A Newspaper Was Planning Its Last Edition—Then the Press Caught Fire

From a New York Times story by Corey Kilgannon headlined “A Newspaper Was Planning Its Last Edition. Then the Press Caught Fire.”:

In 2017, a tech executive and his wife from New Jersey with a spare fortune to invest in local news and nostalgia started a weekly print newspaper covering their beloved Montclair, an affluent commuter town some 30 minutes from Manhattan.

As other regional and community papers were fading, Montclair Local popped up with a subscription price: $12 a year. It added a website and weekly email newsletters, and for seven years, it defied the odds. The press run grew to 3,500.

Every Thursday, mailboxes in town were fed 20 fresh pages of local coverage, from school board updates to rumblings of a new supermarket — and of course high school sports.

But print circulation costs were eating 40 percent of the budget, so last week, the Local’s board announced it would go online-only and merge with another online outlet, Baristanet. Its last print edition would come out the following Thursday, April 27.

The Local decided to go all out, with a 64-page whopper to be delivered — just as it was for its first-ever press run — to every house in Montclair.

“It’s our send-off issue, it’s much bigger than what we usually put out,” said its editor in chief, Carla Baranauckas.

Copy was filed and edited, headlines were written, pages were laid out. The issue would be sent to the printer at midnight on Tuesday.

But on Monday morning, Ms. Baranauckas received an email with some troubling news: There had been a fire at the printing plant in Rockaway, N.J.

Suddenly, the Local’s last edition was in jeopardy.

Though print newspapers have been fading for years, many older readers — and journalists — still cling to a fondness for them. Ms. Baranauckas said the Local’s print edition had some younger fans, too: children. “When they’re in the newspaper, they get a kick out of it,” she said.

Jennifer Dunne Keeney, a Broadway actress and Montclair resident currently appearing in “Chicago,” described the Local as “a tangible thing that gets you to focus on the space where you live.”

Her husband, Booth Keeney, is also a devoted reader. “The first thing I do on Thursday is go to the mailbox to see if the Local is in there,” he said.

The printing plant is run by Gannett, the newspaper chain behemoth that publishes USA Today and bought up a slew of community newspapers in and around Montclair, including the Montclair Times, a community staple printed since 1877.

Gannett would not comment on the Local’s situation but did release a statement saying that there were no injuries in the fire. “Two printing presses sustained damage and some production schedules were impacted,” it said.

For the Local, alternatives were scarce; it’s not so easy to find someone to print a newspaper these days. But Ms. Baranauckas was resolute.

“We will figure out a way to do it,” she said. “If I have to print it out on my home printer and walk it door to door, that’s what I’ll do.”

The Local was founded by Heeten Choxi, a tech executive, and his wife, Thalla-Marie Choxi, a lactation and sleep consultant, in the wake of Gannett’s takeover of the Montclair Times, which resulted in cuts to its coverage and staffing.

It was a bet on local news at a time when the press corps at the statehouse in Trenton was dwindling, and papers even in wealthy towns were shrinking.

But if anywhere could sustain a start-up local print outlet, it might be Montclair, a highly educated and politically engaged town of 37,000 whose residents have lots of disposable income. Many commute — or did, prepandemic — to jobs in newsrooms, television studios and publishing offices in Manhattan.

The Choxis spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on the Local, which became a nonprofit in 2021. After the couple moved away from Montclair in 2022, the Local was buoyed by more than $450,000 in contributions from local donors, the paper said.

The Local’s board is stocked with media and dot-com veterans from Google, Facebook and The New York Times, including a former masthead editor and the current editor of The New York Times Magazine. Ms. Baranauckas, the Local’s editor, spent 21 years at The Times and taught at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

The final print edition was to feature an article about Black firefighters suing Montclair alleging racial discrimination and a package on the Lackawanna Plaza redevelopment plan in town.

There was to be a special section on local spring activities, and crack coverage of the Little League parade. On the front page would be an article about the merger with Baristanet.

By Tuesday night, the pages were laid out and edited but had nowhere to go.

Then word came through that the presses that print The Star-Ledger could handle the Local’s print run — perhaps as soon as Wednesday — preserving hope that the final issue might still hit Montclair’s mailboxes on time.

Ms. Baranauckas plans to leave the paper after the merger. On Wednesday, after the pages had been sent to print, she called the mini-drama a testament to the persistence of a gritty local newspaper.

“It’s a weekly miracle,” she said. “Come hell or high water, we get the paper out.”

Corey Kilgannon is a Times Metro reporter covering news and human interest stories. He was also part of the team that won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news.

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