Local news is the lifeblood of a community. Local newspapers inform residents what the school board is up to, what’s going on around town and how their elected officials are impacting their lives.
But when local newspapers are all-too-frequently consolidated, given financial strain and loss of advertising dollars, the hyper local coverage often departs. And what is life if not local?
As Kyle Pope said in a recent piece for the Columbia Journalism Review about the mass shooting at the Capital Gazette last week, part of what makes them important parts of a community are their accessibility, an attribute that has lately become a lethal liability.
Pope writes: “Local newsrooms are accessible for a reason — it’s part of what makes them integral to the life of their communities. People come in to buy ads. Readers bring in photos of their kids’ sports teams. Tipsters drop by with gossip.”
New Jersey, in an effort to inject some much-needed lifeblood into local news, this week approved a bill that will dedicate $5 million dollars to local news through the Civic Information Consortium.
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy approved the bill, which will create the Free Press Action Fund. The result — many underserved, low-income and communities of color will be better covered through this first-of-its-kind nonprofit.
The Civic Information Consortium will create partnerships between New Jersey colleges and universities, including The College of New Jersey, Montclair State University, the New Jersey Institute of Technology, Rowan University and Rutgers University.
To gain access to funds, a project must be connected to one of these universities and show that the news it produces will improve the quality of information available to the state's communities. The program will also help to launch media-literacy and civic-engagement programs.Mike Rispoli, the state director for Free Press Action Fund, stated: “Never before has a state taken the lead to address the growing crisis in local news. Trustworthy local journalism is the lifeblood of democracy; it allows people to participate meaningfully in decisions regarding local elections, public schools and policy decisions.”
The road to you-know-where is paved with such good intentions. Consider that in recent years, college and university campuses have not exactly distinguished themselves as open accessible places that celebrate unfettered free speech or welcome opportunities to hear diverse opinions, debate contrarian speakers or consider alternate positions. Now comes this mandated "connection" to universities in order for news organizations to qualify for funds. Does this mean news outlets will have to comply with Trustee Board influences, college administration policies, or faculty or student organization positions in order to qualify for the money? And if the news entities don't comply, could their funding be withheld or canceled? Additionally, can anyone foresee inherent problems with state governments directing tax revenues through another taxpayer-supported entity (state colleges, universities) in order to pay for news operations? How is a free press supposed to be a watchdog of government if it is financially reliant upon that government? Perhaps worse still is that continued financial support is dependent upon ". . . show(ing) that the news it produces will improve the quality of information available ...?" Who (or what) will determine that? There's a name for state-supported media, and it's not a good one.