by HEETEN CHOXI
Co-founder and publisher, Montclair Local
As a founder of Montclair Local, I’ve seen every week in our paper what makes this a great town. I’ve also seen issues and opportunities for us to work together to improve our community. Having a journalistic platform that helps us see what’s working and what isn’t was core to founding Montclair Local.
As a three-year-old organization, we have made a strong start. For example, our April 2017 story “Residents Struggle to Find Groceries After Pathmark’s Demise” triggered engagement and discussion on local issues affecting Fourth Ward residents, shed light on challenges some were facing that other parts of the town didn’t know about, and resulted in many people getting involved and taking action (which we continued to cover in following issues).
Since then, we have worked to make the Local an effective platform for helping members of the town hear each other’s stories, perspectives, and challenges. The quality of our journalism was recognized in 2019 by the NJ Press Association, which awarded us the General Excellence award, recognizing us as the best weekly newspaper in the state.
While we are doing some things well, we also see opportunities to improve and better achieve our mission to “Objectively Inform, Spark Dialogue, and Build Community.” Last year, we transitioned to becoming a nonprofit, community-owned and -supported institution. So far in 2020, with the pandemic, we have changed how our editorial team works to get news out faster on the topics you care most about.
We are also looking into how to evolve our opinion pages. Since our issue of April 23, 2020, where we published a Letter to the Editor headlined “Achievement gap skeptic,” we’ve read a number of different responses from our readers, which were published in the weeks following. Some letters criticized us, others recognized the importance of free speech, others still considered how publishing this letter shed light on the achievement gap and racism in Montclair.
For example, Karen Vrotsos and Mona Jha observed in their May 7 letter, “If we do not expose and acknowledge racism in our community, we cannot, individually or as a community, confront the underlying racist structure that thwarts the development of talent and intelligence in almost half of our student population.”
Eric Osborne asked in a letter in that same issue, “What is OUR role as members of the community? Is it to chastise them and worry about making the “best better,” or should we focus on making MONTCLAIR better?”
Montclair Local serves as a mirror for our township, helping us look at ourselves better. Just like the mirror I look into every morning, the Local provides an impersonal perspective. In order to do this, it’s important to keep the platform as open and neutral as possible. We don’t do this because we want to cause pain, or hurt, or malice. We do it because we think free speech is an important aspect of a healthy democracy. I believe keeping the platform as open and neutral as possible is the best way to serve our community.
Winston Churchill once said, “no one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” I think the same sentiment may apply to free speech. As tempting as it may be to only publish opinions we can comfortably agree with, this would distort the mirror the Local provides.
This doesn’t mean we can’t learn and improve how we handle opinion pieces. We’re actively looking into changes to both the platform and processes for opinion pieces to better serve the community and realize our mission. I look forward to hearing your ideas on how we can improve. Please reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org.