NJN reaches the end of the story

    It’s another day in the capital for Michael Aron.

    The news director and principal political correspondent for the New Jersey Network’s nightly TV news program, Aron has made the short trip from the NJN building to the Statehouse in Trenton thousands of times. On Tuesday, he hopped into the news van with his cameraman to cover a Gov. Chris Christie press conference one last time.

    “He’s bombastic, articulate, refreshing,” said Aron. “I’ve covered nine governors, and he’s the best talker. He’s a gifted politician. That doesn’t mean I agree with what he’s done–particularly with public broadcasting in New Jersey, but I have to give him his due.”

    It was over a year ago that Christie decided the state needed to get out of the TV business. The state Assembly voted to block the resolution, but the Senate did not.

    On Friday, management of NJN will be transferred to New York-based TV station, WNET. In addition, WHYY has bought five of NJN’s radio transmitters in South Jersey.

    For 40 years, the state-owned network has been the only broadcaster presenting N.J. news and public affairs to the entire state of 566 municipalities.

    Knitting the state and its news

    “This is a very fragmented state,” said Aron. “We help knit the north, central, and south together by doing a newscast that speaks to people in all parts of the state. Nobody else does that.”

    Aron was hired 30 years ago to strengthen the news organization’s political coverage. Since then, news from the Statehouse and public policy have been NJN’s bread and butter, going deeper into the nuts and bolts of N.J. politics than other broadcasters.

    Without NJN, N.J. politics will be covered largely by TV stations outside the state.

    “As Benjamin Franklin said, we’re a barrel tapped at both ends: Philadelphia and New York,” said producer Michael Curtis. “No one tells the New Jersey story. We cover only New Jersey and why it’s important. We’re the information source for 8 million people. Now that story’s gone.”

    NJN coverage extended beyond politics to, for example, 9/11 and the nearly 700 New Jerseyans who died; the Hurricane Floyd disaster; and the blizzard of 1996 that shut down the state.

    Curtis, like 123 others, is now out of a job. He says the new management—WNET–has not yet offered anyone positions. What kind of New Jersey-based news content will be offered by WNET is not yet clear.

    Delivering their own eulogy

    The sale of the state-owned public broadcasting entity to a private broadcasting company in New York is news. Many at NJN say that reporting the demise of NJN on the evening news was like delivering their own eulogy.

    Anchorman Jim Hooker says he tried to present the facts on that particular story as quickly as possible.

    “You’re reading it and you’re trying to stay detached, and it’s difficult,” said Hooker. “I said to Mike [Curtis], ‘Mike, from now on don’t let me be my own enemy. Let’s cut those things down to 30 seconds, so I don’t have to read much more than that before I can regroup.’ “

    “Right,” Curtis chimed in. “It takes an emotional toll.”

    NJN news stayed honed to the issues of the moment up until the very end, covering state budget negotiations and Christie’s historic union benefits legislation, as well as the shutdown of the state’s public broadcasting network.

    “I challenge you to find anything that’s not straight, hard-hitting news,” said Hooker. “And that’s how we’ve done it. It’s not easy to step out of yourself and do it, but you know what? You just do the story as you know how to do it, as dispassionately as you can.”

    To the end, the NJN staff retained its sense of humor. They assigned the office intern to research job opportunities for the staff. It was a joke. Mostly.

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