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. Meetings now take place online.  Press and public access seem to vary across the state.

The changes in the various transparency laws were in a package of bills passed hurriedly in the first days of the quarantine last March.  They work fine when everyone makes their best efforts to comply with the spirit of the laws, but the removal of hard deadlines creates opportunities for bad actors. Further, the emergency legislation leaves many things undefined, such as what is an “emergency,” now that COVID is lasting far longer than first anticipated.

Here is what NJ-SPJ is doing to help journalists in the current situation:

  • First Amendment Attorney Jennifer Borg, an NJ-SPJ member, is making herself available almost every Friday at 4 PM, to answer questions regarding OPRA, transparency laws and other topics affecting journalists. This is a very generous donation of time that is free to all dues-paying NJ-SPJ members.  You may already be getting emails on how to be part of the weekly conference calls.  If not, please contact Miriam Ascarelli at feedback@gmail.com.
  • If you need technical assistance in covering the online meetings of a municipality, school board or public authority, NJ-SPJ member Steve Lubetkin will give you the benefit of his considerable expertise. You can contact him at steve@statebroadcastnews.com

With all that is happening, NJ-SPJ would normally be holding meetings and panel discussions to bring more people into the process.  COVID has made such in-person activities impossible, for now, but that doesn’t diminish the need for your personal involvement.

We always welcome your ideas and suggestions.  Right now, there are three specific areas where we are seeking volunteers:

  • We’re looking for editorial content for the NJ-SPJ website and, when appropriate, our Twitter feed. If you would like to write or share articles, information and announcements, on anything you feel is relevant to NJ’s journalism community,  please contact Sue Toth at susanktoth@gmail.com.  You do not need technical expertise for this—although people with those skills are always welcome.   We do ask, however, that you write ready-to-post articles.  Again, Sue can give you more information.
  • NJ-SPJ has been pretty good at quickly coming to the aid of reporters in trouble, when they are harassed, arrested or sued. But we can do better.   That is why we hope you will join the NJ-SPJ Rapid Response Task Force.  The need for this is sporadic, but it becomes urgent when things happen.  If you are interested, please contact Bob Schapiro at bob@newsfilms.org.
  • Our Awards for Excellence are coming up again this winter. Right now, you can help shape the process.  Please contact Steve Tettamanti at stevetettamanti@gmail.com

Well, so much for the summer doldrums.   If the nation’s COVID situation improves, we hope to schedule some actual events soon, perhaps outdoors.

Best regards,

Bob Schapiro

President, NJ Society of Professional Journalists


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