Liz Parker and Steve Parker, co-owners of the New Jersey Hills Media Group, always have been concerned about the long-term viability of their company, which produces 14 weekly newspapers in Morris, Somerset, Essex and Hunterdon counties.
Better said, the pair knew what they did not want to have happen to the 65-year-old family business: a dismantling that has occurred whenever a large corporation takes over a local news operation.
“The hedge funds and giant news corporations that have been buying up newspapers across the country come in and gut the news operation, fire editors and reporters, extract as much profit as they can and leave an empty shell,” Liz Parker said. “We didn’t want that to happen.”
It led them to Corporation for New Jersey Local Media, a nonprofit organization founded in 2020 to build strong communities through journalism and civic engagement.
This week, the CNJLM announced it has assumed ownership of the Hills Media Group, the largest independent weekly newspaper group in New Jersey.
This ownership transition marks the culmination of a yearlong process to convert the Hills Group to nonprofit ownership to preserve the group’s legacy of quality, community-focused journalism and to expand the reach and strength of local news, the organizations said in a joint statement.
Under terms of the deal, Liz Parker will continue to serve as the papers’ executive editor and Steve Parker will remain as business manager.
CNJLM Executive Director Amanda Richardson said the Hills Media Group will function as a societal benefits corporation with its own governing board, following the model established by the Lenfest Institute and the Philadelphia Inquirer.
“This structure preserves the traditional editorial independence of the newspapers, while CNJLM will continue to operate with its own separate nonprofit board,” she said.
Steve Parker said readers will not necessarily notice a change, especially when it comes to bylines. He emphasized that one of the goals of the transition is to provide continuity for staff and readers.
“While the corporate structure will be changing, our staff will not,” he said. “Many of our marketing and customer service colleagues have been with us for years, and all of them bring to our newspapers and websites a unique institutional knowledge of the area, an understanding of their clients’ needs and a longstanding commitment to subscriber service.”
The Corporation for New Jersey Local Media was founded in 2020 as a “team of rivals” effort by Executive Director Amanda Richardson, the Harding Township Democratic Committee chair, and Nicholas Platt, a Harding Township Republican Committee member. The two ran against each other for township committee in November 2019 in a race marked by its civility.
“Amanda and I may have disagreed on various issues, but we were always in agreement that local news is of paramount importance to a healthy democracy and a strong society,” Platt said.
In addition to Platt, CNJLM’s governing board includes Vice Chair Linda Stamato (of the Bloustein School at Rutgers University), Secretary Fruqan Mouzon (now of Fox Rothschild) and Treasurer Lisa Bhimani.
Advisory board members include Steve Oroho (the state Senate Republican budget officer), John Mooney (of New Jersey Spotlight), Stefanie Murray (of the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University) and Marc Pfeiffer (of the Bloustein School).
For more information about CNJLM, click here.
The bigger question, of course, is whether the structure will work. Parker said he feels the nonprofit news model is a viable one.
“Nonprofit newspapers as large as the Philadelphia Inquirer and as small as Montclair Local have demonstrated the benefits of a nonprofit model,” he said. “This novel structure enables us to supplement traditional newspaper advertising and subscription revenue with grants, events and charitable contributions to fund robust local journalism that enhances civic engagement and builds stronger communities.”
In keeping with its mission of expanding civic engagement, CNJLM will set up a New Jersey Hills Media Group community advisory board this spring. The advisory board, made up of residents from each of the 14 weekly newspapers, will serve to enhance community engagement by providing guidance, ideas and feedback.
The Hills Group’s transition to nonprofit ownership began in January 2021, when CNJLM announced a groundbreaking agreement with the Parkers to acquire the 14 local weeklies, and concluded with the nonprofit taking over operations March 31. The acquisition was made possible through a fundraising campaign that was supported by numerous members of the communities the papers serve.
CNJLM Founding Chair Nicholas Platt led the fundraising effort.
“We are thankful to the many donors, large and small, who have already contributed to the community fundraising drive that is making this transition possible,” he said. “And we are proud to be part of the national movement to nonprofit news ownership that is playing such a vital role in the preservation of local journalism that is so critical to civic knowledge and engagement in our democracy.”