I’ve never formally met Trentonian reporter Isaac Avilucea, but I was well aware of his work. Avilucea helped to keep me, and thousands of other Trentonians informed through his investigative reports that revealed Trenton's dysfunctional city council and a play-by-play of Mayor Reed Gusciora's administration. Avilucea reported on everything from crime to school budgets as the newspaper's sole reporter. When I learned that Avilucea will be leaving The Trentonian on September 9th to cover Philadelphia news for Axios, I had to reach out to him to let him know how much his work was appreciated.
I’ve seen Avilucea in passing at news conferences, but no words were ever exchanged. For my part, the times that I was in the same room as Avilucea I was in “work” mode and didn’t think it was the right time to introduce myself even though I realized that I should have. The media landscape in New Jersey is small and even smaller in Trenton, so I view fellow journalists as potential collaborators, not competitors.
Besides, Avilucea is part of a dying breed of hard-nosed investigative journalists who are always on the scene breaking news and investigating stories that impact our daily lives by keeping us informed about the town we live in. Avilucea's in-your-face-style of reporting is reminiscent of the roving reporters who worked at The Daily Planet in the Superman movies in the 80s starring the late Christopher Reeve I used to love to watch as a kid. Avilucea has won many awards including the NJ SPJ Courage Under Fire award (twice) and the Tim O'Brien Award for Best Use of Open Public Records.
“I hope The Trentonian hires someone to cover the city," Avilucea told the Trenton Journal. "A place like Trenton is a big newsmaker and needs daily coverage." When he started working at The Trentonian in 2014, Avilucea said that there were five reporters including himself working on news. One by one the editorial department lost reporters for various reasons until Avilucea was the last man standing.
We reached out to Trentonian Editor, John Berry, who said that he's currently in the early stages of looking for a new hire. "Isaac is a tenacious reporter who has done a lot to hold leaders in the city and the region accountable," Berry said via email. "He’s worked tirelessly, with our lawyer CJ Griffin, to help make public records more accessible. Whoever we hire has big shoes to fill."
New Jersey is designated as news desert, which is defined as a community either urban or rural with limited access to credible and comprehensive news and information that feeds grassroots democracy. What this means is that Avilucea’s departure might possibly leave a major void in the city for in-depth local news coverage just as the race for the November 8th municipal election gears up. It takes a long time to establish connections and build trust within the community the way that Avilucea has done over the years.
"Personally, Isaac was always fair and balanced when dealing with me. I found him determined and professional and always enjoyed it when he would reach out for a comment or interview," said Michael Ranallo, Trenton City Council Candidate At-Large and Co-Founder of the popular Trenton Orbit Facebook group. "This is Trenton’s loss and will definitely be felt in this upcoming election season,” he added.
According to a report entitled, "The Expanding News Desert," the number of communities that had their own newspapers in 2004 and now have no original reporting whatsoever, in print or digitally, has grown to 1,800 from 1,300. These are news deserts, with no coverage of issues. The Trentonian and the Times of Trenton are the only daily newspapers that covers the capital city. With Avilucea's exit announcement there will only be two editorial columnists left at the newspaper, L.A. Parker and Jeff Edelstein. And it's been reported that longtime columnist Parker plans to retire by the end of the year.
Avilucea told the Trenton Journal he feels Trenton suffers from a cycle of trauma and disenfranchisement that has almost become expected. "If you look at the last election, only 8,848 voters cast ballots in the mayoral runoff between Reed Gusciora and Paul Perez. The 2018 election turnout was one of the lowest in Trenton in a decade. That tells me there's an entrenched sense of apathy in Trentonians. Candidates aren't engendering excitement or hope in constituents. And why would they? There was a hangover from the Tony Mack years where a corrupt local government almost became an expected norm, not the exception."
Looking back at his time covering Trenton while thinking about the future, Avilucea remains pragmatic. "There's that old saying that the dawn is darkest before the light," he said. "I hope that's true for Trenton. The last four years have been bleak. Maybe this council did the city a favor, without even knowing it, by being historically dysfunctional. Maybe historic dysfunction is what's needed to wake voters out of their apathetic slumber. I pray that's the case, otherwise Trenton is doomed to repeat the same cycle of trauma and disenfranchisement. We the people must save ourselves from ourselves."
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✉️ Got questions, story ideas or comments, contact: Kenneth@trentonjournal.com