Wednesday, October 8, 2008

redbankgreen

Following up on downtown Red Bank and the former Register, there's a site called redbankgreen that deserves a look as an unheralded attempt (at least to me, but it's certainly not like the widely noticed New Haven etc. sites) to provide community news online. It is run by a couple -- he's a journalist, she's a graphic designer. Here's what they covered on Oct. 1 when I looked at it --

1. Some sort of railroad propane problem in Little Silver that tied up traffic. The initial report: "A leaking propane tank in the vicinity of the Little Silver train station is causing road and rail backups in Red Bank, according police radio transmissions. A train that's been reported to have been sitting in the Red Bank station for more than 20 minutes is causing a tie-up at Monmouth Street, according to the report." The site was doing posts every 20 minutes or so -- "5:45p: Branch Avenue in Little Silver remains closed as far north as Markham Place. 6:13p: We're still unable to get any information about the propane leak from the Little Silver Police Department, which is on the scene."
2. Man on the street interviews about the financial crisis, followed by comments of the usual sort. Pictures of all people interviewed.
3. A standalone photo of the pretty sort we all used to run on the front page back when it took three days to do color separations. Nice photo, though.

And a series of continuing references to a newer site called Red Bank oRBit, which describes itself as "a companion website to redbankgreen, delivering news, information and feature stories about all manner of amusements and culture in the verdant slice of northern Monmouth County, New Jersey that we call The Green. It is updated on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Red Bank oRBit exists because there’s just too much fun and mind-expanding stuff going on in these parts to fit into redbankgreen. It’s branded differently from its sibling website because, well, it insisted on it." What that means, exactly, I don't know. The couple works for this site as well, but it also has its own editor. Its emphasis is clearly the arts community, which has become quite large in Red Bank due to the Count Basie theater and, well, a lot of disposable income nearby.

The sites on the day I visited looked to have about 20 advertisers (I did a couple of refreshes to see if they changed) with the equivalent of newspaper contract ads. Clicking on them takes you to a Web site for the advertiser, which I suspect is hosted by redbankgreen. (To me this redbankgreen and Red Bank oRBit with a capitalized RB stuff is too cute by half, but that's just me.)

So I'm sitting here thinking:
1. Boy, you had to be a complete idiot to blow a daily newspaper franchise in this sort of market in the late 1980s. This is where Bell Labs was, for heaven's sake. Yet the Register did.
2. But how did they? Probably that they were close enough to New York and Newark that people who were looking for big news took those papers. The merchants around the malls would have put most of their inserts into the Asbury Park Press, which covered the entire county. Newspapers with sub-county-level circulation always have trouble because circulation is reported by county instead of by local trade area, so you can have 80 percent penetration in your area and 15 percent in the county as a whole and look like a weak sister. All you were left with was the merchants just in Red Bank, who by the late 1980s were probably still reeling from the mall down the road at Eatontown. (Red Bank had not yet been fully reborn as an arts center yet.)
3. In this case, regardless of county lines, the fact was that the Register was physically located less than 10 miles from the Press. Hard not to see them as direct competitors.
4. The problem of all suburban dailies. Red Bank, Fair Haven, Little Silver and Rumson are historically one unit, and what interests one interests all, but go eight more miles to Atlantic Highlands and they could give a darn about Red Bank. The propane problem in Little Silver was important if you lived near there or were driving around Red Bank; five miles away it was irrelevant unless it exploded and took part of Little Silver with it. In the Red Bank Register's case it didn't even have county government to itself as a common theme. You were just trying to shove enough local-local into the paper to appeal to someone in every town.

Speaking personally I would never care enough about local news to bother with something like redbankgreen, with its journalist wandering about and posting updates from the police scanner and asking Joe Smith what he thinks of the bailout. But then I don't use the computer flipping back and forth among five or six sites running at the same time (my problem with Facebook, Twitter, etc., which makes me so 20th-century). I can see my having more use for an arts-oriented site in terms of checking in once a week to see what to do for the weekend. On the other hand, for people whose lives revolve around the town in which they live -- whether in real terms or just in their own heads ("everyone looks at this to follow my comments on government waste!") -- this sort of thing works well.

This may be the future of local journalism, and if it is, fine, but rather than knocking it on its own terms, all I can say is that it would never have drawn me into journalism as a career in the way newspapers did. But then, I'm not growing up today. On the other hand, it is the local-local that readers want, and at my first paper as a reporter I did man on the street stuff and many a story on what ultimately was a nonevent and people liked those stories just fine. It just seems to lack a certain gravitas. If redbankgreen wants to rise up against the depredations of the Red Bank government, to be the civic conscience and scold, can it? Or is it just to be dismissed as "Joe Blow and his redbankgreen site, snicker, snicker."

1 comment:

Ex-Reg said...

I was there when The Register went down as a daily in '89 (it didn't "just disappear"; it had a brief run as a weekly, a format that owner Greater Media was more comfortable with anyway). I wasn't there a decade earlier when the moves that killed it were made, but I learned about them from older colleagues:

(1) At or near the peak of its circulation (probably in the late '70s), it covered the northern/coastal half of Monmouth County, from Raritan Bay down to Long Branch (at least after the Long Branch paper died). But at a time when the inland county building boom was just gaining momentum, its management made a conscious decision not to try for a foothold in that territory. Its larger (and last remaining) local rival, the Asbury Park Press, did go there, and got a lock on the area. Then it beefed up its Northern Monmouth zone and went just as aggressively after the Reg's own territory, too.

(2) The ownership changes, particularly to Capital Cities around 1980. Cap Cities unleashed layoffs at a level that would be disturbingly familiar to newspaper people today. That put the paper in a tailspin that the two subsequent owners couldn't pull it out of.

But had neither of those things happened, the paper would probably still be just a memory today -- it was, sadly, just too small an operation in too big a media metro area, especially when one of its bigger competitors was nearly as "local" as the Reg was. Peak circulation was around 30,000, and by the time it stopped daily publication, that had fallen to around 19K at best.

I wish it hadn't happened, but it's not rosy these days at the Gannett-owned Press either, so I can't imagine what a modern-day Register would be facing.