Jersey’s New Brunswick Today Punches Its Way to a New Model for Local News

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Does Central New Jersey’s New Brunswick Today represent the future of local news?

Consider what it’s already doing:

  • Publishing a free monthly print edition in addition to its website.
  • Carrying editorial content in English and Spanish in both its digital and print editions to reach the large Hispanic and Latino populations of New Brunswick, which comprise 50% of the city’s 57,000 population.
  • Recruiting on-the-job-trained reporters from local Rutgers University (total enrollment: 68,947) and even local high school students like 15-year-old Carlos Ramirez.
  • Partnering with five other publications in nearby counties to offer regional advertising packages.
  • Attracting foundation funding to pay part of the salary of its sales representative
  • Launching “sustainer” memberships from readers.
  • Presenting live morning video broadcasts that have featured the local congressman and two candidates for governor.

Some other local news sites have launched one or maybe two similar initiatives – but not nearly as many as New Brunswick Today.

“I guess you could say we have a new model for local journalism,” says Sean Monahan, New Brunswick Today’s publisher, who founded the publication five years ago with another Rutgers student, Charlie Kratovil, who is editor.

NB Today competes with Gannett’s Home News Tribune, whose print daily and site cover surrounding Middlesex County, and, the Advance Publications (Newhouse)-owned digital combine that covers most of New Jersey.

NB Today generates about 150,000 pageviews per month, well below and, both of which have much wider reaches that extend over most of Central Jersey.

“We punch above our weight,” says Monahan. “But we know New Brunswick and Middlesex County better than anyone.”

With its college student stringers, who are paid $20 for most of their articles, NB Today is able to cover many governmental meetings that other, short-staffed publications often ignore.

Fifteen-year-old Carlos Ramirez is one of the stringers who cover those meetings, which can produce major action affecting many residents.

“The best policy is an open door — you’d be surprised who comes through it,” says Editor Kratovil.

Monahan says NB Today is “very close” to being sustainable. He doesn’t take a salary as publisher. His source of income is his private job as a local web developer.

The only full-time editorial staffer is Kratovil. NB Today’s sales rep is partially supported by the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, through its funding of initiatives to create sustainable local journalism.

I asked Monahan if he thought the NB Today’s “three-legged stool” of reader memberships, foundation support and advertising was the future of local news sites generally: “Absolutely. Advertising revenue is not enough.”

President-elect Donald Trump has pledged to arrest up to 3 million undocumented immigrants as alleged criminals. With a population of nearly 30,000 Hispanic and Latino immigrants — many of whom may be undocumented — New Brunswick could become a focal point of any new federal action after Trump takes office on Jan. 20.

Monahan told me that NB Today would be “on top of the issue — absolutely ” with coverage that might include using messaging apps to reach immigrant families, especially those with undocumented members who are rounded up or threatened with arrest or deportation.

“We are a newspaper for all of New Brunswick, and that includes everyone who lives there,” he said. “We are open to using whatever tools are available to help us to cover immigration issues.”

Several weeks ago I queried 10 other local news publishers and editors by email to see whether they would use messaging apps to reach immigrants in their communities who may be facing arrest or deportation. I got only one reply, and that editor was noncommittal about editorial coverage that would add messaging apps to current news-gathering sources.

Maybe New Brunswick Today, punching above its weight, will show other news sites how to cover the local consequences of what could become a full-blown national crisis.

Tom GrubisichTom Grubisich (@TomGrubisich) writes “The New News” column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of hyperlocal news network Local America, and is also working on a book about the history, present, and future of Charleston, S.C.