“How a New Jersey Town Became a Magnet for the Media Elite”

From a Vanity Fair story by Charlotte Klein headlined “”Like-Minded People Keep Coming: How One New Jersey Town Became a Magnet for the Media Elite”:

When The New Yorker famously depicted the “View of the World From 9th Avenue” on its cover nearly a half century ago, New Jersey was just a brown, barren strip of land beyond the Hudson. But Maria Russo, a former New York Times editor who now works in book publishing, had a different perspective from the paper’s cafeteria windows. “This whole part of New Jersey is flat—you know, Meadowlands—and then you see a sudden jutting up of the Watchung Mountains. And that’s Montclair,” she recalled. In a way, said Russo, “working at the Times and living in Montclair feels like a coherent life.”

With a population of about 38,000, the affluent Essex County township some 20 miles in the distance has long been a bedroom community for journalists—particularly those, like Russo, who have worked at 620 8th Avenue. So much so that, amid recent disputes over a dues-increase proposal at the NewsGuild of New York, The New Republic’s Alex Shephard used “someone who lives in Montclair, N.J.” as shorthand for big-shot Times reporters opposing the hike from their “gilded palace,” out of touch with their rank-and-file colleagues….

Perhaps that’s why Montclair seems disproportionately on the radar of Manhattan media outlets. In January, New York magazine contributing editor and Montclair resident Andrew Rice wrote about the school reopening war playing out in his own backyard, which the magazine had a month earlier devoted its cover to for the “Permit Karen” of Montclair….

Just take look at the governing board for the Montclair Local, a four-year-old nonprofit newspaper: Kathleen Carroll, veteran journalist and former executive editor of the Associated Press; Stephen Engelberg, editor in chief of ProPublica; David Silverstein, the editor in chief of The New York Times Magazine. And then there’s the advisory board, a 24-person roster that includes author and journalist Jonathan Alter; the Times’ Rukmini Callimachi, David Chen, Kate Zernike, and Karen Yourish; The New Yorker’s Ian Frazier; former Washington Post reporter Dale Russakoff; and AP vice president and managing editor Brian Carovillano. As Jodi Rudoren, editor in chief of The Forward and one of two former Times masthead editors who volunteered to join as an adviser, told me, “This group could either be the advisory board for the Montclair Local or the Pulitzer committee.”…

The Times could establish a sizable bureau within the town limits. Before departing the Times in 2018, former editorial page editor Andy Rosenthal says he was one of more than 100 employees who called Montclair home. A few years earlier, amid discussions about the newsroom’s emergency contingency plans, Rosenthal says the late editor Janet Elder “got this brilliant idea” to do “a zip code search of the personnel list” for Montclair. “And there were 124 of us, staffers and their families,” according to Rosenthal….

I realized I’d arrived when I saw a sign declaring Montclair a “stigma-free town.” Pride flags adorned storefront windows and “Black Lives Matter” and “Stop AAPI Hate” signs decorated doors; Upper Montclair’s St. James church had all of the above. Watchung Booksellers had reminders for a “Nasty Women” book club and another on climate change. “People do try here—sometimes overly sincerely,” Rosenthal told me….

Before the pandemic, Times staffers living in Montclair were still nominally New Yorkers. They spent most of their day in Midtown and returned home in the evening, often via the Port Authority terminal. Sometimes they weren’t even eating dinner in Montclair; it was, quite literally, a bedroom community. Now, no longer commuting to their respective seats in the bullpen like the semi-happy journalistic family they once were, some wax poetic about the glory days on N.J. Transit. “I actually got to know a bunch of colleagues and others in media just by being on the same train or even in the same car,” one current Times staffer told me….

For journalists, a selling point is the relatively easy commute to the city. With service direct to Port Authority—across the street from the Times building—the No. 33 and No. 66 DeCamp buses were, in the pre-pandemic days of yore, something like Gray Lady shuttles. “You’re divided whether you take the 33 or 66 home to Montclair,” Rosenthal said, a sentiment echoed by a few Montclarions formerly of the Times. “The 33 was like, David Halbfinger, Marc Lacey,and a bunch of others. And then there was Jake Silverstein on the 66,” said one. “Everyone pretends they don’t really recognize each other unless you want to. It worked out.”

Which is not to say the swath of current and former Times staffers in Montclair haven’t socialized over the years. A dinner party called the “Times Women of Montclair” was briefly a thing. Rudoren says she “lived in all of the New York Times ghettos” over the course of her 21-year run and ended up in Montclair “almost entirely” because “we knew all these Times people who told us all these great things about it.”…

“The toehold of The New York Times in Montclair,” according to Rosenthal, is David Jones, 88, a retired top editor who’s lived there for 49 years. Jones—who seemed bemused by my high-priority investigative work—told me he’s heard himself termed as such, but wouldn’t go quite that far. “I certainly have not been employed by the Chamber of Commerce,” he said with a laugh. But he and his wife “found it a fascinating, interesting, congenial community, and whenever anybody would ask us we’d say that. And I guess a lot of people asked us.” Rosenthal, to name one, says Jones is “the guy who got me to move to Montclair” when he was looking for places in the late ’90s….

Diversity is also attractive to residents, with nearly a quarter of the town’s population Black, according to the latest census estimate. Jonathan Alter, an MSNBC political analyst and author, most recently of a Jimmy Carter biography, described himself as someone “at the front end of what became a trend” of journalists “wanting to move there, in part for an integrated experience.” But, he notes, “there’s now an affordable housing problem in Montclair.” McGee-Colbert recalled “anecdotal evidence from real estate agents that we know that people come here knowing about the film festival, the media presence,” making it “sort of a self-perpetuating process because like-minded people keep coming.”…

Another draw for journalists is a hometown paper. A young tech executive with virtually no background in journalism, Heeten Choxi in 2016 watched as The Montclair Times—the local paper of record for more than 100 years—was acquired and sawed up by Gannett, which began to regionalize and generalize the coverage. “I felt like if the local newspaper went away it would change Montclair forever,” he said. Choxi figured “with a little bit of time and a little bit of seed capital” he could probably get a new paper going.

“I took Heeten out to lunch and said, ‘I heard you’re going to start a new newspaper,’ and he said yes. I said, ‘Are you crazy?’” Jones recalls, adding: “Fortunately for Montclair, he was crazy.” Choxi and his wife have personally put hundreds of thousands of dollars into the Montclair Local over the past few years. Doing so while also working a day job and paying their own bills “required some creativity to figure out”—including a cash-out refinance on their home. “Early on it kind of felt like I had two jobs,” he says, something he did “for basically as long as I could” before the LLC made the transition to a nonprofit….

Journalists have gotten involved in varying capacities. Dale Russakoff, a former Washington Post reporter who wrote a book on education—and is married to New York Times deputy managing editor Matt Purdy—recently helped the Local vet a number of allegations described in a whistleblower letter written by a school supervisor, Hochman recalls….

“Prior to becoming a nonprofit, the journalists in our town were really not that engaged in the paper,” says Local board president Matthew Frankel, a communications strategist who, along with Jones and Choxi, helped put together the governing and advisory boards. “It matters when you go to a foundation and you have the editor in chief of The New York Times Magazine not just sitting on our board but advocating for the Local,” Frankel told me….

That leap of faith has thus far paid off, at least from a membership perspective. As governing board member Kathleen Carroll put it to me, “Wouldn’t it be ridiculous if a town that was full of journalists from all these organizations, and full of wealthy people who say they care about this stuff, couldn’t support a local news organization?”

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