Nonprofit aims to strengthen local journalism, civic engagement

BY Leah Mishkin, Correspondent |

Citizens are relying more than ever on factual reporting at a time when newspapers are dwindling. Now Gov. Phil Murphy’s signed into law landmark legislation to bolster local news coverage by allocating $5 million in state funds to a nonprofit called the Civic Information Consortium. Correspondent Leah Mishkin recently sat down with Free Press Action Fund State Director Mike Rispoli and asked him about how it will work and who it will benefit.

Rispoli: The Civic Info Bill would create the Civic Information Consortium, which is a joint collaborative initiative among five higher education institutions in New Jersey — Rowan University, Rutgers University, Montclair State University, NJIT and The College of New Jersey. And what the consortium would do is, it would be a nonprofit that would invest in ideas meant to strengthen local news, municipal technology and civic engagement.

Mishkin: Why do you feel this is necessary at this point?

Rispoli: I think a lot of communities around New Jersey have really felt, over the past decade, that media consolidation has really changed how people get information in New Jersey. Thousands of journalists have been laid off. Dozens of newsrooms have closed. There is still really quality journalism going on in New Jersey, but there are also a lot of communities that are in the dark about what’s happening at their local city council, their schools. And so what the bill would do is one, invest in ideas meant to strengthen existing local journalism, but two, also try to address the gaps. There are news deserts across New Jersey. There are lots of communities that for years have felt ignored or neglected by local media. And so what this Civic Information Consortium would do is invest in ideas meant to strengthen media at the community level, and help entrepreneurs connect with local universities to get those ideas off the ground.

Mishkin: Just to give us some examples, what sorts of ideas are we talking here? Do you have any in mind, or how would this play out?

Rispoli: Sure, so for the past year we’ve done forums around the state of New Jersey, and so I am going to give you some ideas that we heard directly from community members about what their needs are at the local level. So a lot of people talked about media literacy programs to combat fake news and misinformation. A lot of people talked about starting their own digital, hyperlocal online paper in a community where there is no local news source. A lot of people talked about collaborations between newsrooms to address larger statewide issues. And we also heard some really amazing ideas around civic technology, open data platforms, so that government data would be more accessible to members of the public.

Mishkin: And this consortium, they would be in charge of allocating the funds and the grants?

Rispoli: Right, so the way that it would work is that the consortium would have its own staff and its own board. And so people would apply for grants, and then if they were able to win that grant, then they would be matched with a university, and then the university would provide expertise and resources. What’s really exciting about this is that the state right now is looking in investing millions of dollars into this, and so it would be a first of its kind in the nation and it really has an opportunity to really change the way that people get news and information around the state.

Mishkin: How would you look at people’s success? We’re talking all forms of media. People can be doing print, multimedia. How would you work that process out?

Rispoli: I think that the most important thing is that every community has different needs. In some communities there’s a newspaper, but there’s not a whole ton of municipal technology, and so in a place like that, you can livestream the city council meeting. In some places, there is no local news source, and so maybe community members would get together and create a news source that addresses their needs. And also in low-income communities, in communities of color, in immigrant communities, creating media that represents that community is really important. So I think that supporting new opportunities to develop ethnic media around the state would be a huge success.

Mishkin: And this consortium, the members would be selected by the governor and other elected officials. Are these paid positions?

Rispoli: So the way that it would work is that the board that would be making up the consortium would have appointees from state government as well as the universities. But there’s also representatives from media, from the technology industry, as well as community groups and members around the state. And the important thing is that with the board is that it would be bipartisan. There would only be a few political appointees, to be mainly members of the public and people with an expertise in media.

Mishkin: But, just speaking on transparency, would they get paid?

Rispoli: No, they would not. There would be paid staff, an executive directors and program officers obviously to vet different applications, as well as to be evangelists for the idea. The way that the Civic Info Bill is written right now, there’s a yearly reporting process, as well as public forums that have to take place around the state so that people who are working at the consortium can have an idea of, is there an impact that the consortium is having. What ideas can we solicit from the public to make it more successful, and to tell the story about how it’s making a difference in communities.

Mishkin: How do you envision this five years from now if we were sitting back at this desk, how do you see this going and rolling out?

Rispoli: Well, I hope to be back five years from now talking about how the consortium created a media system in New Jersey that would be more inclusive and more community rooted, as well as existing media outlets like NJTV, like many of the great newspapers around the state, were strengthen as a result of the consortium. And that people in communities around the state felt like they were getting the news that they need.