Dig He Must: New Brunswick’s Charlie Kratovil Always Has the Scoop

New Brunswick reporter Charlie Kratovil has earned a reputation for tenacity. Not everyone is pleased about the stories he breaks on his hyperlocal website.

New Brunswick reporter Charlie Kratovil operates in the muckracking tradition, keeping a close watch on local institutions, such as the city's troubled water department.
New Brunswick reporter Charlie Kratovil operates in the muckracking tradition, keeping a close watch on local institutions, such as the city's troubled water department.
Photo by John Emerson

When Charlie Kratovil talks about his 2014 arrest, he’s animated, reliving the series of events with relish—even glee. It’s a polished story, one he’s told many times. In it, he plays the dupe, the victim and the hero. The main charge against him—that he violated a temporary restraining order brought by a former girlfriend—was dropped by the Middlesex County Prosecutor four months after his arrest.

What remains, 2 1/2 years later, is the stain on the New Brunswick police department—or what Kratovil delicately calls the “unusual tactics and questionable timing” of the arrest. He was suckered by an anonymous tipster—apparently a police officer or someone working in coordination with the police—into showing up at a local Starbucks; moments later, two squad cars pulled up and police got out, handcuffed Kratovil and took him in to be booked.

But it wasn’t just the business of luring a journalist into arrest by pretending to have secret information. It was the timing. The call came the same day Kratovil had scheduled a meeting with the police internal affairs division to testify about a story he’d published a week earlier about a policeman throwing two ticket books in the trash. That officer and another who was involved were disciplined three months later.
Kratovil’s arrest also came a week after he had exposed the fact that the mayor had quietly privatized the city water treatment plant, which turned out to be a much bigger deal. Before deciding to revert to a public utility 15 months later, the city raised water rates and was found to have inadequately treated its water.

“They certainly didn’t treat this like they treat other alleged violations of restraining orders,” Kratovil says.

But let Charlie Kratovil—who was savvy enough to record the phone call summoning him to Starbucks—enjoy his moment of infamy. Let’s face it, getting led off in handcuffs is one of the most glamorous things that can happen to a young journalist—particularly if the charges against that journalist are ultimately dropped.

Kratovil, the boyish-looking, 31-year-old co-founder and editor of New Brunswick Today, has a reputation in the Hub City for relentless investigative reporting. He keeps a watchful eye on the city’s long-troubled water department, as well as the police and fire departments, the parking authority, the housing authority, real estate developers, and the city’s resident university, Rutgers, where Kratovil earned his degree in journalism and media studies in 2009. Kratovil says he decided to start New Brunswick Today, and asked his friend and now New Brunswick Today publisher Sean Monahan to begin building the website, after a New Brunswick policeman shot and killed an unarmed black man in 2011. “It was a wake-up call,” he says. The policeman was suspended with paid leave for 15 months, but never indicted.

Until recently, Kratovil worked from a modest, $950-a-month, three-room office across from the Middlesex County Superior Court. From the front room, Kratovil watched police and lawyers coming and going and documented what he witnessed on his weekly Internet show, which is streamed over Facebook Live.

Kratovil operates in the muckraking tradition of the early 20th century, digging for evidence of political cronyism, bureaucratic incompetence, public health dangers and development run amok. He also operates in the much newer early 21st century mode of hyperlocal journalism—that is, he has created his own news organization that has to find an audience and pay its own way. New Brunswick Today, now five years old, started online like most other hyperlocals. It introduced a bilingual print newspaper in 2013 and the Internet show last fall.

But New Brunswick Today generates only about $3,000 a month in advertising in good months. Under financial pressure, Kratovil closed the office in March and began working from home. Next, he plans to take a part-time job to supplement his income—as he did in the operation’s early years, working in a local supermarket for $9 an hour. Though the masthead of the newspaper lists a staff of 38, including mostly freelancers who get a standard rate of $20 a story, about one-third of bylines on the site belong to Kratovil, who covers as many as three meetings a week, often at night.

New Brunswick is not without other news sources. But after its longtime hometown newspaper, the Home News Tribune, was bought by Gannett in 1997, its news department, covering all of Middlesex County, moved to Somerville, 25 minutes away. For a while, AOL-owned Patch covered New Brunswick closely, but now there’s just one editor for all of Middlesex and Monmouth counties. The New Brunswick editor in Patch’s halcyon days, Jennifer Bradshaw, is now information officer for the city. There’s also the relatively new TAPinto news franchise, with a Columbia Journalism School graduate, Jack Murtha, as chief reporter. “He’s very talented,” Kratovil says of Murtha. “It’s helpful to have another local person. The more the merrier.”

But there’s little doubt that Kratovil is the toughest and most prolific of the lot. Phil Napoli, a former professor of journalism and media studies at Rutgers, examined the health of local news ecosystems in New Brunswick, Newark and Morristown in 2014 and 2015 and found that New Brunswick had a significantly higher concentration of journalistic output than the other towns. “It was because of New Brunswick Today,” he says.

As a journalist, Kratovil is unique in that he proudly includes the title “community organizer” in his bio. “I admit it’s a little unusual that I get up and speak at meetings,” Kratovil says. “Sometimes I do express my opinions. Or express outrage. That separates me.”

But while he says he’s usually “in the journalist role,” Kratovil sometimes can’t help doing a little organizing.

