Winners, announced

May 19, 2017
Contact: Miriam Ascarelli, NJ-SPJ president
Mobile: 862-576-1256; email:

They’re on National Football League fields from coast to coast, and in college football stadiums as well. What could go wrong? Plenty, an NJ Advance Media/Newark Star-Ledger investigation found.

“The 100-Yard Deception” describes in-depth the problems with FieldTurf, the gold-standard in artificial turf installed on 1,428 fields throughout the U.S., and 164 in New Jersey. Most were paid for with tax dollars. Many of them tore apart, and were deteriorating faster than expected. The series by Christopher Baxter and Matthew Stanmyre, is the winner of the New Jersey Society of Journalists first place Tim O’Brien award for meritorious use of public records requests, in the state and regional category.

The O’Brien was created by NJ-SPJ following the 2002 enactment of New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act, which modernized for the first time the laws pertaining to public access to public records, a law that, for more than a decade, our organization lobbied for.

The judges said the articles exhibited “exceptional, in-depth national and local reporting that helps taxpayers, schools. Unearths a company with seedy business practices.”

Anne Forline of the South Jersey Observer, a website she herself started, won the first-place O’Brien award in the local journalism category for series of stories she did on the creation of a borough administrator’s position in the town of Bellmawr, which a sitting councilman was to receive. “This enterprising reporter saw a need for transparency in local government and did what was necessary to fulfill it,” one judge wrote.

In the online category, Sergio Bichao of NJ101.5 won a first-place O’Brien award for a story on bias complaints received by the town of Wyckoff, even after the police chief was fired after he was found to have violated a state directive prohibiting racial profiling.

These were among more than 130 awards won by New Jersey journalists as NJ-SPJ announced its annual Excellence in Journalism awards. (Click here for winners list.) Still to be announced are the organization’s Journalist of the Year award, the Courage Under Fire Award, and the Stuart and Beverley Awbrey Award for public advocacy by a local grassroots publication.

The winners will be feted at a June 25 awards brunch at the Robert Treat Hotel in Newark. Attorney Bruce Rosen, who represented reporter Isaac Avilucea of The Trentonian fight a legal battle against the state Attorney General’s Office over prior restraint will be the keynote speaker; Doug Doyle, news director and sports podscaster at WBGO, Newark’s public radio station, will be the master of ceremonies.

Tickets for the awards brunch are $20. To RSVP, click here.

Among the other awards announced today are the organization’s Wilson Barto awards, given annually to the state’s “rookies of the year” for distinguished work by a first-year reporter.…

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The Trentonian and Avilucea notch a big press-freedom win

Journalism scored a big victory for the role of an informed public in a democracy this week when the New Jersey Appellate Court rejected the efforts of the NJ Attorney General’s office (AG) to reinstate a gag order against The Trentonian newspaper and reporter Isaac Avilucea.

This is an important case involving drugs brought to school by a 5-year-old child, drugs which appear to have been planted by an adult. At issue was a child-custody report, which the state claimed Avilucea had obtained illegally and wanted suppressed on the grounds that it was protecting the child’s privacy. However, from the beginning, the newspaper never published the child’s name.

The AG lost the case in Superior Court in March, but since then has been filing non-stop motions to keep the trial court judge’s order from going into effect. In this latest ruling, the Appellate Court could have simply checked the box “denied.” Instead, as Avilucea’s attorney Bruce Rosen pointed out, it issued a strongly worded seven-page decision that bolstered the basic principles of press rights by writing, “prior restraints on speech and publication are the most serious and the least tolerable infringement on First Amendment rights.” In effect, the court said “you have no case whatsoever – zip, zilch, zero – no matter how we look at it.”

The “prior restraint” ban stood for five months. Avilucea was under tremendous pressure to settle. He stood his ground and, after a fact-finding hearing, state Superior Court Judge Lawrence De Bello issued a ruling in March that found that Avilucea had obtained the report legally.

It has been a challenging time, for all, especially for Avilucea, an NJ-SPJ member. He went into treatment for testicular cancer a few weeks after the prior restraint order was issued. (Avilucea is 28 years old. His GoFundMe page is here).

In this week’s decision, the high court cited numerous cases supporting press freedom, which refreshes those past decisions as the opinion of the Appellate Division in 2017. We hope this means the AG’s office will accept the ruling and stop using taxpayer money on endless appeals.

