Nick Acocella is a baseball fan, but it’s hard to say that it’s his favorite game. He’s equally passionate about New Jersey politics, which he views as an endlessly fascinating clash of personalities. “Why baseball and New Jersey politics?” Acocella says. “The only answer I can give is that they are the two best spectator sports I know.” The faithful readers of his newsletter, Politifax, agree.
The quirky newsletter, which delivers political goings-on in a chatty tone, is now entering its 23rd year. The publication is so named because it was originally distributed by one of the highest tech forms of communication a quarter century ago, the fax machine. And although Politifax is now delivered weekly by e-mail, 15 subscribers still pay its annual $119 subscription fee to get it via facsimile.
Acocella will discuss the results of the June 4 New Jersey Assembly primary, the upcoming general election, and other political topics at an upcoming meeting of the Princeton Mercer Regional Chamber of Commerce on Thursday, June 6, from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. at Princeton Marriott Hotel. Tickets are $75, $50 for members. For more information, visit www.princetonmercerchamber.org.
The most recent four-page newsletter includes a “war news” column with the latest news and analysis on the battle between Governor Phil Murphy and South Jersey political boss George Norcross: “We’re not complaining, mind you. This is the sort of thing that keeps us in business. But we keep wondering what victory for either side looks like, especially if somebody wants the fight to continue. And the spillover into the budget battle won’t be pretty. Paralysis is the word that comes to mind.”
It also has a roundup from around the state, including the antics of the municipal governments in Trenton, where city council is suing the mayor to prevent his budget from going into effect, and Hamilton, where two of Mayor Kelly Yaede’s top supporters are facing charges over mismanaging the town animal shelter, and Yaede is facing a primary challenge from David Henderson, a “gadfly” with a history of making Islamophobic and misogynistic Facebook posts. “This gives new meaning to the gang that couldn’t shoot straight,” was Acocella’s diagnosis of the situation.
Acocella, now 76, grew up in Hudson County and was born in Margaret Hague Maternity Hospital, a building named after the mother of Frank Hague, the prominent politician who built it. “The babies there are just born political from the get-go,” he says. His father worked for Western Electric, and his mother owned a small embroidery company.
In 1952, when Acocella was 9, his uncle took him to Old-Timers’ Day at Yankee Stadium and from then on, he was hooked on baseball.
He left for college at age 17 and didn’t return to New Jersey until he was 50. He attended the University of California, Berkeley, where he says he was “the only student in the English department who owned shoes,” and later the University of Delaware. After college he became a freelance writer. He has written more than 20 books about baseball.
He first got the idea for a political newsletter in the 1970s. There were around half a dozen such publications around the country. “Back then you still had print and mail, which seemed daunting at the time, but I never did it.” He was also living in New York and realized that a statewide newsletter made little sense because people in Brooklyn didn’t care what was happening in Buffalo and vice-versa. But when he moved back to New Jersey, with its more interconnected political class, it was a different story. Today he lives in Hoboken.
He started Politifax in 1997, when only about a third of adults had a computer at home and even less than that used email. Faxing was the highest-tech viable way to do it. “It was bewildering to people that it could happen that way,” he says. To this day, Politifax has no website. To subscribe you have to call Acocella at 201-792-4204.
Now that fax machines are obsolete, Acocella often gets suggestions to change the name of his newsletter to something like “politimail.” Not only have faxes fallen by the wayside, but the name of his newsletter creates confusion between itself and Politifact, a fact-checking organization owned by the Washington Post. “People ask me if I’m owned by the Post,” he says. “I wish.”
As a weekly publication, Politifax rarely breaks news. Instead it specializes in opinion and analysis. As a business Politifax is a unique case. It goes against media trends when it comes to publication on the Internet. Other newspapers either offer their content online for free or put it behind a paywall. Acocella doesn’t think readers want to bother with logging in to a website to see the news. “I think that it’s easier. I don’t like to log in to things, I much prefer them just to appear.” In a way, Acocella was ahead of the curve on this issue, as email newsletters have seen a resurgence in recent years while traditional newspapers are struggling.
The audience for Politifax is elected officials, lobbyists, lawyers, people who run government agencies, and nonprofits. In other words, insiders. Early on a marketing consultant told Acocella it had to be “Nick talking to his friends.” The newsletter incorporates the feedback that Acocella gets from his readers. In another break from journalistic tradition, he never quotes his well connected sources by name, instead printing only anonymous comments. Corrections are candid and frequent.
And while the newsletter can be opinionated, Acocella says it’s neither partisan nor ideological. “I make fun of people sometimes. Some of them take offense and say they’ll never talk to me again. The smart ones say, ‘You really got me. Now let me tell you about the other so and so…’ That’s how many sources and friends over the years have come about.”
The items in the newsletter are rarely about policy or legislation. Instead, Acocella revels in the statewide and local conflicts between politicians. The biggest story currently, of course, is the Murphy vs. Norcross battle, which Acocella believes might be the biggest story of the last 15 years.
In addition to putting the newsletter out every week, Acocella hosts a show on NJTV called Pasta & Politics, where political figures banter with him while attempting to cook a dish. The best political chef so far: Republican state chairman Doug Steinhardt, who Acocella says is “a serious cook.” The worst: Former governor Dick Cody. “He was just inept. He didn’t know what end of the knife to hold.”
With more media being presented on Facebook and Twitter and other social media platforms, can we expect a Politifax Snapchat account any time soon? Absolutely not. “I don’t even carry a cell phone,” Acocella says. “There is no possibility that you will ever find me on Instagram or any of those things.”