Why JSHN Wholeheartedly Supports the Civic Information Fund

A Word from the Publisher

An editor’s note from Justin Auciello:

Today we present a Q-and-A with Chris Satullo, a veteran journalist who is involved in the effort to create a new, state-chartered nonprofit to promote better local news and civic information across New Jersey.

First, a personal note on why I support this idea so strongly.

I became a journalist simply to inform my community members and help them make the best possible decisions in their lives. It’s that simple. In my eyes, the role of a journalist isn’t just to disseminate information; rather, it’s to listen to community needs, work with people, and keep our institutions accountable. News for the people, by the people.

That’s empowerment and what strengthens our democracy. Now more than ever, it’s imperative that we support media innovation and collaboration to ensure that journalism thrives into the future. The civic information fund is precisely the type of mechanism that will ensure the sustainability of the fourth estate in New Jersey.   

Chris Satullo is a consultant to Free Press Action Fund in its push for the civic information bill.   He is former editorial page editor at The Inquirer and former head of news at WHYY public media in Philadelphia.  In this Q-and-A, he poses and answers some of the most frequent queries about the bill ….

Q.  So what is this civic information fund exactly?

A. The fund would be a state-chartered nonprofit with a mission to improve the quality and quantity of civic information available to New Jersey residents and communities.  The nonprofit would have a professional staff able to identify, develop and evaluate such initiatives, and a diverse board that would approve grants to launch or continue them.  A bill to create the fund is now before the state Legislature.

Q. OK, sounds interesting, but how much money are we talking about here?

A. The bill now moving its way through Trenton calls for the fund to be launched with $20 million. 

Q. Hmm, $20 million is no small sum.  What’s the argument for spending that kind of money on this purpose, as opposed to, say, fixing bridges or lowering property taxes?

A. Fair question.  Safe bridges are important.  Lower taxes are always welcome.  Still, we’d argue that accurate, ample information about local affairs, as well as in-depth reporting on how decisions in Washington and Trenton filter down to New Jersey communities, is an important civic good that’s been somewhat neglected lately.   Solid local journalism helps residents to take part effectively in community affairs. to make their voices heard on local decisions that will affect their lives. Quality local reporting also helps communities celebrate their victories and heroes, as well as face their challenges.   It strengthens bonds of community, while fostering understanding across boundaries of race, class or geography.

Q. Where would this money come from?

A. From an appropriation in the next state budget; in other words, tax dollars.  But it’s important to point out something: Last year, the state of New Jersey reaped a $332 million windfall by selling off parts of its now-defunct public media system, the New Jersey Network.  The original idea behind the “civic info fund” was to use that windfall to propel New Jersey into the national vanguard of innovation in 21st century digital public media.  That nice goal, alas, got lost in the chaotic mess of last summer’s budget stalemate (remember Chris Christie at the beach?).   In the end, Trenton just used the money to plug holes in the state budget spawned by years of dubious decisions. So, in strict terms, that windfall is gone. But in another sense, creating a fund of this modest scale (one-sixteenth of the original windfall) would be a reasonable step to take now to redeem the missed opportunity last year.

Q. Thanks, pal. Why’d did you have to put that image of our ex-governor sunning himself down the Shore back into my mind?

A. Sorry.  But, as the saying goes, you have to learn from the mistakes of the past to avoid repeating them.

Q. Anyway, back on topic, give me some sense of how this fund would work.

A. Sure.   As noted, the staff of the nonprofit would solicit, shape and vet proposals to improve the quality and quantity of useful civic information in New Jersey communities.  Those pitches could come from existing media outlets, commercial or nonprofit, but also from a lot of other sources: community organizations, school systems, local governments, arts groups, civic technologists.  To spur innovation and build collaborative muscles, the fund would work with applicants to make sure each proposed initiative includes at least one significant community partner and well as one of the state’s research universities.   The main goal of the fund’s grant-making would be to nurture fresh ideas, not just to help outlets rehire people to do the same-old-same-old. Think of the investments the fund would make as venture capital to help really promising projects get off the ground.   

