Dateline: Maplewood

How one small suburban town became a big testing ground for online news reporting. (Photos by Sandra Nissen)

Maplewood Online owner and editor Jamie Ross files the news in his home office.
Photo by Sandra Nissen.

Maplewood is no stranger to flattering lists. Money magazine named the town one of the top ten places to live in 2002. And for a cocktail of reasons, including its diversity and its strollable, shoppable downtown, it has appeared on similar lists since.

But one list that Maplewood would no doubt dominate has yet to be compiled: worst places to live if you are trying to avoid a swarm of news-thirsty bloggers.

For almost a year, the Essex County suburb has been accumulating a tangle of online journalists. Some are paid professionals, some are wannabes, but they are all on the same beat, documenting what’s happening in this pocket of roughly 22,000 residents.

The explosion of online reporters and bloggers in Maplewood is part of a movement across the state stemming from the web-induced meltdown of traditional media, especially newspapers. As more people turn to the Internet for news, and as marketers seek alternatives to print advertising, the number of pages in the average daily or weekly print publication dwindles. So, too, do newsroom budgets. With fewer reporters covering stories and fewer pages to print them on, the Internet is increasingly becoming an important avenue for all kinds of “hyperlocal” reporting, from council-meeting recaps to alerts about what’s fresh at the farmer’s market.

Nowhere is this transition more evident than in Maplewood. Few would deny that Maplewood has its share of compelling stories. It has bred celebrities—actors Jason Alexander, Zach Braff, and Elisabeth and Andrew Shue are among the notables who grew up there, and Broadway star Christine Ebersole still lives in town. Sometimes the local news is groundbreaking: In June, Maplewood became the first municipality to adopt a resolution calling on state legislators to sanction same-sex marriage.

But for the most part Maplewood is a sleepy hamlet ruled by moms and dads and the kids who keep them scurrying among the soccer fields. That it has attracted high-profile journalistic attention might seem puzzling.

About a dozen sites are devoted to following what is happening around town, but since the beginning of the year, four dominant hyperlocal players have emerged:

• Maplewood Online (maplewoodonline.com), an independently owned site run by two locals. MO has a busy home page of news, press releases, blogs, classified ads, and numerous heavily trafficked bulletin boards. The site earns money through both classified and banner ads.

• The Local (maplewood.blogs.nytimes.com), a blog-heavy site launched by the New York Times and edited by veteran journalist and Maplewood resident Tina Kelley, with reporting by unpaid local contributors.

• Patch.com (maplewood.patch.com), an AOL-owned site staffed by a handful of paid correspondents tasked with finding news and reporting it quickly. Patch also has separate sites in neighboring South Orange and Millburn-Short Hills. Revenue comes mainly from local business advertisers.

• Maplewoodian (maplewoodian.com), an independently owned, one-man operation run by veteran reporter Joe Strupp, a resident who works full time as senior editor of the trade magazine Editor & Publisher (and is an occasional contributor to New Jersey Monthly). Strupp welcomes paid advertisements but has so far seen few.

Jamie Ross, owner and editor of Maplewood Online, which started in 1997 as a bare-bones forum for residents to exchange thoughts on all things Maplewood, thinks he knows what attracted his corporate-backed competitors.

“There’s no surprise why they came,” he says. “No one will admit it, but it’s because of Maplewood Online and the community that’s already in place.”

Ross is not upset by the competition. What doesn’t kill a website, he surmises, only makes it stronger. He claims his site has more than 10,000 registered users—or almost half the town’s population—and attracts roughly 30,000 unique visitors a month. None of the other sites would provide traffic figures. (The traffic at most hyperlocals is too low to register with major tracking companies such as Nielsen and ComScore.)
“Our readers are pretty loyal,” Ross says. “I’ll keep my thoughts on who’s going to last and who isn’t to myself. But I’ve been telling people we’ll see who’s around in a year and who isn’t.”

Despite the clutter, observers find it possible to make some sense of the varied approaches. “The Maplewoodian is sort of the USA Today model, and I don’t mean that in a disparaging way,” says Maplewood mayor Victor DeLuca. “[Strupp’s] stories are sort of short and to the point.” He describes the Local as “New York Times-style”—with thoughtfully crafted stories that might otherwise go untold—“and Patch is somewhere in between. My assessment of who to give a story to sometimes depends on how fast I want the information out there.”

