A nonprofit campaign saves 14 weekly newspapers in suburban New Jersey

Photo (cc) 2009 by Wally Gobetz. Hills Media is headquartered in Whippany, N.J., home to the Whippany Railway Museum.

By Dan Kennedy

Big news out of New Jersey: The nonprofit Corporation for New Jersey Local Media (CNJLM) has acquired 14 weekly newspapers serving some 50 municipalities. The papers are owned by the New Jersey Hills Media Group.

The deal is similar to one announced last year when Colorado Community Media sold its 24 weekly and monthly newspapers in a complex deal involving several nonprofit organizations. The difference is that management of the Colorado papers was turned over to The Colorado Sun, a digital start-up that was awarded an ownership share and could eventually become the majority owner. In New Jersey, the sellers, Liz and Steve Parker, will remain in charge.

As with the Colorado deal, terms of the Hills Media transaction were not disclosed. According to an announcement on the CNJLM website, the organization sought to raise $500,000 to purchase the Hills papers, though it’s not clear whether that covered all or just part of the cost.

According to an email announcement by Amanda Richardson, executive director of CJNLM, the Hills Media papers will be reorganized as a “societal benefits corporation.” A New Jersey guide to benefit corporations explains it this way: “While traditional corporations have the single duty to maximize profit, benefit corporations have the increased purpose of considering society and the environment in addition to seeking a profit.”

Public benefit corporations are increasingly being set up as the ownership vehicle of choice for news outlets since they do not operate under some of the restrictions that traditional nonprofits must contend with, such as a prohibition against endorsing political candidates or specific pieces of legislation on their editorial pages. The Sun, The Philadelphia Inquirer and, closer to home, The Provincetown Independent are all public benefit corporations. All three also have nonprofit affiliations that allow them to raise tax-exempt money for in-depth reporting projects.

Confusingly, Hills Media’s own story claims that the company will become a nonprofit and incorrectly describes the Inquirer, Colorado Community Media and the Tampa Bay Times as nonprofits. The Inquirer and the Times are for-profit newspapers owned by nonprofit organizations.

The Corporation for New Jersey Local Media, part of the Community Foundation of New Jersey, is “dedicated to preserving and expanding the quality and accessibility of professional journalism that is vital to informed civic engagement and the practice of democracy.”

Hills Media serves Morris, Somerset, Essex and Hunterdon counties, which are directly east of Newark.

Correction: I must have read Hills Media’s story too quickly. In fact, it does state that the newspapers will be reorganized as a societal benefits corporation.

Author: Dan Kennedy

I am a professor of journalism at Northeastern University and a contributor to GBH News in Boston. My blog, Media Nation, is online at dankennedy.net.

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