Montclair Local’s board of trustees announced today that the independent non-profit news organization is merging with the pioneering digital outlet Baristanet. Uniting two strong local organizations will give readers a richer menu of stories and services, the board said. 

The combined organization will continue to operate as Montclair Local and become an all-digital news operation that will deliver Baristanet and Local content and advertising through a new website and newsletters.  

Liz George, Baristanet’s longtime publisher and editor and a nationally recognized digital news leader, will become publisher of the new Montclair Local, reporting to the Local’s board. 

The board also announced that the April 27, 2023, print edition of Montclair Local will be the last. Putting out a print edition consumed more than 40 percent of the Local’s revenue from donors and advertisers, and trustees concluded it was better to spend the Local’s funds to generate more stories. 

“Despite challenges for local news outlets everywhere, Baristanet and Montclair Local have grown based on their individual strengths,” said Ollie Hartsfield, who chairs the Local’s board of trustees. “This move creates a digital news powerhouse committed to serving their combined audiences.

“Liz George is a nationally recognized digital leader with deep roots in Montclair. She has a keen eye for stories that resonate and a proven record of business success. She is exactly the right person to lead this exciting new chapter,” Hartsfield said. 

“Baristanet has been successful in developing, engaging and retaining a vibrant, online community for more than 18 years.” George said. “It’s exciting to bring that experience to the Montclair Local, which has distinguished itself in award-winning reporting and brings with it a wealth of community support for its mission.”

As the Local’s trustees explored ways to expand Montclair Local’s digital reach, they saw an opportunity to acquire Baristanet’s robust digital assets and unite as a single news organization under George, an accomplished leader. A one-time donation from trustee Jonathan Bellack made the transaction possible.

George joined Baristanet shortly after it was founded in 2004. Under her leadership, Baristanet’s audience has grown to more than 70,000 monthly users who engage with Baristanet’s comprehensive coverage of Montclair and surrounding Essex County on the site and on social media. Baristanet is sustained by a diverse group of local advertisers as well as reader supporters. 

George and her husband moved to Montclair in December 2003 and their son and daughter went through Montclair public schools. George has deep connections with readers and Montclair residents, interacting with them virtually and in person. She can often be found at local restaurants, bookstores and events and out looking for good story ideas. She takes the helm in June. 

Montclair Local and Baristanet specialize in different kinds of news coverage but there is some overlap, particularly on breaking news and cultural events. Joining the two organizations will end that duplication, creating opportunities to find stories and issues that aren’t now being covered – and deliver them all in one place. 

Integrating the two operations will take place over the spring and early summer. At first, each will maintain their existing web sites, with Baristanet and Montclair Local, continuing to distribute the stories and features that people rely on. 

George will lead the work to create a new digital site and other offerings combining the content and features of both organizations, expected to debut this summer. Once the transition kinks have been smoothed, readers can expect to see some of the new features that George envisions. 

“I’m excited about having the support, resources and wealth of knowledge that the Montclair Local board brings to this combined organization, and with it, the ability to think bigger and execute on ideas to enhance news delivery and go deeper in our reporting,” George said. 

Hartsfield added: “Our ultimate goal is to nurture a strong, independent local news organization that covers the important news and activities across town, highlights voices from the diverse communities and organizations across all of Montclair, and seeks out collaborations that help build community.”

The decision to go all-digital

The Local was founded in 2017 by Heeten and Thalla-Marie Choxi, newcomers to Montclair who believed in the power of local news organizations to inform people and encourage them to engage with one another. The Local began as a weekly print newspaper and later added a website and weekly newsletters. 

The Choxis personally funded Montclair Local in the initial years, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to launch and sustain it. They remained the Local’s largest donors after it became a nonprofit in 2021. The Choxis relocated to North Carolina with their five young children in 2022 and concluded their financial support for the Local. 

Contributions from the Local’s other donors exceeded $450,000 in 2022.

The Local’s trustees wanted to reach more people more effectively and knew the best way was to grow its digital reach. The print edition reached only 3,000 of the town’s 15,000 households each week and producing it consumed 40 percent of the Local’s budget, which is why the board decided to end print editions. 

To expand digitally, the trustees looked to one of the most respected hyper local news sites in the United States, Baristanet. It was founded in May 2004 by Debbie Galant and George became her partner a few months later. The two quickly became known for their creative stories, written with personality, and deep engagement with their readers and the people they cover. 

George became the sole publisher in 2012 and is credited with growing the audience while writing and editing stories about subjects as varied as government, development, real estate, restaurants and culture. She’s been a freelance author, a special sections editor at the New York Daily News and is also a licensed clinical social worker. 

“Together, the two organizations will be greater than the sum of their parts,” George said. “As one entity, we will further the journalistic integrity and mission of the Montclair Local while bringing in the expanded coverage that Baristanet readers count on.”

About Montclair Local and Baristanet

Montclair Local offers deep coverage of Montclair’s local government and schools as well as sports from all three high schools, cultural issues and residents doing things that make a difference. Readers can find Local stories online, on Facebook and in weekly news and sports newsletters. The work of Local journalists has won numerous awards from the New Jersey Press Association. 

Baristanet was one of the first hyperlocal digital news organizations in the country and the inspiration for numerous other local digital startups. It offers a wide range of stories, particularly about local businesses and restaurants, real estate, the arts and cultural activities and interesting people as well as the big news stories. It engages readers through a daily newsletter and other features.