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January 16, 2006

The Walter Winchell of Montclair: Guest Writer Debra Galant on the Joys of Local News Blogging

"It’s satisfying, when you find yourself standing in a long line in the new $8.6 million parking deck on a Friday night because there are only two pay stations, to be able to whip out your cell phone, take a picture and then post it on the blog – and to have the mayor write in almost immediately..."

Special to PressThink

The Walter Winchell of Montclair

by Debra Galant
Founder & editor-in-chief,

I grew up, the daughter of a journalist, just outside the Beltway, and I remember looking forward to the Father-Daughter Ball at the National Press Club as the high point of my year. I remember nothing about the ball itself, nothing at all; but years later, I met someone else who also went to the Father-Daughter Balls as a girl, and she glowed with the same memory. Was it the Freudian anticipation of dancing with our dads? Did they gorge us on chocolate? Was it dressing up? (Oh, surely not in my case.) Or was it simply the dark paneled seriousness of the place, the temporary admission to what even a child could see was a temple of power.

I experienced that same sense of institutional awe years later, when I started freelancing for The New York Times, and one of my editors gave me a walk around the place. Those historic front pages on the walls, the private dining room, legendary men in the same elevator I was riding in: it all combined to create a well-burnished patina of authority and prestige. And over the next decade I discovered that even the lowliest freelancer could lever a tiny fraction of that authority, and by doing so, have doors opened and phone calls promptly returned.

In other words, I have dwelled in, or near, or at least been somewhat associated with, some of the most hallowed halls of journalism.

Now, on the other hand, I dwell in the journalistic equivalent of a roadhouse – a neighborhood newsblog – where I stand behind the counter, a dirty dishtowel over my shoulder, barking at the rowdies in the corner to keep it down, serving up mugs of draught and occasionally pulling up my skirts to show a little ankle.

We call this saloon Barista of Bloomfield Ave. or Baristanet. It is one of the growing number of neighborhood news sites, unconnected to any established newspapers, that serve up local news in a blog format. These include H2oTown, the New Haven Independent, Only the Blog Knows Brooklyn and Pittsburgh Dish, although they’re not all as disreputable as ours. We have a group of commenters, equivalent to a small motorcycle gang, which proudly calls itself the “eight trolls” and likes to snarl at soft-hearted liberals. I know some daily readers of Baristanet, who are afraid to comment for fear of being pounced on. And there are some threads on our site that actually make me blush.

This was not exactly what I was setting out to accomplish when I decided, in the spring of 2004—inspired by a blog meetup in South Orange, NJ where I met Jeff Jarvis—to start a hyperlocal blog for three towns in northern New Jersey.

I pictured it more like a café, hence the name “Barista”—the job of one who serves cappuccino—“of Bloomfield Ave.” I pictured recapturing the readers I’d lost when the New York Times decided to offer my column to another writer. Which I did. I pictured making a ton of money. Which I may. I saw the product, quite clearly, but I didn’t yet see my readers. I didn’t see how they would emerge as individual personalities, with opinions of their own, and how this would alter both the product and my experiment.

When I try to explain Baristanet to someone who’s never heard of it before, I often say “it’s like your weekly small town newspaper meets the Daily Show.” We—and I say we because I work with two equal partners, Laura Eveleth and Liz George—write about many of the same small-town events that those birdcage liners do, but with a jaundiced eye. We won’t, for example, print a picture of a big fake check unless we’re making fun of it.

Irreverence—or snarkiness, as it is called in the blogosphere—is nothing new. In fact, it’s the lingua franca of this medium. I knew from the start that irreverence would be part of our brand.

But it’s unusual for a local paper. The question was, how would that attitude play in our own backyard? And a second, related, question: would it alienate advertisers? In other words, could you do a Wonkette or a Daily Show in the same place where you live, shop and take your kids to school?

I also knew from the start, just based on the demographics, that our readers were smart. Most are college educated. Many hold advanced degrees. About half of the New York Times staff lives within my coverage area. Still, you don’t know ahead of time when the irreverence will hit the fan.

