011.
Such great timing: NJN went off the air as newspapers and magazines in New Jersey, like those in other states, were cutting staff and, in some cases, shutting down.
So, given that the airwaves are public property, shouldn't at least some of the $332 million Trenton realized by selling this taxpayer-underwritten communications infrastructure go toward helping better inform the public about what local, county, and state governments are up to?
Absolutely! Particularly given that the reason NJN was established in the first place was because New Jersey lacked a commercial TV station and traditionally had gotten less — and often, less than flattering — attention from New York and Philadelphia news outlets.
But while I am more or less congenitally smitten with journalism and especially newspapers, let me point out that I would not be a beneficiary of this state consortium. Philadelphia Media Network, the parent of the Inquirer, Daily News, and Philly.com, is owned by a somewhat similar nonprofit called the Lenfest Institute for Journalism.
"Clearly there is a great hunger for more public-interest local news coverage in New Jersey, just as there is in the rest of the country," Lenfest Institute executive director Jim Friedlich said in a statement. "We are watching this effort with great interest and enthusiasm."
Thompson and other Free Press staff say the New Jersey consortium would encourage new enterprises, platforms, and technologies to make public information more widely available and readily understandable.
"Podcasts, hyperlocal [news coverage], training student journalists, and news literacy programs for residents are the type of things we would fund," said Mike Rispoli, director of the News Voices: New Jersey program of Free Press.
As a Garden State resident interested in news about where I live, I'm all for such efforts. And I'm hardly alone.
During Thursday's event at the Camden Conference Center, Daryl Lloyd talked about the need for a Willingboro-centric news/information app; Jamal Jackson was concerned about sparse news coverage of the Monroe Township school board; and Nichelle Pace, Chris Cream, and Sean Brown said the mainstream media shape and too often, misshape, prevailing story lines about Camden.
Their concerns sounded all too familiar.
In the late 1970s, during what in retrospect seems like a golden age of local news, I regularly covered Cherry Hill Township Council meetings for the Cherry Hill News (RIP) alongside reporters from the Bulletin (RIP), the Camden Courier-Post, and the Inquirer.
Despite this abundance of reporters, we (or at least, I) often got complaints about stories going untold. The same concern resonated in Camden when I was covering the city full-time in the 1990s, and it continues to resonate.
"With the whole gentrification thing, we're seeing people who are outsiders [portrayed as] the heroes of Camden, as opposed to people in Camden being the heroes," said Pace, a branding and marketing professional who was born and has an office in the city.
"Who controls the narrative of Camden?" she continued. "There are a lot of awesome people in the city doing awesome things, and their stories don't get told."
Cream, a filmmaker who serves on the city's Cultural Arts and Heritage Commission, said: "There's more here than negative stories. I want to see the [perception] of Camden evolve, because Camden is evolving."
Yes, it is. The rest of the state is evolving as well.
So, are more, and more diverse, notebook-carrying, smartphone-bearing digital and yes, print, journalists of all sorts — students, citizens, full-time professionals — needed? And could a New Jersey Civic Information Consortium help meet that need?