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.”