The first time it did—big—was after I overheard a mom at the community pool grumbling about the money she spent on dues and shrugging in the direction of a group of lifeguards, all sitting around a table, playing cards. I hadn’t thought about it until then, but these kids did spend an inordinate amount of time hanging around, nowhere near the pool, laughing and having fun. At the time, there was only one lifeguard watching the pool, and another chair was empty. There were only a couple of children in the pool.

I took a picture of the lifeguards playing cards and wrote the headline, It’s So Much More Fun Watching Each Other. A friend of mine got so mad he’s barely talked to me since. And the lifeguards, and their friends, had no sense of humor whatsoever.

I’ve also found Montclair’s liberal elite to be profoundly humor-impaired at times, especially during the 2004 presidential race. And I say that as a lifelong Democrat.

But for the most part, we think it’s the humor, and the quality of the writing, that keeps the readers coming back. That’s what always seems to surprise, and endear, people who discover us anew. That they can get a local product with as much sophistication—in design as well as writing—as anything produced out of New York.

But there’s also the real-time aspect of what can be accomplished by instant publishing. Like telling readers about kids selling lemonade to raise money for Katrina right now, or reporting a high school bomb scare minutes after it happened-– or even just providing an up-to-date community resource for closings and cancellations in the case of snow.

As I recall it, the day that we first went over 1,000 hits was the day that an electrical line fell down on a street near a local shopping plaza and started a fire. A photographer named Scot Surbeck, who’d been reading our blog, took a picture and sent it. Then later that night, there was another electrical fire a few blocks away. And this time, several people sent us tips and pictures. They were all standing there in the street, watching the night sky turn white and wondering what to do. These are the things that mean nothing, or little, in the grand scheme, but which, in the moment, are completely fascinating.

After that, if there was a blackout, or an explosion, or a murder, people would go to us immediately to see if we had it. And if we didn’t, they’d send us a tip.

And in addition to all that there’s the conversation-– like last week’s 245-comment debate on New Jersey’s planned indoor smoking ban. In our better moments, Baristanet is more like a good dinner party than either a coffee shop or a roadside tavern and I, as the Barista, am the perfect raconteur and host.

What makes a good dinner party? It’s not the food. It’s not the candlelight or the quality of the stemware. It’s what intelligence you pick up at the party, and how amusingly it is delivered. It doesn’t matter nearly as much if the food is fresh and local as if the intelligence is fresh and local. It’s also the crackling repartee, delivered in online form as comments.

I’ll give you an example. And this is a story that pre-dates Baristanet, but when it happened I thought, I wish I wrote for the local newspaper. If I wrote for the local newspaper, this is exactly the kind of story I would write. This is the story that, in a way, inspired Baristanet.

This involves the same pool where the lifeguards were all hanging around playing cards, only a year or two earlier. After a long political battle, the pool had just been built, but because of construction delays, it didn’t open until the last day of July. With the entire swimming season compressed into one month, tempers flared, especially on those afternoons—and there were a lot of them—when the pool closed for late afternoon thunderstorms.

One Friday afternoon, with not a cloud on the horizon, after I’d put in a full day of writing, I walked to the pool and was astonished to find it closed.

There had been no thunder; I’d been writing the whole afternoon on my front porch, half a mile from the pool. The parking lot at the pool was empty, but one by one cars arrived. Moms and kids spilled out, their arms overflowing with towels and pool bags. We all stared forlornly at the chain-link fence and wondered why the pool was closed and where the lifeguards had gone.

Well, somebody said, they must have closed the pool for thunder and made everyone go home. The policy was 20 minutes. So if we kept waiting, the lifeguards would come back and re-open the pool. We waited 20 minutes, 40 minutes, an hour, longer. No lifeguards, no pool manager.

