by Phil Stilton
NEPTUNE-The Asbury Park Press was once a national leader in online news delivery.
It was 1995, then publisher, Jules Plangere Jr., an aging newspaper man had a vision, along with his son Jules, III–To be one of the first newspapers in America to deliver news daily online.
The project was called “IN Jersey”. The team operated inside an old warehouse across the street from the company’s Neptune headquarters. Both buildings are gone now, but in the late 1990’s the Asbury Park Press was a cutting edge technology company, buzzing with technology and oozing with excitement.
IN Jersey was run by Diane Burley and John Lott, two people who shared the Plangere’s vision. The Plangeres let the pair run the company as most dot-com companies were run. We had budgets to develop cool gizmos and gadgets galore. The Asbury Park Press was a true internet pioneer, like no other newspaper in America.
Burley built a team with a generous mix of seasoned and young energetic programmers, while Lott managed the company’s new statewide dial-up internet that service connected readers to the paper’s new online venture.
We had people on staff like Stanton Fisque who was sort of like our odd company mascot and go to guy at the same time. Stan could program anything out of thin air and he could solve almost any technical roadblock you dropped on his desk.
Eventually once the platform, designed by former Bell Labs whizz kids Ken Kruse and Greg Phelan was stable, online reporters and editors were hired. The warehouse began to fill and expand. Network engineers Steve Passalacqua and Anissa Stone singlehandedly managed the company’s many points of presence and statewide internet backbone.
On the newspaper side, Paul Lamhutt was the mad scientist of a systems engineer who knew how to connect the editors using the newspaper’s archaic roadrunner news terminals and windows 3.1 operating systems to the Solaris servers and Oracle databases that powered the company’s website. Paul designed systems that would allow editors to send a story to print layout and publish it online with a single mouse click. For the era, it was a revolutionary concept when the even the simplest task would sometimes require lines of code and macros.
IN Jersey was the state’s first “hyperlocal” news service, quite arguably the first in the nation. It launched with Freehold.InJersey and quickly expanded to many other towns.
Keep in mind, this was over 15 years before AOL launched Patch. The Asbury Park Press’ technology initiative was lightyears ahead of the Star Ledger’s NJ.Com project.
As a young whiz kid, I always thought Diane Burley was a bit corny when she said, “One day, we’ll look back and be seen as New Jersey’s Internet news pioneers.” Today, I get it. While as young adults, our skills were way beyond what we were doing at the Asbury Park Press, we never really appreciated the size of the technological eight ball Diane and John had to deal with every day. Nor did we understand the resistance they received from the lifelong newspaper guys who might not have fully embraced…the Internet or shared the same expensive high-tech vision of the Plangeres.
Everything was going great. The great sales team at IN Jersey worked well with the existing newspaper sales team at the Asbury Park Press. Bill Meyers and Bill Leitner were our GQ model salesmen who swept customer after customer off their feet. Linda Goodgold was the rock that managed a tight ship when it came to her sales team.
Major corporations were lining up to be a part of the future of news in New Jersey. There was always a line of design work waiting for Christine Harrington and Ralph Rivera’s off shoot enterprise, Neptune Interactive Design. They were the creative and visual artists of the project, designing everything from online user interface components of the news website to full websites for the growing base of customers.
IN Jersey grew…and grew…and it was excitingly popular with the paper’s customers. We were experimenting with all sorts of new technology, streaming audio servers for NJ 101.5, video, commercial broadcasting technology and much more. It was essentially a miniature version of Bell Labs. Life was great for all of us, except on those days when John and Diane woke up on the wrong side of the bed or just got out of a belittling conference meeting with the paper’s oldguard executive board.
IN Jersey was the future of the news industry and way ahead of its time. We were working on all kinds of innovative and interactive projects built to engage readers and for the first time ever, in the history of the industry, allow everyday people to create news, discuss the news and interact with each other online.
We were working on everything that made the most diehard cigar and pipe smoking old-school newspaper executive cringe…except the Plangeres, who loved the technology and supported us youngins with every available penny they could spare for research and development.
Jules III, was like a kid in a candy store when we showed off our latest widgets and updates that would enhance his vision of online news.
Then, August 7, 1997 happened.
The Plangeres and their partners sold the newspaper to Gannett. Jules Jr, recently deceased and the partners decided it was time to get out of the newspaper business. Gannett, a newspaper company, descended upon the Asbury Park Press like a conquering imperial army eager to rape and pillage whatever they wanted. It was like the opening scene of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, but with a much shorter version of Kylo Ren leading the charge.
Robert Collins replaced Plangere as the publisher. He quickly assembled the entire company in the cafeteria within the Neptune headquarters. He was all of about 5 foot nothing, climbed up on a table and introduced himself. He was very Napoleonic.
