Remembering Fran Burns

Fran Burns (third row, second from right) during her days at the Hudson Dispatch.

Fran Burns (1948-2017)

I loved to hear Fran’s stories.

We old newspaper ladies tend to ramble on about predatory politicians, clueless editors, catastrophic malfunctions in new-and-improved technology, but Fran put her own spin on her tales: her days at the Hudson “Disgrace,” from churning out obits to covering the Statehouse. Then at UPI, fielding the questions: “Does UPI still exist?” and “I thought they went out of business years ago?”

But she had earlier stories, too. Her college years at St. John’s College, the one in Annapolis, MD. It sounds like a place for late-night debates on God, politics, baseball, all the important things.

Fran spent some years as a cab driver and then as a self-described Trotskyite forklift operator, but she loved journalism which is best described as an addiction rather than a profession.

She became involved in the New Jersey Professional Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, a high-falutin’ (and somewhat redundant) name for a group of like-minded ink-stained wretches. Even in this era of electronic wizardry, there are those of us who bask in the aroma of newsprint, thrive skating on the edge of a deadline, survive on a diet of caffeine and, in Fran’s case, nicotine and love every minute of it.

Fran was president of the motley crew in the early 2000s and remained on the board after her tenure at the helm. She was known for a series of freelance programs. She invited editor and freelancers to a panel discussion/speed dating/melee. Many of us got jobs or at least gigs out of those panels. Because Fran knew everyone, she was a great matchmaker.

Fran handled her illness like she handled everything else: with humor and spirit. She continued to work, editing for NJ Spotlight, as long as she could. She cracked jokes about how, after years of smoking, it wasn’t lung cancer that got her. She ventured to New York City in April to the SPJ Regional Conference and for a UPI reunion as well as to Maryland for a college event.

The last time I saw Fran was after an SPJ meeting in August. I ended up trading stories with her until much later than I thought I would, but she wasn’t slowing down or tiring at all. Surrounded by books and not a few journalism awards, Fran was as sharp and funny as ever. I’m glad I will be able to remember her that way.…

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Dash-cam videos, new SkillsFest

Hello SPJ members! I hope you’ve all had a good summer and enjoyable Labor Day weekend.

Your SPJ New Jersey board had a very productive summer. Here are a few things we’ve been working on.

Friend of the court

This past weekend the board voted unanimously to join in an amicus or “friend of the court” brief in a lawsuit filed by John Paff versus Ocean County.

John Ensslin

Paff is an officer with New Jersey Foundation for Open Government, an open records advocacy group with which New Jersey SPJ holds a permanent seat.

He sought a copy of a police dashboard video from a 2014 incident in which a police dog attacked a woman who allegedly failed to stop in a vehicle pursuit.

Here is a link to a story about the case.

As one of our board members wrote, it is a relatively easy decision to join this case as a “friend of the court.”

To a person, our board believes it is important that police dashboard camera footage be a public record.

A step back in time

Our board had a productive meeting on Aug. 26 in Flemington. We met in perhaps the most elegant surroundings of any meeting in several years: the Doric House next to the Hunterdon County Historical Society Library.

The library had a wealth of materials about the 1935 Lindbergh kidnap-murder trial which took place in the courthouse just down the block and across the street.

For me, the highlight of the collection was a document signed by all the reporters who covered the trial, including one “Damon Runyon.”

Later Regional Director Jane Primerano led us on a walking tour to the now defunct Union Hotel where Runyon and the press corps stayed during the trial.

A new board member

During the meeting, we voted to confirm the appointment of Claire Regan as the newest member of our board.

Claire is a former editor for the Staten Island Advance who now teaches journalism at Wagner University.

She is a former member of the New York Deadline Club’s board of directors where she served on their scholarship committee. She helped Jane organize the most recent Region 1 Spring Conference in New York City.

Claire is a gifted graphic designer. She designed the beautiful medallions that the Deadline Club uses for their Hall of Fame. She also helped our chapter with designing brochures when New Jersey last hosted the spring regional conference in New Brunswick.

She fills the unexpired term of Maureen Nevin. Thanks, Maureen, for your service.

We’re a non-profit (again)

Our chapter received some good news recently from the Internal Revenue Service. We have been approved as a tax-exempt 501(c)6 organization.

What this means for us is that we no longer have to rely upon the national SPJ’s tax exempt status.…

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NJ SPJ plans for the coming year

John Ensslin, chapter president

Hello NJ SPJ members,

 A budget plan, a by-laws overhaul, a possible two-state journalism contest and talk of a Journalism Hall of Fame emerged from a very productive retreat by the board of the Society of Professional Journalists New Jersey chapter on July 16.
We met for just over four hours at the home of Russ and Susan DeSantis to craft an overall plan for the year ahead.
Here are some highlights:
  • Board members discussed creating a budget that would pursue an austerity plan while trying to build up a reserve for next year.We anticipate a good year financially – particularly because we’ll be co-hosting the Regional Conference this spring in Philadelphia.However, such opportunities only come along every four years, so building up a reserve this year will help create some stability next year.
  •  We decided to attempt a top to bottom rewrite of our bylaws. I’ve appointed a committee chaired by NJ SPJ board secretary Emily Kratzer to come up with specific recommendations. This will likely be a slow process that may take up most of the year, so stay tuned. 
A two state contest?
  • The board also explored a possible merger of our journalism contest with that of the Keystone chapter in Pennsylvania. We’re only in the most preliminary discussions and there’s no done deal.However our contest this year experienced a sharp decline in the number of entries. A possible merger with Keystone, which has a similar-sized contest, could help create a more competitive field.We’ll spend the rest of this summer working on the details. No matter what happens, we will continue with our signature honors – the O’Brien, Barto, Awbrey and Courage Under Fire awards.
So again, stay tuned.
New Jersey Journalism Hall of Fame
Our chapter is planning to do the first ever New Jersey Journalism Hall of Fame.
We’ll be turning to our chapter’s former presidents to help us develop a list of potential candidates.
But you can help too. If there is someone you would like to nominate for this honor, send your recommendations along to me. My email:
With the exception of the bylaws overhaul, I expect all three of these matters may come up for further discussion at our Aug. 26 meeting, which will take place at the Doric House Museum in downtown Flemington. See details below.
The 11 a.m. meeting will be followed by a walking tour of the Union Hotel property, which recently won designation as one of SPJ national’s historic sites in journalism and the first in New Jersey.
Let me know if you’d like to take part in the tour.
Board member sought
We currently have a vacancy on our board. If you would like to be considered for the post, please let me know.
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NJSPJ President John Ensslin shares two very good pieces of news!


