NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—Comedians looking for a punchline often turn to New Jersey, but New Brunswick typically flies under the radar, escaping the scrutiny of media outlets that tend to focus around the state’s capital, or its largest city.
And it’s even harder to gather, share, and find local news that’s not funny, especially in smaller NJ towns and cities like New Brunswick.
But influential comedian Samantha Bee shined a big spotlight on the Hub City, and our newspaper, in a segment that first aired on March 22, helping us to raise over $20,000, and sign up hundreds of new subscribers.
Bee had interviewed this reporter seven weeks earlier “to find out how bad it’s actually getting for local news.”
“Before the Flint water crisis became a national outrage, it was a local news story,” said Bee. “Local newspapers deserve some love so I went all the way to New Jersey to adopt one.”
Full Frontal has proven to be both innovative and popular, bringing a fresh, alternative, and progressive vibe to late-night television.
It’s part of a tradition of hard-hitting, politically-oriented comedy that she helped shape as a correspondent on “The Daily Show,” and like her former colleague John Oliver, she often praises the importance of local journalism.
Samantha Bee’s assistance could not have possibly come at a better time, and it appears to have single-handedly saved NBT.
Depending entirely on advertising revenue and reader support, as well as the occasional grant, NBT had struggled through its first five years on a shoestring budget.
But that hasn’t stopped us from winning prestigious awards, asking tough questions, breaking big stories, and continuing to innovate despite serious financial constraints.
“A lot of people didn’t expect us to last this long, ” this reporter told Bee in the interview that aired nationally on Turner Broadcasting System (TBS). “A lot of people thought we would be out of business by now, but we’ve been able to survive.”
In 2015 and 2016, NBT made ends meet thanks in part to Beacon Reader, a crowdfunding platform specifically for journalism projects.
In both years, we netted over $15,000, including matching grants that helped keep us publishing the paper and growing our team.
But that platform went offline and out of business after our 2016 campaign, leaving NBT’s financial future more uncertain than ever before.
Things started to look up in December when we received a phone call from Razan Ghalayini, a producer with Bee’s “Full Frontal,” the late-night comedy show that has developed a big following during its two seasons on TBS.
Ghalayini had studied NBT after independent news advocates at the national organization “Free Press” had recommended us to the show.
But the situation remained dire at NBT. We soon had to ditch our downtown office space shortly after the interview was taped, and we were unable to produce our print edition for the first five months on 2017.
Thankfully, due to the big boost from Bee’s program and everyone across the globe who subsequently contributed to our cause, the print edition of New Brunswick Today is returning to circulation on June 1.
NBT has always struggled to fund its operations, from its early days as a modest passion project, through its evolution into a print publication, and now into a multi-media outlet that can broadcast live videos to a wide audience.
But facing the prospect of a new US President who is openly hostile to the press, and the unexpected and unprecedented intrusion of local police into our office, our organization was more desperate than ever before for a new way to survive.
And that’s when, on a chilly winter morning, our hero Samantha Bee arrived at our humble office, and the magic of television saved New Brunswick’s community newspaper.
More than a dozen crew members started rolling into the building at 7am, bringing with them enormous cameras and lighting equipment.
They spent the whole day in the Hub City gathering footage for the segment, and threee of the show’s correspondents also made the trip, taping clips in the Sixth Ward to round out the seven-minute segment, including one bit that was shot inside Easton Avenue’s The Sushi Room.
Bee’s visit to the now-former NBT headquarters at 53 Paterson Street took place on January 27, and she brought with her an impressive entourage that filled all three rooms in the first-floor office.
Just a week earlier, Donald Trump had been sworn in as the nation’s 45th President. Bee’s staff had cited Trump’s election as one reason that she wanted to find a way to help a local media outlet.
Her team was down in Washington, D.C., having travelled there on the show’s unmistakable bus (which previously belonged to the Presidential campaign of Herman Cain) to cover the inauguration.
Just after Trump was sworn in, the “New Brunswick Today Show” went live, with an educational broadcast from our Paterson Street headquarters, focused on Trump’s “shady history” in New Jersey.
We also announced a new fundraising campaign to help us “grow and expand” our operation.
“Over the next 45 days, we are going to get hundreds of folks involved in this campaign,” said this reporter.
It may have taken more than 45 days, but thanks in large part to the national television exposure we soon received, New Brunswick Today exceeded our goal and raised thousands of dollars from over 100 new members who now support us with monthly donations.
