Free Press Is Helping Communities Build Better Local News, And Asking The Government To Fund It

Interview

Last month, News Stories Director Mike Rispoli and I had a wide-ranging conversation on his organization's work building better connections between local news outlets and the communities they cover.


News Stories is an initative of Free Press, a nonprofit that advocates for equitable media systems. Much of their work focuses on rebuilding local news, and making local news that better reflects the communities they cover.

We also discussed the organization's instrumental role in passing the Civic News Consortium Bill in New Jersey, a first-of-its kind measure that would create a state-funded nonprofit that grants funds to local news outlets. Finally, we spoke more broadly on how government funding can play an important role in sustaining local journalism.

A transcript of our conversation, edited for clarity and length, follows.

Q

So, let's start on a big picture level: what is the goal of News Stories and how does it fit into the larger Free Press organization?

A

Sure. News Stories is a project of Free Press. Free Press is a national non-profit media and advocacy organization that fights for a just and equitable media system. We work on variety of different issues both at the grassroots level as well as a policy level, like net neutrality, media consolidation. A lot of our work is done through a racial justice lens. We do a lot of work with access to prison phones and the digital divide and the Lifeline program.

And so what that looks like is we use organizing strategies just like you would for any other policy issue. But what we do is to actually shift and transform local news. We do that through hosting community events with people to talk to them about what their needs are, what they like about local journalism what they don't. We work with them on building relationships to newsrooms and we work with the newsrooms on using organizing strategies to build relationships and trust in the communities that they serve.

At our heart really is about building power and making sure that people can have a say and a voice in their local news. Because a lot of times they already have a voice, it's just that newsrooms don't listen to them.

Q

What kind of newsrooms are you generally working with? Is it so-called "traditional" outlets like local TV stations or local newspapers or more alternative, hyper-local outlets?

A


We're working in poor communities in New Jersey to to communities in North Carolina and to neighborhoods in Philadelphia. All of those communities look different and they have different needs. The local history with how that community was covered is very different. Our approach is essentially a laboratory model where we test out different organizing and community engagement strategies in a variety of different places based off of what what people want and what they tell us. What newsrooms we work with totally depend on what places we are in.

We'e worked with small one person newsroom, hyper locals, and we've worked with larger legacy commercial newspapers. We've worked with public media and we've worked with alternative outlets. It's an imperfect term but we've worked with ethnic media. And so for us it's really about who is serving that community and then we build the relationship with them. We certainly have closer partners and allies with specific outlets and communities but always our approach is very like newsroom and media agnostic and not that we want to work with everyone that we can.  

Q

How do you choose locations to focus on? It seems like you have a pretty broad spread of locations on the East Coast right now, how did that come about?

A


There are there are really practical considerations as well as strategic decisions. It often leads with a strategic decision. For example, this project was started in New Jersey because New Jersey was especially hit hard by the local news crises because residents primarily get their TV news and radio from Philadelphia and New York. There are some broadcast stations in New Jersey but they don't really have a broad reach or they're very community specific. So because it's kinda sandwiched between  in between the New York and Philadelphia media markets, it means that local news has historically always really been print media.

And so between media consolidation and the downturn in print there are huge parts of the state that go virtually uncovered now in New Jersey. 565 municipalities means that there's a lot of local government and a lot of those meetings go virtually uncovered because there's really no local news and it's not like WNYC is going to come in [from New York] and cover you a town council meeting. But there was also in the wake of this some really interesting new infrastructure being built up in a lot of ways led by the Center for Collaborative Media at Montclair State University.

So we generally look for a high need and emerging infrastructure to support our engagement efforts.

Q

What response do you generally get from newsrooms at first? I have to imagine there's some initial skepticism, especially around the idea of using principals of organizing, which I think unfairly have a reputation as being viewed as "non-objective" or activism-based. How do you build those relationships?

A


We don't ask the newsrooms to advocate or be activists. At the beginning when you're beginning to work in a place there's always that initial skepticism towards our national organization moving into a space. Although we do hire [organizing staff] who are from that area and are based there and work there.

There's some skepticism but I think that quickly goes away when they see that our focus is on building interest. Some newsrooms are like super into it. They're like, "we love to work with you." And other ones are like "No." You know for a whole host of reasons. But with most it just takes a little bit time to build a relationship with them. And that's that's what we like to do. Our work is really relationship based and we think that in order to shift journalism we have to shift the relationships that impact journalism.

Sometimes things take time. For example, we are running a collaborative project with the Charlotte Observer right now. And that's just like two years of relationship building with them. They would show up to our events. We would help connect them with people. Reaching the point of real collaboration took some time and I think that that's true for a lot of newsrooms. I think you know they're journalists so they're inherently skeptical. Justifiably, they're in a defensive stance because of how everything's been going in local news.

