New Jersey has long been a bellwether for thinking about the emerging information ecosystem in the United States, particularly the ways that broad national trends such as decline in newsroom resources and revenues, the lowered costs of gathering and sharing public information, and the increasing gap between information “haves” and “have-nots” play out on a local level. In 2010 the American Journalism review used New Jersey as an example documenting the decline in levels of statehouse reporting. Also in 2010, Paul Starr called New Jersey one of America’s “worst covered states” and argued that it could, because of its great need, serve as a model for building a new public media infrastructure. The news about New Jersey news, in short, is a hot topic.
This short blog post is a summary of a larger research report, published by the CUNY Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism and Rutgers University, and funded by the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, describing the state of the larger New Jersey media ecosystem. As a news ecosystem report, it follows in the tradition of other recent reports such as “Exploring a Networked Journalism Collaborative in Philadelphia,” by J-Lab and the William Penn Foundation and “How News Happens: A Study of the Ecosystem of One American City.” Methodologically it consisted of a preliminary content analysis of New Jersey newspapers, a series of extensive qualitative interviews with journalists in the state, and a “permanently beta” map documenting the various media outlets in New Jersey (below).
There is much more information in the report, but we did want to briefly share some of our findings before concluding with a brief discussion of future research.
First, it is clear (if more proof were needed) that the resources available to newsrooms and journalistic enterprises in the Garden State continue to contract.
Second, despite this decline, we document the surprisingly hopeful fact that the large news organizations in the state seem to have partially stabilized editorially (though not in terms of their business model) by focusing on the most iron of the iron core of news: statehouse and government coverage. Statehouse level coverage in New Jersey has stabilized, even though, in order to focus on this coverage, news organizations have cut back in many other areas.
Third, we tried to describe a different, often under-appreciated deficit in the New Jersey Media Ecosystem: the lack of aggregation of and conversation about the news of the day. In other words, the problem in New Jersey is not only that there is a news deficit. The problem is also that it is hard to synthesize this coverage in any coherent and common way, given the fragmentation of the New Jersey news market. This historic fragmentation, exacerbated by digital technology, is also related to the rise of new journalistic organizations in New Jersey, which are reporting an increasingly diffuse amount of news. This is good. However, it does make the sharing of and conversation about news more important than ever.
Fourth, these new resources and organizations remain highly unevenly distributed across the state, with certain areas rich in resources and others lacking, and that often these disparities mirror larger socio-economic disparities in the state.
Fifth, and finally, a key step in the consolidation of the New Jersey news ecosystem is the creation of a central hub responsible for sharing, summarizing, organizing, and distributing important news content.
COLLABORATION IS KEY
Given these findings, what ought reporters, foundations, and concerned citizens in the Garden State do? We have many recommendations in the conclusion of the report, but the most important one concerns collaboration.
New Jersey’s fragmented landscape, through necessity, is heralding an unprecedented level of collaboration between news producers. The vast majority of these collaborative efforts cluster among players in digital and public media. In particular, observers note that the state’s “online digital media scene is defined by ‘synergy.’” One of the largest of these collaborative efforts is the New Jersey News Commons who has received nonprofit support to “connect news organizations throughout the state.”
A critical area of potential for collaborative efforts is content sharing. Increased sharing of content allows information from a smaller outlet to reach a much larger audience and much larger outlets to fill-in gaps in their own coverage. Efforts at sharing and curating content are a vital way for news organizations to combat the increasing fragmentation of news in digital spaces.
NJ.com’s homepage, the largest online outlet for news in the state, points to the advantage of collaborative content sharing as the site utilizes original active content from 12 area newspapers including The Star-Ledger and The Times of Trenton. Another space this can be seen is on WHYY online news hub, NewsWorks. NewsWorks NJ page features partnerships with several prominent independent hyperlocals: NJ Spotlight, Jersey Bites (food writers), Jerseyarts.com, and New Jersey Arts News. These partnerships are critical leveraging existing resources in a mutually beneficial way to both ensure content is shared more (increasing its value) as well as providing support to existing outlets enabling them to improve their story quantity and quality.
Curation of shared content also allows news outlets to broaden and deepen the conversation around critical stories, issues, or events. For instance, the NJ News Commons through hashtags such as #Sandy and #NJVote, helped stories on Sandy and complications with voting from the storm to reach a larger readership. Increasingly, news outlets are curating links to related articles that increase perspectives and coverage of key stories.
Another major effort from the News Commons is Repost.us, a searchable newsfeed with sharable content. Repost.us reinvents the traditional newswire making syndication online “as easy as embedding a video.” Repost.us technology automates syndicated content allowing for the content to maintain its “integrity, branding, attribution, and monetization” so that publishers may share content without being concerned that it will impact their search ranking.
Sharing content is critical with the loss in shared spaces for news. Online news is easily framed as bits of searchable information content, not as part of a specific news outlet. Curation of content through collaboration allows users to find out what information is available and get to know where to go to find it. Greater linking and sharing between sites ultimately increases the sharing of news allowing publics to be formed around key stories, events, or issues.
We conclude the report by arguing that, in journalistic terms, New Jersey’s best days lie ahead of it, not behind it. There is no guarantee of better days, however. Only committed reporters, editors, organizers, university administrators, and grant-making foundations can, by working together, build the future of New Jersey news.
Read the full report here.
C.W. Anderson is an Assistant Professor of Media Culture at the College of Staten Island (City University of New York), and director of research at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His book, Rebuilding the News: Metropolitan Journalism in the Digital Age, was published in 2013 by Temple University Press.
Katie McCollough is a PhD Candidate in Media Studies at Rutgers University. Her dissertation looks at how gendered forms of labor and the self are mediated through texts and practices around scrapbooks.