N.J. Civic Information Consortium could get first cash infusion in Murphy’s revised budget

New Jersey Statehouse in Trenton

New Jersey Statehouse in Trenton. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The New Jersey Civic Information Consortium, a first-of-its-kind public initiative to beef up local news coverage in the state, is set to receive its first infusion of funding more than two years after its inception.

Gov. Phil Murphy proposed a revised state budget last week in response to sinking revenues caused by the COVID-19 pandemic that included $500,000 for the project, which will provide grants to local news organizations and fund projects that increase journalism for underserved communities.

“We need local news now maybe more than ever,” said Mike Rispoli, director of the local news program at Free Press and a board member at the N.J. Civic Information Consortium.

“Right now, trustworthy and quality news and information is what is allowing people to know what is happening with their local school, or their local government, or where to get [coronavirus] tests, or what businesses are open and to support,” he added.

Although the consortium has amassed unpaid board members and established Montclair State University as its home base, it has yet to hire an executive director or award any grants because it hasn’t yet received a dollar of state funding.

When Gov. Murphy signed the law establishing the consortium in 2018, he also announced that the $5 million allocated for the initiative was being used by the New Jersey Public

Broadcasting Authority for capital projects and emergency repairs and was unavailable.

The following year’s budget included $1 million for the consortium, but when Murphy signed the budget he froze $235 million in appropriations to make sure tax revenues could support the spending, including the money for the consortium.

Although the administration unfroze that money in January, Rispoli said the consortium never received it before the coronavirus pandemic began and the state tightened its financial belt again, freezing spending across the board.

Now, if the legislature passes Murphy’s proposed budget, the consortium could finally see $500,000 this fall, the first funding it will have received but just 10% of its initial budget allocation.

Rispoli said the nonprofit consortium would use the seed money as a springboard to raise additional private funding to support its mission.

“Whether it’s $500,000 or $5 million, that isn’t going to make a significant dent in the very serious local news crisis happening in New Jersey. This $500,000 is a way for it to begin its work, but it’s going to have to raise money in order to rise to the occasion and meet the really great need that is there.”

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