People pulled out cell phones, called town hall, the mayor, members of the pool’s board of trustees. Nobody knew what was going on, and people were furious: me more than anyone. That’s the moment when I imagined writing about this for a local paper. It was exactly the kind of thing that was never covered in the local paper—it didn’t, after all, happen at a town council meeting or come from a press release—and it was exactly the kind of thing that everybody talked about.

When the manager finally did appear, hours later, he offered no excuses and no explanation. There’d been thunder. The pool was closed.

We found out the real story months later, after it was discovered that the pool manager had been embezzling money from the pool. It turns out that hot August afternoon, he’d heard some distant thunder and decided to close the pool and take his entire lifeguard staff out to the movies.

These are the stories that people want to know. They still want to know why the pool is closed on a sunny August afternoon. These are the stories that you almost never get in the weekly local newspaper, which is typically staffed by 20-something journalists straight out of school and with no ties, or real sources, in the community.

They also want to know if the hot new restaurant that just opened is any good, whether their neighbors are also furious about new leaf raking regulations, and why the 6:18 from Penn Station was being held up in Bloomfield, and not allowed to continue on into Glen Ridge.

In fact, in the case of the 6:18, it was nothing, which we reported.

Passengers aboard the 6:18 train from Penn Station were held up in Bloomfield for about five minutes tonight due to reported police activity at the Glen Ridge station. According to the police, train personnel thought they saw someone on the tracks. Nobody, however, was found.

As is typical when we run stories like this, the critics are ready with their favorite line: “must be a slow news day in Baristaville.” When you live by minutia, you die by minutia, and occasionally the wisecrackers point that out. As it happens, though, the reason we knew about the 6:18 from Penn Station was because a CBS news producer Blackberried us about it from the train. And a number of other journalists on that train came to our defense in comments.

I was on that train too and logged onto baristanet when i got home to find out what had happened. it’s called local news—and though maybe in the scheme of things not terribly critical — it’s nice to know what’s going on.
Posted by: mary | Mar 9, 2005 10:28:38 AM

when there’s cops on the tracks, you wanna know what’s up.
Posted by: dana jennings | Mar 9, 2005 9:17:19 AM

It’s a tremendous amount of fun to be the Barista of Bloomfield Ave., or as I sometimes call myself, “the Walter Winchell of Montclair.” It’s fun to be a professional smart aleck, to be a big fish in a small pond, to cut through the exasperating bureaucratic mumbo jumbo. It’s satisfying, when you find yourself standing in a long line in the new $8.6 million parking deck on a Friday night because there are only two pay stations, to be able to whip out your cell phone, take a picture and then post it on the blog – and to have the mayor write in almost immediately with a promise that he’ll look into it.

Power of the press? Maybe. But not power of any press with newspaper covers going back past the Titanic. Not the power of anyone with a special press pass, or access. Just the power of anyone with a cell phone and a computer, who has also taken the time and energy for 20 months to build and nurture a readership – even a sometimes rowdy one.

And I have to admit that the power is all that much sweeter because we created it ourselves, from scratch, just as my father did 40 years ago with his business partner Lou Rothschild, when they set up a newsletter to cover the government regulation of the food industry right at the beginning of the food additive era.

My father did become a wealthy man by becoming a publisher, because he and Lou chose their niche well. They were solid reporters, good businessmen and wrote with total objectivity. Their product was absolutely indispensable to food industry lawyers, Naderites, academics and the regulators themselves.

My dad follows the comings and goings of Baristaville all winter from the laptop in his den in Florida and though he doesn’t know any of the players, he still finds it compelling and funny.

Like my father, I’m a publisher. But I’m not sure I’m a journalist. Journalism is nonfiction. It belongs with history and politics and business and current affairs. I read, and write, novels. I’m more interested in why the pool is closed tight on a sunny day than in the town government’s master plan. I’m more interested in a little girl’s enchantment by the National Press Club 40 years ago than I am by the powerful men and women of the National Press Club today, and the powerful men and women they cover.

Mainly, I want to make you laugh— and to get paid for it.

After Matter: Notes, reactions and links.


