Commentary: Windfall could transform N.J. media

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Gov. Christie Associated Press

By Craig Aaron

Imagine this happening in your town:

You go to return your books to the local library and find it shuttered - with a notice on the door that all the buildings in the system have been sold at auction. Information is now all online, it says.

Think that might cause a bit of an uproar?

You plan a picnic in the local park - but learn it's being dug up to make room for condos. The town had to sell it to plug budget holes, you hear.

Can you see the outraged residents rushing the mic at the next town meeting?

If your treasured public spaces were being sold off without notice or explanation, you would demand some answers, right?

Well, a situation a lot like this is taking place right now in New Jersey. The state auctioned off a public treasure - several of its public TV stations - for possibly hundreds of millions of dollars with little public debate or any idea what the governor plans to do with the money.

This windfall has received shockingly little public attention. But here's the good news: It's not too late to seize this moment and use this money to transform New Jersey into the national leader in digital public media, local journalism, and civic technology.

The stations were part of a $20 billion federal government auction designed to move broadcasters nationwide off a valuable swath of the public airwaves and create more bandwidth for mobile devices.

We don't know yet exactly which stations were sold or how much they got (those details should be made public in April), but there is $325 million in the New Jersey budget from the sale of state-owned assets - a significant portion of which appears to be from the auction.

So what will happen to all that cash?

Gov. Christie isn't sharing his plans thus far, but the short-sighted solution is use it to plug some of the holes in the lame-duck governor's final budget.

The much better idea is to take the revenue from selling off the remnants of 20th-century public media and invest it in building innovative 21st-century public-interest media that meets New Jersey residents' information needs.

Those needs are significant. For the past two years, my organization Free Press has been traveling the state as part of our News Voices: New Jersey project, meeting with media makers and community members about the future of news in the state.

New Jersey has become a hotbed of local media innovation, but too much of the state is still uncovered or underserved. The state's auction windfall could change everything.

We've put a proposal before state legislators to use a significant portion of the auction revenues to create a New Jersey Civic Information Consortium. The idea is that with a one-time endowment of at least $100 million, an independent fund could make millions of dollars in grants every year that benefit the state's civic life and tell the stories about what's really happening in New Jersey's communities.

The proposed project would support Montclair State University, the New Jersey Institute of Technology, Rowan University, and Rutgers University in partnering with media outlets, technology companies, and community groups to create new local journalism, civic technology, and community-information projects.

Some pertinent history: Six decades ago, visionary officials decided to reserve pieces of the TV spectrum for nonprofit, service-oriented public media. They didn't know how their bet would turn out, but today you know the results as PBS and NPR, Sesame Street, and Fresh Air.

The state now has a unique opportunity to make a similarly fruitful wager on the future by devoting a significant piece of the auction revenues to the New Jersey Civic Information Consortium. If done right, the resulting new media system should look like this: collaborative, creative, committed to public service, and deeply connected to community needs.

What do you think? If there were an organization dedicated to finding better ways to cover your community and give you the local information you need, what would you want it to do?

Free Press is holding a series of community forums around the state to solicit your ideas. The first is being held at 6 p.m. March 21, at the Camden Conference Center.

Take part. Share your ideas. Dream a little.

These public TV stations using the public airwaves belong to you. As a New Jersey resident and taxpayer, you should have a say in what happens next.

This auction represents a once-in-a-generation chance for New Jersey to reimagine what local media could be - let's not squander it.

Craig Aaron is the president and CEO of Free Press and the Free Press Action Fund. To learn more about the March 21 event in Camden, visit www.newsvoices.org/new-jersey. caaron@freepress.net

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