It’s been more than eight years since I started Baristanet, and I can measure its growth by the responses we’ve gotten in nine different Montclair July 4th parades. Riding in a convertible with a big Baristanet sign that first year — 2004 — I mostly got confused stares. By 2006, we — and it had become very much a “we” operation by that time — took second prize. Each successive year, the number of people riding our float has grown — and more people in the crowds cheer us on.
I rode in the parade again this year, but it was bittersweet. Because while it is always fun to greet an online audience out in the real world, I knew that my relationship to Baristanet and Baristaville is changing. Today, I leave the day-to-day management of this news site and begin an exciting new role at Montclair State University.
When I began Baristanet, I was not setting out to change the world. I merely saw an opportunity. Blogging had created an instant publishing platform and with a minor investment, I could start a 21st century version of the local hometown paper. The news site I imagined would be breezier than a traditional newspaper, more fun, and more interactive. And I soon learned, a lot nimbler as well.
That was the little arrow I shot into the world in May 2004. It went by the name “hyperlocal journalism.”
I had no idea that over the next eight years, enormous waves of technological change — including the one I was riding — would come crashing down on the news business, decimating great newsrooms.
Nor did I understand how big a role commenters would play on the site, or that they would turn out to have such huge personalities. I had no idea what would rile people up: that saying someone had “died” would be considered insensitive, or that pet threads could get so nasty.
And I had no way of knowing how many people, all over the country, would see Baristanet and be inspired to create versions in their own towns.
Over the years, I was lucky enough to be invited all over the country to meet other news entrepreneurs, and ultimately to sit in rooms with very smart people discussing the future of journalism. It was different from the day-to-day of running a news site, and I found these conversations captivating. I discovered that this was a place I liked to be.
Today, I’m heading up to Montclair State University, where I’m joining an ambitious effort to nurture digital and hyperlocal journalism in New Jersey. Interesting and powerful things are happening up on the hill. There’s a new School for Communication and Media, NJTV, the successor to NJN, already produces its nightly newscast on the Montclair State University campus. And other news organizations, like New Jersey Public Radio and NJ Spotlight, will be there soon.
With the help of the Geraldine Dodge Foundation, Montclair State is spearheading an effort to help news organizations in the state survive the seismic shifts in the economics of journalism, and to create better journalism by working together. I am honored to have been recruited to join the team. To start with, I will spend the summer traveling the state, listening to publishers, large and small. I’ll have more to report in the fall.
It is hard to leave Baristanet, but I leave you in good hands. My longtime business partner Liz George, who joined Baristanet just weeks after I started it, will be running the show. Annette Batson, who has been with us for seven years, will continue selling ads and helping local businesses find their customers. Georgette Gilmore, who runs Barista Kids, is now taking on more responsibility on the parent site. Meanwhile, Holly Korus will do her best to make everybody a little tipsy, while Jenn Schiffer, our web developer, will keep on making sure the site doesn’t implode.
And I’ll be here, surely, as a reader, commenter and occasional writer, watching as this little experiment continues to morph and grow in ways I never could have imagined in 2004.
So it’s not goodbye so much as “See you around the quad.”
One simple request before I leave. Be nice to each other. We’re not just pixels on a shiny screen. We’re neighbors.