Debbie Galant, co-founder of Baristanet and the Queen of Hyperlocal, is moving to a new gig at Montclair State University, where she will share her experience and help nurture and grow the local news ecosystem of New Jersey. In short, she will spread her hyperlocal fairy dust over the Garden State. Baristanet continues under the strong and loyal local leadership of Liz George, who has been there almost from the start. The queen has left the building. Long live the queens.
I am personally delighted that Debbie is helping to spearhead this effort. I’ve been helping MSU and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation on the project since the foundation’s head (and my neighbor), Chris Daggett, and a group of other funders called a meeting of public and private media people, bloggers, funders, and other concerned parties two years ago in Newark to address the crisis in the state’s media. At that meeting, it was Debbie who suggested the structure of a co-op to serve the independent members of the state’s media ecosystem. It is fitting that she will now be working to build it.
What exactly this venture will do will take shape after Debbie embarks on what she calls a listening tour, talking to the members of the media ecosystem to see what they need and listening to others to see what it would take to make it grow and improve. Opportunities could include training (in media, journalism, and business); sharing content; collaborative projects; and services (technology? insurance?). What else?
MSU is a wonderful home for this effort. The university is starting a School of Communication and Media. Under President Susan Cole, working with Matthew Frankel and Jack Shannon there, MSU has already invited in NJTV to base its operations at the school. WNYC’s New Jersey arm, NJ Public Radio, will work out of there, as will other media organizations. As all these newsies — and students and faculty — work under one roof, it’s hoped that collaboration will blossom and New Jersey will benefit.
I see New Jersey as a magnificent opportunity to rethink and rebuild local news. I like to think of it as a blank slate: a huge and underserved market that can finally get the media it deserves. The Dodge Foundation, MSU, and WNYC have raised some funds for their endeavors. There’s more to be raised and much to be done. This is just the beginning.
I remember Baristanet’s beginning as one model for what can be done to improve news locally. More than eight years ago, when I still ran NJ.com, I held a meetup in a New Jersey coffeehouse to try to get folks to blog about their towns on our service. Debbie Galant, who’d been writing about blogs before she wrote them, was there. She thought blogging about a town was a great idea. “But why would I do it for you, Jeff?” she said. She was, as usual, right. So she started her own, Baristanet.
That blog has been an amazing success, covering Montclair and Maplewood with a strong local voice (and having fun while they’re at it) while innovating ways to serve local advertisers and earning enough to support the endeavor. Success became Baristanet’s burden as many others jumped in to compete in its not-at-all-metaphorical backyard: Aol’s Patch, for a time The New York Times’ The Local, not to mention the long-established weekly paper. Meanwhile, too many towns in New Jersey are still starved for coverage. Feast/famine. Now, I hope, Debbie can help spread the wealth to other towns and help others (like my entrepreneurial graduate, founder of ElizabethInsideout).
Success became a burden in another sense as many came knocking at Baristanet’s door for advice. I was frequently among them, asking Debbie to come speak to students and join conferences and help with the research we have done at CUNY on new business models for local news. Debbie would sigh because she was plenty busy serving Baristanet. But she was also plenty generous, always bringing her knowledge and experience to help others. Now that will be her job. Perfect.
I know that hyperlocal is a challenging model. There are questions about whether it scales (that’s the suspense of Patch). We need to do much more work on how to best serve local advertisers in effective and profitable ways (that’s our next wave of research at CUNY; more on that later this week). There’s no one more realistic about the challenges and opportunities than Debbie. So I salute her on her new endeavor. God’s work.
(Disclosures are in order: I worked for the parent company of NJ.com for almost a dozen years and I’m back now helping with its development. In the past, I was listed as an adviser to Patch, but that has always been informal. And I have a vested interest in improving New Jersey media. I live there.)