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August 13, 2019

How NJ Spotlight is filling gaps in New Jersey state policy news

This case study on how NJ Spotlight is filling gaps in New Jersey state policy news is from the Wyncote Foundation’s 2019 Building Stronger Communities Through Media report. It is the fourth in a series on innovations in local journalism, public media and storytelling we’re republishing with their permission and the permission of the authors.

In 2010, New Jersey journalists John Mooney, Lee Keough, and Tom Johnson launched NJ Spotlight, a news website focused on statewide policy and legislative coverage.

NJ Spotlight fills gaps in New Jersey state policy news left by newspaper closings.
Left: Founding Editor John Mooney discusses urban policy with Newark Mayor Ras J. Baraka. (Image by Amanda Brown). Right: NJ Spotlight roundtable. (Image courtesy of NJ Spotlight)

Just two years prior, amidst nationwide downturns in newspaper revenue, Newark’s The Star-Ledger eliminated a quarter of its news staff. Stepping up to fill the resulting coverage gaps, the founding journalists behind NJ Spotlight built on their decades of experience covering New Jersey beats like education and energy, and on their knowledge of the state’s policy history and its citizens’ information needs.

Above: an NJ Spotlight interactive map illustrating the cost of education in New Jersey, showing parents, administrators and the public per-pupil spending in each school district

Building on Experience

Seasoned reporters with established reputations and extensive networks were central to NJ Spotlight’s vigorous initial launch. In the glutted media market, Mooney notes, “You don’t have much of a runway to do this.” Carving out a niche of in-depth analysis and contextualization that is distinct from other daily publications, NJ Spotlight met receptive audiences early on.

Content experts and advocates frequently cite NJ Spotlight as a source for reliable, in-depth news on specific issues, like mental health.

The website has since become an important source for policymakers, businesses, advocates, community leaders, academics, activists, and New Jerseyans seeking relevant local reporting. NJ Spotlight has gained accolades and attention, even while challenged to move from start-up mode to sustainability. 

Partnerships and Diversification

A core sustainability strategy is building partnerships with other media outlets in the state and beyond, an approach that recently led to NJ Spotlight’s acquisition by WNET (Greater New York City’s PBS affiliate) in early 2019. NJ Spotlight will remain a separate entity, while collaborating to serve audiences across platforms, including broadcast video and other media.

Describing these media crossovers and NJ Spotlight’s existing live events and podcasts, Mooney compares content platforms to revenue streams. “You’ve got to diversify. Different people get things differently. Podcasts work for some, video works for some…and then you have people who will read 1,000 words. We create on all platforms because we realize we’ve got to. You can’t be a one-trick pony.”

NJ Spotlight’s deep coverage of New Jersey makes the organization attractive to funding partners seeking comprehensive analysis of topics such as healthcare, the environment, and education. As Mooney emphasizes, “We’re covering the issues they care about.”

At a Glance

  • Organization Type: News website
  • Operating Budget: Approximately $1 million in 2018
  • Key Funders: Community Foundation of New Jersey, The Fund for New Jersey, John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, William Penn Foundation, Wyncote Foundation
  • Contact: John Mooney, Chief Executive Officer and Founding Editor, jmooney (at) njspotlight.com

Related Links

About Wyncote Foundation

The Wyncote Foundation’s Public Media and Journalism Program is a place-based philanthropy in Philadelphia that works to further a thriving public media ecosystem that is vital to animating and sustaining democracy’s public sphere.

About the Author

Sarah Lutman wrote this case study about how NJ Spotlight is filling gaps in New Jersey state policy news

Sarah Lutman is founder of 8 Bridges Workshop, a St. Paul-based consulting and program development firm, and serves as senior advisor to Wyncote Foundation’s Public Media and Journalism Program.



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