In November 2016, Heeten Choxi, who was then a senior vice president and the manager of the software engineering team at Two Sigma, connected with Gwen Orel, a local journalist, on a Facebook thread lamenting the fate of The Montclair Times after Gannett acquired the paper and laid off its first round of reporters. When this happened, most of the reporters covering Montclair were let go or reassigned. This was followed by additional layoffs, the immediate result of which was a marked decrease in hyperlocal coverage as well as a twelve percent increase in stories that were not about Montclair in The Montclair Times. Gwen, Heeten, and many others in the community were saddened by this state of affairs and trying to decide what to do about it.
Through Gwen, Heeten, and his wife, Thalla-Marie Choxi, began meeting with a group of journalists who had left the Times (some of them in protest). This group included Kevin Meacham (the first editor of the Local); Andrew Garda; Linda Moss; Gwen Orel and others. Neither Heeten or Thalla-Marie had any journalism experience, but they went all in, and became publishers of the Local. The Choxis’ motivations were never materialistic and they had no ambitions to make money on the paper. Remembers Heeten Choxi: “In a town as diverse as Montclair, the local paper provided oversight and a commonality of perspective which functioned as a unifying force for this town. The paper kept people engaged in what’s going on here, and that helped build a stronger community. That was something we cared deeply about preserving.”
The Choxi family has invested hundreds of thousands of dollars of their own fortune, and many late-night hours, in the paper every year. Their commitment to saving local journalism in Montclair stems from their deep belief in keeping communities connected, a tenant of their Bahai faith. The Bahai religion, a two-hundred-year old religion that is the fastest growing faith in the world, teaches that all human beings are equal and connected to each other. Says Heeten Choxi, who is now an Engineering Manager at Google, “In this, the technological age, the internet was supposed to make us more connected than ever. Instead, it has fragmented our perspectives and made us more isolated than ever. Humanity needs mechanisms that help people from different backgrounds, with different perspectives, work together. There is no more powerful force for creating a collective and united identity for a town than a local paper. That’s why we got involved.”
The Choxi family has given us the gift of a robust, award-winning, local, independent paper; a platform that educates us and binds us together as we fight for the good of this town. They have given us a start. This kind of journalism is only sustainable if we all take ownership over it.
Montclair Local in 2021 transferred all operations from its LLC to the Montclair Local Nonprofit, where Heeten serves as chairman of the governing board. The Choxi family’s continued donations to Montclair Local, and yours, continue to make this news operation possible.