Debra Galant, former Jersey columnist for The New York Times, is founder and editor-in-chief of Her first novel, “Rattled,” a comedy of bad manners set in the rapidly developing New Jersey countryside, is coming out from St. Martin’s Press next month and is a Book Sense pick for February.

Who said the suburbs are boring? Not in Baristaville.

Here are some of the Barista’s favorite posts from the past year and half, in no particular order: dissing the Girl Scoutsan error-studded letter from the principalbad karma in the Whole Foods parking lotcivil disobedience at Bloomfield Higha wacky suggestion for deer controla bile-spewing hip-hop band in Glen Ridgea strange wrinkle in the Nutley pizza wars$300 colanders a coconut virtuoso Soprano sightings and everything we wrote last April 1.

Tim Porter replies to this post, which made him recall his first small town newspaper job when “we all lived among the people we wrote about.” He thinks “all reporters have had these feelings (at least I hope they have). But, somehow over the decades, somehow in the march toward bland professionalism (even at the smallest of papers) we drove the fun out of journalism - both for our readers and for ourselves.” Then Jeff Jarvis responds to Porter.

Stephen Baker at Businessweek’s Blogspotting: “In a perfect world, Baristanet would spur our staid hometown newspaper, The Montclair Times, to liven up its act. My fear, though, (as a former weekly newspaper editor) is that the blog will kill it—leaving no one to cover the boring but necessary newspaper-of-record jobs like covering school boards and planning commissions.”

Writing about this post, Jon Fine, Business Week’s Changing World ‘o Media columnist, asks: Is this the new local newspaper?

Also, Paul Bass wrote a thoughtful piece for the New Haven Advocate in September about how Baristanet inspired him to set up a local newsblog of his own.

More information on the Glen Ridge pool manager was dredged up by Philip Read of the Star Ledger, who wrote about it in January, 2004. The story is not available online.

Ed Sanders, the Glen Ridge pool manager accused of cashing the paychecks of employees and pocketing the money, was suspended with pay from his teaching job at Montclair High School yesterday.

“He was notified today that he had to go home,” said Montclair High School Principal Elaine Davis.

Sanders, 41, who lives in Glen Ridge, was charged last week with three counts of theft, forgery and misappropriation of entrusted property, said Glen Ridge Police Chief John Magnier. He was freed on $25,000 bond Friday, and his case has been referred to the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office, Magnier said.

Sanders is accused of stealing about $14,500 from the pool, which opened July 31, by cashing the paychecks of student lifeguards after they had returned to school. Police said the lifeguards did not know they were still on the payroll or that Sanders had cashed their checks. A police investigation began in December after members of the pool’s finance committee noticed some discrepancies in the pool’s accounts and brought the concerns to police. Sanders said he is awaiting his day in court.

Liz George, partner in Baristanet, did a guest post at PressThink, a review of (Nov. 30, 2005) Baristanet was also featured in PressThink’s Are You Ready for a Brand New Beat? (April 11, 2005)

In October of 2005, Tom Grubisich wrote “I’m skeptical, show me” account for Online Journalism Review. “Community news sites get a lot of hype, but can they produce quality journalism?”

See also From citizen journalism myth to citizen journalism realities in Editors Weblog. (Dec. 29, 2005) has a fine list of Local Citizen Journalism News and Information Blogs. Organized by region.

Glaser Goes Up a Level. Online Journalism Review columnist, PressThink guest author, and new media chronicler Mark Glaser—as good as we have on this beat—will be debuting a new blog at the PBS site on Wednesday Jan. 18.

It’s called Media Shift ( and, according to the network’s announcement “will offer a continuing look at how digital media such as blogs, RSS, podcasts, citizen journalism, wikis, news aggregators and video repositories are altering the way we live, play and work.” Glaser had been in negotiation with PBS for some time, so it’s good to see the deal is done. PressThink caught up with Glaser, and tossed him a few questions about his plans:

JR: What does “Media Shift” mean? And as one of my favorite professors taught me to say when any author spoke of a “shift,” that would be from what to what?

