Use some of the recent TV Auction windfall to endow investigative reporting in New Jersey
It isn’t very often that New Jersey gets $332 million new dollars without digging further into taxpayer’s pockets. But recently, New Jersey got just that by selling two of its four public television channels. New Jersey received $194 million for WNJN Channel 51 in Montclair and $138 Million Channel 43 in Trenton.
So the obvious question. Who wants to go shopping?
Governor Christie’s current plan is to put all of the windfall back into the general fund so it will offset any number of needed shortfalls (think pensions, transportation infrastructure, statehouse renovations) or provide more goodie bags (more economic development giveaways, tiny property tax relief, raises to legislative staff). State Senator Joseph Kyrillos (R-Monmouth) wants to use at least some of the money to help fund the state response to the opioid crisis and he would also give some to New Jersey’s excellent public TV station NJTV.
Don’t get me wrong, New Jersey has plenty of shortfalls and goodie bags that could use the money. There is no doubt that spending the windfall to mitigate old problems is appealing. Ultimately, however, doing that is wrong. Here is why.
This windfall came from the sale of state assets, namely public television stations. Selling a state asset is a one-time deal. If we are going to sell something owned by the taxpayers of New Jersey we should at least try to use the proceeds from that sale for something approaching the original intent of that asset. The public television stations we sold were created to provide the people of New Jersey with news and information about New Jersey. It seems obvious that giving the people of New Jersey more news and information about New Jersey is better than giving them less.
It is also obvious that New Jersey faces some structural challenges in doing that. For example (and I have pointed this out before) the 8.9 million people in New Jersey have the same number of licensed commercial broadcast TV stations as the good people of North Platte, Nebraska (pop. 24,194)? That is a structural challenge and one that is unlikely to change.
Yeah, yeah I know we have the massive TV markets in New York and Philadelphia that cover New Jersey but again my research shows that absent a hurricane or volcanic governor yelling at people of the boardwalk those stations barely know New Jersey exists. We do have an excellent public television station in NJTV and even the private local cable stations News 12 and FIOS do a decent job. But they are all small, not available everywhere in the state and focus on exclusively day-to-day news coverage.
It is also true that we have a truly talented group of newspaper and web-based reporters covering New Jersey at the state and local level. These outlets often do investigative stories, like Bridgegate. However, we can escape the fact is that their numbers are shrinking because the advertising centered economic model for journalism is crumbling, nationally and not just in New Jersey. Yes, they broke Bridgegate. But will they be able to uncover the next Bridgegate?
So given all this, it makes sense to me that we use this windfall to further the original news provision intent of the asset that we just sold. I also think we need to think outside the box a bit, on how we go about doing that.
Luckily, I am not alone. Another option floating around Trenton is to use $100 million from the windfall to create a “New Jersey Civic Information Consortium” at four public universities (Montclair State, NJIT, Rowan and Rutgers). Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg and Assembly Majority Leader Lou Greenwald are sponsors of the bill (S33303/A4933). The goal of the legislation is to figure out new and innovative ways to deliver news and civic information to New Jersey residents.
Proponents of the bill have been going up and down the state over the last several months in search of ideas for how this consortium might spend this money. One idea is an “Americorps” type program to train young journalists focused on covering New Jersey. Another is providing citizens with training in filing Open Public Records Act or OPRA requests and then in writing about the findings. Both of these are good ideas that the consortium and in particular Montclair State’s NJ News Commons would be well equipped to handle.
But what about this….
What if we gave some of the money to actual, practicing journalists and in particular investigative journalists? Here is how.
The New Jersey Reporter Endowment Fund
In academia, one of the holy grails for faculty members is something called an endowed chair. This happens when a philanthropist gives the University enough money (usually between $2.5 and $4.5 million) to cover the salary and benefits for a full professor forever (yes forever). The principle sits in a fund and the salary and benefits are paid by income investment earned on that principle.
That same model could work as a way of supporting investigative reporting about New Jersey politics and civic affairs. Instead of paying for faculty members, the endowment would pay for investigative journalists focused entirely on New Jersey. Because these would be endowed (meaning financially secure for a given period of time) positions the reporters would be able to take the time to conduct deep, full scale investigative reporting of the state issues that are very difficult for the state’s existing media to conduct.
Can you imagine what a would be Clark Kent or Lois Lane might find if they had a year to look how state economic development grants are given? Or a detail examination of the way state pension funds are invested in New Jersey compared to other states? Or how state agencies are preparing to (or not preparing) to provide citizens with easier access to public data? They might even investigate what in fact would happen if the state requirement to advertise in print newspapers went away.
Existing New Jersey reporters might apply for these endowed positions and take a “leave” or “sabbatical” from their own papers/outlet to follow a specific investigation for a year or more. National investigative reporters may apply for the positions to use New Jersey as an example for stories of national importance. Perhaps a documentary filmmaker might apply to use New Jersey as the backdrop for their films. The opportunities and options are endless. But because the money is endowed (remember forever) our ability to pay for these opportunities would also be endless.
There are obviously many details of to work out. How would the reporters be chosen? How long would they stay in the position? Which media outlets would have access to (and perhaps more importantly) who would have “first” access to the investigative stories produced by these endowed reporters? Who would serve as the backroom support (lawyers, editors, investigators, etc.) for the reporters?
But these questions have answers. Perhaps the proposed New Jersey Civic Information Consortium is the organization to work out these details and answer these questions. The point is that news and information about New Jersey matters and it doesn’t happen without the hard work of reporters who have the time, freedom and expertise to focus on investigating New Jersey. Investigative reporters are getting harder to find and pay for using the existing models. We have an opportunity (a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity) to ensure that these reporters and I would argue the free press in New Jersey remains strong forever. We should take it.