The numbers were staggering.
New Jersey newspapers were hemor-rhaging red ink and shedding journalists since the beginning of the Great Recession. With those reporters and editors went much of the stellar coverage of local and state governments, long a hallmark of the state's newspapers. Readers followed.
"We saw a dramatic decline locally," said New Jersey Assembly Majority Leader Louis Greenwald (D). "We saw 400 jobs lost at a local newspaper [The Bergen Record, which broke the infamous "Bridge-gate" story], the Asbury Park Press lost 58% of its subscribers, the [Newark] Star Ledger lost 55%. The community felt disconnected from local government and what they were doing."
Hurricane Sandy, which devasted the East Coast in 2012, revealed another effect of the loss. Because of a lack of access to local news, "most of us tracked the storm's impact on South Jersey from then-mayor Michael Nutter in Philadelphia, who gave updates on the South Jersey communities," Greenwald said.
Legislative and statehouse coverage dwindled sharply. David Chen, the last chief of The New York Times' Trenton bureau, which closed in 2008, wrote that during his tenure "as many as 30 newspaper, wire service, television and radio journalists would be working on press row" at the New Jersey statehouse. On a return visit in 2017, "I counted six: two Bloomberg reporters, three for The Record and one from New Jersey 101.5 FM."
New Jersey Senator Robert Singer (R) adds that full-time statehouse reporters understood the legislature. "They would ask the right questions," he said. "They truly became part of the statehouse. When newspapers were having problems, the first person they cut was the dedicated statehouse reporter."
Now, he added, "The public is totally unaware of many of the things we're doing."
Both Singer and Greenwald said a dearth of local news outlets makes it more challenging for public policy arguments to be heard and to provide the needed checks and balances on public officials.
A Unique Partnership
In the wake of this dwindling coverage was born the New Jersey Civic Information Consortium, a first-in-the-nation initiative to provide public funding to meet the news and information needs of local communities. The consortium was conceived by the press advocacy group Free Press Action and sponsored by Greenwald and Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D). Singer is a co-sponsor.
Funded at $2 million--currently frozen because of the COVID-19 pandemic's...