At the end of a brief interview with American immigration officials this month, Phil O’Brien, a Briton who has lived in New York City for a decade, received disappointing news: his visa extension application was denied.
Immigration officials had classified his news business W42ST, which reports on Hell’s Kitchen in midtown Manhattan, as “marginal”.
Across the country, local newsrooms have been going through tough times. Hardly a week goes by without news of another newspaper being closed or staff cuts.
W42ST faces the same headwind. After advertising revenues collapsed at the beginning of the pandemic, the publication of a print magazine was stopped. The in-person event for the magazine’s inaugural awards ceremony, scheduled for March 2020 and sponsored by Wells Fargo, has had to be cancelled. In September of that year, an editor left the company because he ran out of money.
But Mr O’Brien hadn’t expected it to come to this. He felt like he was running a dedicated local news company that was just bouncing back from a bloody streak. W42ST still publishes a newsletter and two articles a day online — featuring stories like local art shows and the neighborhood war on rats — with the help of a writer, proofreader, and social media editor.
“I feel treated like a retiree who blogs every six weeks and wants a visa to the United States,” said Mr. O’Brien, 60, in a telephone interview from London. His story has garnered some coverage – in W42ST as well as The City in New York and The Press Gazette in the UK.
Mr. O’Brien founded W42ST with a co-founder in 2014, two years after joining Hell’s Kitchen. In 2015, he received an E-2, a small business owner visa (he had previously had another visa). Mr O’Brien’s E-2 visa was due to expire in spring 2020, but his renewal deadline has been extended because of the pandemic.
This fall, Mr O’Brien submitted extensive financial documents as part of his recent application for an extension of his visa. These documents, some of which were reviewed by The New York Times, reflect a company that faces many challenges. Mr. O’Brien had to inject his own money to keep it going.
In recent years, Mr. O’Brien has earned well over $100,000 in advertising revenue. In 2017, KOB Publishing, W42ST’s parent company, received more than $400,000 from advertisers.
In 2021, however, that figure was just over $60,000.
The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services stipulates that E-2 visa recipients may not operate “marginal businesses,” which they define as “businesses that are unable, presently or in the future, to generate more than enough income for a minimum to earn a living”.
Mr. O’Brien derives his income from the company’s profits, which he admitted have fluctuated in recent years. “It was meager in 2020 and 2021,” he said, looking down at his own paycheck. “It’s been a good wage this year,” at around $72,000, he added.
A spokeswoman for the Foreign Ministry declined to comment on an individual case.
Jesse Bless, an immigration attorney, said consular officers “have a great deal of latitude to make life-changing decisions.” When a person applies for an E-2 visa, State Department officials would want to see a company that meets the parameters of that visa, he said.
But readers and friends say Mr. O’Brien’s influence goes beyond what can be captured on a balance sheet. Mr. O’Brien and his team cover important local news, such as a series about Julio Ramirez, who died last spring after a night out in Hell’s Kitchen. Major news organizations, including the Times, have since reported on the case.
But W42ST also tracks troubling stories for the people of the neighborhood that are rarely touched on by larger news organizations. During that year, the website published several reports of gas line problems at a local restaurant, and Mr O’Brien presented the restaurant with an award to draw attention to his dispute.
“No other publication fills that need,” said Lu Han, 36, a Hell’s Kitchen resident who reads W42ST’s newsletters every day. “They look at numbers but not at the story behind the numbers,” she said of the immigration officers who evaluated Mr O’Brien’s case.
“He’s done an incredible amount of community building,” said Robert Guarino, partner at Manhattan restaurants including Five Napkin Burger, Marseille and Nice. Mr Guarino said he met other small business owners through events hosted by Mr O’Brien and became a patron of the businesses highlighted in W42ST. His restaurants were also featured in the publication.
Mr O’Brien said W42ST has around 45 active advertisers, of which around 30 are small businesses (Mr Guarino is among the advertisers). That approach, Mr O’Brien said, has helped turn the business around in 2022.
At least 90 people, including readers, neighbors and local politicians, sent emails to the Immigration Service on Mr O’Brien’s behalf.
“Phil and his publication represent a new model for local journalism,” said Senator Brad Hoylman, a Manhattan Democrat who wrote a letter in support of Mr. O’Brien, in an interview. “In Manhattan, we’ve seen newspapers shut down and consolidated,” he added. “Phil’s online newspaper is essential and anything but marginal.”
Mr O’Brien continues to operate the site from London, approximately 3,500 miles from the neighborhood he covers.
“It’s certainly a scratch because I’m here,” said Mr. O’Brien. “Normally I would walk the streets every day.”