Journalism 101, Community Newspapers, gathers for the fourth and final lecture of the spring term. We have discussed what an editor looks for in a story, how he or she constructs a single issue, and what factors should be considered in evaluating a publication viewed over several weeks or months. Last week we put U.S. 1 under the microscope and gave it an A overall, with a few points off for being a little too predictable and falling a little short of its "U.S. Fun" alter ego.
This week we conclude with mini-reviews of the rest of papers in our area. Our position is anything but impartial, and our impressions are just that, impressions, not scientific data. But the same could be said of any number of theater critics who have worked at various papers over the years. It doesn’t stop them and it won’t stop us.
The Times and the Trentonian. We begin with the dailies that come from a rare city that has two competing daily newspapers.
Recalling last week’s column, in which we noted that newspapers often have nicknames, we have to report that the Trentonian is still the Trash-tonian in many minds. Sex, crime, and scandal are the mainstays of the editorial content of the Trentonian, but the formula seems to be losing ground just as surely as blue collar workers are being replaced by computer nerds.
Meanwhile the Trentonian duels with its considerably larger competitor, known years ago as Trenton’s Fine. In fact the old Trenton Evening Times has given up both the evening and the Trenton part of its title (more insulting to the city of Trenton, in my view, than Trenton State College changing its name to College of New Jersey). But to its credit, the Times of Trenton (as I refer to it) has maintained a decent amount of municipal and sports coverage. The Times’s lead sports columnist, Harvey Yavener, has more institutional memory than all the other sports writers at all the other papers combined.
Both papers have their weaknesses. The Trentonian, which never shies away from controversy, nonetheless fills its editorial page with unsigned, phoned-in comments from readers — the comments often seem, well, phone-y. And the Trenton Times now charges by the word for obituaries. My guess is that some good stories are missed because the survivors do not want to be bothered by another bill.
The Princeton Packet, also known as the Princeton Package, produces a dozen different community newspapers through central New Jersey. Its flagship paper in Princeton has an awkward frequency: It’s semi-weekly, published Tuesdays and Fridays. It also has an awkward coverage area: Princeton Borough and Township, Montgomery, and West Windsor (and a little of Plainsboro). Nonetheless it delivers a substantial amount of municipal and sports news.
The Package includes an arts and entertainment section called Time Off, which many readers consider the most valuable part of the paper and which is rivaled only by U.S. 1’s own Preview section. It also has a biweekly (that’s every other week) business tabloid called the Princeton Business Journal that seems to drain business coverage from the regular publication. So why do they publish it? As a stalking horse ready to move in when and if U.S. 1 falters — that’s my guess.
The Town Topics, aka the Town Frolics. Despite the Packet’s high visibility and expensive look, the free circulation Town Topics is the paper that has dominated Princeton Borough and Township for many years. Two years ago the founding family sold the half-century old weekly to an ad sales representative and her husband, backed by a few other investors and architect Robert Hillier.
To the credit of the new owners, they have resisted the obvious temptation to redesign the entire publication. On the other hand they recently wrote a long piece about Bob Hillier without even acknowledging his involvement with the paper — not a sign of journalistic savvy. And after the President’s Day blizzard Town Topics failed to get its issue out until Thursday.
The West Windsor-Plainsboro News. Truth in reading: I started this free biweekly publication ("a driveway paper," as some derisively call it) in 2000, after two prior incarnations of a community paper there went out of business. Despite the obvious business challenge to this endeavor, I give the new paper high marks for coverage of school sports and people and for previewing worthwhile events.
Its municipal coverage would be more consistent if the paper came out once a week. In the meantime the paper deserves credit for refraining from taking sides in the vociferous battles that have been waged in this outwardly placid suburban environment. In the beginning some of us at U.S. 1 worried that our little sister would be nothing more than a collection of bake sale stories. We even gave it a nickname: The WW-P Snooze. But in fact the paper has not yet covered a single bake sale. My prediction: The Snooze is a sleeper, and when it fully awakens it may surprise some people.