They're short on resources and time at capacity. So they think of this as being like an extra thing and not something that will boost their capacity. So you know it takes a little bit of time to break through. But that's OK because I think that that only makes us and the eventual relationship stronger.

Q

Are you building relationships with communities or is the work focused on giving newsrooms tool to build those relationships?

A


A ton of our work is about building relationships in community. Because this is about what they, the community, wants out of local news. Depending on the place, some places are more challenging to organize in but the work always starts with reaching out to people and talking to them and getting a sense from them about what their attitudes are about local news what they want they would like to see change.

And then we have a [town halls and discussions] about that. Then we say what's your vision for local news, what would you like local news to be in your community? We map out with them, "this where things are right now. This is where we want to be. How do we work together to get to that place to realize that vision?" And from that, we can bring that information to newsrooms or build larger campaigns like the legislative push in New Jersey.

Q

Do you encounter hesitancy in communities? Is it similar to hesitancy you see in newsrooms?

A


I actually think that when we first started this project we were like "does anyone care?". We really weren't sure. You can ask journalists. I mean you know they always say "no care about journalism' which isn't true. People care very deeply about how they get news and information and how their stories are told and what stories are told about their community because they understand how it impacts everything in their life.

Some people got it right away. They're like yes we need to fix that. Let's do it. And other people you know it took a little bit of time. But honestly like we I feel like we get more support and are able to build deeper relationships with the community than we are with these newsrooms. I think that's a product of our focus, our emphasis on community. But I also think it points to the fact that people are really dissatisfied with local news and it's not enough to just to say that people should pay for it. That's true. But if you actually talk to people it's not like they don't want to pay for news. What they want is news that they want to pay for.

We do some work in Camden in New Jersey.  We work with a local paper called the Courier Post which is owned by Gannett. And Camden is a city that has been covered in a very, very negative light by the media for a very long time. Now there is a narrative of a lot of state money and tax incentive breaks and all these different stuff going on in Camden. Right now [the mainstream narrative] is "look at the rebirth of Camden". And that's also not a very accurate portrayal of the community either right. It's the messy middle.

So people in Camden are super frustrated with media coverage of the city. They're often in the shadow of Philadelphia. They get a lot of Philadelphia news. We were having an event there. And one person said. "You know...it's not just that I don't like how the Courier Post covers my community. I used to subscribe to the Courier Post but that was before Gannett gutted that newsroom it was before like the Courier Post was basically a USA Today paper with a vocal insert. I don't want that. Why would I pay for that?"

Q

Is that a sentiment you see often? Do people realize when their newspaper kinda drops off in terms of resources?

A


They notice it if they read the paper. They are like "OK. All this stuff like has nothing to do about where I live." But they also notice that if they're really civically active because there are fewer journalists walking around. They notice that their community is covered less. They notice that it's harder to get stuff in the news about things that are happening there.

People realize that and they feel it very deeply. Whenever we talk about our work, we talk about the local news crisis. You know we certainly mention how newsrooms have closed down, thousands of journalists have been laid off. But what we always say is  this isn't about the journalism industry. This is about the civic health of your community. This is about whether or not people have information to be you know they have to use to be informed and engaged, to participate in their community.

All of these studies show polarization increases, corruption increases, in places without local news. Research shows that but people feel that. The people who are impacted aren't newsrooms or journalists, the people are really impacted like in a much more severe way are communities.

Q

But what is the solution to that? Does better local reporting help the economics work or does solving this problem require a completely different model?

A


I'm a very big believer that there is a limited ability for commercial media to do the type of local news that is necessary for local news to be sustainable. I think that commercial media is part of the Attention Economy in that they get money based on how many clicks and how many eyeballs are you know see the ads that they sold. There are incentives for them to not be more community centered. Their incentive is to get as many people as possible to read.

In order for local news to be sustainable it's going to need a much different funding mechanism. I think nonprofit and public media tend to produce the type of journalism that is more community centered than commercial media [because of different incentives].

But if the industry is continued to be focused as it mainly is on the commercial side of things, I don't actually know what's going to happen to local journalism. I think that the commercial model and the market have failed both their industry and their communities. And so I think that there needs to be a really significant shift in how local news is funded and I think it's primarily going to come from the public funding models like nonprofits and what we're doing in New Jersey.

The New Jersey State Assembly passed the Civic Consortium Bill last year, but the implementation process has suffered from funding issues.

Q

Talk a little bit about what the New Jersey Civic Consortium Bill is and what role News Voices played in getting it passed.

A

The bill passed the New Jersey legislature last year with wide bipartisan support. What it does is it creates the Civic Information Consortium which is a first of its kind non-profit with a mission to invest in innovative local news. And so it's essentially a public fund where public money would go into. It would be a 501c3 public charity overseen by a board that includes some of the state's universities and it would invest in projects like local news startups, in civic technology, youth literacy programs, and they would invest in fellowship programs for journalism with a special emphasis on underserved communities in and communities of color.

