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New Jersey Should Not Be Funding Local Journalism

(Bryan Thomas for The New York Times)

“I agree that without local news, communities suffer from a dearth of necessary information, but this bill opens up way more problems than it fixes.”

Thankfully, in the months since July, not much has happened since New Jersey passed the Civic Info Bill, an effort intended to provide a boost to the beleaguered local news industry in the state. $5 million worth of taxpayer money was to be set aside and managed by a government-created non-profit for the purpose of funding select local news outlets or media startups, with a special focus on those that would be covering community news. Without this cash injection from the state, its proponents claimed that civic life in New Jersey would be badly damaged. I agree that without local news, communities suffer from a dearth of necessary information, but this bill opens up way more problems than it fixes.

I am deeply concerned with how the bill presents itself as free and non-partisan, despite having a framework that would indicate the opposite; setting a precedent based around the necessity of government-funded media—especially when it pertains to outlets such as these local ones—opens up the possibility for a future filled with journalists that can’t bite the hand that feeds them.

A crucially overlooked detail of the Civic Info Bill’s text is the composition of the created non-profit’s board of directors. Sources like CNN and The Hill reported that the board behind the selection process is simply made up of “five of the state’s universities,” which, according to the latter, are “The College of New Jersey, Montclair State University, the New Jersey Institute of Technology, Rowan University and Rutgers University.” What they neglect to include are the four politically-appointed members—two by the governor, one by the President of the Senate, and the last by the Speaker of the Assembly—who vote towards the appointment of the remaining four, plus the board’s Executive Director.

That information becomes truly interesting when one considers the distribution of political control among these three positions, or, rather, the lack thereof. Democrats control the State Assembly, Senate, and the Governorship. At a minimum, that makes for four politically-aligned board members whose bias—conscious or unconscious—factors into determining which news can exist or not, which already sounds disastrous. It doesn’t stop there. After all, who controls the funding—and thus, paychecks—for the universities that make up another five seats? The Democrat-dominated New Jersey legislature. Even assuming the universities stay strong, all it takes is one university to flip in order to give the politicians the majority in selecting those aforementioned last members. What’s the score standing looking like then? Democrats 9, Universities 4, with a Democratic Director that oversees and runs the whole thing.

In a perfect world, none of this would matter, but it should be a great cause for concern in a state that has been ranked by numerous studies as one of the most corrupt in the country.

Despite my obvious leanings, indicated by the presence of a “The Right” tag on the top of this article, my critiques don’t rest with this being a Democratic Party initiative. The fault lies within the demonstratively-dangerous structure that this bill has, one that could be misused easily by any political party. It’s plain and simple: the government cannot be trusted with something so potent as the media, no matter how helpful it may seem or end up being.

To its credit, though, ensuring that people have access to quality information is paramount for a healthy society, and there is an aspect of this bill that provides that. Section 7, subsection b2 would provide grants for “enhanced access to useful government data and public information through innovative applications, platforms, and technologies.” If there’s anything the government needs help with, it’s getting easily accessible information out to the public through its overwhelming bureaucracy in a timely fashion—everyone can remember the nearly-billion dollar Obamacare.gov failure. This is especially true for residents of New Jersey’s Hunterdon County, whose County Clerk’s website looks like a slightly more personable Drudge Report. New Jersey is wise to let private enterprises and individuals come up with solutions because government has made us aware time and time again that it definitely can’t.

That being said, even despite the glaring issues related to free press surrounding this program, is government the most efficient way to go about the local news problem? The answer to this question lies in the response to yet another important one: is the government filling an unwanted need? That answer is undoubtedly yes. Providing good local news is, of course, essential, but news’ shrinkage has only proved that people just don’t care about consuming it anymore. Just as the old adage kind-of goes, you can lead a New Jerseyan to a local newsstand, but you can’t make them read from it. No matter how much journalists (i.e., the ones losing their jobs) may scream about its need, reality can’t be changed. Sure, while one of the grants does target local civic engagement, it still brings up the same issue from before: how can we trust this engagement to be non-partisan given the one-party control of the board?

The hope for renewed local media isn’t dead, however, and it rests with private business, particularly in the hands of a company called Patch. Those of you from the over one thousand covered communities—my hometown included—may already be familiar with the coverage that comes from thr “hyperlocal” media group. But it too has had a rollercoaster-like financial history. The company had nearly hit rock bottom under AOL ownership, but has since taken off like a rocket, boasting huge readership numbers and revenue. What was the cure? Ditching AOL’s business model, which suffered from excessive personnel and cost bloat, as well as having too many other projects to dedicate quality time to it. Sounds uncannily similar to government, doesn’t it?

See, not only is this bill ineffective in terms of preserving freedom of press—one of our most important constitutional rights—but it will also be so in terms of actually doing what it set out to accomplish. Local news still has its place, and that place belongs with the private sector. Let businesses like Patch that know what they’re doing continue to bring it back. And as for what the New Jersey government can do? Just stay out of their way.

Matthew Pinna is a student at the University of Chicago. 

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Chris Satullo
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Chris Satullo

MATTHEW – You are misinformed about the makeup of the board. The minority caucus leaders in each chamber get an appointment and law as approved states that no more than 8 of the 15 members can belong to any one political party. Also much misunderstood is the purpose of the 501(c)3 – it is not to direct or conduct news coverage itself. It is a grant-making body, seeking to provide seed money to community- or business-generated ideas that promise to improve civic information and engagement. Finally, it would be nice if you offered one scintilla of evidence for the claim… Read more »

Matthew Pinna
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Matthew Pinna

Thanks for your input Chris! 1. My point still holds, despite the fact that I was looking at the first submission of the bill, the edits of which can be found here: https://www.njleg.state.nj.us/2018/Bills/S2500/2317_I1.HTM. So it caps it at 8? Great, here’s what we could have then: 8 Democrats, 5 University, 2 Republicans. How does this change any sort of bias? 2. I never said that it would direct or conduct news coverage itself. 3. Chris, if the demand for local news was there, then why did you help to create a whole bill that effectively subsidizes the industry? 4. NPR… Read more »