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Week 34: Q&A with Mike Rispoli, News Voices project director, Free Press

July 26, 2018 at 9:51pm

Week 34: Q&A with Mike Rispoli, News Voices project director, Free Press

July 26, 2018 at 9:51pm
Mike was one of the driving forces behind the New Jersey's Civic Info Bill, and has generously agreed to chat with us about this unique initiative and its history, why so many people are calling the bill groundbreaking, what did it take to get it passed, his personal story behind this effort and anything else you want to ask!
The full text of the bill is available here:
We'll be starting our chat at 6pm Central, but if you have a question you'd like to ask, please feel free to post it now.

July 26, 2018 at 11:00pm
Hi , thanks so much for joining us for this chat!
Hey ! Thanks so much for having me! Been looking forward to this chat!
I suspect you've been fielding a lot of press and interview requests in the last few weeks since the Civic Info Bill passed the NJ Senate and then signed into law.
I posted a link earlier that explains the bill, but would you mind describing it in your own words?
Sure - the Civic Info Bill would be an independent nonprofit that would invest millions of dollars into reviving, strengthening, and transforming local news in New Jersey. What's so exciting about it is that it's the first of its kind in the nation. For those who want to learn more about the bill in detail, this is a good primer:
You're right, since the NJ Legislature passed the bill on June 30, there's been national and international attention about the bill. It's been a gratifying response, since we've been working on this bill for nearly two years.
It struck me as a very well-thought out piece of legislation, but also as something that probably seemed like a long shot when you started working on it.
Is there anything similar elsewhere that inspired you?
That's a great question
And you're right, when we started out, it was dismissed as being a pipe dream. No one ever thought that you could run a grassroots campaign to support keeping communities informed and engaged. It was a great example of how you can engage the public about the future of local news
I think there were a few inspirations for it
1. Public media -- for decades, governments have invested in creating media that was of the public interest. On the federal level, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting acts as a grant maker to public media broadcasters around the country. But there's something different about the CPB and the Civic Info Consoritum
For one thing, the Civic Info Consortium is looking to invest in all kinds of projects that are meant to keep communities informed. Local news, civic tech, news literacy programs, student journalist fellowship programs, data coalitions, and many more
While the CPB only invests in public media broadcasters
Another -- five of the state's universities are involved in the Civic Info Consortium, and would work in collaboration to grant recipients, as well as kick in additional funding to a project.
For instance, if you live in South Jersey in a news desert, you could apply for a grant to start a hyper local news site, get matched up with Rowan University (based in south Jersey), and the university could provide office space, research, evaluation, and student journalists to help support the newsroom. The universities role is really trying to ensure the long-term sustainability for all the projects that the Civic Info Consortium would fund
Is it possible for a model of what was done to be duplicated elsewhere? This is the first of it's kind but I imagine other parts of the country would be interested in establishing something similar.
It must have been extremely gratifying to get this passed, but I can only imagine the amount of work that went into it. Could you talk a little about the team that worked on this, your own role, and all the things that you did over the course of the two years to make this happen?
Absolutely, and we hope that will be the case! We'll be releasing soon a case study of how the campaign went, what resources we dedicated to it, how we engaged the public, etc. Since Gov. Murphy signed the state budget on July 1, which allocated $5 million to the Consortium, several people from around the country have reached out to use and asked if they can bring the Civic Info Bill to their state.
I think that, as more newsrooms close and reporters are laid off, there will be growing interest in the government's role in ensuring that people can get information that allow them to be civically engaged. After the Daily News layoffs this past week, NY Gov. Cuomo spoke out in favor of ways to figure out the local news crisis
The reason why it's important for state's, and others, to explore new ways to support informed communities, is because we know that local news is essential to democracy. Josh Stearns from Democracy Fund did a great roundup recently of all the studies that have shown that when local news disappears, communities suffer:
There is also the point made on Nieman Lab's coverage of your work:
Exactly -- the US invests very little into keeping people informed compared to many other countries.
So the bill's coverage has been largely positive, Nieman Lab's arguably being the most comprehensive.
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