Most agency executives would sneer at the chance to work in Jersey City.
But New Jersey Online President Peter Levitan smiles when he looks at the scene below his window: a commuter-convenienceland of six-story buildings, honking cabs and check-cashing shops.
"I think the future is going to be built from the bottom up," said the 44-year-old executive. "I believe in the 80-20 rule. About 80% of all transactions happen within 20 miles of your house."
NOT A NEW-MEDIA MAN
An eight-year veteran of Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising, Mr. Levitan wasn't a new-media man at first. But a conversation a few years ago with two online experts changed his thinking.
"One of the most influential discussions I had about the medium was with [America Online's] Mark Minkin and Ted Leonsis," he said. "They said, `wake up, Peter,' and I did."
In 1994, after stints at Saatchi offices in Minneapolis, New York and London, Mr. Levitan struck out as a cyber-preneur with plans for a regional service of his own-in Brunswick, Maine.
With a National Science Foundation grant and an eye toward finding investment partners, he wanted to test the service's impact on the Brunswick community, not unlike the current cable modem trials taking place in Elmira, N.Y.
A CALL FROM ADVANCE
Then he got a call from Advance Publications and the invitation to launch New Jersey Online, a regional Web-based service covering three Advance newspapers (http://www.nj.com).
"I was amazed that there was a company that wanted to start this type of business," he said. "It meets the needs of everyone from New York intelligentsia to the weekend fisherman," yet, he said, can be a jumping-off point on the Web for New Jersey residents.
Now his 20-person staff is working hard to keep on top of breaking New Jersey news.
One pressing issue on Mr. Levitan's mind: how to run a newsroom environment online. The company's offices are in an old news building with slow elevators and wide, gray views of the Jersey landscape.
"There are people here who come in at 5:30 in the morning, and soon we're going to have to get someone for the night shift," he said. "My goal is not to be a 24-hour business, but there's always that possibility that news will happen on the weekend."
After mounting a weather site in the fall, the service now boasts editorial about New Jersey sports, educational events and schedules, shopping deals and tips from mall maven "Jersey Girl."
IN-HOUSE AD UNIT
Not content to leave his advertising roots behind, Mr. Levitan also opened Journal Square Interactive, an in-house agency and syndication business for New Jersey Online.
The service will syndicate weather to multiple local online services in-state, and may also syndicate horoscopes, comics or humor. Its first ad client is Nabisco Direct.
As one of hundreds of news services on the Web, New Jersey Online will have a short time to carve out a niche for itself. Mr. Levitan, for his part, is modest in his goals. "We'll be successful if we can get our audience to spend 20 minutes with us each week," he said.