First, Miriam Ascarelli, our immediate past president and the all-around heart and soul of this chapter – has been named the winner of this year’s SPJ’s Howard Dubin award for outstanding pro chapter member.

Those of us on the SPJ New Jersey board were thrilled to hear this. We all have been quietly lobbying the SPJ National Board on Miriam’s behalf since April. We’re glad they listened to us.

What they heard is what folks in New Jersey have known all along: that Miriam is an exceptional SPJ leader who skillfully led the chapter through some major challenges over the last two years. We talked about her dedication to SPJ’s mission and her compassion for others, including her students at New Jersey Institute of Technology.

This is a very distinguished award named after Howard Dubin, a true gentleman and one of SPJ’s elder statesmen.

Miriam won for outstanding member among large pro chapters. The winner for small chapters was none other than Hagit Limor, a former SPJ national president, for her recent work with the Cincinnati chapter.

So congratulations Miriam on the well-deserved honor.

Flemington landmark recognized

The other good news is this:

The SPJ national board of directors has agreed to add the Union Hotel in downtown Flemington to its registry of historic places in journalism.

The Union Hotel was headquarters for reporters and photographers from around the world who converged there in January 1935 to cover the Lindbergh kidnap-murder trial. Legendary columnist Damon Runyon was among the reporters who covered what was then considered “the trial of the century.”

You can read more about the hotel on this website of the Friends of Historic Flemington.

Last summer, the SPJ New Jersey board voted to designate the Union Hotel as one of the first two locations on the New Jersey list of historic places in journalism. The other landmark was the T. Thomas Fortune house in Red Bank, home to a pioneering African-American journalist.

Kudos to Regional Director Jane Primerano, who has advocated for the Union Hotel designation for several years.

This marks the first time that a New Jersey site has made the national registry since SPJ started the list in 1942. It’s an impressive collection of sites – with locations such as Ben Franklin’s first newspaper office and Edward R. Murrow’s old CBS studio.

Here’s a link to the entire list.

Flemington meeting, walking tour

At some point later this year, we’ll have a formal ceremony with the unveiling of the SPJ Historic Sites in Journalism plaque.

But meanwhile, if you’d like to see what prompted this honor, join us in Flemington for a walking tour on Saturday, Aug. 26.

The SPJ New Jersey board will hold its regular monthly meeting at 11 a.m.…

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NJ-SPJ Courage Under Fire winner feted at awards brunch

NEWARK  — In accepting his Courage Under Fire Award from NJ-SPJ, Trentonian reporter Isaac Avilucea said he at times compared the protracted legal battle over a prior restraint order to the TV series “Batman and Robin,” with him as Robin and his attorney, Bruce Rosen, of McCusker, Anselmi, Rosen & Carvelli, as the “Caped Crusader.”

Rosen, who served as keynote speaker for the June 25 Excellence in Journalism brunch, told the audience that he found himself having to adapt to Avilucea’s social media style, as the 28-year-old kept the public constantly apprised of his views of the legal machinations via Tweets and Facebook postings. Rosen, a former journalist himself, found that problematic in trying to keep his legal strategies close to the vest.

In the end, “Batman” and “Robin” prevailed when, in March, state Superior Court Judge Lawrence DeBello threw out the prior restraint order, which had stood for five months. (Last week, Avilucea put the state on notice that he is planning to sue the state for malicious prosecution and defaming him in court. For more on that, click here.)

“I’m a very transparent person,” explained Avilucea. “Nothing should be locked down,” alluding to the case, in which the state Attorney General’s office sought a prior restraint order. Throughout the ordeal, Avilucea said he felt an obligation that if he allowed his rights to be “disenfranchised” every journalist in the state would have to live with what would have become a precedent-setting prior restraint.

He thanked Trentonian editor John Berry and several colleagues, then moved on to the other battle he was waging simultaneously; the one for his life. Avilucea is receiving chemo and other transfusions to fight testicular cancer. He was diagnosed and treated for cancer in 2014, but it returned, affecting also his lymph nodes, lungs and vital organs. “I planned on winning both fights through sheer strength,” he said. The outcome is positive there, too, with cancer markers down and some normalized, he reported.

“This prior restraint fight I thought was going to be my legacy,” Avilucea recalled. “And I didn’t want my legacy to be that of a Benedict Arnold, a traitor, someone who sold out journalism, not just for myself but for other reporters across the state.”

NJ-SPJ also awarded Courage Under Fire Certificates of Merit to Rosen and Avilucea’s Trentonian colleagues: editor John Berry and reporters Sulaiman Abdur-Rahman, David Foster, and Penny Ray.

A Go Fund Me page, established to cover Avilucea’s medical expenses, can be found here.…

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