Photo by Peter Lewicki on Unsplash

This NJ news startup hired veteran film critic Stephen Whitty after he lost his job

Whitty will now cover New Jersey arts and culture for NJNext.com

Stephen Whitty worked as a film critic for The Star-Ledger for more than 20 years — before losing his staff position at the paper in December 2014. Whitty continued to write for The Star-Ledger and NJ.com as a contract freelancer until last month, when he was let go entirely.

“As of tomorrow New Jersey — the birthplace of the American motion picture — will no longer have a single, full-time film writer,” Whitty wrote in a farewell Facebook post to his audience earlier this year.

Stephen Whitty at Bow Tie Cinema in Millburn, NJ, February 9, 2018. (Photo by Mary Mann, used with permission from NJNext.com.)

I recently spoke to Whitty about the transition. He says the sudden change came as a shock.

“I got hundreds of emails and phone messages and comments on social media about this,” said Whitty.

After leaving the paper in January, one of the first people who reached out to Whitty about continuing his work was Mary Mann, co-founder of NJNext.com. NJNext.com is a new arts, culture, news, lifestyle, food and events startup that boasts “a fully loaded, searchable-by-category calendar of events for New Jersey residents or those visiting the Garden State.”

In addition to co-founding NJNext.com, Mann and her business partner Carolyn Parisi are also co-founders, publishers, editors and reporters at Village Green — a hyperlocal news startup that covers Maplewood and South Orange. (Disclosure: Village Green and NJNext.com are both members of the NJ News Commons network, managed by the Center for Cooperative Media.)

Mann told Whitty what they were doing at NJNext.com and said she wanted to talk about finding a way to make him a part of it.

Whitty isn’t a full-time employee at NJNext.com — he’ll still be working on a freelance basis. But he plans to publish a selection of new stories and posts for the website each month.

“It’s a new kind of thing,” Whitty said. “Yet it also gives me a way to stay in touch with all of these readers. I mean, after the amount of time that I’ve spent writing for the New Jersey audience, I have people who literally grew up reading me, and I would feel terrible just abandoning that audience.”

Whitty’s experience — moving to a local, independent news site after losing his job at one of the state’s larger, legacy publications — is not unique. There are likely dozens of such examples around the country, said Matt DeRienzo, executive director of LION Publishers.

LION — which stands for Local Independent Online News — is a trade association for independent news organizations. (Disclosure: Village Green is a member of LION, as is the Center for Cooperative Media.)

One example DeRienzo notes happened in 2015, when Digital First Media laid off Mike Faher from the Brattleboro Reformer. Faher covered the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant, a major topic and issue that the community had been grappling with for decades.

Later that year, the independent online news site VTDigger teamed up with a local nonprofit weekly called The Commons Online to jointly hire Faher so he could continue to cover the Yankee nuclear plant.

News outlets of all shapes and sizes are laying off newsroom staff and making changes to their organizational structures — both in New Jersey and around the country. Sarah Stonbely, our research director at the Center, and has studied the effects of recent downsizing and mass-layoffs in New Jersey.

“We demonstrated that cuts in local newsrooms have had significant negative effects,” Stonbely says. “For example, nearly half of the laid-off journalists we interviewed in 2016 had 30-plus years of experience covering local communities. The loss of that knowledge and expertise is immeasurable.”

Stonbely’s research also examined the effects of the cuts on the quality of local coverage and information. “We looked at four community newspapers before and after a huge round of layoffs,” she explained. “We found that, for a number of different measures, the quality of community news and information suffered.”

Whitty hopes to avoid those pitfalls by continuing to produce the type and quality of coverage that his readership has come to expect from him — he’ll just be doing it under a different banner.

“I don’t think that my target audience will change,” he said. “My main job is to be a writer, to continue to write, and to disseminate that in any way that I can.”

Whitty and the rest of the team at NJNext.com usually work remotely from their respective homes in North Jersey — but they do meet in person every once in a while.

The decision to work remotely is both a financial and a utilitarian one for NJNext.com and other local publishers. “We need low overhead to survive,” Mann explained. “We use the local coffee houses as our conference rooms and meeting spaces. Rock ’N’ Joe in Millburn has been our meeting place so far.”

As Stonbely’s research and many other reports on the state of journalism have shown, local and independent news organizations have been hit hardest by the changes to the journalism and media landscape over the last two decades.

“We’re all having difficulty in the journalism field,” Mann continued. “It’s not a positive story that newsrooms keep constricting. Finding the revenue streams once they’ve been knocked out from legacy publications isn’t a guarantee. But I think there’s an opportunity for hyperlocals and startup folks like us who want to make these kinds of things part of our core business model.”

Mann is hoping Whitty’s hiring will help her attract direct financial support from NJNext.com readers. She recently launched the “Keep Stephen Whitty Reviewing Films in NJ for NJNext.com” campaign on Kickstarter. The goal is to raise $3,000 to help pay Whitty for his work, although NJNext.com won’t be relying entirely on crowdfunding to pay him.

According to the Kickstarter project page, Mann and Parisi will also use the revenue generated from display ads, sponsorships, boosted calendar posts and other sources to pay for Whitty’s work.

“We want real journalism on the site — like the work Stephen does,” Mann said. “We want to have more criticism like [Stephen’s] on the site. We want to talk about arts and culture. We think it’s really important.”

Ultimately, Whitty and Mann are excited about the possibilities that lie ahead.

“The New Jersey audience is very important to me,” Whitty said. “They’re not just my long-term readers — they’re my neighbors and they’re my friends. And I hope to see more people realizing how important local arts coverage really is, and supporting that coverage.”

NOTE: This article was edited at 5:30 PM EST on Feb. 22, 2018 to include information about Stephen Whitty’s employment status as a freelancer for NJNext.com, not a full-time employee.

Joe Amditis is the associate director of the Center for Cooperative Media. You can reach him on Twitter at @jsamditis or via email at amditisj@montclair.edu.

About the Center for Cooperative Media: The Center is a grant-funded program of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. The Center is supported with funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation and Democracy Fund. Its mission is to grow and strengthen local journalism, and in doing so serve New Jersey residents. For more information, visit CenterforCooperativeMedia.org.

An initiative of the School of Communication at Montclair State University

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Joe Amditis

Joe Amditis

Joe is the associate director of the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University and the host of the WTF Just Happened Today? podcast.

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