But that wasn’t all that Bee and her talented team did for us. They also helped develop a new model to fund our operation for the future.
Bee had interviewed an expert on “gamification,” Gabe Zickerman, and turned the interview into a “legally distinct” parody of a classic game show to prove her point.
“People love games. They love playing games. They love watching games,” Zickerman told Bee, concluding that “hedonism and pleasure” was one way to encourage civic engagement.
“Gamification is an opportunity to take something like voting, or something like participating in other civic activities, and make it fun and engaging enough that may want to do it,” said Zickerman.
“Could hedonism save Charlie’s paper?” Bee asked in the segment’s “a-ha” moment.
Bee cited some everyday applications of gamification such as “walking” (fitbits), “credit card use” (rewards programs), “coffee-buying” (loyalty programs), and “boring french-fry based games” (McDonald’s Monopoly).
But the segment also highlighted a California school election that saw voter turnout increase 46% after an organization offered a $25,000 grand prize to one lucky voter.
And it told the story of how a computer game enabled thousands of players to collectively “unlock” a protein structure that had “stumped” scientists for fifteen years.
“49,000 people playing FoldIt in ten days unlocked the protein structure, which is important for developing new drugs to combat HIV,” Zickerman said.
Bee wanted NBT to try using gamification, in the form of a chance to win a cash prize, to entice readers to join the ranks of our subscribers, who can get our bilingual print edition mailed to them anywhere in the USA.
“Maybe with a little luck, a sprinkle of civic engagement, and a healthy dose of hedonism, local journalism will survive,” said Bee, as the segment concluded.
And the experiment worked, increasing the number of subscribers to NBT five-fold, and raising much-needed funding to get us through 2017.
More than 900 people entered the sweepstakes. The drawing was recently conducted and 36 winners were notified on May 15.
Between our membership program and the sweepstakes, NBT signed up more than 350 new subscribers in the weeks following the popular segment.
Matthew Ferguson, the lucky winner of NBT’s sweepstakes, will receive a $500 prize, along with two tickets to a “Full Frontal” taping and an array of New Brunswick Today merchandise.
“This is so exciting!” said the first-place winner. “Not only because I love Samantha Bee but also because I’ve been a long-time follower of Charlie and New Brunswick Today.”
He contributed $50 after watching the segment, earning him 15 entries in the sweepstakes.
Ferguson was one of 180 people from around the world who contributed at least that much, earning a one-year subscription to the paper’s print edition.
“As I’ve relocated… I’m looking forward to keeping up with all the happenings of New Brunswick with this subscription,” Ferguson told New Brunswick Today.
Ferguson was once a professor to this reporter in an American Studies course he taught at Rutgers University a decade ago.
“We learned about Jacob Riis, one of the ‘fathers’ of photojournalism and a muckraker for social good in New York City in the late 1800s,” recalled Ferguson, adding that he likes to think that experience helped inspire this reporter.
“I may not always agree with his articles or opinions but fully support his passion and general Jersey-esque scrappy nature in keeping his dream alive,” said Ferguson.
Things also worked out well for Bee and the team at Full Frontal, as the segment, and the rest of the March 22 episode, received great reviews from critics.
“It was actually excellent,” wrote comedy website the Interro Bang. “The piece was largely in the form of an interview, and once again, the show’s producers put their best interviewer on the job: Samantha Bee.”
“Rather than simply bemoan the [peril that our small-town newspapers face], Ms. Bee and her writers come up with a solution to help with [NBT’s] serious circulation problems.”
Five weeks later, Bee performed for the largest crowd of her career, returning to the nation’s capital for her game-changing “Not The White House Correspondent’s Dinner” event.
Bee brought together some 2,500 people, including top personalities from the worlds of journalism and comedy, at the Daughters of the American Revolution Constitution Hall.
The hour-long special aired later that night, featuring cameo appearances from Jake Tapper, Steve Buscemi, and Allison Janney, while Will Ferrell reprised his impression of ex-President George W. Bush.
Bee’s new event ultimately overshadowed both the traditional White House Correspondents Dinner, which took place that same night, and President Trump’s own attempt at counter-programming the dinner.
True to the show’s values, Full Frontal used the high-profile alternative “dinner” to promote and encourage donations to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Charlie is the founder and editor of New Brunswick Today, and the winner of the Awbrey Award for Community-Oriented Local Journalism. He is a proud Rutgers University journalism graduate, a community organizer, and a former independent candidate for mayor of New Brunswick.