Tuesday Talk… with Charlie Kratovil

Charlie Kratovil, Class of 2003, appeared in my classroom one day like he’d fallen out of a bizarro world comic book (see the penultimate question) and very quickly became a central figure in my life over the next three years through classes, extracurricular activities including his stand-up comedy, and beyond. When my first daughter was born, I called Charlie and asked him to relay the news to my classes; he misheard me, briefly making everyone think her name was Willie. Charlie is a one-of-a-kind crusader, whose latest focus is stopping the potential sale of a recently opened public school in New Brunswick, the Lincoln Annex. You can read all about this endeavor in his newspaper or through his Facebook feed.

Before you attended Hillsborough High School, I know you went to Methacton High School, which I believe is in the Philadelphia suburbs. Was that where you grew up or did you move around even more? 

As a baby, I lived in Paterson, before moving to Middlesex Borough where I spent most of my childhood. We moved to Pennsylvania when I was in sixth grade but moved back to Central Jersey in the summer after ninth grade. It was a tough adjustment moving but fortunately it was close enough to my former town that I was able to keep in touch with and visit my Pennsylvania friends while simultaneously making new friends here in Jersey. The internet was also a big help in terms of keeping in touch with my old friends. After high school, I went to Rutgers and began living in New Brunswick in 2004.

How would you compare the high schools you attended? 

I felt like Hillsborough High and Methacton High, as well as the school districts themselves, were quite similar. Both communities were somewhat boring suburbs, especially when you are a kid without a car or a driver’s license. I did miss some things about Methacton, especially the fact that they had a TV studio on-campus and a much more robust video and film curriculum. I also got to be part of an awesome SimCity club in Arcola Middle School and competed in the regional “Future City” competition at the Franklin Institute in Philly.

Has your perspective changed as you’ve gotten more worldly experience and gotten some distance? 

I’ve learned to appreciate the education I received in both PA and NJ. I will always have pride in BORO but I also must acknowledge that I was privileged to attend the school, and so very lucky to meet so many great people there who I am still in contact with today.

What did you like — or not like — about social studies classes? 

I always enjoyed learning about history, especially US II. Watching movies, including both fictional and documentary films, was always fun. But it wasn’t until your classes that I began to appreciate the modern impacts of activism and politics on our society. The activities and projects were also illuminating and I’m sure you remember it was a really good group of students those two years, so the discussions and group assignments were always enjoyable. I have lots of fond memories of working on video projects and group study sessions for AP tests, etc. I feel lucky to have had teachers like you and Mr. Gary Keck (who taught English), because you both brought a lot of life experience to the classroom, even if your website may have espoused a phony backstory. 🙂

Care to talk about what happened your last semester and the (near) ramifications? 

Only because you are the one asking. My grades were not great senior year, so I got the RU Screw before I even arrived on campus. On August 1, just four weeks before I was expecting to start at Rutgers, despite having already confirmed my attendance, I was sent a letter from a man named “William Larousse” telling me that I was pretty much kicked out of college due to my grades during senior year of high school. The letter began “Dear William,” but I knew it was intended for me (this was my first clue of many that Rutgers didn’t have it together!). They then gave me a chance to explain any extenuating circumstances that they might want to consider and I stupidly wrote and emailed a flippant response without consulting anyone. What I wrote was, basically, my grades senior year were not much worse than any other year, so you should have known what you were signing up for when you accepted me. Because I didn’t really give any extenuating circumstances or show any contrition, I got the boot. But it was short-lived. The amusing thing was that all of the various divisions at Rutgers kept communicating with me as if I had not been kicked out. So I got my student ID in the mail, my housing assignment, etc. This was another sign Rutgers was a hot mess. With the help of my mother, we fought the decision set forth in the “Dear William” letter and I was ultimately given a chance to offer another written defense explaining my extenuating circumstances. If I remember correctly, I also submitted supplemental letters of recommendation from you and the amazing calculus teacher, Mr. Steve Lebedin. By August 18, I was re-accepted and the rest is history.

For better or worse, your story is a cautionary tale I still share with my seniors. What was your major? 

Journalism and Media Studies with a minor in Political Science.

