March 9, 2017

Montclair is a New Jersey bastion of the Trump-doubting privileged class that went back to the future Thursday with an imperiled species: a new broadsheet newspaper.

But, if Trump could wind up president, who says a broadsheet Lazarus can’t rise from the media ashes and make it somewhere?

The weekly Montclair Local debuted in the 36,000-person bedroom community of New York City rife with ink-stained and digitally exhausted wretches. Indeed, The New York Times could always survive a North Korean missile attack on Manhattan by at least briefly relying on the army of staffers who live in Montclair, including several of my friends.

A New York City journalist chum puts it this way, and drolly so, in offering this cultural anthropology of Montclair: “Diverse. Liberal. A bedroom community of the enemies of the people.” Comparing it to Chicago, where I live, he references Barack Obama’s neighborhood:

“A combination of Hyde Park (oh how it wishes!) and a North of Chicago burb with less dough and more diversity.”

Yes, it’s a highly educated, engaged, politically liberal town with lots of disposable income — and a pretty strong tradition of local coverage disrupted by Gannett’s purchase of North Jersey Media Group, which included the weekly Montclair Times.

Have you heard this melancholy narrative before? Giant gobbles up little papers, executes dramatic trims in staff, centralizes many functions, cuts down on the actual reporting — and scares away even more readers and advertisers?

No surprise, there was civic distemper despite The Times continuing to publish and several sprightly but small digital operations trying to cover the area, including Patch, TAPinto and Baristanet.

It explains how Facebook inspired Thursday’s unveiling. Yes, the same leviathan that’s crippled (with Google) the newspaper ad market for digital dollars, provided a venue was where local tech executive Heeten Choxi met Gwen Orel, a by-then former veteran arts and entertainment reporter-editor at The Montclair Times.

They were among the many locals grousing about the Times’ decline and ultimately musing about starting something new. Big cutbacks in the fall by Gannett provided the final impetus to give it a go.

Jonathan Alter, a prominent journalist-author and Montclair resident, says, “The first few issues of the new Montclair Times sucked late last year (it’s getting somewhat better).”

But can the town support something new, even better, he wonders? He hopes so.

“We started talking about a local paper,” says Choxi, whose background is not media but robotics and artificial intelligence research. “I then started working on a rough business plan and it seemed doable.”

He and his wife dipped into their savings and invested several hundred thousand dollars for starters, with an initial yearly budget of about $700,000 and the assumption that he’ll initially run at a loss.

There are six full-time journalists and an editorial assistant who doubles as the photographer to produce a two-section, 16-page paper that’s printed at the Times Herald-Record in Middletown, New York, and delivered via the post office to the roughly 15,000 residential addresses in town at a cost of over $5,000 a week.

For a month, it will be free. If you sign up now, it’s a mere $12 for a yearly subscription, more after that.

Choxi’s worldview tends to be digital, so it took some convincing to go print, which he came to believe was a potential advantage (The Times still comes out weekly). There were prospective advertisers who simply weren’t sure this made financial sense to them. But there were a fair number, says Choxi, who wanted to be in a print paper.

Kevin Meacham, the editor, is among the former Montclair Times staffers who came aboard, with a simple mission of being “informative, responsive and vital.”

“We are all based here, familiar with the issues here,” Meacham said. “We’re going to push ourselves as a town forum and think that by getting dialogues going in town we can be a real drive.”

“And we want to be the paper of record,” he said. “Going back into the archives, and talking to people who have lived here for decades, they value journalism and having something comprehensive they can hold.”

Thursday’s first edition leads with groups in Montclair mobilizing against Trump. “It’s a very left-leaning, Democratic town,” says Meacham, “and groups have risen up to do all sorts of things: challenging local reps, being activists, hosting dinners for Syrian refugees.”

Then there’s an update on the board of education’s budget and announcement on talks aimed at bringing a big supermarket to a more economically challenged part of town.

The second section is sports and culture, with the former being dominantly of the high school variety. The arts coverage includes a look at a new Montclair Orchestra overseen by the concertmaster of the Metropolitan Opera orchestra, a dance company preparing for its big annual show, an interview with a local author, a women’s history month brief and a big calendar of arts happenings.

“Who else is going to cover the Opera Theatre of Montclair or Montclair Orchestra after it starts?” ask Gwen Orel, another Montclair Times alum who will oversee and handle the arts and culture coverage.

When I mentioned to her the challenges of media startups (I know from personal experience), she argues, “These town papers are a very different thing. I think the current political cycle has given journalism new cachet and people understand the need for real news. And local and town news is just different.”

“People want to see pictures of their friends and news about the town.”

“Budget-wise, we’ve assembled a great staff,” says Meacham. “We’ve brought in people I think highly off and our goals, as far as money, are modest. But we don’t have shareholders to be responsive to.”

Says Merrill Brown, a savvy journalist and media entrepreneur who just stepped down after founding and running the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University, “It’s an exciting opportunity that requires a well-executed digital strategy for audience growth, reaching the broad demographics of this community and to maximize revenue opportunities.”

“Too print-centric will fail from a business standpoint,” he said. “But the region needs new voices and I am hopeful that this team is creating one.”

Alas, as I was finishing this, I was the exclusive, real-time recipient of the results of a focus group. Well, it wasn’t really any empirical research. It was word from Alter, who had just gotten home and with his wife read the first issue.

“The co-founders, Heeten Choxi and Thalla-Marie Choxi, whom I don’t know, did a great job hiring experienced reporters from places like the Bergen Record,” he said.

“They are covering real news, like the resistance to a GOP congressman, Rodney Frelinghuysen, who represents part of the town and absolutely refuses to hold a town meeting, the growth of ‘the Syrian Dinner Club’ (where people hire Syrian refugees to cater their dinner parties), and a hearing about a new anchor tenant for a shopping mall.”

“The separate sports section to match the Montclair Times is excellent and the listings page more complete than that of the Montclair Times, which will have to further bring up its game now.”

His bottom line: “I have no idea how deep the Choxi pockets are, but for now a town of 50k has two weekly print newspapers, which is highly unusual, right?”

Alter is a man of the world, best known for commentary on national political and social matters. But he and wife Emily live in a town of 36,000 called Montclair and, like all of us, care about stuff right in their midst, including the coming of a new retail establishment.

Even for the politically engaged, there is only so much one can take of Trump, Sean Spicer, Paul Ryan, Chris Christie, Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh or The New York Times op-ed page.

So what’s up with the broken traffic light, the school recital, the author interview at the library, the shuttered shoe repair place or the two-for-one sale at the supermarket? It’s life as most of us actually live it.

“We’re thrilled, and we think the community will be, too,” said Alter.

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New York City native, graduate of Collegiate School, Amherst College and Roosevelt University. Married to Cornelia Grumman, dad of Blair and Eliot. National columnist, U.S.…
James Warren

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