It seems like just yesterday that Planet Princeton began as a Facebook page where I posted little tidbits and events I couldn’t find a home for in local publications. I had just over 200 followers in August of 2011. Then Hurricane Irene hit. I covered the storm and its aftermath live on Facebook and Twitter, and within three days those 200 or so followers turned into a few thousand followers. A few weeks later I began posting news every week on a website version of Planet Princeton. A few years later I began posting on a daily basis.The website now has more than 50,000 unique visitors each month and almost 200,000 pageviews in an average month. More than 250 events are added to our community calendar every month.
Planet Princeton is a mix of breaking news, government and schools coverage, transit news, events, photos, letters to the editor, and accountability reporting. Several of our stories have been picked up in national and international media outlets. We routinely file public records requests and write about open government, and we have won two public records lawsuits seeking information in the public’s interest.
Running Planet Princeton has been a great experiment. I have had my share of ups and downs, both personally and professionally, over the last five years, including a house fire and a major health problem it took doctors more than a year to diagnose. Running my own publication has certainly given me more empathy for local business owners and the sacrifices they make so their businesses survive and thrive.
These are challenging times in the news business. No one has the secret formula for sustaining and strengthening news coverage in the online era. We are all experimenting. It has become clear to me in recent months that we must be more transparent with readers about our struggles and how our business model works (or doesn’t). It is also important to see not only the challenges, but also the opportunities that the new era offers for news and information distribution.
Added to the economic challenges, the public has become more distrustful than ever of the news media in the United States. This distrust, and sometimes hatred, has trickled down to the local media. I never received hate mail or messages before the November election, but now it is a regular occurrence because it has been sanctioned at the top.
In New Jersey, the consolidation of news organizations has had a devastating impact on news coverage over the last decade or more and the trend has continued over the last year. Gannett purchased the Bergen Record, the crown gem of New Jersey papers, and has slashed staff there, as one example. News organizations are not investing as much as they once did in accountability reporting at all levels, especially at the local, county and state level. New Jersey was already at a disadvantage before major news outlets consolidated, because we are stuck between the major media markets of Philadelphia and New York. Who will be the government watchdog as the press corps continues to shrink? It’s a question that keeps me awake at night.
Now more than ever, we need an independent press that uses its resources to dig up the facts. Local news has disappeared in many communities across the country, and I believe that this decline at the local level has had a direct impact on citizen engagement and election outcomes at the state and national levels. (I will be writing a short column on Planet Princeton about some of these issues mentioned in this post in the coming weeks.)
Planet Princeton would not have survived these five years without the support of our readers. A heartfelt thanks to all of you who have shared information, passed along news tips, sent notes of encouragement, provided us with public records and other documents, entered events in our community calendar, written posts for the site, purchased ads and sponsored posts, helped spread the word via social media, and supported us with a voluntary subscription. Your support has enabled us to pay for copies of public records, hire interns, do investigative reporting and keep the lights on here. We hope to continue and strengthen what we do over the next year with your help. As always, please reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any suggestions or ideas for Planet Princeton.