I grew up in a boring town. That came with myriad benefits—safety, security, a good school, good friends. It was hard to get in trouble. We tried. Tying a sled to a 50-foot rope attached to the back of a Ford Explorer and flying down the grass runway at the local airport. Riding our bikes to the Wawa at midnight and ducking into the ravine when we saw headlights, as if someone would give a shit. Sneaking into the cornfield and chucking ears of corn at each other. Jumping off the small bridge into the south branch of the Raritan at twilight, never exactly sure how deep the water was. Snorting Pop Rocks. Launching people over the counter of the school store. Drinking too much in our friends’ basements. Smoking out of a soda can.
All good fun. All privileged, homogenized good fun. At no point did we really worry about repercussions. And though it was an idyllic adolescence, at no point did we think this was good enough, that there wasn’t a much larger world outside of our little bubble to better channel our energy and creativity.
So I went to college out of state, expecting a world to appear. But for the first few months, nothing was different. It was largely the same people, with the same interests, playing the same video games, drinking the same beer, talking about the same shit, only in funny accents. There was an undeniable urge to explore, but I wasn’t finding it. Until I stumbled upon the Columbia Free-Times.
The Free-Times is an alt-weekly, which means it primarily covers culture—arts, music, food, people—but also news that matters to more progressive leaning people. The writers wrote like I spoke. They highlighted artists I had never heard of that instantly felt essential the first time I saw or listened to their work. They taught about what good chefs at small restaurants do that make them better than the chain shit I’d only been able to eat at home. They introduced me to new perspectives that challenged the limited one I’d cultivated growing up in a bubble. They inspired me to explore, which is what I wanted, but they also inspired me to create.
And this dose of inspiration came every week. For free! Picking up a fat issue of the Free-Times became ritual, and plotted out what I was going to explore and learn that week. It was the thing I needed to feed my curiosity and my growth as a human. And it was just… there. It was like magic.
I knew, at some point, I’d want to get involved with alt-weeklies, with writing that had a voice, with a paper that took the time to find interesting and lesser heralded events, with journalists who cared about the subjects they covered and wrote with authority and attitude. I made that happen in a few years at Boulder Weekly, where I spent about eight years writing and eventually, became editor.
Then I had a thought, ‘Shit, this would’ve been nice growing up.’ And so I put into motion the plans that would eventually become NJ Indy, knowing the end goal was a print edition.
And so here we are. We’re launching print in mid-October, starting with a monthly, and, in due time, a weekly edition, circulated throughout the state. For free, always.
While our reasons for launching a free print alt-weekly-style publication go way back, the media landscape has changed dramatically. I humbly think it makes the need for alternative media much more dire. Particularly in New Jersey.
In the last two decades or so, one-third of newspapers in the state have gone out of business. Print circulations have dropped majorly and, subsequently, newsrooms have been cut at unprecedented numbers.
At the same time, legacy papers have switched to digital-first publishing strategies. That may make sense for their bottom lines—and, given the increase in hedge fund ownership of papers that have sold off buildings and gutted newsrooms, it’s obvious it does. But it doesn’t help us consumers, at a time when we need clarity, vision and leadership from the media. We are deluged by content every second we are on our phones, computers or tablets. We read headlines, not stories. We like photos and blurbs, and get distracted before we can learn more about what the photo represents. We form quick opinions and get in dumbass arguments to defend those quick, dumbass positions. And we’re constantly, constantly being sold to.
I, by the way, am not above any of this. I consume probably 95% of my news online. I fucking hate it. Because when I do read print, I read most of the stories. I read shit my monkey brain wouldn’t read online, titillated by a picture or a snappy headline. I recall things better. I take issues home and put them on the table for other people to read. And I scratch that itch of curiosity that caused me to pick up that first issue of Free-Times, and every issue after that, and every issue of every alt-weekly in every city I’ve ever visited.
Clarity, discovery, inspiration, a challenge to previously held beliefs. I know it’s pollyannaish to say it, but that’s what the world needs right fucking now.
