Push for local news fund continues as New Jersey takes majority of auction proceeds

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Supporters of a consortium to promote local news in New Jersey aren’t giving up after the state’s initial decision to absorb nearly all of a windfall from the FCC spectrum auction into its general fund.

New Jersey earned $332 million by selling TV spectrum used by two NJTV stations, WNJN in Montclair and WNJT in Trenton. It was the largest payout to any public broadcaster in the FCC’s spectrum auction. A state budget for fiscal year 2018, enacted July 4, gave just $10 million of the state’s winnings to the New Jersey Public Broadcasting Authority. The authority is licensee of the NJTV network and supports NJTV with annual funds.

The authority’s $10 million cut is earmarked specifically for capital improvements according to a New Jersey Treasury spokesperson. In fiscal year 2016, the last year for which documents are available, the Public Broadcasting Authority gave $4.7 million of its $7.9 million budget to Public Media NJ, which operates NJTV. It spent $2.4 million on broadcasting and engineering costs.

The assignment of the remaining $322 million to the state’s general fund has not quashed hopes for a state-funded consortium supporting local journalism in the state. “New Jersey still has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to become a national leader reshaping the future of news from the ground up,” said Craig Aaron, president of Free Press, a media-reform advocacy group that has promoted the concept. Free Press envisions the consortium as a grant-making organization to support public-interest journalism, media research and civic engagement as local news outlets wane.

“The idea of creating a New Jersey Civic Information Consortium was inspired by the spectrum windfall, but that’s not the only way or reason to do it,” Aaron said. “This campaign has showed us that New Jersey residents not only want to strengthen existing media but to transform how their communities are covered.”

State legislators who proposed a bill in June to back the project agree. Assembly Majority Leader Louis Greenwald and Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg co-sponsored legislation that called for $100 million from the spectrum cash to fund the consortium over five years. Both bills were referred to committees in June.

“Over the past decade we’ve seen news organizations throughout the state shut their doors, leaving many communities without quality local news and reporting,” Greenwald told Current in a statement. He said the legislation “would reinvigorate our local media and encourage civic engagement.”

“I am still working closely with stakeholders to make amendments on this bill that will provide support for local journalism and provide government transparency and accountability for our residents,” Greenwald said.

Sen. Weinberg “is committed to keep up the fight for the funding but is honestly not optimistic that the legislation will pass into law” under Gov. Chris Christie’s tenure, said Shane Mitchell, Weinberg’s legislative director. “We are having elections this November, however, and the senator is more optimistic about getting this done with a new administration.”