When reporters pass each other in the echoey maze-like tunnels below the legislative hearing rooms of the New Jersey State House, they tend to greet each other like this:
“How ya doin’? Surviving?”
It hasn’t been long since the Star-Ledger announced they were offering another round of buyouts, and it’s what’s on everybody’s mind:
“How ya doin’?”
“Any news on numbers yet? Deadline?”
The corps of reporters stationed on press row gets smaller every year. Bloomberg is still there, and the Associated Press, but a lot of papers have either shrunk their Trenton bureaus (Gannett’s network of seven newspapers, The Philadelphia Inquirer), consolidated (the Newark Star-Ledger and the Record of Bergen County), or retreated altogether (The New York Times). Trenton sits precariously on the dividing line between the long media shadows of Philadelphia and New York. Television coverage of statehouse news comes mainly from either of those two outlets, and the one public television station with a solid presence there, NJN, is under threat from Gov. Chris Christie to lose state funding.
So while it’s a tough time to start up a news organization, if any town needs one, it’s Trenton. The newest outlet on press row, NJSpotlight.com, is a policy-focused news site that tries to contextualize the state house dealings. Launched earlier this year 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 healthcare. “We are nonpartisan, independent, policy-centered and community-minded,” says the website.
Their publisher, Kevin Harold, handles the business operations, and they farm out the web production and copyediting, 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.”
“We can’t compete with the Ledger—even a downsized Ledger—if we’re writing the same stories they are,” says Johnson. But, he adds, “I think people are happy that we’re filling a void. People want the issues covered, and they’re just not getting covered to the degree that they were in the past.”
In the cafeteria in the state house basement, Frank Sinatra plays in the background as Mooney buys a large coffee and a muffin and sits down at a table for an interview. As he checks his e-mail, he drinks the coffee and ignores the muffin. “Life is starting to pile up,” he says, frowning at his inbox.
Mooney was an education reporter at the Star-Ledger for twenty years. He is one of over 200 Ledger staffers who took the paper up on its previous buyout offer in 2008, and he doesn’t regret it. (“To me, it was a bigger risk staying than leaving,” he says.) When he left, he worked as a stringer for The New York Times for a few months before the Times killed its New Jersey section and folded that coverage into its Sunday Metro section. His co-founder Tom Johnson, took the same buyout after covering the environment beat at the Ledger for eighteen years. Like many of his colleagues, Johnson briefly tried P.R., but came back to journalism to start up NJSpotlight.com last year.
Both Mooney and Johnson know their beats. Star-Ledger editorial page editor Tom Moran, a friend and former colleague, tells the story of a press meeting with Governor McGreevey’s cabinet several years ago, when Mooney had to politely correct the education commissioner on a fine point of education policy.* “I’ve seen that happen twice,” Moran says. (Later, when Mooney hears about it, he sort of rolls his eyes: “Moran keeps telling that story….”)
Indeed, Mooney is sure they wouldn’t have been able to attract the attention—and the funding from three charitable foundations—if they had been newcomers in the New Jersey political scene. “We never would have gotten off the ground,” says Mooney. “For the first two months, it wasn’t ‘New Jersey Spotlight,’ it was, ‘What’s Mooney up to?’” He and Johnson had the reputation, the contacts, and the credibility to be taken seriously. Mooney says he thinks that otherwise “it would have been brutal.”