TRENTON, NJ (AP) – If election night was the World Series for the New Jersey Network, the state-owned public television network, the annual state government budget debates was the playoffs.
But in its last two days on the air this week, the network ignored the drama at the Statehouse as the 130 remaining employees packed up their belongings, shared hugs and tears, took pictures and worried whether they would see each other only on Facebook.
The station, launched 40 years ago by lawmakers who felt neglected by Philadelphia and New York television news, was closed Thursday by politicians, including Gov. Chris Christie, who believe the state has no business in the broadcasting business.
New York’s public TV station WNET will run the station, renamed NJTV. The new station will broadcast 20 hours a week of New Jersey-centric broadcasting, half of which will be provided by the Caucus Educational Corp., headed by Steve Adubato Jr., the son of a political powerbroker in Newark.
Viewers will still have public-TV staples from “Dinosaur Train” to Charlie Rose, though the schedules might be different.
The big difference will be in the news programming.
Some 20,000 people tuned into NJN’s nightly newscast. Its wall-to-wall election night coverage featuring reports from campaign headquarters and panels of experts, along with “Reporters Roundtable,” were main courses in the media diet of the subgroup of New Jerseyans who are obsessed with state politics.
And the network was known for ratcheting up coverage during weeks like this one, when political intrigue runs high as lawmakers hold marathon sessions to set the state’s budget.
Even Thursday evening, as anchor Jim Hooker was polishing his final script for the station and straightening his tie, the newsroom was getting calls from other television stations: Would the governor’s news conference – the one where he would sign the budget and avert a government shutdown – be aired live? The answer: of course not.
News director Michael Aron, who worked at the station for 29 years, said he intended to cover Wednesday’s legislative budget debates but was persuaded not to. One staffer, he said, told him: “Don’t make us stand there for 12 hours listening to the people who did us in.”
NJTV promises to continue live broadcasts of major State House events, including the governor’s budget addresses and State of the State speeches, and live election night coverage.
The network’s end was months in the making, but it was only Tuesday that Democratic lawmakers who were trying to salvage the operation finally, definitively failed.
Aron said that when the cameras were off he pitched to bigwigs a compromise to keep NJN’s news operation intact, but to try to run it without a government subsidy.
It’s not that New Jersey news will go uncovered. There remain TV, radio stations, daily and weekly newspapers, news websites – not to mention The Associated Press – that cover the state, or at least parts of it. Thanks to the huge media presence in Philadelphia and even huger one in New York, the state’s news is often national news.
But NJN was the only statewide broadcast news outlet in a state with a big population, small geography and surprisingly disparate regions.
“We were proud to cover a smattering of life in New Jersey,” Hooker said in a quick interview Thursday. “Everything and everywhere.” There was a story Wednesday, for instance, about a baby snow leopard at the Cape May County Zoo.
Some current NJN employers could go to NJTV, which takes the mantle of the only statewide news broadcaster.
Some, like Joe Martin, an engineer who came to NJN in 1972, just seven months after it launched, will retire.
Many, like Judy Goetz, an executive assistant who first worked for the station when it launched – and she was still in high school – are looking for work.
One, Michell Basalik, an associate producer battling breast cancer, learned on Friday that she was getting another job with the state government, which will allow her to keep her health insurance and use the sick time her NJN colleagues have donated to her.
Among the uncertainties: what will become of the library of films, videotapes and DVDs of decades of newscasts.
Thursday evening, instead of covering the day’s news of New Jersey, the network ran a montage about itself and its history reporting on topics from political corruption trials to devastating floods to a Little League championship team. In the audio room during the montage, employees got their biggest laugh at a clip of Christie saying he was watching a legislative proceeding on NJN.
Aron proclaimed on air: “That’s it for NJN news. They say all good things come to an end, and they do.”
The video cut dimming lights in an empty newsroom.
And like a more famous New Jersey-based show, the picture faded to black.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)