ANSWERING THE CALL IN PRINCETON
As Covid-19 struck, desperate readers asked the hyperlocal news site Planet Princeton for guidance on food deliveries, unemployment insurance and even face shields.
The site’s founder, Krystal Knapp, did her best to help, even as she battled the virus herself. “I couldn’t afford to be off,” says Knapp. “Who would cover the news?”
Knapp broke a story about the virus invading a local nursing home—which was news to several readers who had parents there. During the pandemic, Planet Princeton’s page views soared to 1.5 million a month, up from a typical 200,000.
Knapp, 53, took a roundabout route to journalism. As a prison chaplain, Knapp met someone she believed was innocent. “This led me to join Centurion, an organization that works to free innocent men and women from prison,” says Knapp. “I met reporters who took interest in cases and wrote stories that had an impact.” The experience led her to journalism classes and a job at the Trenton Times; later she became a freelance writer.
In 2011, she founded Planet Princeton to cover the town where she has lived for 30 years. The site’s stories range from alerts about missing pets to investigations of public corruption. Last year, Knapp won a New Jersey News Commons award for an exposé on illegal dumping at a municipal facility.
Planet Princeton is supported with advertising, the occasional grant (including grants of $5,000 each from Google’s news initiative and Facebook’s journalism project for Covid coverage) and voluntary subscriptions, at an average of about $10 a month. Subscriptions recently rose from about 3 percent of users to about 8 percent, as readers responded to Knapp’s pleas during the pandemic.
“If I had 20 percent of my readers doing monthly subscriptions, I would not sweat anything,” says Knapp. “I’d be fine.”
Until recently, Knapp lived “like a graduate student,” with roommates and a 14-year-old car; she now has a studio apartment. Her annual income is less than $50,000 after expenses—including earnings from her website design and maintenance business. “When I look at my bank account, sometimes I say, ‘What have I done?’” Knapp says. “But I believe there’s a lot of value in community news. I see it as a calling.”
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SHINING A LIGHT IN PATERSON
Joe Malinconico has dug up plenty of hard news as editor of The Paterson Press, but some of his favorite stories are those that show another side of New Jersey’s third-largest city to “outsiders who might have a condescending and negative view.”
Like the story about Paterson teens working summer jobs, including a boy who gave part of every paycheck to his mom to buy food.
“Stories like that say to people: ‘Not every kid in Paterson is slinging drugs on the corner,’” says Malinconico. “Kids are striving to get better lives.”
The Paterson Press was created as a website in 2010 by the Citizens Campaign, which Malinconico refers to good-naturedly as “a bunch of do-gooders from Metuchen,” who work statewide to encourage citizen participation in government.
“I think the feeling was there was a lot of coverage focusing on crime and corruption,” says Malinconico, a veteran of The Star-Ledger. Malinconico’s first City Hall meeting in 2010 involved the municipal budget—a seemingly dry topic that turned into a major, months-long story, as the struggling city hiked taxes and laid off hundreds of workers.
Since 2013, North Jersey Media Group, parent company of The Record, has paid the Citizens Campaign a monthly fee to run Paterson Press stories in print and on northjersey.com, creating a hybrid of for-profit and nonprofit news. The Paterson Press has been supported from the start by the Henry and Marilyn Taub Foundation, and other foundation grants.
Malinconico is a one-man show, helped by one steady freelancer or college intern. He estimates he produces anywhere from eight to 20 stories in a week, from police-blotter briefs to education features to probes of city spending. To keep overhead down, he works from his home in Bayonne.
“When I’m in Paterson, I work out of my car and use the Wi-Fi at the library or at the Great Falls,” he says.
Malinconico sees a crucial role for journalism in Paterson: “Cities aren’t going to change if nobody’s shining a light on them.”
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SEEEKING MEMBERS IN MONTCLAIR
Many newspaper readers have been dismayed to see local coverage dwindle, but not many do what Heeten and Thalla-Marie Choxi did. The Montclair couple reached into their own pockets to start a weekly newspaper dedicated to their town.
The result is Montclair Local, which the Choxis—with no journalism background—started in 2017, after the weekly Montclair Times laid off staff and began using more nonlocal news when its parent company, North Jersey Media Group, was sold to Gannett, the national chain.
“Montclair is this incredibly diverse, great town, we have a community that really wants to support local news, and they want that news to actually be local,” says Heeten Choxi, an engineering manager at Google. “My wife and I saw a need in town, and it was something we thought we could spend a little time and money on. It ended up taking way more time and way more money than we thought.”
Now, Montclair Local has five full-time journalists and two advertising salespeople. While the weekly print newspaper and its website have won journalism awards, advertising dollars haven’t been enough to sustain it. The Choxis have poured in more than $1 million of their own money.
In fall 2019, they converted the Local into a nonprofit, aiming to pay its $800,000 in annual expenses with community memberships, plus advertising and, they hope, grants and events.
“I think it’s important for the community to see us as a public good,” says Heeten.
Anne Keys, who recently joined as executive director, says about 1,500 people have become members, many donating more than the $36 suggested starting point.
The Choxis, who have five children, see a direct link between journalism and their Baha’i faith.
“A central premise of the Baha’i faith is that mankind is one human family, and we’re all in this together,” says Heeten. “What is a newspaper? A tool for humanity to see itself better, a mirror to show how we are doing as a town, to see all the divergent perspectives and stories in town. We can use this information to figure out how to make the whole better.”Click here to leave a comment