How did your focus and career goals evolve as an undergraduate?

I got to meet a lot of great people, mostly through extracurricular activities, and I had a lot of great opportunities to build my skills for both broadcast and written journalism. At first, I was much more entertainment-oriented, but I slowly became increasingly interested in politics and government, as well as journalism and media. When I finished college, I still had no intention or expectation of becoming a professional journalist, but I did have the good fortune of working for a few good non-profits after college, including one that hired me, in part, to start an online news outlet in Paterson. That experience prepared me well and set me on the path, setting me up to work with our editor Joe Malinconico, one of the best reporters in the state. That project is still going strong today under the auspices of NorthJersey.com.

How and when did you get the idea to found a local news site? 

I had been doing activism and organizing during my time at Rutgers and challenging the corrupt political machine in New Brunswick. So I applied for a job that I thought was a good fit, with the Citizens Campaign. They are a good government group that pushes for more meaningful citizen engagement, especially at the local level. I didn’t get the job I sought, but the founder, former Middlesex County Freeholder Harry Pozycki, invited me out to lunch and told me he would keep me in mind for future opportunities. They had a grant to launch an online newspaper in Paterson, and it just so happened the their Paterson organizer left for another opportunity a few months later. Because of my journalism degree and my experience organizing in New Brunswick, they offered the Paterson position to me. Only once I was able to work in the real world as a real journalist was I able to learn how much I liked it, and I was extremely lucky to have Joe as the editor of the outlet. Because I was overseeing the project, we figured out together how to bring an old school, hyperlocal approach to news on the web in a big city. I learned how to build a credible news organization in a large city, and taught Joe a few things about computers and the internet. When I left the Citizens Campaign, it made sense for me to start something like Paterson Press in my home city of New Brunswick. So we started publishing articles at NewBrunswickToday.com, on a website that my friend Sean Monahan had created. I never thought it would be such a big hit, but we built up quite a reputation and quite a team. As we say, never a dull moment. It turns out we had picked the right city to start a hyperlocal news outlet. I just wanted to start it because there was so much important stuff happening here that was getting no media coverage, or only surface-level coverage.

What was/is your formal or informal mission statement? 

We report on the issues and events that matter to the community, and strive to be a voice for the voiceless, a megaphone for the people.

In an age of online media, why did you decide to put out a print edition? 

We had some requests from people who didn’t have computers to print out the articles and share hard copies with them. We figured there might be a way to do it a little better than that and eventually we began to publish some of our work in print, though we have not done a print issue since 2017. 

How did you come to the decision to go bilingual? Any idea of the demographics of your readership at this point? What is your overall readership size? 

It had always been something we wanted to do, but I have to give credit to one of our team members, Molly O’Brien, for helping get it started in 2013. When we started doing the print edition later that year, we made it a point to always have at least four pages in Spanish in every issue. It was wildly popular. We have hundreds of our online articles translated, and are raising funds currently to do more. Our breaking news broadcasts are often hosted by one of our bilingual reporters, Carlos Ramirez. It’s hard to say what our readership is based on any one metric because our organization (and the whole media landscape) has changed so much in the time that we’ve been around. We have about 27,000 people on our Facebook page, and we reach tens of thousands more through other channels every day. If people want to support us and help us cover more stories, they can become a monthly supporter or make a one-time contribution at newbrunswicktoday.com/donate.

How big is your staff? 

We are always hiring freelance reporters and welcome contributions from the community. There was a time when we would pay as many as 20 or 30 different people in any given month for their work, but these days it’s closer to 5. Our door is always open. People who want to join the team can contact me at 732-993-9697 or email me at editor@newbrunswicktoday.com.

In many ways, you’re a throwback to an earlier era of muckraking journalism. Who are your role models in this field? 

I actually don’t have role models from the old days. I’ve of course seen films about Watergate and Edward R. Murrow, but truthfully, most of my role models are contemporary journalists, many of whom I’ve met and/or worked with in real life. I admire those who came before me, but those who I tend to consider role models are reporters whose whose work I have come to appreciate as a consumer and fellow author, people like Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez of Democracy Now, or Matt Katz of WNYC. I’ve also always been a big fan of MSNBC’s Steve Kornacki as well and got to meet him when he came to Rutgers last year.

