In 2017, a New Jersey tech executive and his wife invested their spare cash in local news and nostalgia, starting a weekly print newspaper covering their beloved Montclair, a city about 30 minutes outside of Manhattan. An affluent commuter town within walking distance.
As other regional and community papers waned, Montclair Local popped up with a $12-a-month subscription. It added a website and a weekly email newsletter, and for seven years, it beat the odds. Printing presses increased to 3,500.
Every Thursday, 20 new pages of local coverage arrive in the town mailbox, from school board updates to the rumble of a new supermarket — and, of course, high school sports.
But newsprint is not kryptonite, and printing and distribution costs 40 percent of the budget. Last week, Local’s board announced it would be an online-only service and merge with another online store, Baristanet. Its final print issue will be published next Thursday, April 27.
The Local decided to go all out and deliver the 64-page whopper — as it was first ever printed — to every household in Montclair.
“This is our send-off issue, and it’s a much bigger issue than we normally post,” said its editor-in-chief, Carla Baranauckas.
Copy is filed and edited, titles are written, and pages are laid out. The issue will be sent to the printer at midnight on Tuesday.
But on Monday morning, Ms. Baranauckas received an email with some disturbing news: A fire broke out at a printing plant in Rockaway, New Jersey.
Suddenly, the last version of Local is in jeopardy.
Despite the decline of print newspapers over the years, many older readers — and journalists — still maintain a fondness for them. Ms. Baranauckas said the print edition of Local also has some younger fans: kids. “When they’re in the paper, they get a kick out of it,” she said.
The printing plant is run by Gannett, a giant newspaper chain that publishes USA Today and has acquired a number of community newspapers in and around Montclair, including the Montclair Times, the community’s premier newspaper, which has been in print since 1877.
Gannett would not comment on the situation at Local, but did issue a statement saying no one was injured in the fire. “Two printing presses were damaged and some production plans were affected,” it said.
For locals, there are few alternatives; finding someone to print newspapers is not easy these days. But Ms. Baranacas was determined.
“We’re going to find a way to do that,” she said. “If I had to print it out on my home printer and have it door-to-door delivered, that’s what I would do.”
Broadway actress Jennifer Dunn-Keeney, who currently stars in “Chicago,” and her husband, documentary filmmaker Booth Keaney, say they are loyal readers.
“The first thing I did on Thursday was go to the mailbox to see if Local was in there,” Mr Keeney said.
Ms. Dunne Keeney calls it “the tangible thing that lets you focus on the space you live in.”
The Local was founded by technology executive Heeten Choxi and his wife Thalla-Marie Choxi after Gannett took over the Montclair Times, which led to cuts to its coverage and staff.
It’s a bet on local news at a time when the press corps at the Trenton state capitol is shrinking and even newspapers in wealthy towns are shrinking.
But if anywhere can sustain a start-up local print shop, it’s probably Montclair, a highly educated and politically active town of 37,000 whose residents have plenty of disposable income. Many work in Manhattan newsrooms, TV studios and publishing houses, or commuted before the pandemic.
The Choxis have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on Local, which became a nonprofit in 2021. After the couple moves out of Montclair in 2022, Local is supported by donations of more than $450,000 from local donors, the newspaper said.
The Local’s board includes media and internet veterans from places like Google, Facebook and The New York Times, including a former masthead editor and current New York Times Magazine editor. Local’s editor, Ms. Baranauckas, has been with The Times for 21 years and teaches at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.
The final print edition featured an article about a black firefighter suing Montclair alleging racial discrimination, and a package about the town’s Lackawana Square redevelopment plan.
There will be a special section on local spring events, as well as great coverage of the Little League parade. There will be an article on the front page about the merger with Baristanet.
By Tuesday night, the pages were laid out and edited, but going nowhere.
Then word came that the presses printing The Ledger could handle the local prints — possibly as soon as Wednesday — keeping hope that the final issue might still arrive in Montclair’s mailbox on time.
Ms Baranauckas plans to leave the paper following the merger. On Wednesday, after those pages went to press, she called the miniseries a testament to the persistence of a gritty local paper.
“It’s a weekly miracle,” she said. “Come on hell or high water, let’s get the paper out.”