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.”
That’s the key point, he 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, 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.
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 soon they’d like to start on business-to-business services like newsletters, sponsor events, and webinars. For instance, one hot issue in the statehouse at the moment is solar and alternative energy policy. NJSpotlight.com is working to establish itself as a hub of information and analysis, drawing on Johnson’s years on the environment and energy beat. Then, they hope, a NJSpotlight-hosted event for solar panel industry flacks to learn the latest dirt might just be attractive enough and lucrative enough to make the site some money. The start-up money from their funders will only last so long, and Mooney and Johnson aren’t willing to do this work for free.
NJSpotlight.com’s office on press row is small and relatively bare, five desks with phones and laptops. They share the room with Joe Albright, columnist for The Jersey Journal and perhaps the oldest member of Press Row, having worked there for forty-six years. It’s an interesting juxtaposition. Albright’s desk is also relatively bare, except for a can of V8 and a stack of the day’s papers. The walls around his desk have yellowed columns taped up and a couple of comics. Referring to his officemates, Albright says, “They’re online, that’s the high tech stuff. I’m an old paragraph factory, I like my typewriter.”
On one wall of the room is a poster of Phillipe Halsman’s famous photograph, “Dali Atomicus,” of Salvador Dali jumping and cats flying and water splashing. Mooney’s wife gave it to him for the office, saying it captures the spirit of a startup, everyone juggling everything in the air at once. On the opposite wall is a shiny laminated sign with the NJSpotlight.com logo on it. Mooney says he had to get a big one to cover up the chunk of paint he accidentally took out of the wall when he came was taking down the sign of the office’s previous occupant, the most recently abandoned web startup.
Mooney agrees. “I think you need a presence here,” he says. “The shoe leather still makes a difference. Every time I’m here I see someone, who gives me something, that I wouldn’t see if I were at home making phone calls.”
Albright, not surprisingly, says that it would be difficult to report on New Jersey state politics without an office in the statehouse. “This is the scene of the battle,” he says. “This is the nerve center.”
Mooney says he’s grateful for this second act of his career, to be working on a new project that gives him sense of ownership. “It’s great to be looking forward,” he says, “rather than looking over your shoulder wondering when the next buyout’s going to be.”
On the other hand, he laughs, “I’ve never worked so hard in my life.” Or, at least, not since he was the sole reporter at The Danvers Herald, a small weekly in Massachusetts, writing twelve stories a week.
“It’s gratifying to still be in this business,” he says. “After all these years, I wasn’t sure I would be. Especially at a time when so many of my friends are getting out of it.”
Check out CJR’s interview with NJSpotlight.com co-founder John Mooney:
And CJR’s walking tour of Trenton’s press row:
Correction: This story originally identified Tom Moran as a Newark Star-Ledger reporter. Actually, he is that paper’s editorial page editor. The relevant sentence has been corrected. CJR regrets the error.