A few years ago, New Jersey received three hundred and thirty million dollars from the sale of two public media stations. So the state was about to get a whole lot of money from selling media. W thought the state should reinvest that money back into community, and put to it use in a way that wasn't based on the old public media model but in a really innovative community centered way.

Q

So for journalistic organizations, the primary funding mechanism is one-time grants, right? Instead of--say---continuous investment in specific outlets?

A


Yeah. And the idea being that you know New Jersey used to have a public media station called New Jersey Network. But the state sold the nonprofit that operated NJN and sold it to NYWC of New York. And even New Jersey public media stations are often based in New York.

Additionally, just funding public media---I love traditional public media but it's imperfect. There are things that we need to be doing about thinking about, updating it for not just based on like technological changes which I think is what everyone always kind of focuses on. It's just that people's needs are different, communities look different now. And so that's really what the Civic Info Bill was looking to do.

We did a lot of grassroots organizing. This bill was written off the back of meetings with thousands of people around the state of New Jersey and talking to them about these things. It was done in consultation with academics and journalists. This bill wasn't written in Trenton; it was written by us, we wrote the legislation and we worked with lawmakers get it passed. And that took about two years. And the bill passed last summer. It was a really big deal and it was really exciting. Nothing like this exists in the country. Nothing

I think that the most significant impact that this campaign has had and will continue to have is that it's brought the idea of public funding into the conversation when people are talking about the future of news. We can't just rely on the benevolent billionaires or block chains or nonprofits. (We need all of those things too, except maybe not billionaires.)

We ran a grassroots campaign where thousands of people took action to support journalism. That's impressive but that's not something that happens every day. And hopefully it show newsrooms, not from an advocacy perspective but just from a community engagement perspective, that the more that you talk to people, the more that you listen to their concerns and respond to their need and work with them, the more people will show up for you and that people will show up for journalists.

The problem has been that the governor signed the bill and publicly supports the bill. Yet he pulled the funding for it because he said that the money that was originally there  was spoken for.

Q

What is the current state of funding?

A


A few weeks ago the governor introduced to his budget proposal which did not include funding for the consortium. That was a real big disappointment. But we also knew that we had some really great champions on the state side in the legislature that writes the budget.

But over the past two weeks we've worked with the majority offices and the Assembly and the Senate as well as the governor's office to to include funding for the consortium that the governor re-released. They released this budget in detail this week and it included a one million dollar appropriation for the consortium. I don't think that the consortium can actually work without that initial investment of five million dollars. But I think it's a signal that the governor is listening. And so I'm feeling confident that we're going to be able to get five million dollars in this upcoming budget.

Q

Have you encountered hesitancy from journalists about the idea of getting funding from a organization connected to the government?

A


Yes. [laughs] Yes.

Q

What do you say to them?

A


You know I get it on some level. But I think it's a knee jerk reaction. Government funded journalism exist already.

The reaction of "oh my gosh, isn't it a prop of the government?" misses the entire fact that government already does this!  Many studies have shown that like the most trusted news sources in the United States are PBS and NPR. Public media is some of the most trusted, award winning journalism.

The argument is "governments are gonna to interfere with us". It's ridiculous. It's ridiculous because for one thing I think it really diminishes the work of journalists who work inside of public media stations. If you've put it in the appropriate safeguards and firewalls it doesn't have any greater effect than any other form of funding for media. There is always a risk that funders will influence journalist. It's true in commercial media and true in non-profit media. You know, look at Sheldon Adelson and what he did with his outlets in Nevada.

We crafted this legislation to create firewalls. For one thing there's a specific mechanics [in the bill] that prohibits government or the universities from interfering with editorial product that's funded by the consortium. The second thing is that it's a 501c3 so it's technically not a part of the government.  It is its own independent charity that receives funding from the government but it's not a part of government.

While we didn't necessarily get support from the New Jersey Press Association or the Society of Professional Journalists, many individual journalists were very supportive of it. Some actually retweeted things that were about the deal, advocating for it. Which isn't... I don't think every tweet is that big of a deal. But you know journalists don't normally advocate for things. It's cool to see journalists advocate for themselves and their industry.

Q

It sounds like it's been a really long road to getting this passed and getting funding for it and still seeing some implementation in progress. But assuming it works out is this a thing that you see trying to take to other states?

A


Absolutely. Yeah. That's the hope. I think we need to focus on making sure that we get New Jersey right.  We wrote something in Neiman Labs for a year end predication last Friday. We said that we think the New Jersey model can be replicated elsewhere. Not necessarily like set up as a consortium. But looking to the idea that you can run grassroots campaigns in a few different places where you might have some receptive local or state governments that would be interested in supporting different types of public funding for journalism.