Maplewood Online, by DeLuca’s estimation, is a completely different beast: “It’s gossip,” he says.
In the hyperlocal petri dish that is Maplewood, each approach has its place. Some Maplewood residents log onto the Local each morning, while others click straight to Maplewood Online bulletin boards. Some do both. Others combine Patch news with Maplewoodian opinions. And some Maplewood residents stick with old habits and still rely on the daily Star-Ledger or the weekly News-Record.

Statewide, hyperlocals are springing up all over. The ones making the biggest impression tend to be grassroots efforts by local editors who share a sensibility with their readers. Among the best-known is Montclair’s Baristanet (baristanet.com), started in 2004 by Debra Galant, a novelist and former New Jersey columnist for the New York Times.

“What we are is the Cliffs Notes for living in Montclair and surrounding towns,” says Galant, a Glen Ridge resident. Her site, which makes a point of delivering its headlines with a sense of humor (a July story on leaf-blowing restrictions was titled, “Don’t Blow It”), is also “very much a discussion place. We get anywhere from 40 to 200 comments a day,” claims Galant, who estimates that her site sees 70,000 to 85,000 unique visitors per month.

Younger sites, including independently owned Hoboken 411 (hoboken411.com) and Red Bank Green (redbankgreen.com), have called on Galant for advice. More telling is a call Galant took almost two years ago from the organizers of Morristown Green, the first foray by the Star-Ledger into hyperlocal reporting.
“People like Debbie Galant who are not affiliated with the mainstream media have done a terrific job of creating from the ground up a very valuable local site,” says newly retired Star-Ledger editor-in-chief Jim Willse, who turned to Galant as a resource when his company was planning Morristown Green (nj.com/morristown).

“I think Baristanet is hugely successful in some ways,” Willse adds. “But if you ask Debbie Galant, she’ll tell you she’s not getting rich off it. Everybody’s still trying to figure out, ‘Who do you pay?’”—in other words, should a hyperlocal site hire reporters or rely on unpaid citizen reporters.

Willse says the Star-Ledger will launch more hyperlocal sites this year as spinoffs of nj.com. But he acknowledges, “It’s too early to come up with a recipe that would work in most towns. The content part is fairly straightforward. It’s the business model that’s a little murkier.”

Gannett, which has six newspapers around the state, also is playing the hyperlocal game, with In Jersey sites for Cherry Hill, Collingswood, Flemington, Freehold, Madison, and Vineland.

Bidding for multi-town success, too, is the Alternative Press (thealternativepress.com), a community news site launched for New Providence, Berkeley Heights, and Summit by attorney/journalist Michael Shapiro from his New Providence home in October 2008. Since then, Shapiro has added Alternative Press pages for Millburn-Short Hills, Livingston, Westfield, Madison, Chatham Borough, and Chatham Township.

“My wife and I funded the site to begin with,” Shapiro said in an e-mail, “and now revenue generated from the site funds the site.” In a phone interview, he added, “We’re running ahead of expenses [which include paying writers for stories], and I think our model can be replicated.” What is that model? “We’re truly local. We have relationships that help break stories. We are accredited by the New Jersey Press Association. We follow journalistic principles. We don’t publish rumors. We don’t have discussion boards—you don’t have to worry about what your kids are going to see. On the business side, we have known these [advertisers] for many years. We’re involved in organizations in these towns. And we work very, very hard.”

The hyperlocal frontier is attracting national attention, too. In August, MS-NBC.com bought EveryBlock, a Chicago-based site offering neighborhood news in fifteen cities, including Miami, Dallas, and Philadelphia. And in June, AOL upped the ante of its hyperlocal holdings by purchasing Going Inc., a multiple-city site that directs locals and out-of-towners to all sorts of nearby happenings.

Other large players have pulled back. To cut costs, the Washington Post in August shut LoudounExtra.com, its first hyperlocal. Another ambitious D.C.-based operation, the cleverly named BackFence.com, shut its thirteen sites in 2007. Despite $3 million in financing, it could not build the audience or the revenue streams necessary to generate a return on the investment.

Why did the New York Times target Maplewood? It seems to be simply because Kelley, who has lived in the town since 2003, knows it cold. “When they offered me the chance to do this I asked why here, and they told me—and I believe them—that it’s because I live in Maplewood,” Kelley says. The Local, launched in March, also documents the day-to-day (and sometimes hour-to-hour) happenings around the neighboring towns of South Orange and Millburn-Short Hills.

“We came up with South Orange because it’s an obvious choice, since we share a school system,” Kelley says. “And Millburn is the next stop west, and it has a similar downtown with small stores. I also go to church there and knew my way around a bit.”