How do you respond to critics who say that your brand of advocacy journalism is antithetical to the notion of an objective, unbiased media? 

You only live once and I chose to live in New Brunswick, New Jersey. So I’m not going to hold back on getting involved in any cause that I think is important, and I certainly won’t hold back from speaking up or voicing my opinions at places like the City Council meetings, especially when I think a bad decision is about to be made for my future. When I see something wrong, I’m going to call it out, especially when it’s in my own city. I tend to think our readers prefer that, as reporters, we speak up and try to ask questions and make counterpoints as the business of the city is conducted. We try to cover the important stories, even if there may be a potential conflict of interest for our organization or one of our team members, but it’s our policy to always disclose the potential conflict to our audience in an editor’s note at the end of the article. In my view, most good reporters have some real meaningful non-journalism experience that they bring to the table. My past included things like working for small businesses in town, attending Rutgers, and also years of activism, electoral work, and issue advocacy. It has been super helpful to me in my work covering New Brunswick and beyond. Since starting New Brunswick Today, I’ve had some crazy experiences, things like suing the government, filing ethics complaints, running for mayor and managing other campaigns, as well as highly unusual ones like going to jail and being roughed up on the job. These things shape you, but they can also give you biases. My point is that it’s almost impossible to cover a beat for any significant length of time without making friends and allies, and maybe even some haters or frenemies, too. These relationships, as well as ones that may date back from before we even thought about becoming reporters, shouldn’t disqualify us from covering those people or the institutions they represent. But if we want to be responsible and transparent, we should disclose our potential conflicts of interest to our readers. And so that’s what we do at NBT.

As you mentioned, you’ve even run for public office, taking on the previously mentioned entrenched Democratic machine in New Brunswick. For those not in the know, can you give a brief outline of New Brunswick’s one-party system and why you feel it has been important for you to try to foment change? 

In all the time I’ve been in New Brunswick, both the city and county government have been run by the same faction of the same political party. Indeed, many of the people who are running the city today have relatives who ran it a generation or two before. Like many places in New Jersey, the real estate business is “in bed” with the government officials and the oligarchs at the top are used to getting really rich off of the brazen corruption of public officials. Folks who toe the line politically are sometimes rewarded with public jobs and contracts, while individuals and organizations that threaten the establishment are targeted, punished, smeared, blacklisted, and disenfranchised in countless ways. New Brunswick, in particular, has been a haven for official misconduct, with well over a dozen officials in the mayor’s administration convicted over crimes during his eight terms in office. Mayor James Cahill was first elected in 1990 and took office in 1991. The prior mayor, Cahill’s cousin, John Lynch, Jr., was convicted of crimes and served time in federal prison. Between the two of them, they’ve controlled City Hall since the late 1970’s. The machine has survived this long partly because independent media and organized political opposition are hard to come by here. I wish I could just sit back, take notes, ask questions, and cover a campaign for mayor as a journalist, but that hasn’t been possible yet. I want to emphasize that, if I didn’t run last year, no one would have challenged the mayor. In fact, until I ran last year, he had not faced a general election opponent since 2006. I couldn’t allow that to happen again so I ran as an independent, and still got more votes than any challenger Mr. Cahill has faced since 1990. But, even though, it’s an uphill battle, I did really very much enjoy running. I’m pleased to say my run also led to some positive outcomes, including the highest voter turnout in a New Brunswick mayor’s race since 1982. So I’ll keep working to build up a strong local media to educate the public about what goes on here, good and bad, past and present, but I will also continue working to build the kind of movement necessary to defeat the machine and finally give power to the people.

How did your work come to the attention of Samantha Bee? 

An excellent organization called Free Press was kind enough to connect us when they heard Samantha was looking to help out a local newspaper.

What was that experience like? 

It was an amazing day when Sam and her team came to New Brunswick. They brought two vans, a lot of equipment, an army of crew members, and breakfast and lunch for everyone. Had my makeup done and sat down right there in our office with the amazing comedian. Her team was super nice and all of the show’s correspondents came to New Brunswick for the segment, and they spent at least three months putting it together. They are true professionals and it was so great to work with them.

