The proliferation of more than 100 hyperlocal or community news sites in New Jersey over the past two years has prompted a non-profit group to form the New Jersey Hyperlocal News Association to help sustain journalism with civic-minded resources.
As traditional media outlets have downsized operations, directly affecting government news coverage, and with local television news markets catering to New York and Philadelphia, the nonpartisan Citizens Campaign sought to fill the information void.
The group received a $165,690 grant last year from the Rita Allen Foundation to start hyperlocal website NewBrunswickPress.com and the hyperlocal news association. After picking a board of advisors, which includes CUNY’s Jeff Jarvis, independent publishers Deb Galant of Baristanet and Donna Liu of AllPrinceton.com, the New Jersey Editor at Patch.com, and a representative of Gannett’s hyperlocal InJersey.com network, the group was in action by January.
There is no cost to join the group, but advisors are considering future membership sales.
Jessica Durkin (@jessdrkn) of Block by Block (@myBxB) talks to Heather Taylor, staff liaison at the New Jersey Hyperlocal News Association (@njhyperlocal).
Why start New Jersey Hyperlocal News Association now?
We began this effort with a citizen journalism program in 2009 and at the same time started seeing these hyperlocals which offered a platform for citizen journalists to get published. We hosted our first conference on citizen journalism in 2009 and invited hyperlocal sites to share what they were doing. They were all looking at one another, picking up these tips. We recognized there was a need to continue that conversation. We started hosting regional events which resulted with us seeking the grant from the Rita Allen Foundation.
There’s been a decline in local and state government coverage. Since our expertise is in local government we thought we could provide journalists resources.
New Jersey is known as a hyperlocal and community news hotbed – you have identified 103 hyperlocal sites, both independent and corporate-owned, around the state to-date.
It’s definitely ground zero for hyperlocal journalism. We have 565 municipalities. We are one of the richest states, most educated, and people want local news. All these factors culminate in the perfect landscape for hyperlocal journalism to develop and grow. And we lack a New Jersey commercial TV station so people are really hungry for news. And with the papers doing less and less on municipal beats, the hyperlocals are filling that void. Another factor is we have the highest property taxes, and people want to know how their money is being spent locally and the hyperlocals are doing that.
The state is split into two commercial TV markets: New York City in north Jersey and Philly in south Jersey. Most people will know what’s going on with Mayor [Michael] Bloomberg in New York City or Mayor [Michael] Nutter in Philly before they know what’s going on with the mayor in their own city.
Some towns have three competing hyperlocals. Princeton, Montclair, Morristown — there’s some towns where there might be two or three hyperlocals and depending on what their models are will determine who survives, or maybe they can find their own niches, but we help all them.
“It’s definitely ground zero for hyperlocal journalism.” — Heather Taylor, NJHNA
How does helping hyperlocal journalism tie with the Citizens Campaign?
We think that for the health of our democracy in the 21st century, citizens need to be informed of what’s happening so then they can constructively participate. It’s clear that Hyperlocal news is an important part of the future of journalism here in New Jersey. Everything is going online these days. I think it’s still early to see what the business model is, different sites are learning how to survive financially. I think that’s going to get figured out in the next year or so.
Why emphasize civic journalism?
If these sites are known to provide quality journalism and the go-to places for government and political news, people will be going to them and they will be trusted sites. In our citizen journalism class one of the main take-aways from it are the five principles of journalism: accuracy, thoroughness, fairness, independence and objectivity. These principals applied to hyperlocal sites can help build trust within their community, and hopefully in the end translate to increased advertising revenue. Baristanet is a perfect example, they are a trusted information source in their community.
It’s definitely the quality of the editor that makes a difference. Both Joe Malinconico at PatersonPress.com and John Celock at WestfieldPatch.com won SPJ awards for their high quality online civic journalism. For reporters who may be fresh out of journalism school, and maybe do not have municipal beat training, we’re offering guidance and education.
What are the criteria for joining the NJHNA?
We’re still in the beginning stages — we just had our first meeting. It was clear at that meeting, that one of the high priorities is access to open government and sunshine law assistance. We have bi-monthly meetings/training sessions, where we have offered expert training in municipal budgets, municipal reorganization, planning commissions. We also offer a citizen journalism program where we try to partner up citizen journalists with hyperlocal sites. I also write what I call “sidebar civics” articles, these are educational stories on how citizens can get engaged. For example, informing readers about the upcoming primary election how readers can register to vote.
Our goal is the make these online town squares where people are not only getting informed but can go back and get engaged in our community.
What are the group’s plans for the near future?
Down the road, we will share tips on marketing. We are looking at programs on environmental reporting and political parties for our June 8 meeting. We are open to the public and we usually see a mix of citizen journalists, publishers, and whoever is interested in those topics.
We want to develop a hub for job postings and internship opportunities, and advise citizen journalists on ethics, and help set the standards for freelancers. We want to start a job bank, we can send resumes to the hyperlocals.