Michael M. Shapiro ’03 started making headlines while he was still in college. As a 21-year-old Rutgers student, he decided to run for mayor of New Brunswick, becoming one of the youngest candidates for public office in New Jersey history.

He lost that race, but not his taste for local politics—or the local news media. Now, he makes headlines for a living as the founder, CEO, general counsel, and editor of the hyperlocal news website, TheAlternativePress.com. And this former litigator has also established a successful business model for local news at a time when many print news outfits are losing money and closing. But a career in the media wasn’t always in the cards for Shapiro.

“From the age of five, I wanted to be an attorney,” he says. “My uncle was an attorney, and I thought that all you did was talk on the phone all day.”

Even though he worked on both his high school and college newspapers, when it came time to choose a profession, he chose law. And he chose Stanford Law, in part for its location in Silicon Valley and its intellectual property curriculum. “I thought I would be an IP attorney, and there was no other place I would rather have gone.”

While in law school, Shapiro began writing a weekly public policy column that was published on various New Jersey websites. When he graduated, he returned to the New Jersey suburbs and commuted into New York City where he worked for a large law firm in general litigation, while continuing to write his columns. He enjoyed his practice, but his schedule and young family left little time for involvement in his local community.

All that changed in April 2008 when he learned that his 10-month-old son needed open-heart surgery. Shapiro decided he needed a career closer to home and began considering alternatives.

“I am an avid consumer of local news,” Shapiro says, “and I recognized the need for high-quality, objective, and efficient coverage of local issues, done on a daily basis and in an environmentally friendly way.” He saw an opportunity in the lack of good online local news services. His concept (originally a blog) became one of the first online local news websites of its kind in the country.

The website soon consumed all his time and Shapiro entered a “very scary period.” He left his law firm and prepared to launch the website with a staff consisting of just two freelance reporters and columnists, himself and his wife.

That was in October 2008, only six months after Shapiro’s epiphany and only a month after his son’s successful surgery. Originally covering three towns when it launched, the site now boasts coverage of 10, with more on the way. The inaugural staff, meanwhile, has expanded to 200 freelance reporters, 30 columnists, and 5 salespersons. News covered runs the gamut from high school sports to town council meetings, local events, business and community issues, and everything in between. And in a true measure of the site’s sustainability, in January 2010 it was cash flow positive, according to Shapiro. For 2010, to date it is “in the black.”

To ensure quality, Shapiro adheres to the principles of professional journalism. He has also established advisory boards in all 10 towns; the boards include business and community leaders and public officials, all of whom provide feedback. And if there is any question of the site’s success, he can point to millions of hits and to a large and growing number of monthly unique users—more than 45,000 of them.

Shapiro can also point to the New Jersey Press Association’s decision to award press credentials to two of the site’s journalists. “This is recognition not only of the site’s legitimacy as a news organization but also of the important news-gathering role that the online media now plays,” says Shapiro.

The New York Times and AOL certainly seem to think that Shapiro is onto something. Times reporter Tina Kelley has referred to TheAlternativePress.com as one of “the best local news sites in the country.” And if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, both companies have expressed their admiration by entering the New Jersey hyperlocal news market with competing websites.

But Shapiro doesn’t mind the competition. “Competitors in local news make everyone better,” he says, “and ultimately that’s better for the reader.”