What impact did it have on the future of the paper?
It certainly boosted our profile and I get recognized a lot more often. It helped us raise over $20,000 and live to see another year.

Which piece or two would you say is your best work thus far as an investigative reporter? The New Brunswick Water Utility series? The Housing Authority? Something else? (Talk me through a Cliffs’ Notes version of whatever you want to focus on.) 

Our articles and videos have always been central to educating the people of New Brunswick about what the heck is going on at our Water Utility, and explaining the backstory of how we got to be where we are. I think our coverage of the Water Utility scandals and privatization has really helped put in context some of the larger, systemic problems that were leading to dysfunction and corruption here in New Brunswick. It also put on display some of the tactics used by the Mayor and his machine. It’s still weird to say it but the police got a search warrant to take actual evidence of the corruption from our office. It was a rusty old water meter that had been rigged to give the customer free water. It shined an even brighter light on the bribery scandal, but that was just one of many scandals we’ve covered involving that agency. It’s still hard to wrap my head around the water stuff some days, just because the scandals keep going and going. It’s seen so many changes, some good, others we had to fight. For example, when the city tried to privatize the water treatment plant operations. At first it was supposed to be for “two to three years,” but we pushed back, got organized, and exposed what had been done, as well as some violations that ensued. Activists were able to get the city to abandon the privatization deal after 15 months, and our coverage definitely helped.

You recently made national news when CNN journalist April Ryan’s security confiscated your camera and forcibly removed you from her speaking engagement. Fortunately there was some video of the incident and it appears there will be some ramifications, at least for the security guy. Considering her own treatment by the White House, how surprised were you by what happened? 

On a scale of 1 to 10, it was a 10. I truly was not expecting anything like this to happen, especially considering Ms. Ryan is a career journalist who certainly would not appreciate being treated the way I was.

Surely she called you to express her regret about how someone employed by her behaved and to offer some semblance of concern for your well being? 

Unfortunately, we have not communicated outside of some posts I have made on social media tagging her. My phone number is not hard to find and I would still welcome an honest conversation with her.

Do you think she’s positioning herself in case of a lawsuit? 

I honestly don’t know what she is thinking. It seems her response was very poor and she has made this worse at every turn.

When you started at HHS, you had a bit of a shtick — wearing a suit, carrying a briefcase. You also did stand-up comedy (very ably, I might add). Your current line of work is rather high profile, where you often become a part of your stories. Do you crave being the center of attention or what? 🙂 

I have always been interested in media, especially television. In high school, I got somewhat more into things like politics and government, largely thanks to your classes. In college, I developed a real appreciation for the role that journalism has played in shaping the world we live in. As you probably remember from class, I definitely have not really ever been shy. So when given the opportunity to be in front of the camera or the face of my organization I usually don’t hesitate. Some people would probably say that I’m a good communicator so being an advocate, reporter, candidate, etc. is sometimes easy for me. That said, I do often become part of my stories (which is something many reporters actively seek to avoid). One reason this happens is simply that, these days, the people I cover are a lot less used to speaking with reporter. So, sometimes conflicts or arguments ensue because you’re dealing with people who don’t understand things like the right to video record in public, or the fact that you are allowed to do research on them and ask them questions about anything at all. I’ll also admit that I try not to take BS from people, so sometimes they get frustrated when I keep asking the same question over and over again because they’re not answering it. Other times, I’m part of the story because I’m advocating on an issue I feel strongly about, and other times, I’m part of the story because they sent me as subpoena or got a search warrant for our office or something else that is crazy and somewhat beyond my control.

How long do you see yourself continuing in your current role? Will we see 75-year-old Charlie Kratovil with his trenchcoat and fedora uncovering municipal scandals in New Brunswick? 

The news business is always changing and I imagine I’ll continue to be a part of it, but anything is possible. I already have the trenchcoat but I do need a new fedora. Every day is a gift and I’m just happy to still be here.

Thank you again for the opportunity to be interviewed. Hope you can make use of this.

Thanks, Charlie, and thanks for all that you’re doing on behalf of the people of New Brunswick and beyond.

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