Declining ad revenue and a tough economy led to hard times for news organizations in New Jersey. Rounds of layoffs at the Star-Ledger - which is one of the primary sources of news from New Jersey's statehouse - had led to deep cuts in coverage of important public policy issues.
But could a small organization - with a website and a staff of four - really make a difference?
Reporter John Mooney, who had spent many years covering New Jersey's statehouse as a reporter, and Hans Dekker, of the New Jersey Community Foundation, were willing to give it a try.
Only a week after the site launched, the Spotlight reporting team published a story about misuse of funds at a public utility company that triggered a state Attorney General investigation.
Success had its own rewards and challenges, says Dekker. "One of the challenges of funding a journalism organization is that you might end up funding coverage that makes some donors uncomfortable."
Dekker said that an early agreement of editorial independence for the new site was critical. New Jersey Spotlight would have been hampered without it, and made it easier for Dekker to explain to donors that the community foundation was investing in impartial journalism around important issues of public policy -- and that couldn't happen if the community foundation was influencing the coverage.
The combination of experience and independence has had real impact. Among grantees of the Knight Community Information Challenge, NJ Spotlight is one of the leaders when it comes to monthly visitors, and after only eight months in existence, won an Online Journalism Award for its continued coverage of government and public policy in New Jersey.
By Lisa Williams, Circuit Rider, Knight Community Information Challenge