Paul Nichols — an appreciation

                                       Photo: courtesy Nichols family

                                    Photo courtesy Nichols family

Paul Nichols planned to have a special frame made for his recent “Courage Under Fire” award. He scarcely had the chance. Less than five days after the NJ-SPJ award ceremony on June 12, he was found dead of natural causes. Paul Nichols was 49 years old, leaving two children. That is tragic and upsetting, yet this appreciation will not be about how wonderful he was.

It’s become commonplace to say that the job of a newspaper is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. The people who can do this on a regular basis, however, tend to have sharp edges. It is not an easy life, nor was it easy to be the one-man-band publisher and chief correspondent of the Bergen Dispatch

Many journalists like to hear that their award sailed through the approval process, but Paul welcomed the chance to answer questions about his story. He wanted to educate his fellow journalists.

On the one hand, Paul stood up to a Bergen County Superior Court judge who issued an order amounting to prior restraint—bizarrely on a story that was already posted—based on a law that had long ago been repealed. Yet defying any court order is risking jail for contempt as well as legal fees that can bankrupt a small newspaper or website. Fortunately, a federal court quickly agreed with the Bergen Dispatch. (Paul Nichols would want to thank attorney Paul Clark of Jersey City, who worked on a pro bono basis.) The Bergen Dispatch’s reporting was expanded upon by the Washington Post.

Seems like a natural for a journalism award, right? Yet Paul’s story was about the NJ Department of Youth and Family Services (DYFS, which has since been renamed) — and he knew that system well because he himself had been jailed on numerous occasions as a “Deadbeat Dad.” We are not speaking ill of the departed, not by Paul’s own standards. He wrote quite a few stories about his involvement with the system, in which he says the words “Deadbeat Dad” can be enough to make due process of law simply evaporate. He spoke to us about a world in which “hearings” are held in jail cells, where people are re-arrested even after their sentences have been vacated and where sheriffs issue press releases about arrests that have not yet taken place, against people who have not been in court.

Of course, nothing is black and white. In granting Paul Nichols a Courage Under Fire award, the NJ Society of Professional Journalists had to wrestle with issues of the right to privacy vs. the public’s right to know; the proper amount of disclosure on individual articles for something that is generally public knowledge; and the objectivity of specific articles written by an acknowledged advocacy journalist, in a situation where advocates may be the only ones who know what’s going on.

It was difficult. Yet these are the discussions that journalists are supposed to have. In the end, we voted to give Paul Nichols a Courage Under Fire award. Our decision was enhanced by the debate and research that went into evaluating Paul’s work, a process that he encouraged.

Paul also championed the homeless, volunteering at the Second Reformed Church in Hackensack. We should also note that he was a U.S. Army veteran, before pointing you to a proper obituary here.

Paul was no longer a deadbeat dad at his passing. He wanted us to know that; he felt that the term should not define a person and that NJ laws often create an illegal “debtor’s prison.” You may agree or disagree, but today we will allow Paul to have the last word.  Within NJ-SPJ, we sometimes refer to journalists who are “fighting the war on poverty…and losing.” Paul Nichols was not into euphemistic language. Running the Bergen Dispatch by himself was tough work and Paul wrote of the financial sacrifices that journalism today can force upon a family.

New Jersey itself is poorer for Paul’s passing as well as the likely loss of the news website to which he devoted countless hours.

Many NJ-SPJ board members became conversant with Paul’s work in April and May. He made us work harder, leading us to broadly discuss the issue that often preoccupies SPJ on a national level, namely whether, going forward, our work is about individual professional journalists—an endangered species, by some definitions—or about journalism, which should be performed according to professional standards no matter who is practicing it, an advocate or an “objective” reporter.

We met Paul Nichols only briefly just the other week, when both of his children saw their father win an award for his courage. If they are reading this, we can tell them that their father had the soul of a journalist and that he created his own opportunities to practice the sort of journalism that is vital to an informed public.

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