Editor, The Local East Village, Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, GSAS
Daniel Maurer guides students through the continually evolving landscape of hyperlocal reporting in one of New York City’s most iconic neighborhoods.
By Kristine Jannuzzi (CAS ’98)
Learning outside the classroom takes on new meaning for students in Daniel Maurer’s Hyperlocal Newsroom course. The weekly, nearly four-hour-long class is run like an actual newsroom in which students pitch ideas and produce content for the Local East Village, a blog that is a collaborative journalistic experiment between NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute and The New York Times. The site covers the area from Broadway to the East River, 14th Street to Houston Street, and student journalists are fully immersed in the realities and challenges of hyperlocal reporting in what is arguably one of the most fascinating neighborhoods in Manhattan.
Maurer was named editor of the Local in August 2011, almost one year after the blog was launched in September 2010. The co-founder of one the city’s earliest and most successful restaurant blogs, New York magazine’s Grub Street, Maurer brought with him not only a great deal of writing and editing experience, but also a passion for the East Village that is clearly reflected in his own work and inspires that of his students. He recently spoke to Connect about his first six months on the job.
What attracted you to the Local East Village?
At Grub Street, at first I was mostly concentrating on nightlife writing, and then that transitioned into more restaurant writing. As a result, I obviously had an eye on the East Village and the East Village blogs, and the neighborhood was my favorite neighborhood when I first came to New York. It was the one that I hung out in and eventually lived in. So I had a keen interest in not only the neighborhood, but also all the blogger drama around it. I heard about the job opening on the Local when I was looking for news to link to on Grub Street, and it just seemed like the perfect opportunity.
What is it about the East Village that appeals to you?
It’s such a great neighborhood. Anything you say about it sounds kind of cliché, but it’s an incredibly diverse neighborhood, there’s so much going on, and there’s so much of old New York still here. People get really hung up on gentrification and how the neighborhood is changing and tend not to appreciate how much is still happening here and what a great neighborhood it is when you just walk around on a Sunday afternoon – you see the gamut of the whole rainbow of humanity in front of you. Aside from that, I like the fact that there are still a lot of cheap options for great food, and the history of the neighborhood as a hotbed of counterculture, that’s something that really appeals to me, and the way that’s still kind of preserved in the neighborhood. As a blogger, there’s a lot to cover here; there are many issues that are microcosmic to what’s happening in New York in general – concern about rents getting higher and people being pushed out of their neighborhoods and the culture vanishing from a neighborhood. That’s all interesting to write about and feels important to write about.
Do you still live in the East Village?
Yes, I actually live in Alan Ginsberg’s former apartment, which is a pretty great example of how the neighborhood is changing: he was paying something like $300 for three units in the building and I’m now paying significantly more for one unit in the building…I thought that was kind of nice and symbolic, he really was the soul of the neighborhood when he was living here.
Had you taught or worked with students before?
I worked with interns at Grub Street. A lot of what the hyperlocal newsroom class is about is learning on the job; it tries to replicate the atmosphere of a professional newsroom and a professional hyperlocal news site. So in that sense, my training was working with interns at Grub Street. Much of what the students are learning happens through the editing of their posts and the pitching process: they tell me what they want to write about and I tell them whether or not I think it’s newsworthy or how to shape it in a newsworthy way.
How does the process work?
There’s a class every Monday from 10 AM-1:40 PM. The students pitch ideas and we talk about what stories worked in the previous week – how they were sourced and what could’ve improved them. Then they’ll pitch stories for next week and those stories are edited and go up on the Times site if they pass muster…the way the class is structured is a little awkward because obviously in the newsroom you’re not just going to meet once a week – you want to be in constant touch. But I’m trying to do that as much as possible and encourage the students to be in constant contact, always looking for new stories and working on a few stories at the same time to keep a lot of balls bouncing so they can get into that rhythm of the news cycle of the Local. That can take some getting used to if you’re used to longer lead journalism. So the idea is to get them constantly pitching and writing, and writing both traditional news stories and more casual, bloggier, fun posts that keep people coming back to a hyperlocal news site.
