A Time of Upheaval…and Opportunity

Fall 2020 President’s Message

“It is not light that we need, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake.” ~ Frederick Douglass

We have the storm of COVID, a whirlwind of an election and perhaps, finally, we’re having the earthquake in racial equality for which Frederick Douglas fought.  You know that these things are changing journalism, but you may not be aware of exactly what’s changing for journalists in New Jersey.

Here’s what’s different in just the last few months:

NJ-SPJ condemned Gustavo’s arrest, in a statement that was published on the Sunday op-ed page of the Star-Ledger.


Two members of NJ-SPJ are serving on the Attorney General’s working group.  One is Sulaiman Abdur-Rahman, a reporter at The Trentonian and the other is me, Bob Schapiro, the chapter president. (I can be contacted at bob@newsfilms.org.) In addition, the commission accepted our recommendation of Audrey Harvin, the executive editor of The Burlington County Times and other newspapers in southern NJ.  The other people representing the press on the commission are Thomas Cafferty, the attorney for the NJ Press Association (NJPA), and Paul Rotella, President of the NJ Broadcasters Association.

  • After a hiatus of several months, the NJPA has just resumed issuing press cards. But big changes are in store.  You may already have an NJPA press card in your wallet.  On the back you will see the seal of the state police.  That made the NJPA “state actors” and involved them in a rather odd lawsuit.  Apart from that, there is growing sentiment that the government and law enforcement should not determine who is “press.”

The NJPA invited NJ-SPJ to work with them on the new standards.  Traditionally, the NJPA has represented businesses, publications and groups, while the members of NJ-SPJ are individual journalists; quite a few people are involved in both organizations.

As we said, big changes are in the works and they may be announced fairly soon.

  • New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act (OPRA) no longer provides a 7-day time limit for obtaining official minutes, public contracts and other materials. If you’re having problems obtaining public records or gaining access to public meetings, email us at feedback@gmail.com
  • The Open Public Meetings and transparency laws in many New Jersey communities have changed.
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Announcing our 2020 Signature Awards winners

For a summary sheet listing the names of our winners in all of our categories, click here. 

Hello friends –

As many of you know, this is the season in which we honor the winners of our annual NJ-SPJ Signature awards luncheon. It’s always an inspiring event since it’s one of those rare opportunities to gather people in the New Jersey journalism community to celebrate excellence in our profession.

Yet, this year, because of the pandemic, this in-person event cannot happen. Even though New Jersey is starting to open up, social distance remains the operative word. That is why we are taking the unprecedented step of announcing our 2020 Signature Awards winners online.

This year’s winners covered a wide range of stories, from a look at activists’ calls to allow convicted felons in New Jersey to vote to a deep dive into bullying in school.

Our most prestigious award is the David Carr Reporter of the Year. This year, the honor went to Dustin Racioppi, of The Record/northjersey.com for a collection of stories about a patronage scandal at the New Jersey Schools Development Authority. His work is investigative beat reporting at its best. As the judges noted, “Mr. Racioppi’s extraordinary scoop and his continued and sustained coverage of the scandal involving the New Jersey Schools Development Authority is the work that would make the great David Carr, a true master of the craft, proud.”

But I must admit a fondness for one particular category: the Wilson Barto Rookie Journalist of the Year. This year, the Barto went to Scott Yunker of The Coast Star. He submitted three stories, including my personal favorite, a piece about 56-year-old Jackie Morgan-Stackhouse, a Brielle, NJ resident, who has traced her family’s history back to slavery and has helped write the history of African-Americans in Monmouth County. I hope young people, especially, find inspiration in his work.

Of course, there are more. In all, there are nine awards categories and more than 20 winners spanning first, second and third place. if you want to find out about them, open up the Power Point above (links to the winning work are included). I invite you to take a look. (For a summary sheet of all the winners, you can also click here.)