The Times has launched a hyperlocal in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene section as well. According to Jim Schachter, editor for digital initiatives at the Times, “These two sites are pilots, an effort to determine what combination of journalism, technology, and revenue represents a recipe for self-sustaining, scalable, community journalism online.”

As for Patch, the decision to set up shop in Maplewood, South Orange, and Millburn appears to be based on a computer model that directed Patch to certain towns. “We put a lot into an algorithm and looked at median household income, how cohesive the community was,” says Brian Farnham, New York-based editor-in-chief of Patch.com. “We looked at the top-rated schools, because if a community has good schools it’s a real sign the community is engaged. These three towns came up pretty high.”

Proximity to AOL’s New York offices also had something to do with Patch’s interest in northern New Jersey. “It was important for us to test this out in a classic small-town community,” which precluded the outer boroughs of New York, such as blog-saturated Brooklyn, Farnham explains. “Certainly some aspect of our decision had to do with where we’re headquartered. We wanted to be close enough to manage things out of the gate.”

Thus sprang the war—though no one wants to call it that—over who can most successfully spin a business out of covering Maplewood online.

Strupp, who launched Maplewoodian late last year, had his own reasons for taking the plunge. In nine years of living in town, he says, the Star-Ledger and the weekly News-Record, which also operates a website updated weekly, had missed major stories. “I sort of realized after a couple of years of thinking about doing a website that the way to do it was not to try to compete, but to just raise issues I think are interesting,” Strupp says. He also wanted to express his own opinions about local government and political issues.

Maplewood’s editors are careful not to step on each other’s toes. After all, they see a lot of each other around town. With the exception of Ross, who traffics only marginally in news, everybody shows up when there’s a town council meeting or a school board election. “Everybody does something a little bit different, and we think that’s terrific,” says Patch’s Farnham. “The people who win are the people who live here and are looking for information about their community.”

Still, it’s hard not to sense the competition brewing in Maplewood. “We usually beat them,” says South Orange Patch editor Cotton Delo, referring to the Local.

Meanwhile, Strupp, discussing Patch, says, “They do news, but they bring in these citizen journalists, and I don’t know about their training. I think most of them have it, but there’s a danger when you have more citizens than journalism involved.” Kelley is less judgmental. “Patch usually does shorter stories,” she says. “The Maplewoodian is just Maplewood; it kind of focuses on township council politics.”

Strupp, like Ross, is wagering that either Patch or the Local will fold. “I wouldn’t be surprised if one of the two of them wasn’t around in a year or two,” he says. “I think both their setups are good, but Patch is owned by AOL, and who knows what the future is there? I also think a lot of people are wondering what the Times is getting out of this.”

Schachter confirms that the Local is not yet profitable. But that was to be expected. “There is no way for the Local to be profitable in its pilot phase,” he says. “We are staffing each of our Local sites with a top-flight New York Times reporter, and the two sites are supervised by a deputy metro editor”—Mary Ann Giordano—“who, until she started this job, was the Times’s deputy politics editor, helping run our coverage of the 2008 presidential campaign. Not counting the development effort and the attention that the Local is receiving from me and perhaps a dozen other people at the Times, the personnel costs alone run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

Patch does not comment on its sites’ finances, but Farnham acknowledges they are not yet profitable.
Strupp is candid about his prospects. “I’m a one-man operation,” he says. “I still have a job. I don’t get a lot of advertising. Who knows? I may get sick of it.”

Strupp’s bare bones operation does not have the business strategies employed by the corporate-backed sites. The Local is pursuing a variety of income streams, including a new self-service advertising model.

Patch uses information on local businesses in each market it enters to create online profiles. “We create a listing, including photos,” says Farnham. “If a business is interested in advertising with us, they can go and find that listing and claim it.” Patch has added sites in Cranford, Maplewood, Scotch Plains-Fanwood, Summit, Westfield, Wyckoff, and three Connecticut towns, Darien, Wilton, and New Canaan.

Ross says he and his business partner in Maplewood Online have no employees but are making a living from classified ads, banner ads, website hosting, and web development.

At the Local, the financial model is based on the use of unpaid reporters. These so-called citizen journalists range from untrained writers to experienced reporters willing to file stories just for the prestige of writing under the Times’s umbrella. As a result, Kelley says many of her roughly twenty regular writers require only a light edit, but some need heavy work—par for the course, she says, when relying on citizen journalists.