Mark Glaser: There is a lot of shifting going on, technologically and in readership and viewership of media. In TV, it’s about time-shifting with TiVo or having content on mobile devices or backpack journalists using digital cameras. In newspapers, it’s about readership going from print to online and news sites brimming with multimedia and citizen journalism. In radio, it’s about kicking the commercial habit with satellite radio and Net radio and podcasting as a new form that’s of and by the people.

But bigger still is the shift from top-down control of media to control from the bottom, from the people, who are tired of corporate ownership and meddling and just want to be served, want to have a greater voice. And from mass market hits for music and movies and TV shows to smaller interest groups all along the Long Tail.

You can’t hear a media exec speak anymore, without the word “shift” coming up again and again, because the ground below them is shifting uncomfortably.

JR: Obviously you saw something that wasn’t being done that Media Shift will be able to do. What is that thing?

Mark Glaser: MediaShift will look at the cultural and societal impact of the shift in media from top-down to Everyman and Everywoman control. There are indeed a lot of blogs covering this to some extent, and most I think are obsessed with how old media is going down in flames and the business buyouts and ramifications.

My interest is in the people themselves, not the journalists, but the “former audience,” the people who are taking control, interacting and creating media in new ways. I want to tell their stories rather than just my own story or my own observations or what the CEO or VP of such-and-such media company thinks. And I want my readers to join in whenever and however possible so it is a group endeavor, citizen media style.

And honestly, Jay, I’m not sure what MediaShift will become. I’m sure when you launched PressThink you thought it would be one thing, and then it became something much different.

JR: That’s true. Thanks, Mark.

Glen Greenwald steps in between PressThink and The New Republic’s The Plank: “In some ways, The Plank is the national headquarters for petty journalistic elitism and the fallacy of credentialism.” See: Invasion of the dirty masses. Greenwald thinks the blogosphere is more meritocratic than the meritocratic elite that speaks its mind at the TNR blog.

If that interests you, then see also Ezra Klein’s reply, and the comments thereon. “… a breathtakingly misguided attack.”

Daniel Glover at National Journal criticizes “the conservative bloggers handpicked by the Republican Party to cover the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito” and to meet with party big wigs:

Why? Because the content they wrote from Washington, while being feted by the Republican Party, did not pack the same punch as their normal fare. Too often, they sounded more like unofficial stenographers for the GOP than the passionate, independent watchdogs that they normally are. The bloggers… let pass a rare opportunity to grill senators and top officials about topics that matter to the bloggers. They let their sources set the agenda.

As I understand Glover’s point, he’s not criticizing them for going to DC, but what they wrote. He thinks they lost their nerve when they were welcomed in. See this report, and this one.

New York Magazine cover story (Jan. 16, 2006 issue): A Guy Named Craig. “How a schlumpy IBM refugee found you your apartment … and now finds himself killing your newspaper.” It contains this:

At the convention of the American Society of Newspaper Editors last spring, two panelists at a session on the crisis in the industry flashed a slide of Newmark and asked the editors how many of them knew who Craig Newmark was. A faint show of hands. Craigslist? A few more.

“The shocking thing is that this was someone who was not only a threat to steal their business but was in the process of doing it,” says Jay Rosen, a blogger (the name of his blog is PressThink) and professor…”

I was talking about this event, as reported and interpreted by Tim Porter.

Joseph Epstein—scholar, critic, essayist of the old school—asks Are Newspapers Doomed? in Commentary. It includes:

My father certainly took it seriously. I remember asking him in 1952, as a boy of fifteen, about whom he intended to vote for in the presidential election between Dwight Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson. “I’m not sure,” he said. “I think I’ll wait to see which way Lippmann is going.”

The degree of respect then accorded the syndicated columnist Walter Lippmann is hard to imagine in our own time.

I’ll be teaching a class in news bloging this semester; and we will probably be producing some special reports. Watch for more about this in the weeks ahead.

Posted by Jay Rosen at January 16, 2006 3:51 PM