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Software Engineer Starts Unlikely Business: A Weekly Newspaper

Software Engineer Starts Unlikely Business: A Weekly Newspaper

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The debut has touched off a modern version of an old-fashioned newspaper war, with a fledgling independent newcomer pitting itself against a community staple, printed since 1877, that has had cuts in coverage and staffing after it was bought by a major publishing company.

Photo The first issue of The Montclair Local. Credit Karsten Moran for The New York Times
The Montclair Local arrives at what some view as a potential watershed moment for journalism, as the animosity the Trump administration has directed at the news media has injected new vigor into a beleaguered industry. Major news organizations like The New York Times and The Washington Post have seen surges in subscriptions.

The new newspaper is an audacious bet that a renewed interest in journalism can trickle down to the community level. And if any place can support such an endeavor, it is Montclair.

“I don’t think I would have done it in any of the other towns I’ve lived in,” Mr. Choxi, who, with his wife, Thalla-Marie, is The Local’s publisher, said in the newspaper’s office, as his daughter played in the back room. “I feel like Montclair is a town that really does value having its people be informed and engaged.”

Montclair, a town of 37,000 people in Essex County, is a 20-mile drive from New York City, with streets lined with colonial homes set back on tidy lawns and walkable strips of small businesses. Residents brag about the absence of drive-throughs and strip malls that are fixtures elsewhere in New Jersey.

The community is known for its affluence, diversity and liberal politics, and for the large flow of commuters to jobs in newsrooms, television studios and publishing offices in New York City. (As an article published by the Poynter media website about The Local noted, paraphrasing a tweet from President Trump condemning journalists, Montclair could be described as a “bedroom community of the enemies of the people.”)

“Some people would argue that what happens on the local basis is more important than what happens on the national basis,” said Linda Moss, a reporter who covers municipal government, a beat she once had for The Montclair Times.

Photo Co-publishers Thalla-Marie and Heeten Choxi. Credit Karsten Moran for The New York Times
She noted that Montclair’s property taxes were among the highest in the state, and that she knew from experience that readers cared about education and public safety. “These are things that hit home for people every day,” she said, “and these are the things we’re writing about and focusing on.”

Journalism’s struggles have been acutely felt in New Jersey, where the press corps covering the state government in Trenton has dwindled in recent years, and in the northern part of the state, newspapers, including The Star-Ledger and The New York Times, have reduced their staffs and their coverage. Last year, the North Jersey Media Group, which includes The Record and a constellation of community newspapers, like The Montclair Times and The Nutley Sun, was sold to the Gannett Company by the family that had owned The Record since 1930. Staff reductions soon followed.

The Local, for some, has been a welcome move in the opposite direction, even if media analysts say it faces long odds of financial success. “That can have an amazing impact, putting more reporters on the street,” said Stefanie Murray, director of the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University. “They’ve reported on that community. They know that community. That, actually, is the potentially biggest contribution Heeten and his wife will make through this investment.”

Mr. Choxi said the decision to start the newspaper was in response to what he saw happening with The Montclair Times as Gannett, the company that publishes USA Today and dozens of other newspapers around the country, took over. He noticed articles in The Montclair Times from towns miles away, like Lodi and Paramus, both in Bergen County — “which I don’t really view as local,” he said. A report released this month by the Center for Cooperative Media, examining the evolution in coverage since the ownership change, found significant decreases in articles about the community, with a 12 percent jump in stories not about Montclair in The Times.

Rick Green, the editor and vice president of content for the North Jersey Media Group, acknowledged some tumult as the news organization reorganized its staff, but he argued that it had continued to provide robust news coverage in print and online. He believes The Montclair Times is well positioned.

“Competition is good for everyone involved,” Mr. Green said. “It sharpens our skills, it makes us better, and ultimately the reader benefits from that competition.” He added, “I know we’ve been there for a long time, with a great track record, and we’re committed to doing journalism that makes a difference in Montclair.”

Photo Gwen Orel, features editor, and Kevin Meacham, the top editor, at The Montclair Local. Credit Karsten Moran for The New York Times
The Local joins a relatively crowded field for a town the size of Montclair, now with another weekly newspaper and digital outfits like Baristanet and Patch that cover the area. But Mr. Choxi said he was plugged into the community — he chatted with other residents on Facebook groups and had movie nights in his backyard. He heard from people who believed there was a void.

“There’s enough going on in town, between local government, education, arts, theater and restaurants,” said Andy Weinstein, a lawyer who grew up in Montclair and moved back with his family last year. “There’s so much to talk about.”

Mr. Choxi has hired seven journalists, most of whom either lost their jobs at the North Jersey Media Group or left voluntarily. A subscription costs $12 a year, and he is aiming to sign up 6,000 subscribers. “We want it to grow,” he said. “We want it to be sustainable. But it’s not about making money for us.”

The first issue of The Local was published on March 9 and mailed to every home address in town. Its motto: “Objectively Informing, Sparking Dialogue, and Building Community.” There were front-page articles about a ShopRite possibly moving into a shopping center and the public school budget. A rare nod to the world beyond Montclair was an article on residents “keeping up the ‘resistance’” with letter-writing campaigns and organizing dinners with Syrian refugees.

It was met with positive reviews on community Facebook groups. At least one person who stopped by the newsroom had intended to go to a neighboring insurance office. But there were others who bought subscriptions or wanted to offer praise in person.

“I think people were delighted to find this wonderful piece of writing and community showing up in their mailbox,” said Debra Caplan, a theater professor at Baruch College, who lives in Montclair. She wrote a column in the first issue about the area congressman’s town hall meetings.

“What I expected was a lot less professional than what emerged,” she said. “It’s the kind of thing I wouldn’t have thought could be done.”


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