The Future of New Jersey’s Fourth Estate

The Future of New Jersey’s Fourth Estate

By Vincent Solomeno

Published on Blue Jersey, August 5, 2010.

Scott also wrote about his report – here. – Rosi

“The mission of public broadcasting was to create an alternative channel that would be free not only of commercials, but free of commercial values, a broadcasting system that would serve the life of the mind, that would encourage the imagination, that would sponsor the performing arts, documentaries, travel.”

– Bill Moyers

Governor Christie wants to eliminate taxpayer support for the New Jersey Network (NJN), our state’s public broadcasting network, and transfer its operations to a non-profit organization.  The Legislature’s established a task force to examine that proposal as well as other options for NJN’s future.  Rather than view this as an assault on public broadcasting, proponents should embrace the current effort as an opportunity to improve service, reach a wider audience, and build a better model for the delivery of public, noncommercial media in New Jersey.

Now, more than ever, we need NJN.  As policymakers confront the most significant challenges in a generation, mainstream media outlets continue to give short shrift to the issues weighing on our state’s future.  Wedged between two major media markets, coverage of New Jersey public affairs takes a back seat to the goings on in Albany and Harrisburg.  Couple that with the downsizing of print media – historically, the most comprehensive source of state news and analysis – and the need for NJN becomes all the more clear.

Last week, New Jersey Policy Perspective (NJPP) published a report offering a way ahead for the network.  Co-authored by Blue Jersey’s own Scott Weingart, the report recommends expanding statewide public radio, generating revenue through the sale of NJN’s television broadcast licenses, and a reorientation of the network’s mission so that programs on New Jersey news, public affairs, and cultural life are delivered via cable and the internet.

Proof positive of the enduring power of radio is the emergence of talk radio as a driving force in the public debate.  For good or for ill, in the last two decades New Jersey 101.5 has emerged as an arbiter of statewide news and opinion for an audience numbering in the millions.  And while other public broadcasting outlets kept pace with the rise in popularity of commercial talk radio, the report finds that our state’s “single-minded focus on television has caused New Jersey to miss out on the rapid growth of public radio during the past thirty years.”  Through the expansion of radio programming, NJN has the potential to grow its audience and provide a significant public service: noncommercial media with a New Jersey focus.

Furthermore, in recognition of the changing dynamics of television content delivery, NJPP recommends the sale of NJN’s broadcast licenses to generate much needed revenue.  The licenses, in increasing demand as broadband services expand, will soon become an anachronism in the age of cable and the internet.  Such a sale has the potential to create a sizable endowment for NJN, freeing the network from its reliance on tax dollars and becoming “the single most important source of financing and leadership for the independent public-service journalism that New Jersey needs.”

One may argue that with the predominance of the internet and the 24-hour news cycle, NJN is irrelevant.  It’s true that New Jersey public broadcasting has failed to change with the times, but the trouble is form rather than function.  One hopes that policymakers give careful consideration to NJPP’s recommendations and that their report serves as a starting point for a discussion of the future of public, noncommercial media in New Jersey.  The coming debate need not be about scaling back this valuable service, but reorienting its mission so that it continues to “serve the life of the mind” and “encourage the imagination” of New Jerseyans well into the twenty-first century.

The full text of the report, “A Future for Public Media in New Jersey,” is available on the NJPP web site.