BLOOMFIELD, NJ — When Simon Galperin moved to Bloomfield in 2017, he soon began dealing with a string of package thefts in his apartment building. He created a buildingwide Facebook group, so the neighbors could solve the problem without having to involve the landlord or the police. It worked. Now Galperin is using the same philosophy to run the Bloomfield Information Project, a local nonprofit journalism lab: solve a problem by working together to plug a leaking hole in the system.
The project, launched right as the COVID-19 pandemic sent everyone but essential workers into quarantine and their home offices for an undetermined amount of time, is “part reporter, part community advocate.” Grants from the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation and Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri kicked off funding, and residents can donate monthly to become founding sustainers. A fundraising campaign is ongoing.
“We want to meet local news needs,” Galperin said in a Nov. 28 interview. “We’re trying to build on the needs within the community. What does local news from the ground up look like? We want to teach people to become journalists for themselves.”
When Galperin talks about the project, he uses the collective “we,” but he’s the only staff member. The goal is to build a group of community reporters who can take notes at public meetings, spread information about events and catalog community news. The overarching theme is “for the people, by the people.”
“We’re in a position where we can be sponsored by a 501(c)(3),” Galperin said. “It gives us the opportunity to work with people rather than for them. I think we need to start bottom up and we can directly address needs. We can put the community in the driver’s seat. I can envision a community-owned publication, and we can resolve issues that way.”
Galperin doesn’t believe that policy makers at the state and federal level are responsive to funding public goods, and going the nonprofit route could allow public funding to invest in local journalism down the line. Galperin wants to work with local officials rather than just calling them for comment on an issue.
“Organizations like the ones we are want to understand the part public funding can play in local news,” he said. “That money can be spent on people who directly benefit from it. We want to approach funding in the same way as how we approach public service. We seek support from businesses, from organizations, from individual donations. We want to get them involved outside of advertising, because I don’t think anyone is getting a fair shake there.”
Bloomfield Buzz is the town’s monthly newsletter, and Galperin would like to work with the local government to potentially produce it. The Bloomfield Information Project has its own digital newsletter, featuring both original reporting and aggregates of other news sources that relate to Bloomfield. Potential objectivity issues when working alongside government officials is not something Galperin is worried about.
“We share common goals,” he said. “In traditional journalism, you’re supposed to be objective, but that’s a false narrative. It’s impossible to be objective. It’s important for organizations like ours to play a role in identifying a gap in the local government and try to fix it. I don’t think that would be compromising. There’s this imaginary wall between local journalism and officials, but it’s just me. We have to be willing to explore that conversation.”
Eventually, Galperin hopes to add three or four people to the staff, while also building a core of community reporters. He wants to recruit young people, people of color, immigrants and business owners in town. A team of volunteers has been working on the coronavirus obituary service, memorializing those in town who have died from the virus.
“I envision us changing the way local news involves the community,” Galperin said.
Launching the Bloomfield Information Project turned out differently than originally planned because of the pandemic, but Galperin set aside his idea of driving an ice cream truck around town to talk to residents about their access to local news and pivoted to distributing masks to residents in the 3rd Ward with the health department and Toni’s Kitchen in Montclair. So far, 1,600 masks have been handed out at Carteret Elementary School.
The Bloomfield Information Project can be found at www.bloomfieldinfo.org. Donations can be made at www.bloomfieldinfo.org/give, and the project is offering a survey about community needs at www.bloomfieldinfo.org/survey.
“We’ve heard all good things in terms of the work we’ve done,” Galperin said. “The service we’re providing now is good. We figure out what’s happening and create one-stop shopping for news.”