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Jan. 31, 2023, 2:40 p.m.
Reporting & Production

New York Focus, the Empire State–centered newsroom, aims to hold Albany accountable

“How is it possible that my state, that I’ve lived in all my life, is run like this?”

At the Independent News Sustainability Summit in Austin last October, Evan Smith, former CEO of the Texas Tribune, asked Dean Baquet, former executive editor of The New York Times, whether he was “bullish or bearish” on the state of the news industry.

“I see people getting into the news business in ways that they couldn’t before,” Baquet said. “I had coffee a couple of months ago with the editors at New York Focus, which is a small newsroom in New York that’s examining the state government and the prison system. They do great stuff.”

“The Dean Baquet shoutout … we nearly fell out of our seats,” Akash Mehta, the editor-in-chief of New York Focus, told me recently.

Mehta co-founded New York Focus with editor-at-large Lee Harris in 2020 after months of freelance reporting on the state budget negotiations and its impacts at the start of the pandemic as a freelancer. Before that, Mehta had worked in local and state politics — serving on his local community board, interning for local legislators and for electoral campaigns. He considered himself civically engaged, and it wasn’t until he started working as a journalist that he fully realized how confusing state politics could be.

“With each of these stories, I encountered these ‘What the fuck’ moments: How is it possible that my state, that I’ve lived in all my life, is run like this?” Mehta recalled. “I thought of myself as a pretty well-informed New Yorker, but I had no idea of the insanity, for instance, [of how] the state budget is crafted each year. We decided that if there was no [existing] home for that kind of accountability journalism, then it fell to us to create it.” Upon its launch in October 2020, New York Focus became the first nonprofit newsroom covering New York State politics.

New York has the third-largest economy in the United States, after Texas and California, but it’s losing more residents than any other state. The number of newspapers operating in the state declined by 40% between 2004 and 2019, according to the University of North Carolina Hussman School of Journalism and Media’s News Deserts project, and coverage is often centered around New York City.

“The way that Albany works is incredibly opaque,” Mehta said. “There’s a lot of opportunity for accountability reporting to help citizens participate in government and [help] people in power to make more informed decisions. Even on a really scrappy budget, and in just two years, we’ve seen that this type of reporting can lead to real impact and policy consequences.”

Last spring, the New York State Board of Elections started enforcing campaign finance transparency laws after New York Focus reported on violations. In 2021, after Focus investigated, the state’s health department released data on drug overdose deaths.

More recent stories have covered police surveillance, the New York City Housing Authority’s failure to comply with federal hiring laws, and the state senate’s rejection of Governor Kathy Hochul’s nominee for chief judge of the state’s highest court. A “Perspectives” section also runs occasional opinion pieces. Focus stories have been picked up by publications like Politico, Vox, and the Albany Times Union.

New York Focus is currently funded through grants from the Open Society Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Vital Projects Funds, and others; it also receives donations from individual donors and revenue from some publishing partnerships. (The site has co-published with local outlets like the Albany Times Union, City & State, and The City, and with national outlets like The Intercept, The Nation, and Fast Company. So far, it’s only asked national partners for payment, so that revenue stream has only provided a few thousand dollars a year.) Readers can opt to become members and make monthly recurring donations, starting at $1. Focus has a full-time staff of six and is planning to expand in the coming year. Most of the team is based in New York City, though they “criss-cross the state on Amtrak,” Mehta said.

Rebecca Klein, the general manager and publisher of New York Focus, said Focus averages 30,000 unique website visitors per month, with a newsletter open rate over 50%. Its audience is so far “New York political insiders” mostly based in Albany and New York City.

Moving forward, New York Focus plans to build out its co-publishing network, letting hyperlocal publications run its work for free. A statewide listening tour is also in the works.

“We’re trying to take this group of New York political insiders who really care about our work and continue to serve them — and also expand what it means to be a New York political insider,” Klein said.

Photo of the Albany skyline by Roger Lipera on Unsplash.

Hanaa' Tameez is a staff writer at Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email (hanaa@niemanlab.org) or Twitter DM (@HanaaTameez).
POSTED     Jan. 31, 2023, 2:40 p.m.
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