New Voices

A project has launched in New Jersey which aims to build stronger relationships between communities and their local press. Organised by Free Press, a not for profit organisation which lobbies for press and internet freedom, the project is funded by The Geraldine R Dodge Foundation and the Democracy fund.

In a post on the Geraldine R Dodge Foundation site, The Local News Lab, project leaders Mike Rispoli and Fiona Morgan describe their goals. They say the project is less about ‘the future of journalism’, or ‘adopting new technologies’, than asking how poor local news coverage affects communities, and what can be done to improve the quality of local news?

But what happens to our communities when quality journalism diminishes or disappears altogether? It’s not pretty. Communities lose out if they don’t have multiple news outlets that cover a variety of issues and feature a range of viewpoints. Studies have shown that when local news media is deficient or disappears altogether from a community, civic participation drops, corruption increases and lawmakers bring in less funding. The future of journalism is, in fact, intertwined with how people participate in society. Communities need journalism, and newsrooms need communities — not as passive audiences but as active partners that will both shape and support local journalism and stand up for press freedom when it’s under threat.

The problems local journalists and communities currently face in New Jersey is seen as a microcosm of a national crisis, echoing also the discussions about local journalism in the UK:

The crisis in journalism is affecting communities across the country. As print, online and broadcast news outlets large and small have closed their doors in the past decade, the greatest impacts have been on state government reporting and local-level accountability coverage. The online news ventures that have emerged to fill some of those gaps face an uncertain future.

Rispoli and Morgan launched their project with a programme of consultations with local news outlets and communities aimed at understanding the issues at play. Six public forums have been scheduled (the first two having taken place in New Brunswick and Atlantic City. These events bring together residents and journalists in order to open channels of communication between the two parties, giving the community a voice and giving reporters a direct line to new stories. The write up of the New Brunswick event, describes how the evening was staged with bilingual presentations from community leaders and local journalists before the attendees broke into smaller groups for discussions around the issues which directly affected them.

Packed into Trayes Hall at Rutgers University, the diverse group of participants spoke to one another for three hours about the role residents can play in strengthening local journalism and highlighting the issues that impact their neighborhoods. By the end of the evening, all of the journalists in the room had story leads they planned to pursue.

Following each event, Free Press will work with participants to build a series of ‘concrete next steps’ aimed at setting in place a way of working together which it’s hoped will continue once the project is finished.

Media Shift have also written about the Atlantic City forum. These two initial events seem to uncover a passionate desire amongst residents to communicate the ‘real story’ behind the area they live in. The benefits to both residents and journalists seem very real and positive, and the project shows a practical and easily replicated model for rejuvenating local press wherever needed.