TRENTON, NEW JERSEY — NJSpotlight.com, which CJR profiled in September 2010, is a policy-focused news site based in the Trenton, N.J. state house. Launched in early 2010 by two former Newark Star-Ledger reporters, John Mooney and Tom Johnson, the site focuses on issues relating to the state budget, environmental and energy legislation, education policy, and health care. “We are nonpartisan, independent, policy-centered and community-minded,” says the website.
[Profile updated April 2, 2012]
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Their publisher, Kevin Harold, handles the business operations, and Mooney and Johnson farm out the web production and copy editing, all done remotely. That leaves Mooney and Johnson free to report, write, and assign from their office in the state house. They aim for three new stories a day. The challenge is to offer something different that readers aren’t going to read elsewhere, while contributing to the conversation often enough that they don’t seem out of touch. As Mooney puts it, he wants to “take a step back” with every piece. “But I still have to step back daily,” he says.
Mooney and Johnson believe their particular strengths—and therefore, the strength of NJSpotlight.com—lie in the decades of experience they both have covering their respective beats: education and environmental issues. Their reputation as reliable analysts of those issues has helped them gain funding and attention that would have been difficult to come by otherwise. In September 2011, NJSpotlight.com was recognized for its efforts when it won the Online Journalism Award for General Excellence for Micro Sites.
That’s the key point, Mooney insists, if anyone’s wondering whether other journalists in other markets could repeat their initial success. “If this kind of model works in other states, you’d have to have experienced reporters,” Mooney says. “We can do this because we’re experienced, and we have the institutional memory. We can do the story because we remember what happened ten years ago. I don’t think this model works so well if you’re dumping in people who are brand new.”
If Mooney’s and Johnson’s “resident expert” status makes NJSpotlight.com possible, it’s also what they believe will make it sustainable. The idea is to first brand themselves as a trustworthy resource, providing readers with unbiased information surrounding political debate. The site has a lot of sidebar tools that take publicly available data and make it accessible for readers who want to learn about, say, state budget allocations to specific counties and school districts. They developed an electronic report card tool for New Jersey schools, created a Voters Guide for elections, and have reached out to several hyperlocal news outfits in the state that may want to incorporate it into their websites. NJSpotlight.com won’t make any money from these partnerships, but it might help get them some name recognition and traffic back to their site. (The site averaged 60,000 unique visitors a month as of late 2011 according to internal numbers.)
Mooney explains that access to the news site will always be free for general readers, but that they hope to spin off a more specialized, detailed kind of content for a fee or subscription. They will need more staff first, but they plan to start on business-to-business services like newsletters, sponsor events, and webinars. In 2011, NJSpotlight.com began partnering with New York Public Radio and WHYY Public Radio in an effort to expand content and create a content sharing bridge between local outlets.
NJ Spotlight Data
Name: NJ Spotlight
Principal Staff: John Mooney, founding editor; Tom Johnson, co-founder.
Affiliations: Business: William Penn Foundation, Community Foundation of New Jersey; Content: New York Public Radio and WHYY Public Radio.
CMS: Custom Python
CJR on NJ Spotlight:
09/22/10: NJSpotlight.com, Trenton’s State House Startup - The newcomer to press row fills a policy niche - Lauren Kirchner