Upstart News Site Has Youth on Its Side, and Albany in Its Sights

When he was a 17-year-old high school student in 2015, Akash Mehta was appointed to Brooklyn Community Board 6, which runs from Cobble Hill to Park Slope and passes, in part, through Boerum Hill, where he grew up. The New York State Legislature had recently lowered the minimum age for participation to 16; community boards have outsize influence in the life of New York neighborhoods, often determining what can get built and what can’t, and their demographic composition skews toward the late-middle-aged and cranky. His friends made fun of him.

Akash loved city government the way other kids loved Tomb Raider. He had already interned for the City Council, where he began as an emissary of the “adopt a basket” program, going around to pet stores to persuade them to protect municipal trash cans from overflowing on the sidewalks. College came and went — two years on the militaristically back-to-the-land Deep Springs campus in California and then the University of Chicago — after which Mr. Mehta graduated into the uncertainties of the pandemic in the summer of 2020.

He returned to New York, where he wrote about local issues as a freelance journalist and walked around the city helping the poor complete the paperwork necessary for them to receive stimulus checks.

“I was struck by the fact that shelters and NGOs were by and large not setting people up for this money,” he told me. “It was striking that in this famously blue state, in the 10th largest economy in the world, that we couldn’t get these forms to people who needed them.”

Out of these and other revelations came the notion for New York Focus, a nonprofit news site. It would enter a space that had been enlivened by the arrival of The City in 2019 and Hell Gate three years later, digital publications devoted to covering New York City. But it would distinguish itself by concentrating on the way that power is exercised in Albany and how it filters down and affects almost everything. Against trend, there would be very little in the way of takes or opinion.

Since it came into being in the fall of 2020 with two of Mr. Mehta’s classmates from Chicago, Sam Mellins and Lee Harris (who was the editor of the university newspaper, The Maroon), the platform has had an impressive influence, particularly around its coverage of prisons.

On Tuesday, New York Focus reported on a directive, rendered to almost no attention last month by the state’s Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, that sought to severely limit the ways in which incarcerated people could distribute their creative work. In recent years, as magazines and literary journals have sought a more diverse range of voices, prison writing has reached a new visibility, with the work of essayists like John J. Lennon, currently serving time at Sullivan Correctional Facility, appearing in The New York Review of Books and The New York Times Magazine.

The order would have also prevented Mr. Lennon and writers like him from getting paid. A day after the New York Focus piece appeared, the corrections department rescinded the directive. By Wednesday evening, PEN America had issued a statement celebrating the reversal of a decision “that would have undermined the free expression of incarcerated writers.”

This was not all. In November New York Focus, with the Intercept as a partner, published the results of a yearlong investigation into allegations of physical and sexual abuse at Shawangunk Correctional Facility in Ulster County. The prompt had come from an inmate who had accused two guards of beating and sodomizing him only to find that he was disbelieved, that his medical care in the aftermath of the incident was inadequate and that witnesses to the assault were subject to retaliation for speaking out.

The article called out the pitfalls of a self-policing prison system and the lack of accountability inherent in the investigations around allegations of sexual violence. This week, the State Senate passed a measure, sponsored by Julia Salazar, that would delegate the authority to look into claims of sexual assault against corrections staff to outside investigators. The bill will eventually move to the State Assembly for a vote.

The recent rise of independent nonprofit news organizations that have evolved in response to the disappearance of local papers had not produced a platform along a similar model specifically devoted to statewide politics and policy in New York. There were examples in other states, most notably The Texas Tribune, which would eventually inspire Mr. Mehta and his friends.

A study released by the Pew Research Center last year showed that the number of full-time statehouse reporters across the country had fallen from 904 in 2014 to 850 in 2022, just at the precarious moment that state governments have come to play an increasingly crucial role in major national policy debates. The heyday of this sort of coverage was in the 1980s, when the Reagan revolution similarly divided the country and brought greater attention to what was happening at the state level.

At the time, Rex Smith, who would go on to become the editor of The Albany Times Union for 18 years until his retirement in 2020, ran the state capitol bureau for Newsday. He recalled a time in 1987 when Mario Cuomo, then governor, was merely considering a presidential bid and he and 12 other Albany reporters flew to Moscow with him, something that would be almost unimaginable today. Mr. Smith, who has been an informal adviser to New York Focus, said that for the next two years he flew everywhere with the governor.

“When you have a community that once had a vibrant news organization that now has virtually none, it’s not just the school boards that are not getting covered,” he told me. “We’re left just getting direct communications from the legislators themselves.”

At a recent event in Brooklyn Heights meant to attract wealthy donors, Mr. Mehta proved a confident salesman of his product. New York Focus is financed through foundation grants and individual contributions and its budget this year is running at just over $1 million. There are plans to increase that figure as well as the size of the staff, from seven reporters and editors in New York and around Albany to 11.

The burdens of reaching that goal are surely made easier by the fact that Mr. Mehta is well-connected. The board he put together is led by Oskar Eustis, the artistic director of the Public Theater, whose son Jack was a close friend of Mr. Mehta’s and who died when they were teenagers. Mr. Eustis, in turn, brought on the biographer Ron Chernow, who began his career as a freelancer, writing about New York in the 1970s, long before he wrote “Alexander Hamilton,” the book that would inspire the Lin-Manuel Miranda musical.

“They’re not going for low-hanging fruit,” Mr. Chernow said. “Their journalistic instincts are very good. I don’t think I had anything to teach them.”

Ginia Bellafante has served as a reporter, critic and, since 2011, as the Big City columnist. She began her career at The Times as a fashion critic, and has also been a television critic. She previously worked at Time magazine. @GiniaNYT

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