New metro website launches in January

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As New York’s metro-news scene shrinks, Midtown West’s newspaper vending machines sit empty. Photo: Emily Paulin.

“There are things slipping through the cracks,” said Jere Hester — a lifelong New Yorker — of the city’s local news coverage. “And we’re going to try and do our part to make sure that’s not the case.”

Last month, a new non-profit news website titled The City announced its forthcoming arrival, slated for January 2019, into New York’s struggling metro-news scene. Led by Hester as the editor in chief, who worked for the New York Daily News for 15 years, The City will cover all five boroughs with local beats, such as transportation, healthcare, housing, politics, crime and climate change.

Bolstering the announcement was the news that 50-year-old media institution New York magazine has signed on as a partner, providing tech, distribution and design support to the newcomer. New York magazine will not make any profits from the partnership, but will promote content from The City, which will cover out-of-pocket costs the magazine incurs from its support.

The City’s launch bucks New York’s current media trend of shrinking – and dying – metro newsrooms. In August, 63-year-old publication The Village Voice closed. Just a month earlier, the Daily News got rid of approximately 50 percent of its editorial team. In November 2017, both DNAinfo and Gothamist shut down. In August 2016, Gawker went down, too.

“We’re not quite getting the quantity and comprehensiveness of the coverage we’ve had in the past,” said Hester. “I think in that there’s a danger in people becoming more disconnected from the news media and also more disconnected from civic action.”

So how will The City thrive where its predecessors have fallen?

With $8.5 million in seed funding, it has a good start. Donations from the Charles H. Revson Foundation, Craig Newmark Philanthropies, the Leon Levy Foundation, venture capitalist John Thornton, John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Miranda Family Fund at the Hispanic Federation, and the Richard Ravitch Foundation are allowing The City to launch with 15 in-house journalists.

This philanthropic model – adopted by publications including ProPublica and The Marshall Project – helps sustain local journalism, as reported in a 2016 study on community-driven journalism by Local News Lab, a non-profit dedicated to creative experiments in journalism sustainability.

But long-term success often relies on a strong business model and a focus on marketing, according to a 2013 study on non-profit journalism by the Pew Research Center. This is where The City’s partnership with New York magazine comes in.

“It felt like a thing that would be great to exist in New York City and if we could help out, we’d love to,” said David Haskell, New York magazine’s editor of business and strategy, who’s worked on establishing the partnership since last March.

While the two newsrooms will operate independently both financially and editorially, The City’s content will live in New York magazine’s content management system, and access to The City’s website will be available via New York’s homepage. Like the magazine’s online content, none of The City’s articles will require a paid subscription. New York magazine will also regularly cross-post stories by The City on its digital platforms, exposing them to its audience of 15.2 million monthly unique visitors, according to the magazine’s media kit. Working on collaborative, enterprise projects together – similar to those New York magazine has produced with The Marshall Project and ProPublica – is planned, too.

The partnership is “an incredible blessing” said Hester. “It gives us visibility, it gives us a level of credibility coming in, and it’s also going to be incumbent on us getting the stories out.”

It’s allowing New York magazine to return to its roots, too.

“We’ve found we’re covering less local news than we used to; that’s been a strategic decision … given the economics of how digital publishing works,” said Heskell. “So this seemed like not only an opportunity to do good, but also a potential opportunity to publish local journalism that we know our readers are interested in.”

Even with these solid foundations, Hester sees his new role as “an incredible opportunity and challenge.” He noted, “a big part of reporting will be listening” to ensure the most important issues in New Yorkers’ lives are captured in The City’s stories.

For Dolores McKeough, a Midtown local for over 20 years, any new local media must be “unbiased, middle of the road, not left or right.” Variety is also important. “Everything is slanted,” she said. “Small papers even seem to be owned by the same person. I mean, I see news in the Chelsea News that’s the same as the East Villager and the Westsider.”

Twenty-three-year-old Mack Brown, who operates an arts and crafts cart in Bryant Park, seeks more local coverage. “It helps knowing what’s going on in the city, because you can change it more,” he said. He hopes The City offers comprehensive coverage of transportation and housing, “because that’s what concerns people the most.”

Alexis Gelber, editor-in-chief of Chelsea News, a local paper, “absolutely” welcomes The City. “New York is a very diverse and complex city and there’s never enough coverage,” she said. “A healthy news environment is one that’s robust and competitive.”

Hester agrees.

“Some people may be framing us as a new competitor on the block, but I don’t see it necessarily as a competitive situation,” he said. “These days journalism is a team sport and an increasing number of folks are recognizing that.”

Yale philosophy professor Jason Stanley, who is an expert in communication and social action theory, believes more local media is “absolutely essential” right now.

“Without local news, you don’t have a sense that you’re part of a community, and you don’t have a sense you’re part of a local democratic process,” he said. “You feel drawn on these national arguments that don’t have much direct impact on your local situation. It demobilizes you as a citizen.”

Come January, Hester will work to ensure New York’s local news gets the attention it deserves. “There’s no such thing as a small story if it affects somebody’s life.”