I am writing today about something I think is vitally important to our community. It has nothing to do with food. Much as that topic is near and dear to my heart, even more so is the importance of a vibrant free press to our democratic society.
It’s hard times in the print newspaper business. Even my beloved Packet, to which I remain a stubbornly loyal freelancer (and paid subscriber), has suffered, as has the Times of Trenton, and virtually every other print publication out there that relies on subscribers and advertisers to exist.
Of course, we all say the future of media is on the Internet, but guess what – most newspapers still haven’t been able to make money selling Internet advertising, at least not enough to support a big news room and the kind of government and investigative reporting that we need. (Good articles on this situation are here and here.) As if that wasn’t bad enough, they must compete with the other bazillion sources of online news, blogs, news consolidating sites, you name it.
Circling back to Princeton, you may have noticed the hyper-local online news outlet Planet Princeton emerging in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene, thanks to founder/publisher Krystal Knapp (photo above). I can’t remember how I first came across the site, but all of a sudden here was amazingly up-to-date information on power outages, etc. What a boon! And during Sandy’s aftermath, even more so, with constantly updated lists of road and school closures, and more.
Since then, Planet Princeton’s coverage and readership has grown, and I have come to rely heavily on them (especially their Twitter feed) to alert me to the latest news and cultural events in and around Princeton. Just the other day, as I set off for something, I noticed they’d reported (via Twitter) an accident that had closed down a local road, so I was able to avoid that mess. Eventually I did get a Police alert (register for those at Nixle), but Planet Princeton had it first, thanks in large part to so many locals tweeting information to them all the time, i.e. we, the readers, are contributing to their mission and success. Community participation – what a concept!
There has been real investigative reporting too. It was Planet Princeton that first reported the downtown parking meter scam, and Nancy Snyderman’s violation of quarantine. Eventually Ms. Knapp’s role in the latter even made the national news outlets (normally very loathe to credit an independent online source) and she was interviewed on CNN. These stories were in response to reader tips. When citizens see a problem, they tell her, because they know she’ll be on it, and in a professional way. She has the ability to nimbly respond to local concerns, and she’s got years of journalism experience, including a decade at The Times of Trenton. (For a fuller rundown of her impressive professional background, see here.) There’s also been some in-depth guest commentary along the way, for instance on environmental and housing topics. When regional news impacts Princeton, that is also covered.
So far Planet Princeton has been “a labor of love,” free of charge, providing a valuable community service.
But Ms. Knapp knows she needs to take it to the next level to succeed long term. So she’s launched an online crowdfunding campaign to raise $35,000 in order to support public records requests (yes, that costs money), technology, increased investigative reporting, and (at the request of readers such as myself), a community forum on depression and suicide. She’s already over 25% funded, and should she exceed her goal she’ll hire an education reporter. And guess what – a Planet Trenton is also in the works, and isn’t that a wonderful thing for our state’s beleaguered capital city, in so much need of revitalization – and a bright light shone on their inner workings.
I think Planet Princeton has become vitally important to the Princeton community. If you agree, I urge you to support them, whether you can give a little or a lot. You’ll feel such a sense of accomplishment and ownership the next time they break a big story that actually means something to our community – or even just tell you what to expect on your morning commute.