Award winners improve NJ

From left, Nicholas Muscavage, Stephen Stirling, Karin Price Muller, Susan Livio and Christine O’Brien at the NJ Society of Professional Journalists awards lunch June 16, 2018.

The winners are …

Plumbers in New Jersey crooked? It’s a negative stereotype, but one reporter’s work exposing exploitative business practices won her the Awbrey Award for community journalism.

Karin Price Mueller was one of the winners of our Signature Journalism Awards who spoke eloquently about their work during our lunch on June 16. We gathered at the Maize Restaurant at the Robert Treat Hotel in Newark.

Her “Bamboozled” column, which runs in the Star-Ledger and at, garnered these comments from members of SPJ’s Alaska chapter, which judged the contest:

“Her research and writing, including excellent use of significant community input, led to direct results. ‘Bamboozled’ fairly demonstrated the questionable practices of one of New Jersey’s largest plumbing companies. And it helped victims win refunds and apologies, while keeping other community members from being ripped off. I would imagine her effort especially helped improve the lives and finances of vulnerable residents, especially those with low incomes.”

The O’Briens

In introducing the Tim O’Brien Award, for best use of public records, his daughter Christine O’Brien recalled her late father’s love of getting into a story, digging for facts and the spirit of the newsroom.

The judges gave first place to Sean Sullivan and Stephen Stirling of the Star-Ledger and, for a story about failings in New Jersey’s medical examiners’ offices. Their comments were:

“Even in this worthy field, one entry stands out: Death and Dysfunction, by Sean Sullivan and Stephen Stirling of The Star-Ledger and This work displayed tenacity in applying open records requests, skill in writing and presentation, and solid results that rippled through the Office of the Governor, Attorney General, Department of Health and elsewhere. It will affect millions of citizens. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once proclaimed, ‘Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.’ These journalists have added an emphatic ‘Amen’ to that observation.”

Second place went to Susan Livio, of the Star-Ledger and The judges said: A heartbreaking story of human frailty and failure, ‘The Last Good Night,’ (is a) more circumscribed but no less compelling story, notable for its solid foundation, unusual access and gripping narrative.

Third place went to David Matthau and Sergio Bichao, of New Jersey 101.5, for revealing that doctors can still practice after criminal sexual offenses, with the judge saying “That surely was shocking news to patients all over New Jersey.”

The Barto

The Wilson Barto Award for Rookie of the Year went to Nick Muscavage of the Courier News in Somerville.…

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Re-balancing press rights for students

For as long as there have been student newspapers, there have been administrators with their own ideas about what should and should not be printed and disseminated in their schools. The First Amendment rights of student journalists were at the forefront of conversation at a panel at SPJ’s region 1 conference focusing on new legislation designed to strengthen student press rights. Titled “New Voices: Freeing the Campus Press,” the session featured Frank LoMonte, Katina Paron and Emily Masters.

LoMonte, the director of a think tank on government transparency at the University of Florida, began the session by pointing out that it is extremely rare that the free speech rights of protesters and other interest groups are curtailed by the government or by any government official. However, in high school newsrooms and even some college news organizations, student journalists are routinely censored or restrained in what they can cover, what quotes they can use, and especially how they can depict the school’s image.

Often schools will stop stories from being published through prior review, and it is required that the principal read every issue before it is printed and censor anything that he or she sees fit, panelists said. The stories and content that they choose to omit are generally thought to show a negative image of the school to alumni, parents, or students coming in the school in subsequent years. 

The rules

At the most basic level, just how First Amendment protections apply to student journalists depends on whether their school is public or private. Because the First Amendment is designed to protect individuals from government actions and private schools are not considered to be arms of the state, the First Amendment does not apply to private schools; instead, students at private schools are subject to the rules and regulations of the institution. In contrast, public schools are considered to be an arm of the state, so First Amendment protections apply.

For years, the level of First Amendment protection for public school students working on school-sponsored publications stemmed from Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, a 1969 case involving three high school students who wore black armbands to school as part of a peaceful protest of the Vietnam War. The case went all the way to the  Supreme Court and established the standard that school officials could not censor student speech unless they could show it would cause substantial disruption to school activities.

The free-speech balance was changed in 1988 with another Supreme Court case, Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier. This case involved students at a high school outside of St. Louis who wanted to write about social issues like teen pregnancy. In that case, the Supreme Court upheld the decision of school officials to censor student speech, establishing a new standard for all student journalists in public high schools, namely that school officials can censor speech if they can show an “educationally reasonable basis’’ for the censorship.

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Contest winners, a historic site in journalism and board elections

Hi folks,

Chapter President John Ensslin here. June will be a busy month for our SPJ New Jersey chapter. A few things to watch for include:

Celebrating New Jersey journalism
We’ll be honoring the winners of our NJ SPJ signature journalism awards during a lunch at noon on Saturday June 16 at The Maize Restaurant inside the lobby of the Robert Treat Hotel at 50 Park Place in Newark. The cost of the lunch is $22. To attend, click here.
Here are this year’s winners (updated):
Awbrey Award (for community journalism)
Tim O’Brien Award (best use of public records)
Wilson Barto Award (for Rookie of the Year)
Note: We chose not to award the Courage Under Fire award this year.
Thanks to contest coordinator Heather Taylor for wrangling this year’s contest entries and to the Alaska Press Club and the Keystone SPJ chapter for judging this year’s entries. Congratulations to all our winners!
The Union Hotel – a historic site in journalism
Join us in Flemington at noon Saturday June 30 when SPJ New Jersey dedicates a plaque commemorating the role of the Union Hotel as the hub of world-wide media coverage during the Lindberg kidnapping trial in 1935.The plaque will be unveiled at the Hunterdon Historical Society Library at 114 Main St. in Flemington.
All are welcome to this free event. The first meeting our new SPJ NJ board will follow the ceremony.
Reminder: NJ SPJ Board elections
June also is the month when we elect our chapter’s board of directors. We do not have any contested seats this year. But members can expect to see an email seeking their approval for the board.
The candidates are:
  • John Ensslin, president
  • Miriam Ascarelli, vice president
  • Emily Kratzer, secretary
  • Elizabeth Oguss, treasurer
Board members:
  • Robert Bugai
  • Nicholas Hirshon
  • David Levitt
  • Matt McGrath
  • Jane Primerano
  • Claire Regan
  • Bob Schapiro

    Mentor a young journalist in July

    Karyn D. Collins runs a high school journalism workshop at Rutgers University in New Brunswick called the Hugh N. Boyd Journalism Diversity Workshop.
    The workshop will be held on campus July 21-29. Here are three areas where you can help:
    • Young media professionals and entrepreneurs who can serve as inspirational guest speakers
    • Volunteer writing/editing coaches to work with the students. We are especially in need of coaches with video production and editing experience
    • Funding, since our students attend the program on full scholarship and live on campus during the program.
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Covering sexual harrasment

A panel about covering sexual assault and the #MeToo movement, moderated by SPJ National President Rebecca Baker, was held on the first day of the SPJ Region 1 2018 Conference. Baker discussed the topic with Ronnie Polaneczky, a columnist for The Philadelphia Media Network, and Melanie Anzidel, a reporter for The Record — a paper based out of northern New Jersey.

Before detailing how to cover sexual assault, the three discussed sexism and sexual harassment they had witnessed in newsrooms and with sources — like the police officers who asked Baker, then a 26-year-old crime beat reporter, on dates.

“The newsroom has always felt like a sanctuary to me,” Baker said, before noting that women shouldn’t feel lucky because they avoided sexual harassment in the workplace.

An experience Anzidel had outside of the newsroom sparked her coverage of the #MeToo movement at The Record. After she posted about it on her personal Facebook account, an editor asked if the paper could publish it, Anzidel said.

Printing Anzidel’s story prompted The Record to ask readers to share their personal #MeToo stories with her — a callout that molded her article, “#MeToo: The stories of sexual assault you haven’t heard.” It featured many women of different ages and occupations.

The panelists discussed tips for reporters approaching this topic, like corroborating sources’ accounts with documents.

Polaneczky urged journalists to never deny their time to a source who says they have information about alleged sexual assaults and to consider ways to report on this topic with new and unique angles.

Most importantly, journalists need to dig into the systematic structures that allow sexual assault to be so prevalent in our society, Polaneczky said.

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NJ SPJ board opportunity; Burns scholarship

Hi folks – I’m blessed to have a very good board of directors at New Jersey SPJ. They include several people who have served as past presidents of the chapter. They are a group of people who are passionate about journalism and its role in a democracy.

It’s that time of year, however, when we elect a new board. And it appears we will have one vacancy on our 11-member board. Former chapter president and long-time board member Ron Miskoff has indicated he plans to not run for another one-year term. We will miss Ron and appreciate all he has done for our chapter.

If you are an SPJ member and have an interest in serving on our board, let us know. The job involves attending one two-hour meeting each month, usually on the third Sunday. Members are also called upon to take on additional assignments during the year, such as helping organize programs, working on our annual SkillsFest event or overseeing our signature awards journalism contest.

We also tackle important topics such as diversity, ethics, open public records access and journalism advocacy.

If you would like to be part of this effort, please email our nominations chair Miriam Ascarelli at by no later than May 20. Also please put “NJ SPJ Board Nominee” in the subject line and include a JPEG photo of yourself, plus a one-paragraph bio.

Student SPJ members: Go to Baltimore with the Fran Burns scholarship

If you are a SPJ student member in New Jersey, here’s a great opportunity for a $500 scholarship to help enable you to attend our national Excellence in Journalism Conference Sept. 27-29 in Baltimore.

The scholarship is named after Fran Burns, a former SPJ New Jersey chapter president and long-time board member who passed away in September. The $500 stipend is a very good deal.

For example, it will be enough to cover your $175 early bird registration plus a $199 one-night stay at the Baltimore Hilton, which is the conference hotel.

You must, however, be a current SPJ student member to qualify for this money. All we ask in return is that you write a short story about the conference which we can later post to our chapter website.

Interested? Then please contact Karin Price Mueller at

You will need to send Karin your resume and a short statement on why you wish to attend the conference.

The application deadline is June 10. The winner will be announced later that month.



Speaking of scholarships, here’s another one: To help move the news ecosystem in the Garden State toward a goal of better reflecting the communities it serves, the Center for Cooperative Media is launching a scholarship fund dedicated to helping New Jersey journalists attend training, events and conferences in 2018 put on by organizations that work on improving diversity, equity and inclusion in media.…

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