You get a new batch of students every semester, but do people who have completed the class continue to write for the Local?
They can, if they have time. And that’s a challenge of the course – it obviously helps to know the East Village very well and cultivate sources in the neighborhood and stay in constant contact with them. But when it’s only a semester-long course, once the students start getting to know people and get a firm grasp of the neighborhood, they’re moving on. But hopefully they’ll continue to write for us out of the excitement about writing for the Times and having great clips. And also because there is so much going on in the neighborhood.
Is it a challenge that many of the students are not only new to the East Village, but also new to New York City?
Definitely...in the East Village, certain people are very critical about your credibility as far as how long you’ve lived in the neighborhood, so you know you’re going to get judged on that for some people. But we try to do everything we can – there’s a great book called Selling the Lower East Side that paints a really vivid portrait of the neighborhood’s history, and that is required reading for the class. I also have students watch the film Captured, a documentary about Clayton Patterson, who was documenting the neighborhood from the 1980s onward. Watching that movie gives the students a very vivid sense of how the neighborhood used to be and shows them what it’s like to really be obsessive about covering the neighborhood.
How does editing the Local compare to working at Grub Street?
I enjoy it because I got a little bit tired of seeing the world through food-colored glasses. Here, I’m able to focus on culture, politics, real estate – everything that’s really important, but at the same time do it in a very manageable way. The East Village is a pretty small neighborhood; there’s a lot going on, but it’s also very contained. It’s easy to get to know the people around you and so it’s kind of a wider horizon and also a smaller one, in a certain way, than Grub Street was.
How do you find the caliber of the students?
I’m pretty impressed. Some of them are ready to go out and get professional jobs in journalism. The student whom I’m most impressed by is the type that’s really tenacious and always turning up stories, hyper-vigilant, always walking around the neighborhood noticing every little thing that could potentially be mined for a post. And of course quick turnaround – it is really important to be able to write quickly and accurately, knowing exactly where to go for a quote and for information.
Has the blog changed since you started last summer?
Well, we’re trying to make it livelier, more reflective of exactly what’s happening in the neighborhood at a given time and less of a generic love letter to the East Village…more of a vital news site that your average person in the neighborhood can turn to to know exactly what’s going on at that moment, while of course also reflecting the great history and culture of the neighborhood. So that means more posts per day. We’ve also done things like start our police blotter; the neighborhood hadn’t had a dedicated police blotter until now, so that was a huge breakthrough. We’ve also featured more restaurant and bar coverage, which allows a wider audience to participate in the blog, since you’re not just talking to people who live in the neighborhood; you’re also talking to people who come to the neighborhood for those purposes. I think the next step is to make it more fun, give it more of a casual voice and loosen up a little bit.
One of the things that we really need to do is engage the community more, because the mission of the blog is to have a lot of community participation. It’s been a challenge to involve those voices in the blog through commenting, writing posts, giving us tips, taking photos…part of the way we’re trying to encourage that is by launching the virtual assignment desk, something we’ve been working on with the Times. It basically allows people to submit a story idea by filling out a form and then I can post it publicly so that other people can volunteer to write it or give us tips about the story. So people can see online all the stories that are upcoming on the Local and volunteer to participate. It’ll be interesting to see how that evolves.
Do the students ever go to the office of the Times?
Mary Ann Giordano, our liaison at the Times and the editor who helped launched the Local, spoke to them the first day of class and gave them a wonderful talk about why the Local started and what it’s doing that the Times itself cannot. And we’re talking about going to the newsroom as well. I got to go up there when I first started; I met Andy Newman, the editor at the City Room blog, whom we work with closely to try to get student posts onto City Room and even into the paper, which has happened a couple of times before.
This is such a great opportunity for students, I’m really jealous! It’s really a testament to the Institute that students are doing this and also have internships at places like the Daily News, and a couple of students in these past two classes have been working on School Book, which is the Times’ education blog that they just launched with WNYC. So it’s a great way to get on the Times’ radar.
For more information about the Local East Village, click here.
For more information about NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, click here.