Cheers to all,

Miriam Ascarelli, NJ-SPJ president

P.S. The end of June is also significant because it marks the end of another “year’’ at NJ-SPJ. This year, we will “pass the gavel’’ virtually, so let me introduce our 2020-2021 board. Our officers are: Bob Schapiro, president; Steve Tettamanti, vice president; Sue Toth, secretary; and Lew Wheaton, treasurer. Our trustees are: Melanie Andizei, Liz Birge, Robert Bugai, Emily Kratzer, David Levitt, Claire Regan, and me, the out-going NJ-SPJ president, Miriam Ascarelli.…

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News Release: NJ-SPJ condemns arrest of Asbury Park Press journalist

For immediate release


Miriam Ascarelli, NJ-SPJ president: ascarelli@gmail.com
Bob Schapiro, NJ-SPJ president-elect: bob@newsfilms.org

Asbury Park Press Journalist Targeted by Police

The streets of many New Jersey cities, like those in the rest of the country, are convulsing because people feel they’ve been denied a voice or simply were not being heard. That is why last night’s arrest of Asbury Park Press reporter Gustavo Martinez Contreras, while covering police brutality protests, is especially disturbing for the New Jersey Society of Professional Journalists (NJ-SPJ).

“It looks like Contreras was targeted as a journalist,” according to his editor, Paul D’Ambrosio, who spoke with NJ-SPJ. “Gustavo was wearing his credentials and he had been among the cops who arrested him for several minutes.”  D’Ambrosio, who is also the executive editor of APP.com, points out that an officer can be heard saying, “F–k ‘em, he’s the problem” on Contreras’ Twitter video in the seconds before Contreras was grabbed by police. (Please see APP.com and Twitter @newsguz.) 

NJ-SPJ condemns the arrest. We are gratified that the charge — failing to obey an order to disperse — is being dismissed and that the NJ Attorney General is declaring that “We will…make sure it doesn’t happen again.  Because in America, we do not lock up reporters for doing their job.”  

With all due respect, though, these things will continue to go wrong until the value of journalists and their reporting is understood by all. It only takes one individual police officer to silence the press at any given place, in any given moment. As we have seen with what happened to George Floyd, events on a single street corner carry immense importance. Frankly, there are not that many journalists out on the streets in the first place, covering stories like this, which makes it essential to stand-up for each reporter, every time.

When reporters are silenced, or even detained, the public is denied an accurate picture, which creates space for rumors and resentment to grow. Just prior to his arrest, Contreras’ Twitter video reveals police officers aggressively wrestling two young women to the ground and handcuffing them. Seconds later, they were telling Contreras, “Shit’s over, go home!” and then “Get your f—ing hands behind your back.”  Editor D’Ambrosio observes that it only took a few seconds for things to go bad, even after the Asbury Park police had earlier cooperated with the Asbury Park Press to have reporters covering the protests past curfew.

Ironically, prior to his arrest, Gustavo Martinez Contreras had filmed an exceptional moment when police and protestors took a knee together, in recognition that the death of George Floyd is revealing truths that all must confront with honesty and empathy.

The New Jersey Society of Professional Journalists (NJ-SPJ) notes that protestors and police in many cities, most notably Newark and Camden, are working to allow mass protests to continue in a peaceful manner.

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Free journalism webinars on 3/18 and 3/19

As we all try to cope with the uncertainty of an upended world, we wanted to share two free webinars that are being organized this week by our  friends at the Center for Cooperative Media and the Online News Association-NJ:

  • Wednesday, March 18, 3-4:30 p.m.: Free webinar led by Borrell Associates on identifying online advertising opportunities. For more info and to register, click here.
  • Thursday, March 19, 1-2:30 p.m.: Free Ask Me Anything webinar with Steve Stirling, project editor for Columbia Journalism Investigations, on how COVID-19 is impacting New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania. Stirling, a former investigative reporter for NJ.com, recently started his own daily newsletter called Coronaviral to catalogue updates and information about the way  Click here for more info and to register.
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