A fresh start for a new media journalism role model

Posted on July 19, 2012 by Janet Coats

The oldest child in my life is getting ready to start her senior year in high school, and she’s been looking at colleges that would take her far away from her hometown and her circle of friends and family.

Just as I was at that age, my stepdaughter is eager for a clean slate – the opportunity to redefine yourself, to start friendships that are based on who you are as a young adult instead of as a high school freshman, to explore new ideas and develop new interests.

Watching her begin this journey has reminded me of the value of fresh starts. That has deepened my appreciation for my own fresh start and the new ideas and people I’ve encountered since leaving newspapers nearly three years ago.

One of the things I loved about newspapers was the network of friends, mentors and peers I’d developed during nearly 25 years in the business. The newspaper business, like most businesses, actually was a pretty small world. One of the professional journals actually wrote a story during the height of the “six degrees of Kevin Bacon’’ game to demonstrate how closely connected newspaper editors really were to each other.

It wasn’t until I left newspapers that I realized the downside of that close network. When I look at the connections I’ve made since leaving newspapers, I see a whole new world of people who have introduced me to new ideas, challenged my often deeply entrenched thinking, sometimes made me mad, and reignited a passion for journalism that had begun to bank just a bit in my last newsroom years.

Now one of the people in my new world is moving into a fresh start of her own, and I’m expecting that I’ll get to learn a whole bunch of new things vicariously through her experience. She’s already taught me a lot in the short time I’ve known her.

Debbie Galant is one of the pioneers in local, independent news publishing. She started Baristanet in 2004, providing intensely local coverage of Montclair, N.J., and several other suburban towns in northern New Jersey. From the beginning, Debbie’s focus was on community, on dialogue, on contributions from readers – all of which have become hallmarks of independent news sites across the country.

And almost from the beginning, Baristanet has made money. The fact that Debbie and her team developed not just a community news model but a business model makes her work stand out from the crowd. Add to that the fact that Debbie has been generous in sharing her experience and her knowledge with others; a Baristanet family tree would include independent news sites all across the country that have benefitted either from her example or her advice.

Debbie has taken a job at Montclair State University, where she will put her knowledge to work to develop models of digital and hyperlocal journalism in New Jersey. No one is better equipped for the task.

I got to know Debbie through the Block by Block Community News Summit that The Patterson Foundation has enabled as one way for independent news publishers to connect and share. I got to know her better through the Super Camp program we’ve incubated this year to provide intense business mentoring to these publishers. Debbie was one of our Super Campers. She also came to Sarasota last winter to participate in a conversation with journalism funders organized by TPF and the Investigative News Network to talk about sustainability for independent news sites.

Debbie’s combination of no-nonsense pragmatism and passion for community news has been an inspiration to me in my own work. She has shown me that there is a future for intensely local news – and that you can build a business model to pay for it.

“When I began Baristanet, I was not setting out to change the world, ‘’ she wrote in a post on the site announcing her new position. “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. …

“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.’’

Debbie didn’t set out to be an inspiration. But then again, role models rarely do.

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