In August 2014, early in a controversy about a proposed 57-unit apartment building that would have doubled the population of the three-block Mine Street, Kratovil nudged those who opposed the project to show up at a pivotal planning-board meeting.

“This was a very easy organizing opportunity. I said, ‘This is real simple. We’re going to get as many people as we can to show up,’” he recalls. It helped that his birthday was the same week as the scheduled meeting; he told friends all he wanted was for them to come to the meeting. The crowd exceeded capacity, the meeting had to be rescheduled, the fight went on for months, and in the end the developer lost a vote and scaled back the project to 26 units. “All we needed was people power to throw a wrench in it,” Kratovil says.

That kind of activism—and the fact that Kratovil is sometimes critical of city officials at public meetings even as he is grilling them for a story—could make other journalists uneasy.

Joe Malinconico, editor of the Paterson Press and a mentor to Kratovil, says his protégée’s activism could present “what the 20th-century model of journalism might see as some ethical challenges.” But, Malinconico adds, “in Charlie’s case, I believe he’s absolutely committed to doing the right thing. New Jersey would be a better place if every municipality had a journalist covering it as aggressively as Charlie covers New Brunswick.”

And Napoli, now at Duke University, says he and his former journalism colleagues at Rutgers, far from looking askance at Kratovil’s approach, were delighted by it—especially when he turned his focus on Rutgers, or as Napoli says, “shining light where they didn’t want light and being kicked out of meetings and being manhandled by the chancellor’s bodyguards.” The incident Napoli refers to actually involved the president of Rutgers, Robert Barchi, not the chancellor. The moment is captured in a blurry video, shot by Kratovil, as he rushed up to ask Barchi a question after an appearance and was jostled by a staff member.

The video of the Barchi incident is one of 10 that New Brunswick Today included in a highlight reel for its fifth birthday party in January. All include Kratovil, usually in ambush mode, running after public officials who don’t want to talk with him.

And even though the 5-foot-7, 140-pound journalist isn’t exactly threatening and is usually quite polite once he catches up with whomever he’s chasing, it doesn’t endear him to people in power. Although Kratovil insists “even the mayor has nice things to say about us,” New Brunswick’s information officer, former journalist Bradshaw, wouldn’t even forward our request to speak to Mayor James Cahill for a story on Kratovil. “No,” she said brusquely. “Not about this topic. We’re not interested.”

Kratovil excels at the art of the follow-up. The suicide of the New Brunswick Water Utility’s director in 2007 happened long before Kratovil opened shop. At the time, the New York Times reported that the utility director had just learned that federal prosecutors had subpoenaed his personal and official records. Kratovil held onto the story like a dog with a bone. The saga culminated in 2015 with a former water-treatment-plant officer, Edward O’Rourke, pleading guilty to covering up water-quality problems. Although Kratovil didn’t discover the water-quality breaches, he did reveal the state DEP investigation that had. “My role was limited to being a pain in the ass and frequently asking about the case,” Kratovil says.

And when a local NBC reporter broke the story that the Christie administration had awarded $4.8 million in Hurricane Sandy relief to an apartment tower being built by Boraie Development in New Brunswick, despite the fact that the city did not suffer a major blow from the storm, Kratovil, steeped in knowledge about the developer and the building, was tenacious in sticking with the story. “NBC got [the scoop], but we did the real heavy lifting,” Kratovil says. That coverage, and news about a similar case in Belleville, ultimately led to passage of a law making the state government more transparent and accountable in its handling of Sandy aid.

It’s not a surprise that, when comedian Samantha Bee went to the Free Press to find a local journalist to feature on her show Full Frontal this spring, she was pointed to Kratovil. The segment, filmed in late January, aired in the spring.

Kratovil once toyed with the idea of going into comedy himself. He performed at the Stress Factory, a comedy club in New Brunswick, and competed in a comedy contest at Rutgers. He was  also voted funniest and friendliest of the boys in his class at Hillsborough High School. Which is not surprising, particularly the friendliest part.

Kratovil has nice words to say about all his competitors in the local news business, about the mayor, and even about Bradshaw, who has written news releases that cast Kratovil’s derring-do in a negative light. Kratovil made headlines in December after a reader gave him a water meter as possible evidence in a case involving two longtime utility officials charged in a scheme to lower a customer’s water bill; one was charged with accepting a bribe. After he displayed the device on his live show, police came to his office with a signed warrant to collect the meter. Bradshaw’s subsequent news release suggested that Kratovil may have tampered with evidence.

“Jennifer’s a very good person,” Kratovil says. “She’s in a difficult position, trying to defend these anti-journalism, anti-information policies.”

TAPinto reporter Murtha, who calls the latest Kratovil kerfuffle Water-meter-gate, clearly likes the guy causing all of the hubbub. “Charlie is often as much a part of the story as he is covering the story,” Murtha says. “I see him carrying on a tradition that is as American as it is frustrating for some of the officials he has covered.”

Subsistence wages, night meetings, periodic run-ins with the police; none of these seem to be wearing on Kratovil. He admits that, if he were recruited by an investigative-journalism website like the Intercept, and given an opportunity to cover key national stories, he might not be able to resist. But he’d eventually go back to New Brunswick. “I really enjoy what I do. That’s for sure. I like to think I’m asking questions that others would ask.”

Debbie Galant is a cofounder and former editor of Baristanet, a hyperlocal news site in Montclair. She was also associate director of the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University, which has supported New Brunswick Today and other alternative news sites.

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