Now, in response to the challenges in the media industry, many news startups have launched in the last couple years. And I’m not going to shit on them, because many of them are doing excellent, innovative work to tell important, interesting stories in unique ways and across various platforms. In fact, I should mention I hold no grudges against the great journalists who do work at legacy papers and are often given quotas or told what stories to write based on analytics.
But I do have a problem with the way media funding and publishing is trending. When I was in the planning stages of NJ Indy about two years ago, there was (and still is) a push to get news startups to operate as nonprofits. That sounds wonderful in theory, and in practice, many nonprofit newsrooms indeed are doing good work. But there’s an old adage in this industry: A good journalist knows where not to look. Meaning, don’t dig up dirt on your biggest funder or advertiser.
That’s a problem when some nonprofit newsrooms are funded, in part, by dubious sources. If you’re covering water—let’s say water rights out West, or drinking water infrastructure in Mississippi or Michigan—and you’re funded by a corporation or, more likely, the nonprofit arm of that corporation, which has a vested financial interest in water, you’re going to shape your story so as to not include said corporation, or, at worst (for us consumers), paint them in a favorable light. It may not—and often isn’t—an explicit directive, but it’s there. If an outlet covers the environment, and they’re funded by an energy company, you can see the issue. If you’re funded by a nonprofit environmental group, and you cover the environment, are you really going to look into who is funding those nonprofit green groups, knowing you might find something unsavory? What if the state is funding media, as NJ is doing?
Potentially the biggest source of funding for new media outlets is Google and Meta. Google has a Google News Initiative, which both provides training for startups as well as funding. Meta provides grants and platforms on which to publish new media.
That’s an issue, because by virtue of being a small media outlet’s biggest funders, Google and Facebook are the de facto owners of those publications. They want to drive engagement on their platforms, which boosts ad revenue (of which they own and share only a percentage with publishers), while actively driving away ad revenue for publishers themselves. I’m convinced, and this is just speculation, that Facebook did away with its dubious news feed, which drove users to third-party sites, and replaced it with a system that asks publishers to boost posts on Facebook and Instagram (both Meta properties) for a fee, not because it was the “right thing to do for democracy,” but because it made financial sense. They’re getting their cut, and that payment doesn’t boost the user experience, it boosts Meta’s revenue stream.
Google is, in some ways, an even worse gatekeeper than Meta. Sure, they provide wonderful analytics for us to see how folks are reading our stories, but good luck as a small publisher getting on the Google News feed, or getting to the first page of search results, which have become shittier to navigate and more bogged down than ever in the last few years. And without appearing on the first page of Google, folks basically just aren’t going to see your stories. Sure we could pay to place links to our stories across the internet, and hire an SEO person to boost our keywords and optimize our thing-a-ma-fucks, but I don’t want to give money you and our local advertisers give us to goddamn monopolies.
Now, I get it: Without these platforms, and without digital and social media being what it is, we wouldn’t have the foundation to grow into print like we do today. But the difference is, to grow into the digital beyond, we have to use their platforms. And even though we’ve done quite well for ourselves in the first year of publishing online—tens of thousands of readers on our site monthly, and over 6,000 Instagram followers—I hate it.
So if the only way we can reach more people online is by paying money to Google and Meta, or taking money from shitty corporations, we don’t abide. We’ll still do everything we do right now digitally, but we’re taking our stories to you, in your communities, in print, for free.
Print as we’ve known it is dead. Not the medium itself. People aren’t going to pay $3 for a paper filled with AP content and rehashed stories they can get online for free. But they will, I propose, pick up a free paper with a unique voice and unique stories that capture the essence of life in New Jersey. And I think they’ll appreciate—or at least not hate—carefully designed, tasteful ads that don’t get in the way of our stories, but actually complement the experience of reading our issues.
In short, you’ll find the magic I found some 15 years ago in the Free-Times.
The work is already underway to fill out our first issue with kickass stories, support it with local advertisers and find like-minded businesses throughout the state to distribute it. If you’d like to support this effort, go here, but NJ Indy in print (and online) will always be free, and will always depend on the support of local advertisers, whom we know and trust. This whole thing has been a journey, and we’re excited about this new leg. We hope you join us on it.