“We have a lot to learn from them, and they have a lot to learn from us,” she says. “They’re out on the street more, living their lives. So they’re experts. And the more voices we can include in our coverage, the stronger we are and the more accurate a presentation we give.” On the other hand, she acknowledges, “There are skills you get from being a reporter, including the checking of accuracy and doing the full amount of research. With citizen journalists, that sometimes doesn’t happen as much.”

A major concern for Kelley is “not to be exploitive” of contributors, who range from students to moms looking to return to journalism. She likes hearing about writers who have successfully leveraged their clips from the Local to line up paid assignments. Like her fellow Maplewood editors, Kelley also files stories herself—either from home, from her car, or from local coffee shops.

Patch attracts writers the old-fashioned way, by paying for stories. According to Farnham, Maplewood editor Adam Bulger works with three to five regular freelancers. (Bulger was to move to a new Patch site in mid-October.) Patch also hires a full-time editor for each of the towns it covers. At the Local, Kelley is the lone Times reporter for Maplewood, Millburn, and South Orange.

To Maplewood officials like DeLuca, though, she hardly seems alone. His town, he says, has come to feel supersaturated with bloggers in recent months. “At the last township committee meeting, we were discussing police layoffs, and the word on the street was that the police were going to come out in force to urge us not to do the layoffs.

“What happened was, for the first time we had more people from these blogs and the press than anybody else there. The police never showed up. And we maybe had five residents.”

Still, he does not begrudge the journalists their interest in telling Maplewood’s stories.

“I think it’s terrific that people are looking at us for hyperlocals,” he says. “I like it when Maplewood is deemed to be a leader.”

SIDEBAR: How Hyperlocals Hype The News:

How Maplewood’s websites handle local news and the occasional controversy speaks volumes about their individual styles.

Take their coverage of Maplewoodstock, for example. This year, the annual two-day summer festival that draws relatively big musical acts to tiny Maplewood’s Memorial Park was headlined by pop singer/songwriter Marshall Crenshaw.

Patch.com posted half a dozen original Maplewoodstock stories during and after the July 11-to-12 festival, including an interview with Crenshaw and reviews of both days. Its coverage was classic Patch: informative, concise, and to the point.

Elsewhere, the dispatches were less tidy. And perhaps more flavorful. Maplewood Online, which sponsored the event, was first to announce Maplewoodstock back in February. In June, editor-in-chief Jamie Ross posted a comprehensive schedule. After the event, a gallery of photos from the weekend went up, with readers posting their own.

Where Maplewood Online’s coverage veered from Patch’s dispassionate dispatches was on the site’s most popular feature, its message boards. One discussion, headlined “Why weren’t more people of color at Maplewoodstock,” was launched by a reader called ktcblackdragon. “I love this town and the people who live here…yet I’m always disappointed, as a man of African-American descent, by the low turnout of blacks (and other people of color) when it comes to attendance at events like Maplewoodstock,” ktcblackdragon wrote. Two weeks and more than 380 posts later, the thread was still going strong. Said a participant calling himself jersey-boy: “I believe it’s about a sense of community ownership of a space. Some people feel that Memorial Park is their space, others don’t. I’d venture a guess that Memorial Park on any weekend day has the same, or similar, racial mix as it did at Maplewoodstock.”

The Local joined the discussion on Maplewoodstock’s scant diversity, giving Maplewood Online full credit for spawning it. A July 16 post by editor Tina Kelley headlined “What’s Missing From This Picture” starts out: “There’s a thread on Maplewood Online that raises a question I asked myself all weekend: In a town with a population that’s 32.7 percent black, why weren’t there more people of color at Maplewoodstock?”

Comments on Kelley’s post stretched to July 21, including one from a writer identified as Steve: “Unless people are wrongly excluded from an event—and that certainly wasn’t the case here,” he wrote, “why choose to look at something through the filter of race?”

Days later, after another Memorial Park musical event, the July 26 Jazz Fest, Kelley revisited the diversity question. “I couldn’t make it to Jazz Fest last night,” she wrote, “but I wondered if the demographics of the audience mirrored that of the town better than those of Maplewoodstock. If so, was it because of the music, the advertising, or any other factor?”

As for the Maplewoodian, it served visitors with plenty of advance notice and clear-eyed details previewing the festival. But afterward, editor Joe Strupp, never shy about posting opinions, went his own way on what constituted controversy. “Maplewoodstock a Hit—But Is It Too Big?” was his mid-July contemplation. The post, though convincing, did not prompt any comments. As a Maplewood blogger, Strupp may be marching to the beat of his own drummer.

Tammy La Gorce is a frequent contributor.

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