Debra Galant was the quintessential hyperlocal entrepreneur, co-founding in 2004 (on the strength of her credit card) the lively, news-filled, deeply engaged and now profitable Baristanet in suburban New Jersey. Then, in July 2012, she decamped for the nearby groves of academe – to the new Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University. Not surprisingly, Galant stayed true to her entrepreneurial spirit. She’s the director of the NJ News Commons, the first initiative to spring forth from the center.
Street Fight caught up with Galant recently to find out more about the news co-op, and why the project is important for hyperlocals.
What was behind your career change?
When Montclair State, with support of the Dodge and Knight foundations, decided to get involved in helping serve the news ecosystem in New Jersey, I wanted to be part of that effort. The NJ News Commons gives me a chance to interact with great colleagues working in some of the most important areas of media today. The Center is also bringing in many news partners, who will actually have bureaus on my corridor. It’s exciting to be part of all this.
Did you keep your ownership interest in Baristanet?
Yes, I still own my share, but I’m no longer involved in any day-to-day operations.
If I’m the editor or publisher of a hyperlocal site in New Jersey, what can NJ News Commons do for me that will make a difference, both editorially and business-wise?
Our first job is to listen to the news ecosystem in New Jersey, and to serve needs that people alert us to.
We have a number of initiatives that we think are of value to hyperlocals. One is something we call the Story Exchange, which allows sites to embed each other’s content just like they were embedding a YouTube video. The contributing site gets credit for the traffic on the site where it is read, and can send ads with their stories. The accepting site gets free content. In essence, this creates something very much like an AP — only it allows the smallest sites in the ecosystem to be involved and it’s free.
During Hurricane Sandy and other big events, we have run live blogs powered by ScribbleLive, which have allowed us to pull in information from sites throughout the state. Many of the hyperlocals have embedded these blogs, and contributed to the effort.
We are bringing the very powerful Community Journalism Executive Training (CJET) program to New Jersey this May. This three-day “mini-MBA program” — as I like to call it — is designed to get hyperlocal publishers to concentrate on the business side of their operations. I was in the first class to take CJET training in Chicago in 2011, and felt that it was life-changing. Our May CJET, which is being underwritten by the Patterson and Dodge foundations, will be the first time this has been done on a statewide level.
In addition, I try to help hyperlocals as they call me with their questions and concerns. I’ve connected one partner with the Citizen Media Law Project at Harvard, introduced another to a potential investor and helped connect sites with Open Public Records Act.
Is there any cost to sites for getting involved with NJ News Commons?
No. This effort presents a profound commitment by the School of Communication and Media, its Center for Cooperative Media and our funders to serving the news ecosystem in New Jersey. We wouldn’t want any fees to be a barrier to this service.
The NJ News Commons might be able to help a site that covers an entire city or metro area. But say my hypothetical site looks for news at the neighborhood level. Is the NJ News Commons funnel too big to help me?
We work with microsites as well as the biggest news sites in the state. You never know where the commonalities will be, and no site is too small to collaborate with others. Jersey Shore Hurricane News, a great Facebook page that covers weather and other breaking news, is an example of a very small operation that has teamed with others throughout the news ecosystem.
What are you doing to get more of the many hyperlocals in New Jersey involved with the Commons?
We plan to go out and recruit more news organizations, big and small. When I first started evangelizing for this effort last summer, I was just selling an idea. Now that we actually have a number of initiatives, it will be easier to tell our story. I can’t imagine why any news site wouldn’t want to be involved in a project that could help with training, traffic generation, content sharing — and the general improvement of journalism in New Jersey — when it costs them nothing.
Many advertisers, we’re told, don’t want to be on news sites, including ones at the local and community level. Local ad revenue is growing, but most of the growth seems to be captured by non-news sites like Groupon. What is NJ News Commons doing to challenge that trend?
We’re concerned with the future of news in New Jersey, so if local ad revenue is gravitating to sites like Groupon, that’s of concern. We need to keep practitioners — big and small — abreast of overall market conditions, alternative forms of revenue and new business models.
Where do you want to see news hyperlocals in New Jersey in a few years, especially in content and how the community engages with that content?
We’d like to see hyperlocal sites thrive in underserved markets — both geographically and demographically. We’d also like to see hyperlocals distinguish themselves in new ways.
I love this story by Josh Stearns, “Is Your Local News a Supermarket or Farmer’s Market?” It raises the point that we don’t all have to be all things to all people. In much the same way that a shopper may drop by ShopRite weekly, make a special trip to Fairway or Trader Joe’s or occasionally pick up some milk at a 7-Eleven, news consumers can visit local sites for different kinds of experiences.
It will pay for hyperlocals to look for new niches. I think Charlottesville Tomorrow, which focuses on land use and planning, is a good example of combining niche reporting and hyperlocal. In New Jersey, Cliffview Pilot distinguishes itself with its reporting of police news.
Tom Grubisich authors The New News column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of LocalAmerica, which is partnering with InstantAtlas to develop sites that will present how communities rate in livability. Local America is featured on the Reynolds Journalism Institute’s Pivot Point site.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.