Digging Deep in New Brunswick
Two Rutgers graduates are doing local news in New Brunswick by going full throttle on investigative reporting.
New Brunswick Today is run by Sean Monahan, its 32-year-old publisher, and Charlie Kratovil, its 28-year-old editor. The two are determined to make this venture work both on the journalistic level and as a business proposition.
“We have a product that people really want,” Kratovil said during a recent interview. “People want the news. It helps that we are young and interested in our city and feeling positive. ”
According to the duo, New Brunswick Today is doing well, with a roster of paid freelancers and volunteer staff, lots of media attention (Kratovil has been featured on Chasing New Jersey, and other stories and video have been picked up by News 12 New Jersey and Fox 5), a new print edition, and a grant from NJ News Commons for investigative journalism.
Indeed, investigative reporting is the bread and butter of the two-year-old New Brunswick Today. Kratovil credits his work with the Citizens Campaign and with Paterson Press Editor Joe Malinconico, who told him, “”The only way the bad things are going to improve is if a light is shined on them.”
New Brunswick Today helped shine a light on a major transparency issue at Rutgers University last fall when they were the first to cover the story of a 275-page report on the university’s reponse to Superstorm Sandy that Rutgers was not publicly releasing. The pressure eventually resulted in Rutgers releasing a redacted version of the report. and New Brunswick Today continues to probe the discrepancy between reasons given for dormitory evacuations between the city and the university.
NBT also broke the story of water fraud at the New Brunswick Water Utility when the state DEP finally confirmed the preliminary results of an investigation in November. New Brunswick Today had questioned the city council about rumors of an investigation at an October meeting — the video recording of which went missing. Kratovil and his reporters continue to pursue the story, including the suicide of the utility’s former director five years ago.
While the city’s council members may not be enamored of New Brunswick Today, Kratovil says the “rank and file” at city hall have responded well.
“They drink the water too.”
Monahan and Kratovil are also open to working with other local outlets. Notably, they have collaborated with Muckgers, another local news site operated by Rutgers students and grads.
The duo met working on a campaign to change New Brunswick council seats from “at-large” to ward-specific. The campaign ultimately failed, but the collaboration didn’t end there.
Monahan saw the potential for something more: “I saw what Charlie did in Paterson and his email newsletter and thought we should turn this newsletter into a news site.”
Now a $2,500 NJ News Commons Grow & Strengthen Investigative Reporting Grant (funded through the NJ Recovery Fund) is helping Kratovil and Monahan expand that investigative reporting. It might not seem like much money but Monahan and Kratovil agreed, “Anything’s helpful.” Said Kratovil. “Our people are young. The economy is not good.” Reporters write their first three articles for free (as a trial of sorts), at which point they are promoted to “senior reporters” and get paid by the story. The rates depends on the depth of investigation. Both say that the ability to pay formerly unpaid volunteer staff has boosted morale. Eventually, said Monahan, they want to be able to pay photographers and distributors.
And meanwhile, they continue to work on sustainability through advertising. New Brunswick Today boasted 14 advertisers in its first print edition (the advertisers are on the website as well). “Our advertising person gets a 20% commission,” says Monahan. In addition, Kratovil says he keeps his living expenses low, and Monahan has a day job as a web developer.
When everyone is talking about the death of newspapers, why print?
“A lot of people are not on line,” says Kratovil, who noted that New Brunswick has a large Spanish-speaking population. In fact, the print edition is published in English and Spanish. “We put out a call for volunteer translators on our Facebook page — which has 5,000 “likes,'” said Monahan. The response was gratifying.
The first print run was 10,000 — in full color. New Brunswick Today’s staff handed the paper out at the train station, at the county courthouse, all around the commercial district and on the Rutgers campus. The plan is to print monthly, then biweekly, then weekly. “Our sponsors also helped distribute,” said Monahan.
How was the response?
“Stellar!” said Kratovil. “Everybody loves it. The folks at city hall, the rank and file. People are excited that there is a paper and it’s viable.” He noted that Gannett’s Home News Tribune no longer sends reporters to cover New Brunswick council meetings, instead focusing on more Central Jersey-wide news.
“We picked the right town. There are a lot of untold stories.”