Birchler

Q. What kind of promising projects?

A. We here at Free Press held a series of more than 10 public forums around the state last year to gather residents’ ideas for cool things the fund could support.   People were excited by the prospect of technologists developing apps that would put useful government data at people’s fingertips e.g. point your smartphone camera at a restaurant or abandoned building, and get its government inspection records in an instant.  They loved the idea of supporting veteran journalists in collaborative deep dives into vital state issues that might otherwise go uncovered. They gave thumbs up to helping community-based story-tellers create podcasts and online videos that are becoming the public media of the new age.  And, tired of Facebook rumors masquerading as news, they wanted to put watchdogs back in their seats at township and school board meetings, with experienced eyes monitoring how tax dollars get spent. At the forums, we harvested way more good ideas than can be listed here. Check out the Free Press’ News Voices: New Jersey blog to read more.

Q. You mentioned universities being part of this?  Is that really a good way to go? Won’t they just suck up all the money for their egghead ideas?

A.  The state lawmakers backing this idea want the state’s public universities to play a part.   One goal here is to create a pathway for campuses to become more productively, pragmatically engaged with their surrounding communities.  Five colleges – Rutgers, Rowan, Montclair, NJIT and the College of New Jersey – would get seats on the nonprofit’s board, along with representatives of the legislature, governor, the media and civic technology sectors, and community advocates.  Remember, any funded project would pair a university with other media and community partners.

Q. Is this kind of government support for media really needed?  Look at Jersey Shore Hurricane News. It’s exactly the kind of innovative digital news site you’re talking about, but it didn’t depend on government aid to get started and grow.

A. JSHN is indeed one of the most notable and inspiring success stories in the realm of digital local news seen anywhere across America in the last decade.  Justin Auciello is a national treasure. But as someone who’s known and worked with Justin almost since JSHN’s inception during Hurricane Irene, let me convey something to you that Justin is too modest and diplomatic to bring up.

Running a news site as immediate and urgent as JSHN is exhausting work. it takes a vast personal toll.  And here’s another dirty little secret: Even great local news sites such as JSHN, or the Village Green in Maplewood or Route 40 in Atlantic City, normally do not throw off enough earned revenue to enable their proprietors to make a real living. Most have to work other jobs to make ends meet.

That is not a sustainable strategy for the long haul.   At a workshop last year, I asked a room full of these great digital journalists how many of them had woken up one day in the last month and said to themselves, “I don’t know how much longer I can do this.”  Every hand in the room went up.

Yes, some great things have happened in local grassroots journalism across New Jersey in recent years.  But these impressive efforts are profoundly fragile. One of the most valuable things the civic info fund could fund would be efforts to develop things such as a membership model and infrastructure into which independent, nonprofit news operations across the state could plug.  It took NPR and its member stations four decades to build out the public radio membership infrastructure – with its mugs and tote bags, its pledge drives and newsletters and special members events – that we now all take for granted.

Young news entrepreneurs like Justin don’t have 40 years to wait until the next system of reliable revenue to sustain great local journalism comes along. They need it to be built now … if not yesterday.

The civic info fund is one of the best ideas you can find anywhere in America to begin that work soon — and to do it well and to last.

Q. OK, assuming I agree with you that this civic info fund is a good idea, do I need to do anything to support it or is it a done deal in Trenton?

It is very far from a done deal in Trenton.

Yes, the bill has significant legislative backing, including from the majority leaders in both the Senate and the Assembly.   But state budgets are always hard to pull together. There are hundreds of legitimate needs and good ideas competing for limited funds.

What puts ideas over the top is enthusiastic and sustained support from taxpayers.  Lawmakers really take notice when a bill gets repeated endorsements from the people back in their home communities.

If you want to see the civic information fund become a reality, send an email or make a phone call to your elected state officials – assembly person, senator and governor – before night falls today.

Tell them you support Assembly Bill 3628 and Senate Bill 2317 to set up the civic information fund, and that you support it because you recognize that quality local news and information are a vital public good – to you and to your community.

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