Martin Gottlieb, editor of the (Bergen, N.J.) Record, has a lot of great things to say about his employer. Though his newsroom has had to deal with a bit of shrinkage over the years, it’s still robust, with a head count of about 200. While newspaper owners in recent decades have sold out to big chains, says Gottlieb, his people have stayed firm, sticking with the industry. Stephen Borg is the fourth generation of his family to serve as publisher of the Record, the northern New Jersey paper that’s often referred to as the Bergen Record. And committed, local ownership has its benefits, says Gottlieb.
Amid the now-legendary shutdown of access lanes to the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee, N.J. in September, Borg got something of a tip. Says Gottlieb: “Our publisher gets a call from a friend of his saying it’s been taking me hours to get into New York.” Gottlieb passed along the information to the assignment desk; from there, it reached John Cichowski, author of the paper’s “Road Warrior” column, which got its founding inspiration from the Washington Post’s “Dr. Gridlock.”
Backup at the George Washington Bridge? Whoop-dee-doo, thought Cichowski at first. “A tie-up of the George Washington Bridge is not really news,” Cichowski told the Erik Wemple Blog. Cichowski has been doing “Road Warrior” for more than 10 years, and there are a lot of traffic jams on New Jersey highways. In this case, however, Cichowski started gathering indications that this wasn’t just a one-off situation. “It happened more than once, and I started getting e-mails from people, and naturally you do an appropriate kind of phone call” in such a circumstance, says Cichowski. He got this feedback from police in Fort Lee: “Our town is a mess and not only is it a mess but it’s been that way for a couple of days.”
On Friday, Sept. 13, Cichowski turned in this thoroughly reported column: “Closed tollbooths a commuting disaster.” Gottlieb proudly notes that reporting for the column served notice to the Port Authority’s executive director that there was a traffic disaster in Fort Lee. The piece carried this quote from Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich: “I’ve asked the Port for an explanation, but they haven’t responded. I thought we had a good relationship. Now I’m beginning to wonder if there’s something I did wrong. Am I being sent some sort of message?”
That’s prescient. Gov. Chris Christie this morning (and afternoon) held a press conference apologizing for the Fort Lee scandal, which reached a new level of outrage this week following the Record’s reporting on smoking-gun messages among Christie staffers and loyalists in which they plot and discuss the lane closures. That news break came under the byline of Shawn Boburg, a staff writer at the Record who has been reporting on the Port Authority since 2011.
At the time that the bridge backups emerged as a news story, Boburg was pursuing followups to another investigative project on the Port Authority, a bistate agency with a rich history of power and cronyism. In a Sept. 8 piece, Boburg reported that the Port Authority had sold the naming rights to the World Trade Center decades ago for $10 to one of its executives: “Until his death this year, the former executive, Guy Tozzoli, earned millions primarily by licensing the name through the group, the World Trade Centers Association. And the Port Authority is among the hundreds of licensees around the world paying thousands of dollars each year for the privilege of using the words ‘World Trade Center.'”
Once he finished off the WTC-naming-rights story, Boburg hopped on the toll-lanes investigation. About a dozen public-records requests pushed the story forward, says Boburg, who describes an interesting dynamic in prying documents from the Port Authority. Since it’s a bistate entity filled with political appointees of various loyalties, it’s tough to get records requests through the thicket. That same dynamic, however, ensures that some of the records being sought formally get leaked informally. “There were documents leaked to us several times that would be responsive [to public document requests] if they had actually supplied the documents,” says Boburg, noting that the formal response from the Port Authority has been to seek more time to fulfill the requests.
After the Record blew open the story yesterday morning, news outlets everywhere scrambled to match the story — and to acquire the documents that the Record had acquired. An attribution in the New York Times reads like this: “The documents were obtained by The New York Times and other news outlets Wednesday.” A similar attribution appears in The Post. Boburg: “I don’t know this but I believe they also obtained them. . . . All I know is that we had them first.”
The work of Chichowski and Boburg, says publisher Borg, is part of a “serious” news operation that is the jewel of a diversified media corporation. The North Jersey Media Group consists of the Record, 46 weekly community newspapers with a combined circulation of 500,000, printing operations with customers such as USA Today and Investor’s Business Daily, (201) Magazine and others. The newspaper’s staffing has weathered the decade-long industry decline by losing just 10 percent of its newsroom staff from its peak, says Borg, and there are “no future staff reductions planned.”