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May 10, 2017

A Journalism Collaboration Lifts Up the Voices of New Brunswick’s Working Poor


Editor’s Note:

A little over two years ago, Democracy Fund and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation invested in a new project that wanted to bridge the gap between journalists and their communities. Free Press’ News Voices project promised to draw on the tools of community organizers — deep listening, strategic planning, convening, and consensus building — to connect newsrooms and the people they serve in new ways. In the years since, Free Press has hosted big and small events getting citizens and reporters sitting across the table from each other, sharing stories and discussing the biggest issues facing their communities. The work has sparked new stories, interesting collaborations and created feedback loops that are shaping coverage and communities. Plus, as was recently highlighted in Poynter, Free Press’s News Voices work is expanding to North Carolina. 

In this short blog post, Mike Rispoli, the Free Press staffer in New Jersey, writes about one of the collaborations that has emerged from their work, pulling together stakeholders from across the community, the university, and the local journalism landscape. As more and more of these networks and partnership emerge across New Jersey, we are seeing a more interconnected news ecosystem emerging where new models of reporting and revenue, community engagement and creative coverage are taking shape. 

– Josh Stearns

By Mike Rispoli

The community of New Brunswick holds a special place in my heart.

It’s where News Voices: New Jersey first launched, where some of our closest allies are based, and where I teach reporting to budding journalists at Rutgers University.

Working so closely with community organizations and at Rutgers has brought me face to face with a longtime tension in New Brunswick: the “town-gown” divide between city residents and members of the Rutgers community.

When Free Press held our News Voices forum in New Brunswick in November 2015, this theme came up time and time again. We heard residents talk about the desire to see Rutgers students out in the city more. We heard people from Rutgers talk about ways to build better relationships with residents who lived close to campus but often felt like the university was a world away.

With its power to convene and elevate the voices of people not often heard from, journalism can help build bridges to begin addressing these kinds of divides. So we partnered with NJ Spark, led by Rutgers professor and Media Mobilizing Project co-founder Todd Wolfson, to work with students on learning how to better engage the New Brunswick community.

A dedicated group of five NJ Spark student journalists worked hand in hand with Free Press over the course of the spring semester on an ambitious project: lifting up the stories of New Jersey’s working poor — and specifically New Brunswick’s.

A recent report from the United Way of Northern Jersey found that 37 percent of the state’s households — over 1.2 million households — can’t afford to pay for basic daily necessities like housing, food, health care, child care and transportation.

The students struck out to speak with 37 New Jerseyans who fall into this category, as well as individuals who work for organizations that provide services and support for people who don’t fall below the federal poverty line but still struggle to pay for the basic cost of living.

The “New Jersey 37” project, a collaboration between NJ Spark and Free Press, showcases the stories of people who are often overlooked in mainstream journalism. Some stories are funny, some are sad; all are moving.

To further elevate the voices of New Jersey’s working poor, the students invited some of the people profiled in the series to speak at an event at Rutgers on April 26. The emotional event capped off a semester-long project that taught students how to better engage their community, lift up important social justice issues, and allow people to use journalism to tell their own stories.

Below are a few stories from the project. To read the entire 37-story series, and to see all the great work that NJ Spark does, head over to its website here.

Photo courtesy of Louis Harned

This article was originally posted on NewsVoices.org, and republished with permission.