I had the opportunity to go to a few conferences over the past month that focused on hyperlocal journalism. Each time, I ran into Mike Rispoli! Mike has some very interesting ideas about how to promote collaboration and engagement with local media. He recently joined Free Press and we are impressed with their mission and wanted to learn more.
Q: Can you tell us what Free Press is all about?
A: Free Press fights for your rights to connect and communicate. We’re a non-profit organization that advocates for an open and free internet; we fight to curb runaway media consolidation and protect press freedom; and we work to ensure that diverse voices are represented in our media.
Q: Why did you join Free Press?
A: I recently joined Free Press as its Press Freedom Campaign Director after being a member and follower for years. I grew up in New Jersey by the Shore and worked as a reporter here for several years, first as a Statehouse correspondent for Gannett New Jersey and then as a web editor and reporter for the Star-Ledger. I got really interested in how people express their rights using technology, so I moved into the advocacy world. I first worked with New York-based Access on many campaigns, ranging from protecting freedom of expression online for bloggers in Southeast Asia to organizing protests throughout Europe to defeat treaties that would have infringed on privacy rights. I then went to London to work for Privacy International, one of the first human rights organizations to focus on protecting the right to privacy and one of the best when it comes to investigating government surveillance.
When I saw that Free Press was starting a project in New Jersey to advocate for quality local journalism, it felt like a perfect cross section of my love for New Jersey, journalism, and advocacy. I couldn’t pass it up.
Q: Speaking of NJ, you recently announced the News Voice New Jersey project. Can you explain what that is about, and why NJ?
A: News Voices: New Jersey is a new project by Free Press that aims to connect newsrooms and communities to build a collaborative network of people invested in local journalism.
The project starts from this premise: If journalism plays a vital role in our communities and in democracy, then the popular “future of journalism” discussions need to better represent the public and include a more diverse set of voices. We want to create a network of New Jersey residents, civic leaders, journalists, publishers, academics, and activists to advocate for journalism.
New Jersey has for some time been one of the most underserved states when it comes to media, and this is getting worse as our many local outlets either gut their newsrooms or close up entirely. Local journalism has played such an important role in this state when it comes to addressing local concerns and disseminating information. It’s no secret that New Jersey has a thick layer of local government bureaucracy, and local reporting has acted as a necessary check on power. There are many interesting local experiments going on now throughout the state when it comes to journalism, engaging communities, and encouraging residents to participate. We look forward to working with many of these outlets and groups. If it proves useful here, we’ll look to see if there are opportunities to expand the project to other states and regions around the country.
Q: Can you share one example of a local experiment going on in NJ?
A: Jersey Shore Hurricane News is one of the most interesting and exciting examples of local projects that popped up due to gaps in coverage in the area. Justin Auciello, the founder, isn’t a journalist by training, but recognized that there was a need for information, especially during times of emergency, in Shore communities. So he leveraged the power of social media, specifically Facebook, to allow for people to share information with one another quickly and constanting in a two-way medium. He worked tirelessly to build up his following, instituted strong journalistic ethics in his reporting and aggregating, and has earned the trust of his audience. Now, he has over nearly a quarter-million followers on his page, and is beginning to test ways to expand his work. Just by recognizing a need and working hard to fill it, Justin and JSHN has become an indispensable media outlet not only for the Shore but the entire state of New Jersey.
Q: Free Press advocates that consumers get involved in their local community – and it seems that you feel the local publishers can and should take a lead role in making this happen. How (and where) is this working, and what things are missing to make this happen on a more national basis?
A: Involvement from local publishers, and partnerships with community members, is something that every newsroom should be trying to do. Journalism is a civic tool for people to better engage the world, and newsrooms should be leaders when it comes to creating a better society. That starts by getting input from your audience and listening to their concerns.
There are some really exciting things going on in the area of solutions journalism, especially from the aptly-named Solutions Journalism Network. A successful project in this area was Education Lab, a partnership between SJN and the Seattle Times. The project aimed to change how residents understood changes to the educational system in their area, and create more opportunities for dialogue between the newsroom, educators, and the community on the subject.
Another is the Listening Post in New Orleans, a media project that elevates the voices of communities to talk about what is going on in their neighborhoods. There is a similar project now going on in Macon, Georgia now too.
And right here in New Jersey, the Citizen’s Campaign runs a really amazing project called City Storytellers where community members are given training and support to report on local issues not covered by traditional media outlets.
Q: When you think about consumer involvement online, obvious sites such as Facebook, Buzzfeed, Tumblr come to mind. There’s always the joke about the popularity of cat videos compared to political or civic discussion. How is Free Press going to make these types of discussions “cool”?
A: It’s less about what we think is “cool”; its more about finding the issues that individual communities care about. People may share fun and light stories online, but it’s incorrect to say that people nowadays don’t care about “serious” issues. If you want to spark interesting and combative conversations, you wouldn’t start with listicles about 90’s pop culture; you’d most likely start with topics like gentrification or immigration or relationships between law enforcement and communities of color. That’s because people are passionate about the issues that affect their everyday lives and the future of their neighborhoods. Just because I share or comment on a video of a cat falling off a piano doesn’t mean I care less about property tax reform. We’re complicated, multidimensional people — that goes for millennials and baby-boomers.
The key is to listen to the needs of New Jerseyeans. Issues important to Shore communities may differ from those in New Brunswick or Newark or Morristown. That will determine how Free Press and ultimately newsrooms will engage and energize the people living there. So for us, we want to start by listening, then see if we can come up with solutions together to find ways to empower communities.
Q: Intimately tied to free press is free speech. What is Free Press’s take on the lawsuits that seem to happen with regularity between Yelp and local businesses as well as local businesses and consumers who leave them negative reviews? What do you think of local publishers allowing online reviews or feedback on their platforms as a way to engage the local community and what are the pros and drawbacks of such an approach?
A: Anytime you allow for more people to speak their minds, the greater the chance you are going to get speech that either ruffles feathers or upsets people. The solution though isn’t to silence or shut out those voices; it’s to find better ways of engaging.
It’s great that publishers are experimenting with new ways to make these platforms more engaging and productive. For all the problems that consumer or reader review sites like Yelp may create for some businesses, it also allows people to find a greater variety of places to go and things to do. It allows for smaller or unknown businesses to attract new customers. So we should encourage publishers to find ways to make that engagement more meaningful and beneficial for local businesses.
Q: What can we expect from News Voice New Jersey in the next 6-12 months? How can people get involved?
A: Our focus will be initially on New Brunswick, Atlantic City, the Jersey Shore, Newark, and Morristown, but we may roll out our efforts to other cities and communities. We hope to hold the first of these events, most likely in New Brunswick and Atlantic City or the Jersey Shore, by end of the year.
Over the course of this two-year project, we’ll publish research on New Jersey media and what we learn in the course of this project. We’ll produce tools that will enable newsrooms to maintain this level of engagement once our project is complete, and we’ll propose policies for lawmakers to protect local journalism and safeguard press freedom.
But this project will only be successful if we are able to hear from people in these cities and communities. We absolutely want to hear from people who care about the future of journalism and the future of New Jersey. Anyone that would like to get involved can reach out to me by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Q: Thanks Mike and good luck!
A: Thank you Scott.