JERSEY CITY, NEW JERSEY — Unfortunately, it’s not difficult to imagine how a city of nearly a quarter-million residents could be wanting for local news coverage these days. When that city exists in the shadow of media-manic Manhattan, that fate becomes even more understandable. Such was the case for Jersey City, a bedroom community located along the Hudson riverfront bordering the Big Apple, until a couple of scrappy, enterprising journalists began the alternative news and culture site Jersey City Independent. Co-founder Jon Whiten had lamented to friends about the lack of news coverage in Jersey City (home to one primary news outlet, the tabloid Jersey Journal) and “at some point we got sick of complaining and decided to do something about it,” he says.
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Whiten, a journalist with experience at a community paper in Virginia and the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, along with friend and lifelong Jersey City resident Shane Smith, gathered $3,000 in privately raised funds before going live with the blog in December 2008. (Disclosure: Whiten occasionally works as a freelance fact-checker for CJR.) The launch was timed strategically. Early 2009 was mayoral election season for Jersey City; Whiten and his small team of freelancers saw an opportunity to go all out on local coverage and make a name for themselves within the community. “We were there for every forum, every event, and covered [the campaign] more than anyone else in town,” Whiten says, adding that such visibility made a difference in building a broad-based audience for the site.
The Independent’s aggressive approach to breaking news coverage paid off once again when a regional scandal broke out that summer. The FBI arrested forty-four individuals involved in a New York/New Jersey money-laundering scheme; seven of those arrests were Jersey City municipal employees. The Independent further established its credentials with its original reporting on the story, as well as near-daily aggregation of other local coverage as the story developed.
The Independent manages to maintain a fairly sizable paid staff for a young web startup, even though it doesn’t technically have a single full-time employee on the payroll. Whiten works “about sixty hours a week” as the site’s editor, co-publisher, and de facto webmaster, but doesn’t pay himself a full-time salary. Matt Hunger reports on city hall for the site on a contract basis. Catherine Hecht, the ad sales manager, has a commission-based contract—though she, like Whiten, works enough hours that she’s full-time for all intents and purposes. Smith, who owns a minority stake in the company and serves as the site’s co-publisher and associate editor, serves a mostly advisory role while also helping to edit the quarterly print publication. Contributing editor Jennifer Weiss, who is also a minority stakeholder, works without pay.
Whiten doesn’t envision the site being able to employ anyone on a full-time basis—at least not yet. (At the moment, there is no central office, and even Whiten continues to freelance for other publications). The immediate priorities lie in steadily growing the site’s wealth of content—up to five to ten original news items and a longer feature, about 1500 words in length, daily.
In late 2009, the Independent acquired NEW magazine from a friend of Whiten’s for $10,000 (the money was raised from investors by Whiten and contributing editor Weiss). At the time, the magazine was a semi-annual chronicle of the local arts and culture scene. Since then, not much has changed content-wise, but Whiten sped up the publication cycle to make it a quarterly.
Why branch out into print? “It helps that “NEW is a recognizable product around the city,” says Whiten. “As soon as we start to make the connection between the two, it brings new readers to the website.” That bodes well for JCI’s overall business model; last year, digital advertising for the website brought in $15,000, compared with the magazine’s $45,000 in print ad revenue. Whiten says the magazine’s revenue has helped fund the website’s journalism.
Bringing in those advertising dollars from local institutions is one of the challenges unique to the publication’s Jersey City address. “It’s very hard for businesses to be successful here,” concedes Whiten, since so many individuals spend a lot of time and money across the river in Manhattan. Another obstacle that the Independent seems to be navigating more easily is their lack of a resident web developer. Whiten is not a web developer by trade, and relies on assistance from one of his freelancers as well as tips and tricks he picks up from working on the board of the New Jersey Hyperlocal News Association. The lack of interactive, newsy features is a weakness of JCI’s website at the moment, but one that its staff is committed to improving.
At the very least, the Independent proves that a successful journalism project can be a work-in-progress. For other aspiring news entrepreneurs, Whiten advises, “you have to be smart, but you don’t have to know everything.”
Jersey City Independent Data
Name: Jersey City Independent
City: Jersey City
Principal Staff: Jon Whiten, co-publisher and editor; Shane Smith, co-publisher and associate editor; Catherine Hecht, sales manager; Jennifer Weiss, contributing editor; Matt Hunger, staff writer.
Revenue Sources, other: Acquired sister publication NEW magazine.
Affiliations: Online News Association; New Jersey Press Association; content sharing with NJ Spotlight; ads through Google AdSense and AdMob.
CMS: WordPress - Multi-User