While Trenton passes the buck, local journalists pass the hat in Madison

Panel discusses future of local journalism in Madison, at 'Use It or Lose It: Why Local Journalism Matters,' presented by Impact 100 Garden State, March 7, 2019. Photo by Marion Filler
Panel discusses future of local journalism in Madison, at 'Use It or Lose It: Why Local Journalism Matters,' presented by Impact 100 Garden State, March 7, 2019. Photo by Marion Filler
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State lawmakers consider local journalism so important that they passed a ground-breaking bill to help fund it.

Gov. Phil Murphy agreed. But when he introduced his state budget this week…the $5 million for the pilot project was missing.

That pretty much sums up the struggle facing news organizations in the Garden State, according to a panel of journalists, academics and philanthropists who spoke in Madison on Thursday.

More than 100 people attended Use It or Lose It: Why Local News Matters, presented at Grace Episcopal Church by Impact 100 Garden State, a Special Project Fund of the Community Foundation of New Jersey that supports charitable giving to strengthen New Jersey communities.

What’s at stake is nothing less than democracy itself, said panelist Chris Daggett, former CEO of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.

“I see journalists as the lifeblood of democracy, and a free press is underlying much of the good work that goes on in this country,” said Daggett, a former state- and federal environmental environmental commissioner and Independent gubernatorial candidate.

Audio: Use It or Lose It: Why Local News Matters, March 7, 2019.

Media consolidation and newspaper layoffs mean countless local government meetings go uncovered, and labor-intensive original reporting gets scrapped, leaving citizens less informed and disengaged. That’s a formula for democracy that is “greatly diminished, and possibly lost,” he said.

Nationwide, the figures are sobering. The United States has lost nearly 1,800 newspapers since 2004; between 1,300 and 1,400 communities that had a newspaper at that time now have no coverage at all, said Denise Lang-Grant, a former community newspaper editor who introduced the panel, moderated by Morristown Green Editor Kevin Coughlin.

In New Jersey, cutbacks in the Gannett chain have drastically reduced staffs at the Daily Record and the Bergen Record. The Star-Ledger has undergone similar reductions.

Although the Wall Street Journal is growing, 36 new hires are unlikely to boost local coverage, said panelist Lisa Vickery, a Journal editor who expressed concerns “about the need for speed” in today’s hyper-competitive online world.

“I sometimes worry, is journalism still the top thing, or is audience measurement the top thing?” Vickery said.

GLIMMER OF HOPE?

Daggett and the Morristown-based Dodge Foundation have partnered with the Democracy Fund, the Knight Foundation and other institutions and local news organizations–including MorristownGreen.com. They have searched for journalism business models to replace advertising and readership lost to craigslist, Google, Facebook; and to free news aggregators like the Huffington Post and BuzzFeed; and to the collapse of big box retail advertisers.

Digital news sites have experimented with combinations of ads, grants, subscriptions, pay walls and event fees. So far, a magic solution has proven elusive. “Unfortunately, I can tell you that after eight years of working on this, we wholly failed on that,” Daggett said.

Panelists field audience questions at 'Use It or Lose It: Why Local News Matters,' March 7, 2019. Photo by Deborah Seme.
Panelists field audience questions at ‘Use It or Lose It: Why Local News Matters,’ March 7, 2019. Photo by Deborah Seme.

New Jersey’s proposed Civic Information Consortium offered a glimmer of hope, garnering attention around the world.

Citizens lobbied for the state to earmark a big chunk of proceeds from the $332 million sale of public broadcast licenses for local journalism and innovations in the field. Gov. Chris Christie whacked the fund to $10 million, which got shrunk by another $5 million under Murphy.

A drop in the ocean, for sure. Yet it represents a symbolic advance in a nation wary of government support for journalism.

In the United Kingdom, on the other hand, the BBC is funded by a television tax. Some of that money now is being sprinkled into a “Local News Partnership” to pay for reporters.

The Brits spend about $86 per capita on public broadcasting; Norway spends $135 per person, reports The New Yorker. The United States expends less than $3–a cup of coffee, basically.

“We’re back in campaign mode, trying to secure additional funding for the consortium this year, in this year’s budget,” said panelist Mike Rispoli, who spearheaded New Jersey’s Civic Information drive as part of the Free Press’ News Voices project.

He urged the audience to petition state legislators to find $5 million. Then, five universities must determine how to dole out the cash, raising more questions. Rispoli is taking things one step at a time.

“I’m an optimistic person. You know I’m hopeful that we can do it this year,” he said of the funding piece.

NEW CARNEGIES?

Rispoli thinks ad dollars eventually may reward efforts to boost reader engagement, an area he suggested traditional media often overlooked. He cited Hearken, a startup that promotes collaboration between reporters and readers.

Andrew Carnegie once endowed hundreds of libraries. Could modern philanthropists do the same for journalism? Daggett said they are better suited for seeding new ventures than sustaining them.

“Foundations are not a longterm source that will keep something financially viable,” he said.

A 2 percent tax on Google and Facebook could yield $1 billion for local journalism, said Rispoli, citing a recent research paper. Joe Amditis, associate director for the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University, endorsed the idea of dedicated taxes for journalism.

“Journalism is public service and I would argue that you should fund it like one,” Amditis said. “I mean, we have things called Special Improvement Districts in our communities which allow us to fund the public services that we deem necessary that the municipal government doesn’t already provide.”

That’s essentially how NJN, the forerunner of the NJTV public television network, was created, said panelist Marie DeNoia, a former Emmy-winning television reporter.

Liz Parker, executive editor of the New Jersey Hills Media Group, said her chain of 14 weekly newspapers has skirted the painful cutbacks of daily papers, though she has cut back on stringers. That’s posed challenges for her 16 reporters and editors tasked with covering 60 towns in four counties.

But adrenaline-fueled, curiosity-driven journalists thrive on such challenges, Parker commented. “I mean, reporters are not normal people,” she said.

Coughlin, the moderator, wondered if this pool of abnormals eventually will dry up. A 2017 ranking of 200 careers placed “Newspaper Reporter” dead last, behind Garbage Collector, Taxi Driver, Retail Salesperson and Logger. Reasons included low pay, “very poor” work environment and projected growth, and “very high” stress. Next-to-last: Advertising Sales.

Readers were “appalled” when Parker launched online pay walls about 18 months ago. But she explained it was a business necessity. Affluent and educated, her audience is coming around, she said.

An affluent market is essential for online news sites to eke out profits, according to a survey by the Center for Cooperative Media. Chances for success are far fewer in poor areas, Amditis said.

‘TRUMP DIDN’T GET US INTO IRAQ’

Although panelists shared concerns about President Trump’s war on the media–“the enemy of the people”–Amditis said public distrust of the Fourth Estate preceded this Administration.

“It wasn’t Donald Trump who got us into Iraq,” said Amditis, who served there with the Army National Guard in 2008-2009. The press has distorted minority narratives for decades, he said, and “the New York Times and The Wall Street Journal and CNN have been mouthpieces for imperialism since time immemorial.”

During audience questions, one woman said she figured digital news should be profitable because it eliminates newspaper distribution costs.

But Coughlin said one-person operations never can replace the legions of talented writers, editors, photographers and sales people he knew in his previous life at The Star-Ledger.

Yet despite the odds, humble hyperlocals sometimes make a difference.

The Rev. Sidney Williams, pastor of Bethel A.M.E. Church in Morristown, told the audience that Morristown Green’s coverage of a flood helped the church raise $1 million to rebuild.

“If it hadn’t been for Kevin, the church probably would have closed,” Williams said,

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