Op-Ed: Use Auction Proceeds to Keep Public Informed

This op-ed appeared in the Friday, May 5 2017 edition of the Asbury Park Press.

Across New Jersey, in every community and at every level of government, decisions are made every day that affect the lives of all of us. Yet more often than not, these decisions are made in the dark, with little or no public knowledge and even less public participation as the circulations of daily and weekly newspapers have collapsed.

These burnt-out spotlights threaten our democracy, giving us political leaders who are less accountable, residents who are less engaged and a greatly eroded civic life.

That’s the bad news.

But there’s good news, too: right now New Jersey has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to start to replace some of the bulbs in those spotlights, allowing for more informed communities and a more engaged democracy in cities and towns across the state — and to do so in a way that makes sense in a 21st century news and information ecosystem.

Here’s how:

The state will soon receive $332 million from wireless companies that purchased two pieces of the public airwaves owned by New Jersey — $194 million for WNJN in Montclair and $138 million for WNJT in Trenton — in an auction run by the Federal Communications Commission.

Right now the funds are slated to be absorbed into Gov. Christie’s budget for the coming fiscal year that starts July 1, disappearing into a $36 billion budget with little notice and little consequence. But there is a better idea out there, and we are joining with the Free Press Action Fund, universities across the state and other key stakeholders to ask lawmakers to act on it.

After all, dedicating some of the proceeds of this sale to a public good and the original intent of these public airwaves — to better inform New Jersey’s communities — just makes sense. These are public assets being sold off, and they shouldn’t just be used to provide some cover for decades of reckless fiscal policy.

A portion of the proceeds — less than one-third — should instead be used to create and provide seed funding for a New Jersey Civic Information Consortium. The consortium would be an standalone nonprofit with institutional ties to partners at Montclair State University, the New Jersey Institute of Technology, Rowan University and Rutgers University — and it would operate independently, free from undue political influence.

With $100 million in initial funding, the consortium could fund innovative news and civic information projects for years. The seed money would also be essential to allow the consortium to attract other philanthropic investment, helping to build a more sustainable information ecosystem and establishing New Jersey as a national leader in finding new ways to inform its communities and its civic life as the old one-way models of information continue to crumble. (For more on how this would all work, and to get involved, visit newsvoices.org.)

In this way, the consortium would build on the momentum that has already been created here in New Jersey by private foundations, academic institutions, newsroom partners and dozens of enthusiastic civic-information entrepreneurs. Investment in the consortium could help propel these efforts to new heights.

We know there is great need for this kind of investment in information and innovation. After all, New Jersey is one of the most underserved states when it comes to news and information. Sandwiched between the New York City and Philadelphia media markets, information vacuums and news deserts exist all around the state, and on important issues crucial to our state’s future. While local news startups are providing fresh voices, significant gaps remain.

The state will never see another opportunity like this, with the windfall that has come in from this sale of public airwaves. New Jersey simply can’t afford to let this opportunity — to use some of those dollars to improve civic information, strengthen democracy and make this a better, stronger state — pass it by.

There are no comments yet, add one below.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*