Another Sign of Hard Times in Local News: A Declined Visa

At the end of a short interview with American immigration officials this month, Phil O’Brien, a Briton who has lived in New York City for a decade, received some disappointing news: His visa renewal application had been rejected.

Immigration officials had deemed his news business, W42ST, which covers Hell’s Kitchen in Midtown Manhattan, “marginal.”

Across the country, local newsrooms have hit hard times. Hardly a week passes without news of another paper closing or cutting way back on staffing.

W42ST is facing the same headwinds. After advertising revenue plummeted at the start of the pandemic, it stopped publishing a print magazine. The in-person event for the magazine’s first awards ceremony, scheduled for March 2020 and sponsored by Wells Fargo, had to be canceled. In September that year, an editor left the company because it was running out of money.

But Mr. O’Brien did not expect it to come to this. He felt that he was running a dedicated local news business that was just getting back on its feet after a bruising stretch. W42ST still publishes a newsletter and two articles a day online — covering stories like local art shows and the neighborhood’s war on rats — with the help of a writer, proofreader and social media editor.

“I feel like I’m being treated like a retired guy who does a blog once every six weeks and wants a visa for the United States,” Mr. O’Brien, 60, said in a phone interview from London. His story has generated some coverage — in W42ST, as well as with The City in New York and The Press Gazette in Britain.

Mr. O’Brien started W42ST with a co-founder in 2014, two years after he moved to Hell’s Kitchen. In 2015, he received an E-2, a visa for small business investors (he previously had a different visa). Mr. O’Brien’s E-2 visa was set to expire in the spring of 2020, but his renewal deadline was extended because of the pandemic.

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This fall, as part of his recent application for his visa renewal, Mr. O’Brien submitted extensive financial documents. Those documents, some of which were viewed by The New York Times, reflect a business facing many challenges. Mr. O’Brien had to inject his own money to keep it running.

In most recent years, Mr. O’Brien generated well over $100,000 in advertising revenue. In 2017, KOB publishing, the parent company of W42ST, received more than $400,000 from advertisers.

In 2021, however, that number was just over $60,000.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services stipulates that recipients of E-2 visas cannot be running “marginal enterprises,” which it defines as “one that does not have the present or future capacity to generate more than enough income to provide a minimal living.”

Mr. O’Brien draws his income from the profits of the business, which he acknowledged had fluctuated in recent years. “In 2020 and 2021, that was meager,” he said, referring to his own paycheck. “It’s been a good wage this year” of around $72,000, he added.

A spokeswoman for the State Department declined to comment on an individual case.

The rejection letter Mr. O’Brien received.Credit…via Phil O’Brien

Jesse Bless, an immigration lawyer, said that consular officials have “wide latitude to make life-changing decisions.” If an individual is requesting an E-2 visa, he said, State Department officials will want to see a business that meets the parameters of that visa.

But readers and friends say that Mr. O’Brien’s impact goes beyond what can be captured in a balance sheet. Mr. O’Brien and his team cover major local news stories, such as a series about Julio Ramirez, who died last spring after a night out in Hell’s Kitchen. Larger news organizations, including the The Times, have since reported on the case.

But W42ST also pursues stories of concern to people in the neighborhood that larger news organizations rarely touch. This year, the site published multiple reports on a local restaurant’s gas line problems, and Mr. O’Brien presented the restaurant with an award in an attempt to draw attention to its strife.

“No other publication fills this need,” said Lu Han, 36, a Hell’s Kitchen resident who reads W42ST’s newsletters every day. “They’re looking at numbers, but not looking at the story behind the numbers,” she said of the immigration officials evaluating Mr. O’Brien’s case.

“He did an incredible amount to build community,” said Robert Guarino, a partner in Manhattan restaurants, including Five Napkin Burger, Marseille and Nizza. Mr. Guarino said he had met other small business owners through events that Mr. O’Brien hosted and had become a patron at shops highlighted in W42ST. His restaurants have also been featured in the publication.

Mr. O’Brien said W42ST had about 45 active advertisers, of which about 30 were small businesses (Mr. Guarino is among the advertisers). That approach, Mr. O’Brien said, has helped the business start to turn around in 2022.

At least 90 people, including readers, neighbors and local politicians, sent emails to immigration officials on Mr. O’Brien’s behalf.

“Phil and his publication represent a new model for local journalism,” Senator Brad Hoylman, a Manhattan Democrat who wrote a letter in support of Mr. O’Brien, said in an interview. “In Manhattan, we’ve seen newspapers close and consolidate,” he added. “Phil’s online newspaper is essential and is anything but marginal.”

Mr. O’Brien continues to run the site from London, about 3,500 miles from the neighborhood he covers.

“It’s certainly a scrape because I’m here,” Mr. O’Brien said. “Usually, I would walk the streets every day.”

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