PRINCETON, NEW JERSEY — When friends and readers complained to Princeton-based reporter Krystal Knapp that they couldn’t find her stories on NJ.com, a combined web presence for papers owned by Advance Publications in New Jersey, she decided to start her own site serving the city she loves.
Knapp was, and continues to be, a freelancer for The Times of Trenton, but she wanted to give herself the opportunity to cover some of the local interest stories that couldn’t find a home in a Trenton-based paper. With Planet Princeton, more or less a one-woman show, Knapp provides hyperlocal news coverage to the community she has been a part of since earning her master’s at Princeton Theological Seminary in 1994.
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Even though Knapp began posting just a few months ago, she’s already made a name for the site with a couple of scoops. She broke the story of a Republican challenger in the Princeton mayoral campaign. “It was literally like my second post,” she says. Knapp kept her edge through the primaries: “None of the other papers had the results right away.”
Planet Princeton is a very clean planet; a banner of rotating panoramic images of Princeton provides most of the color. Story headlines in baby blue, excerpts in black, and wall-to-wall white keeps the site looking serious, if underwhelming. Because Knapp hasn’t begun selling ads, the page is far from crowded, containing just the usuals like a Tweet deck, search box, and weather report.
Readers don’t come to Planet Princeton for photos of furry animals at the County Fair petting zoo. Knapp tends toward policy and planning stories: development of the downtown hospital site, a push to consolidate the township and the borough, and transit changes. Planet Princeton may be a work of love, but Knapp’s pieces do not read like love letters of a local blogger.
Knapp feels she has an edge over competitors like a recently launched Patch. “I have a name in town,” she explains, “I’m kind of banking on my name recognition.” Knapp hopes her byline, familiar from her coverage with The Times, will continue to carry authority. But even if her name is trusted, her site still has to prove itself relevant and distinct from competitors, including homegrown competition like All Princeton, which was launched in parternship with the local public access television station.
Knapp watched coverage of Princeton dwindle as a staff reporter at The Times. In 2006, facing layoffs and a buyout, Knapp left the paper and went to work in Beirut, Lebanon as an editor at the Middle East Reporter. When she returned a year later, Knapp went to work as a freelancer covering Princeton for The Times. By that time the paper’s staff had shrunk even more.
Once freelancing, Knapp turned to Facebook to organize some of her hard-to-find articles on Princeton. Residents responded well and Knapp says she received requests to start a site dedicated to covering Princeton. With a scholarship from the Ford Foundation, Knapp took a week-long course for digital entreprenuership with The Poynter Institute, which helps instruct journalists in subjects from new media to management, in January 2011. She soft-launched the site in late May and has been posting ever since, with an official launch planned for September of this year.
“One really good thing about Poynter is they went through with us how to develop a business plan,” explains Knapp. She says that until she completed the course she hadn’t considered collaborating with competition, whether to be for-profit or nonprofit, or how to involve readers with things like slogan contests and interactive map features. “Before I went to Poynter I was really thinking of things as a journalist and was very focused on content, and the look of the page,” says Knapp.
Now serving on the board of the New Jersey Hyperlocal News Association, Knapp helps fledgling sites like her own around the state with basic training.
Knapp still supports herself with freelance work and hopes that a planned paid content sharing partnership with the monthly Princeton Echo will increase her visibility while bringing in some needed revenue.
In fact, the site currently doesn’t make any money, as ad sales, events, a possible membership program, and other revenue-generating plans remain in the wings until September. Knapp explains: “I have been surviving by freelancing for various publications and have been saving money over the past several months to make the leap.” And in a turbulent media landscape, says Knapp, “it is always a good idea to diversify who you freelance for in case one publication folds or cuts back.”
She has one writer helping out on a volunteer basis for now with food coverage, but would like to add an education reporter to serve the highly academic Princeton area, a freelance graphic designer to design ads on commission, and an ad salesperson.
“Some people said, ‘Why don’t you try writing for someone else?’ But I really care about this community,” Knapp says. She admits it’s a risk, but one she feels she has to take.
With features like the interactive See-Click-Fix map where readers can report problems around town and contest to create a site slogan, Planet Princeton has already found an audience. Now that the site is more established, Knapp says the site’s traffic can range from 200 unique visitors to 1,300 for one story about a road re-opening after construction. “It has been humbling to see what kind of news people care about,” says Knapp. She posts articles once or twice a day, with a balance of policy pieces and quality of life articles, like the one about construction around town, or the status of the local post office. She plans to up the frequency to five or six posts a day once the site officially launches in September.
“At one point, I thought, ‘Should I cover sports?’ I decided, well, let other people do that,” Knapp says with a laugh. Knapp actually used to be a sports reporter, but feels her strength is translating things like zoning and planning decisions to Princeton residents.
Knapp wants to be solvent within a year, and she hopes to do that while providing Princeton with coverage unlike anywhere else.
Planet Princeton Data
Name: Planet Princeton
Principal Staff: Krystal Knapp, owner and editor.
Affiliations: Content: The Princeton Echo/Community News Service