News you can use: When local media outlets go dark, everyone loses — even if people don’t realize it right away

By Tom Bergeron
New Jersey | Aug 26, 2019 at 5:00 am
Editor’s Desk

It was the biggest business story most people missed this week.

A large company announced it was dropping an unprofitable business unit, which will result in 150 people in our region losing their jobs. The potential cost to society is much greater.

That’s what happens when a news organization goes dark, as was the case when New Jersey’s Fios1 News announced it will be going off the air Nov. 15.

The station, Channel 1 for those who had FiOS, was the latest in another attempt to produce local news — the type of news that was ubiquitous just a generation ago and all but extinct today.

“It’s sad news,” Phil Alongi, the news director at NJTV, said. “They were giving folks a hyperlocal sense of the news. It speaks, if nothing else, to the fact that the rest of us need to step up to fill that void.”

Few of “us” are willing and eager to do that.

“We” are, if I can speak collectively of ROI-NJ. Next month marks our two-year anniversary. We knew there was a need for local reporting of business, on business and for business in this state. We’re proud that we’re still chugging along, proud that soon we may have outgrown our startup status. Proud that we’re doing such important work.

Sadly, there are few of us left.

Mike Shapiro is one who is still at it. Has been for more than a decade. He launched TAPinto from his New Providence home in 2008. Its goal was to provide hyperlocal news. In this case, individual franchises covering local towns. He now has more than 73 such outlets covering 100 towns in New Jersey.

He didn’t view Fios1 as a competitor, but another colleague in the news business.

“Obviously, when any local news outlet is going to go dark, it hurts everybody,” he said. “There’s a real void in local news in towns not only across New Jersey, but across the country. When a local news outlet goes out of business, it increases the size of that void.”

Shapiro said truly measuring that void is difficult.

“Residents have less and less objective local news and information and, as a result, they’re not as able to make informed decisions and our local governments are not able to be held as accountable,” he said. “It’s critically important that we fill these voids in local news, not only in New Jersey, but across the country.”

Alongi and NJTV are trying to do that. The public media company is in expansion mode.

There was the recent acquisition of NJ Spotlight, in an effort to increase coverage. And Alongi told me NJTV is in the middle of another expansion — one that figures to bring more local coverage to the state.

It’s an important move, one Alongi said the group is taking with a strong sense of responsibility. He noted that recent polls show only 25% of the public has interacted with journalists and only about 50% understand what an op-ed is.

Alongi realizes that may be the fault of the media as much as anyone.

“In a time where there’s so much distrust, not only in government, but in our business of media, that’s one gap that I feel like we need to address,” he said. “Maybe there’s mistrust because they don’t know who we are or what we’re doing or how we’re doing our work.

“We need to do a better job of being more transparent about our processes and showing our work. I think that’s one way to show people our value and get them to pay attention to what we’re doing.”

If we don’t, many might not even notice when we go away.

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