- Associated Press - Friday, August 24, 2018

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) - New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy on Friday signed legislation to set aside $5 million for a trailblazing nonprofit group that aims to boost local news coverage in the state.

But the first-term Democratic governor said Friday that “most, if not all” of the cash is already spoken for by federally-required capital projects.

It’s unclear whether that means the project won’t have the funding to get started.

Mike Rispoli, news director for Free Press, the nonpartisan, nonprofit group that pushed the idea, said the group is trying to clarify what the governor’s statement means.

Messages left with the governor’s office and Treasury department were not immediately answered.

Despite the murkiness on funding, Murphy’s statement embraced the notion of supporting news coverage and said deliberately false and misleading stories led to Republican President Donald Trump getting elected.

“I believe it is extremely important to put in place a strong system to prevent a world in which popular but false news claims go unchallenged because of a lack of commitment or resources,” Murphy said.

The idea for the initiative sprang from the efforts of the Free Press Action Fund, which held community forums on state residents’ concerns about dwindling local news coverage, leading to the new law that creates the Civic Information Consortium.

The new law sets up a charitable and education organization with a 15-member board. The governor, the Democratic Assembly speaker, the Democratic Senate president and the Republican leaders in both chambers would all make appointments.

The board also would include representatives from five state colleges, the news media and the public.

Under the legislation, the grant money was to come from funds supported by the sale of the public broadcast spectrum last year under Republican Gov. Chris Christie. The sale netted more than $300 million, most of which is going toward general state expenses.

Murphy said he was advised by the state treasurer that “far less than $5 million” remains for the consortium and that “most, if not all of the remaining balances” are necessary for capital projects and emergency repairs for the New Jersey Public Broadcasting Authority. The governor said they’re required by the Federal Communications Commission.

Advocates said they see the pilot project as an important and innovative way to use public cash to encourage more local news reporting. Detractors said they’re concerned the model could lead to government interference.

Rispoli earlier pointed to public radio and TV as models showing that publicly funded journalism can work without political bias.

He also noted requirements under the bill that the consortium issue a report to lawmakers and hold meetings across the state, with the goal of being responsive to the public.

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