“The Internet is a fad,” Collins told the stunned group of reporters, editors and technology gurus. “We are a newspaper and we are going to survive by being a newspaper. All this internet stuff is going away. The future of news is not online, but in the newspaper.”
He started talking about razor thin profits, bottom lines, 2%, 4%, whatever, we didn’t really care, we were the all-stars and he was just some old guy blowing wind to be heard, but it eventually set in.
It was a kick in the balls…even for the women. It was as if every last molecule of oxygen was being sucked out of the room as he blabbed away about ink and print and delivery trucks. The more he spoke, the harder it became to breath. He made us sick. Not that we were worried about our jobs, because those were ours for the taking at that point in history, but because we knew he was throwing the future of the company into the box of newspaper misprints on the pressroom floor.
Needless to say, many resumes had the dust blown off them that week. I was gone by December and in January joined Kruse and Phelan at their even more exciting technology shop in Red Bank, ePresence.
After that day, Gannett began systematically disassembling what the Plangeres, Lott, Burley, Lamhut, Kruse, Goodgold, newsroom editor Bob Kern and the others had built. They sold off InJersey’s internet provider service to Infinet, just to get rid of it. By the spring of 1998, the IN Jersey building was vacant and only a small skeleton crew remained squirreled away in a corner on the newsroom’s third floor.
The Star Ledger quickly surpassed the Asbury Park Press, becoming the number one source of online news as Gannett literally folded their hand in the online news card game.
IN Jersey eventually died and was later resurrected as some sort of Madison Avenue magazine geared towards God knows who of a target audience that also failed.
Back then, we didn’t call it “Hyperlocal”, we called it “local news” and “community news”, but that died too, never to resurface again until AOL unsuccessfully tried to recreate local news from the top down. We had already created from the bottom up 15 years prior. Gannett began closing community news offices and continued ripping the heart out of what had made the paper great for nearly a century, the reporters working in the neighborhoods.
Now, the Asbury Park Press is struggling more than ever after multiple rounds of layoffs. They’re now staring down the barrel of a very loaded shotgun as New Jersey lawmakers are threatening to take away their government funded public notice life support.
“We’re really concerned,” said Hollis Towns, editor, in a New York Times interview today. “The impact will be devastating. It would entail potentially major losses. And it would mean that local politicians would no longer be required to post legal notices in a place where the majority of the public could see them.”
Towns, like every other newspaper editor in the state who wished with every last breath that print news has a viable future in the digital age, blamed Governor Chris Christie. Many of his peers called it an act of revenge against the media who has not been so nice to governor over the years. Who they fail to blame is themselves.
The Asbury Park Press lost their base over the past 20 years, not because “print is dead”, but because they abandoned the communities they once proudly served. Gannett lost a golden opportunity to be a global leader in digital media the day their publisher declared the internet a fad. They have alienated their reader base with an anti-cop agenda, an anti-conservative platform and a basic disconnect with their reader base in Ocean County.
They abandoned nearly every principle the Plangeres instilled in their editors, to deliver fair, balanced and engaging community news. Instead, they focused, like their liberal peers, on divisive news, clickbaiting and ridiculously agenda driven “watchdog” reporting that usually targets police, school officials, religious communities, Republicans, conservatives and pretty much anyone who they don’t like or agree with.
They apparently have put too many of their eggs in the public notice basket, a disservice to the dedicated, hard working reporters who stuck around and continued to pound the pavement looking for great stories in the community every day, now being pushed to drive clicks instead of uncovering exciting and engaging news stories. They systematically executed their aging and experienced veterans with inexperienced snowflakes who seemingly operate without any supervision at all.
To blame the governor for their failure, twenty years after they dropped the ball is not only a disservice to their employees, but a disservice to their readers.
To claim to be the government watchdog, yet moan and groan when the government wants to end their own double dipping is laughable at best. They charge the taxpayer on one end to publish the notices and the reader on the other end to read the notices. There is nothing free about that kind of free press.
To think this day wasn’t coming and never planning for it is their own fault. Stop telling us we, as taxpayers should pay to read these public notices. Stop telling us how you want to increase the rates to New Jersey businesses who are already having a tough time and lying about how only high powered engineers will be affected. You know as well as we do that they will pass those costs down to the homeowners still trying to raise their homes and repair after Hurricane Sandy. The ones who pay will be the family who saved to buy a new swimming pool, to put an addition on their home or maybe a handicapped accessible extension for an elderly family member who can no longer afford to live alone in New Jersey.
Their compromise of lowering municipal rates and increasing the applicant rates was nothing but a new business tax and an additional tax on the people of New Jersey.
Your double dipping of government funds needs to end immediately. It’s 2016. Not 1916.