NJ-SPJ thanks Rosen, The Trentonian’s lawyers Eli Segal and David Bralow, the SPJ Legal Defense Fund Committee Chair Hagit Limor and the committee, SPJ President Lynn Walsh, SPJ Ethics Chair Andrew Seaman, SPJ Region 1 Director Jane Primerano, NJ Foundation for Open Government’s John Paff. NJ-SPJ members Bob Schapiro and Miriam Ascarelli attended the court proceedings in support of Avilucea.…

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Suppressing the Rights of Parents and Criminalizing Journalism

A Statement from the NJ Society of Professional Journalists

Late last week a judge in Trenton made an important ruling, upholding the free speech rights of parents and journalists. At this moment, however, that ruling is under assault from the New Jersey Attorney General’s office. Very soon a gag order could be re-imposed.

We don’t use the word “assault” lightly. Since the judge’s ruling, the Attorney General’s office has made non-stop appeals to the trial judge, the Appellate Division and the New Jersey Supreme Court. They’ve been shut down each time. For most of us, after three strikes, you’re out. But the Attorney General’s office has unlimited resources, if the governor wants it to, and it is wasting taxpayer money by repeatedly appealing the ruling.
It is a complex case, but it boils down to this: A parent disagreed with findings in a state report about their child and family. The parent lacked the money to hire a lawyer, but sought to get The Trentonian newspaper to cover the matter in court. The Trentonian sent reporter Isaac Avilucea to the courthouse, where the parent gave him documents related to the case, documents which the state then claimed were illegally obtained.
The state then sought an extraordinary prior restraint order against the newspaper and threatened Avilucea with criminal charges. Avilucea stood firm and the state backed-down on the criminal threat, but a prior-restraint order was in effect from late October until late March. After a lengthy series of hearings, a Mercer County judge ruled that that Avilucea obtained the report legally and lifted the injunctions against him and The Trentonian. That should have ended things but the state now seems obsessed with spending tax money to suppress free speech in this case.
We wonder what the state is trying to hide. At this point, the state itself has made the child’s identify clear to anyone who looks at the matter. Why is the state so fearful of further reporting?
The New Jersey Society of Professional Journalists (NJ-SPJ) is very much an interested party in this case, having sought and obtained money from our national organization to help fund Mr. Avilucea’s defense.
He is a member of our organization and the recipient of our signature “Courage Under Fire” award. Since the events in the courthouse last October, he has been diagnosed with testicular cancer and he is about to enter a fifth round of chemo-therapy. Continued actions against him seem pointless and even cruel. At this point he is entering a clinical trial to which his doctor has referred him. Isaac observed his 28th birthday last week.
As sobering as this situation is, there are equally serious legal and moral issues at stake:
  • Should a parent be barred from sharing a report, from a taxpayer-funded agency, with a journalist?
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Time to make your voice heard on plan to create NJ Civic Info Consortium

For about two years now, Mike Rispoli, the Journalism Campaign director for the national advocacy group Free Press, has been traveling around the Garden State drawing attention to New Jersey’s local news crisis and pitching the idea of using some of the proceeds from the sale of the state’s public television licenses to do something about it.

That battle cry has evolved into a specific proposal to create a New Jersey Civic Information Consortium, a joint initiative of the state’s four leading research universities to fund projects designed to boost the state’s news ecosystem. The theory is that the state is selling assets that were meant to better inform people, so the money from their sale should go back to that intent.

The proposition depends on legislative approval. And now that it’s budget season at the New Jersey statehouse, the time has come for citizens to tell lawmakers what they think of the idea.

The Free Press is encouraging citizens to attend state Assembly Budget Committee hearings that are taking place this month to put their opinions on the record. (Full disclosure: Jane Primerano, SPJ Region 1 director, and I plan to testify in support of these efforts; I am employed as a lecturer at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, one of the four universities involved in the consortium.)

As proposed, the consortium would work with Montclair State University, Rutgers University, the New Jersey Institute of Technology and Rowan University to fund collaborative journalism as well as public information and media innovation projects. To read more about the proposal, click here. To learn more about The Free Press, click here and here. To see the schedule of state Assembly Committee Budget hearings and their locations, click here.



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