If you felt some distant rumblings coming from the general direction of New Jersey a few days ago, I’m here to tell you why. A pioneering local blog in that state, Baristanet, will merge with a six-year-old community news organization, Montclair Local. Liz George, the editor and publisher of Baristanet, will served as publisher of the combined outlet.
This is a huge development in the world of hyperlocal news. I was especially struck by the news that the Local will drop its print edition, which had been a key part of its business strategy. The Local’s digital content is free, but the print weekly has served as an extra goodie for donors. Last year, when I was in Montclair to report on the media ecosystem in New Jersey, ProPublica editor-in-chief Stephen Engelberg, who serves on the Local’s governing board, joked that the print edition was the Local’s “tote bag.”
Now that will be going away, with the final print edition coming out this Thursday. According to the announcement, published in both the Local and Baristanet: “Putting out a print edition consumed more than 40 percent of the Local’s revenue from donors and advertisers, and trustees concluded it was better to spend the Local’s funds to generate more stories.”
The two outlets will continue separately through the summer while George works on a new website that will bring together both sites, according to the announcement. Baristanet was a for-profit, but the new, expanded Local will continue to be a nonprofit.
The spring of 2022 was actually my second visit to report on local news in Montclair. I also paid a visit in 2009 to meet with Debbie Galant, who founded Baristanet in 2004 and who at that time was regarded as a leader in DIY local journalism. George joined Baristanet several months after the founding. I wrote about Baristanet in my 2013 book, “The Wired City,” and I’m including an excerpt below.
Baristanet, founded in May 2004, was among the first successful hyperlocal sites. It was an inspiration for Paul Bass, who keeps a frisbee from a Baristanet anniversary party on the wall of his office at the New Haven Independent. Centered in the New York City suburb of Montclair, New Jersey, Baristanet in 2011 covered seven communities — six of which had their own Patch sites. AOL reportedly chooses communities based on an algorithm comprising 59 factors, including advertising potential, voter turnout and household income. Clearly the affluent, well-educated suburbs served by Baristanet were exactly what AOL was looking for.
Despite the threat posed by Patch, Baristanet continued to do well, according to Galant. When I interviewed her in 2009, she told me that revenues for the site were between $100,000 and $200,000 per year. Two years later, she said revenues were “a bit higher than $200,000, but our expenses have gone way higher too.” She did not specify what those expenses were. Unlike Howard Owens at The Batavian, Galant and her business partner, Liz George, had always treated Baristanet as a sideline, doing much of the work themselves but hiring part-time editors and designers as needed to accommodate their other projects — which, in Galant’s case, includes having written several published novels.
I met Galant on a rainy day in June 2009 at a Panera — a then new advertiser — just outside Montclair’s downtown. At the time, it was covering only three communities, and had just recently incorporated a parenting site that was renamed Barista Kids. Galant said she got the inspiration for starting Baristanet after losing her freelance position as a local columnist for The New York Times and then meeting Jeff Jarvis, an online-news expert and the author of the blog BuzzMachine. “He was talking a mile a minute about this idea of hyperlocal blogging and hyperlocal journalism. And the idea just really clicked in my head,” Galant said. “I thought it would be a fun thing to do. I’d been freelancing for years and years, and I saw that you could be vulnerable as a freelancer. I’d rather be a publisher.” The name of the site was based on the idea of “a virtual coffee shop,” she said, explaining, “In the old days you used to go to your bartender and talk to your bartender. These days, everybody’s at the coffeeshop, so you talk to your barista.”
The tone of Baristanet is conversational, fun and a bit snarky, and Galant is adept at involving readers. For instance, during an outbreak of swine flu just a few days before our meeting, she quoted from a news release issued by the Montclair public schools promising that students would not be punished if they were absent because of illness. “Does the usual policy for staying home sick from school include reprisals and punishment?” Galant asked. The brief item attracted 37 comments. “A traditional journalist would have taken the same tip, would have gone to the schools, interviewed the superintendent, interviewed the high school principal, and attempted somehow to find a whole bunch of representative parents and students to get their input,” she told me. “But they wouldn’t have actually gotten it nearly as efficiently or with as widespread a response from parents as from just having put it on the website.”
Baristanet is tracked by Quantcast, which found that the site attracted between 27,000 and 35,000 unique visitors a month for the first half of 2011. Galant told me her internal count was about double that, between 50,000 and 70,000 uniques per month.
As with The Batavian and its competition, The Daily News of Batavia, Baristanet could not compete head-to-head with the weekly Montclair Times or other newspapers in its seven communities, even though Galant said she had sometimes beaten the Times on breaking news. Times editor Mark Porter told me he had 12 full-time and one part-time editorial employees working for him, a startlingly high number for a weekly newspaper. Porter was dismissive of his online competition, saying, “Baristanet’s skill is getting press releases and people throughout the community who email or text-message breaking news to people who sit in front of computers.” Despite his rather caustic assessment of the competition, there was no doubting his dedication or sincerity as he described the hours he and his staff put in and the local meetings and events they covered. [Note: The Montclair Times today is part of the Gannett chain. When I visited Montclair last year, the Times appeared to be slightly more robust than the hollowed-out remains of Gannett’s weeklies in Eastern Massachusetts, though it was a shadow of the paper that Porter had presided over.]
When I asked Galant in 2009 how long she wanted to keep doing Baristanet, she replied, “I really don’t know.” She surprised me by saying that she wished The Star-Ledger’s parent company, New Jersey Media, had tried to acquire Baristanet before its own business problems became so acute that they precluded such a move. “I think that’s every startup business’s dream — somebody coming in and offering a whole big pot of money,” she said. “It would have made tremendous sense. Of course, no newspapers have any money anymore, so that’s not going to happen.” Two years later, when I asked about her battle with Patch, she replied, “Competition is no fun, but we’re hanging in there.” (In the summer of 2012 Galant left Baristanet in order to accept a position at Montclair State University, with Liz George continuing as the editor.)
More: Here are a couple of video interviews I conducted with Galant and Porter all those years ago.