Seeking an Oasis in a News Desert

One day in June, a 26-year-old woman working for a marketing and advertising firm in the prestigious Carnegie Center in the Princeton-Route 1 business corridor went home for lunch at her nearby apartment. She never returned. Her colleagues, alarmed at her absence, called police. They discovered the woman’s body at about 6 p.m. She had been murdered. According to news stories, some neighbors may have heard muffled screams coming from the apartment that afternoon. But no neighbors called the police.

The Packet was once Princeton’s pre-eminent community newspaper. Now circulation has fallen and a sidewalk neatnik calls its news box an ‘eyesore.’

There was a time, not so long ago, when the murder of a young white woman in an affluent community would have caused a flood of media coverage. The unconfirmed reports that neighbors heard something but reported nothing would have invoked the infamous killing of Kitty Genovese in Kew Gardens, Queens, in 1964, while neighbors watched silently. Today in central New Jersey you would have expected a reporter to go door to door in the apartment complex, asking everyone who heard what and when.

But in the case of Carolyn Byington, a 26-year-old Lafayette College graduate from Basking Ridge, NJ, found murdered June 10 in her apartment in the Hunters Glen section of Plainsboro, NJ, there was no flood of media coverage. In fact, after the initial reports of her death the news dried up. Her hometown paper, the West Windsor-Plainsboro News, did issue a follow up on June 28, noting that local police and the county prosecutor had enlisted the help of federal law enforcement agencies, as well, in their investigation. Even then the authorities declined to reveal the manner in which the victim had been killed.

Beyond that, there was not a peep – at least nothing found in a recent Google search – regarding the murder.

Why not? Possibly the police have asked reporters not to dig too much because the digging might compromise the investigation. More likely it’s because the media in central New Jersey is understaffed, overworked, short on resources, and more than willing to settle for stories that are handed to them by local governing bodies and police departments. Here in relatively affluent central New Jersey, as well as in many other places around the country, we are living in a “news desert,” roughly akin to the “food deserts” created when the last supermarket closes up in an urban neighborhood.

Thirty-five years ago, when I founded a business and entertainment paper called U.S. 1 Newspaper, central New Jersey was brimming with media. Trenton’s two competing newspapers had strong news coverage of the capital city and the suburban towns around it. Princeton had two competing community newspapers, as well as a monthly publication aimed at women. It had an FM and AM radio station, each providing local news coverage. Trenton had a station of its own. Other neighboring communities – Hamilton, Lawrenceville, Hopewell, West Windsor, and others, each had their own weekly newspapers.

When I launched U.S. 1 in 1984 I was told the market did not have room for another newspaper. But it did. Today is another story. Neither of the two Trenton dailies pays much attention to local news outside of Trenton. Most of the weekly newspapers outside of Princeton have gone out of business. The radio stations offer some opinionated talk shows but little news coverage. The papers that remain have fewer pages and less room for editorial content due to the migration of advertising from print to the Internet. A newspaper reporter or editor leaves and is not replaced – the workload is just redistributed onto the backs of the remaining staff. Generally speaking (and, yes, there have been some wonderful exceptions), media at the state and local level offer little or no coverage of state legislatures, town councils, planning and zoning boards, and school boards.

If you follow urban issues in your town — matters that come before the zoning and planning boards, for example – you are already accustomed to minimal news coverage. Given that a murder in an upscale neighborhood doesn’t attract much media interest, a meeting on, say, “form-based zoning” may go unnoticed.

Coverage of urban development issues has been spotty for a long time. As urbanist William H. Whyte wrote in 1958: “Unfortunately, by the time the actual building plans for an urban redevelopment project are announced, the affair has become so wrapped up in local patriotism that newspapers feel it is too late for second thoughts.” In 1960 Grady Clay, the nationally known real estate editor, wrote with dismay that “most huge urban developments are thrust upon the public’s gaze only after long private gestation.”

This summer I thought I should take a closer look at a project in “gestation” in Princeton, a proposal for 30 single family homes on a 90-acre wooded tract several miles outside the downtown area. Both of the Princeton weeklies had covered the initial proposal from the developer and had printed some letters from concerned neighbors. But it was a Tweet from a community activist that directed me to a YouTube video of a more recent Planning Board hearing. It sounded like quite a spectacle, beginning with a protester loudly haranguing the board to the point of being threatened with ejection by the police. That drama was followed by a 30-minute debate between the developer and a lawyer for a group of objectors arguing whether or not the objectors’ expert witnesses should be allowed access to the property. And it continued with fairly intense cross examination of the developer’s experts. It could have been fodder for not one but several news stories. But I never found even one in the local media.

Note that I just wrote that “it sounded like quite a spectacle.” That’s because it was easier to hear the audio than to see the video. It turns out that the less-than-high-quality video is another sign of the news desert in central New Jersey. The video production, which used to be in the hands of Princeton Community TV, a nonprofit community access station, is now being handled by the municipal staff. The same is true of meetings of the Princeton Council, which earlier this year announced it would no longer allocate $232,000 of its annual budget to help fund the community station. The two sides are now at an impasse, with no negotiations ongoing.

The TV station’s argument is that funding for community access was originally part of a law enabling towns to be compensated by cable TV providers selling their services to residents. Those fees, in turn, were supposed to be used to support community access television. But in the late 1990s the law was changed to give towns a choice of where it wanted to direct the cable fees. Princeton initially chose to support its nonprofit community television station.

Now the municipality argues, in essence, that since it does not fund other nonprofits, it would be unfair to fund this one. Some officials have also pointed out that the station provides local access to out-of-towners, and that some of the content is self-indulgent subject matter, and of little community interest. Those users should bear a greater share of the operating expenses, town officials say. In addition, the town argues, most of the services provided by community television can be obtained through the Internet, and for much less money.

This, of course, has long been the promise of the Internet: that it would open the channels of communication to everyone. But what’s open to everyone easily becomes a free for all. A group of objectors may communicate with each other, but not the entire community, through a Facebook page. A group called Walkable Princeton has a newsworthy website that every so often carries a substantial piece of reporting on some town development – but it’s another point of view that usually fails to reach the entire community. A community activist with the Twitter handle of Central NJ Yimby, “yes in my backyard,” engages in some thoughtful exchanges, but never uses his own name. It’s advocacy, not journalism.

In Princeton we are lucky to have one example of enterprising digital journalism, Planet Princeton, run by a former veteran reporter for the Trenton Times, Krystal Knapp. She recently highlighted – and probably hastened – an investigation into shoddy practices at the town’s waste facility. And she should be credited for a long list of editorial coups before that. But she is a one-woman band, apparently supported only by advertising (and no one wants to pay much, if anything, to be on the Internet) and contributions from residents who care about local news coverage (probably not as many as you would think).

For the government to underwrite Planet Princeton or any of the advocacy groups or the remaining print media would raise conflict-of-interest questions. But the town could help Princeton Community TV. Instead of giving it a lump sum to use carte blanche, the town could pay the station to take over, and enhance, the televised coverage of the various boards and the council. Some improvements could be ordered: Coverage that showed the face (and name plate) of the official speaking; an index that told at what point various items on the agenda began; and archiving the videos online in the high-quality Vimeo format would be most helpful to overworked journalists and to anyone unable to stop what they are doing for two (or sometimes three) hours on a weekday evening.

In a polarized political world, sometimes even at the local level, such coverage would be nonpartisan and wholly objective – the unblinking eye of the camera. Call it an oasis in the news desert.