Baristanet Expands Rapidly after New York Times Exits Hyperlocal New Jersey

With The New York Times’ decision this week to close its hyperlocal, community-driven blog in New Jersey after 16 months, the newspaper is ceding the space to a veteran that prides itself on being a homegrown, sassy source of local news and commentary.

The Times announced Wednesday that it would stop updating The Local in New Jersey and redirect traffic to Baristanet, a hyperlocal site that has grown up nearby for six years. Baristanet’s coverage area will expand from an estimated 90,000 residents to 150,000 when it expands to the three towns that The Local covered.

The archives of the New Jersey version of The Local will continue to exist on nytimes.com, but the “vanity URLs” (for example, nytimes.com/maplewood) will send visitors to the respective sections of Baristanet.

The Times’ two experiments in hyperlocal, community-based blogging in the New York area have gone two different ways. In January, the Times decided to hand off The Local in Brooklyn to CUNY. The blog remains on nytimes.com, but publishing decisions are now in the hands of CUNY faculty, not Times staff.

This fall, the Times plans to launch a Local blog focusing on the East Village, working with NYU in an arrangement similar to the one with CUNY.

Jim Schachter, Times associate managing editor for digital initiatives, is in charge of all those efforts as well as partnerships with the Chicago News Cooperative and the Bay Citizen for local coverage in Chicago and San Francisco. He told me that change was inevitable for The Local, considering that the Times had committed to providing staff for the projects for just a year and the two employees who had started in each location have moved to another job and taken a buyout.

Hot spot for hyperlocal

Even without the Times, these suburban New Jersey communities, just 12 miles from the city, are home to one of the most competitive hyperlocal scenes in the country.

The Times and AOL’s Patch competed in the three New Jersey towns of Maplewood, Millburn and South Orange. Baristanet, which until now has focused on nearby towns of Montclair, Glen Ridge and Bloomfield, will expand to cover those towns, as well as West Orange.

That means Baristanet and Patch will be going head to head in five New Jersey towns.

“The contrast between Patch’s approach and Baristanet’s approach couldn’t be more distinctive,” Schachter said. “Patch has very, very talented journalists trying to cover an awful lot of ground in these towns, but operating in templated form, whereas Baristanet is … not trying to be all things to all people. It’s trying to be a very particular thing in a narrow geography.”

“Handcrafted” approach

Though it’s recently become a competitive space, Baristanet has been at this since 2004. Co-owners Liz George and Debbie Galant are both journalists. Galant is a novelist and was once a “Jersey” columnist for the Times; by day, George is special sections editor at the Daily News.

“When we started, we really wanted to define a voice for the site and a flavor and a sense of place in the community,” George said. “When you go to a local business that you really like [rather] than a chain, I think it has a different feeling. I think people know there’s not some corporate strategy behind everything you’re doing.”

George said Baristanet grew slowly as it found its voice. As people expressed interest in contributing, she and Galant trained them and paid some of them. (The Times didn’t pay contributors to The Local unless the stories were used in the newspaper.)

Over time, Baristanet developed a nuanced, “handcrafted” approach, incorporating hard news, humor and a bit of an edge. Readers help keep the site on track. “We have such participation and engagement,” George said. “We’re not blogging in a vacuum. There are sites — I’m not talking about any one site — where there’s not that kind of participation. You don’t have a read on what people are really responding to.”

Although The Local was written in a bloggy, conversational style, its standards struck George as pretty similar to the newspaper because it was under the Times umbrella.

“We’re a little more loose in how we cover things,” she said. “We have to check facts and do all the journalistic-type things. … We’re just a little sassier. And that’s OK. I don’t think anyone would say The New York Times wants to be sassy.”

Nope. “People do not look to us for sass and attitude,” Schachter said. “They look to us for information, credibility … reporting-driven information.”

As he put it, the question that the Times tried to answer with The Local was, “What is the least amount of New York Times journalism DNA that we can inject into a site to catalyze quality information-gathering?”

Ceding the territory, incorporating methods elsewhere

Without an obvious partner like CUNY in New Jersey, Schachter said the Times looked at universities, community groups and for-profit publishers to see who it could hand off The Local to. George said she and Galant reached out when they heard that the Times was thinking of leaving. They proposed to build on what the Times had created, but it in their own way.

Schachter said community contributions to both Local blogs has been excellent, with 50 percent of the posts on both sites being written by members of the community and another 20 percent originating with the community in some way.

Considering Baristanet’s emphasis on voice and community, I asked George how the site would handle such a rapid expansion. “We would approach it in the same sort of homegrown way,” she responded. “We will find people in these communities and let them bring their voice and find a way to make it all feel for the readers that it all makes sense.”

Baristanet already has reached out to The Local’s contributors; three of them have posted on Baristanet already.

The Times is now trying to see how it can incorporate what it learned with The Local into the rest of its local journalism, Schachter said. That will fall to Mary Ann Giordano, the deputy metro editor who oversaw and edited The Local.

Among the open questions in Schachter’s mind: How does a borough reporter in Queens not write stories in isolation, but build a network of “sentinels for ideas and news who can be ongoing contributors to our news report in one way or another?”

As for Baristanet, “can we, working with them in the future, figure out a way to bring some of their content onto nytimes.com? That’s something we may like to do.”

George said she never considered The Local a competitor because it focused on another town. So she doesn’t think of this as a victory. “We thought of it as a great opportunity.”

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