George Washington Bridge

Even in New York and New Jersey, a traffic jam on the George Washington Bridge last September hardly seemed a major scandal. Tailbacks are far from uncommon on the bridge, which connects the two states via the Hudson River and is the busiest in the world.

Yet five days of traffic chaos have returned to dent — perhaps even permanently derail — the White House hopes of Chris Christie, the charismatic New Jersey Governor who had been the favourite to win the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. In a plot twist that would make the scriptwriters of House of Cards proud, it emerged last week that the jam was an act of political revenge concocted by a key Christie aid and a political ally at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

As it so often is with such scandals, this was politics at its worst and journalism at its best. In particular, the affair has drawn rave reviews for the Bergen Record, the family-owned local paper that has dominated the story from the beginning, outshining even The New York Times. Most US journalism watchers would be shocked if The Record, the second-biggest-selling paper in New Jersey, didn’t win a Pulitzer for its “Bridgegate” reporting.

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How the story was reported is a specific tale — tied up in the intricacies of local US politics — but one with relevance to Newcastle and New England as well as New Jersey.

As The Washington Post‘s Erik Wemple has written, the story started with a tip-off from a gridlocked friend of Stephen Borg, The Record‘s fourth-generation publisher. The information was passed down to reporter John Cichowski, who has written a regular column (and now blog) on commuter issues for 10 years. At first, Cichowski wasn’t excited — “A tie-up of the George Washington Bridge is not really news,” he later said — but when the chaos stretched on for days without a good explanation he could smell a story.

On September 13, The Record published Cichowski’s thoroughly researched column on the gridlock. From the start there was suspicion, but no proof, that the road closure was some form of payback for Democratic Fort Lee mayor Mark Sokolich, who had declined to endorse Christie in the recent New Jersey elections. Sokolich told Cichowski:

“I’ve asked the Port for an explanation, but they haven’t responded. I thought we had a good relationship. Now I’m beginning to wonder if there’s something I did wrong. Am I being sent some sort of message?”

Traffic returned to normal that day, but the official explanation — that the closures were part of a Port Authority study into traffic patterns — didn’t sway a sceptical Cichowski. He kept demanding answers from evasive officials.

As the months went by, Christie talked down the story, saying it wasn’t a “big deal” and claiming his opponents were playing politics with the issue. But The Record kept on the case and assigned Shawn Boburg — who had written extensively on the politically riven Port Authority — to investigate. Public record requests (a US version of freedom-of-information requests) unearthed letters from Sokolich to the Port Authority that cast further doubt on the motivation for the closure.

“We do an awful lot of public records requests,” The Record‘s associate director of assignments Dan Sforza later told media website Poynter. “They are the go-to tool for us on virtually anything of substance.”

It helped that The Record is part of a diversified, family-owned media company that hasn’t slashed staff numbers as deeply as other publications. According to publisher Borg, the paper has lost only 10% of its staff since its peak and has no further plans for staff reductions.

On January 9, The Record finally found its bombshell when Boburg obtained a cache of emails between Christie’s staff and the Port Authority. This time it was contacts, rather than public record requests, that paid off — the leak came from a source, presumably a politically motivated one. The most explosive correspondence was between Christie’s deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly, and David Wildstein, a Christie representative on the Port Authority.

In August, Kelly wrote to Wildstein: “Time for some traffic problems at Fort Lee.” Wildstein, who later ordered the closures, responded: “Got it.”

The emails showed unequivocally that the gridlock — which caused ambulance delays and kept children from school — had been concocted in the governor’s office.

Although The New York Times followed up with its own independently sourced report, The Record got the story first and its website traffic soared as readers rushed to the story.

“When we broke the story Wednesday, we saw our visits per hour increase from 20,000 to about 80,000 during the hour we broke the story,” The Record‘s website director Sean Oates told Mashable. By the end of the day a record 700,000 people had visited the site, up from 250,000 on a typical day. The record was broken again a day later. The lesson: scoops still matter in the digital age.

Other outlets — including the Times and The Wall Street Journal — pushed the story forward with fine reporting, but none covered with as much depth as The Record.

In an age of declining trust in the media, the paper’s reporting offers a reminder of the importance of well-resourced, fact-based reporting in local communities. And what will be lost if the often unglamorous work local publications do — attending interminable public meetings, filing requests for public records — can’t be funded in the future.