Gannett New Jersey Newspaper Group Wins FOI Award
A revealing freedom of information series written by seven New Jersey newspapers won this year’s Joseph L. Brechner Center for Freedom of Information award, according to Sandra Chance, director of the Brechner Center. The series, titled “Public Access Denied,” detailed the abysmal compliance rate with the state’s public record law.
The series will be recognized at the 15th Annual Brechner Center for Freedom of Information award celebration Nov. 20. Two reporters, Jason Method and Frank Kummer, will accept the $3,000 award for the Gannett New Jersey papers. The New Jersey investigation, one of the largest tests of public records compliance in the nation, documents a “cult of secrecy” which leaves citizens at the mercy of government officials. The newspapers sent more than 80 surveyors to 600 governmental bodes to see how ordinary citizens were treated by their public servants. They found that government officials in New Jersey routinely violated the state’s Open Public Records Act. For example, the series reported that obviously public records, such as budgets, payrolls and overtime reports, were closed off to ordinary citizens more often than not.
“This series represents the best example of how newspapers can work with private citizens to learn more about their government,” according to Chance. “It’s one thing to hear the stories about how citizens are denied access to records. It’s another thing to actually go out there and prove what we’ve long suspected in a scientific, documented way. “Officials can no longer ignore these findings and dismiss them as isolated incidents. Violations of the law are rampant everywhere and this series proves the extent of the problem in New Jersey,” Chance said. The seven papers that participated in the award-winning series were: the Asbury Park Press, the Courier-News, the Courier Post, The Daily Record, the Daily Record, the Home News Tribune, and the Ocean County Observer.
New Jersey has one of the weakest public records law in the country, according to Chance of the Brechner Center. “This series helped create a climate of awareness, concern and appreciation for the importance of public access to information. The newspapers provided a tremendous service public service to the citizens of New Jersey,” Chance said.
“Last year’s full-court press helped move the public access issue to the front burner of the state’s political agenda,” according to Paul D’Ambrosio, project designer and co-writer. D’Ambrosio, investigations editor at the Asbury Park Press, coordinated the contest entry. Within three months of the series, the governor publicly supported a new public access reform bill, which has passed the New Jersey Assembly and is pending before the state’s senate.
The project was lauded by the judges for its excellent writing and research, as well as its impact.
“The work of the Gannett New Jersey Group provided an illuminating indictment of what is arguably the worst public records law in America on paper and in practice,” according to one judge. Another judge congratulated the papers for their “terrific follow through during the legislative process, showing where each legislator stood on the issues and extensively covering the legislation intended to improve the law.” The independent panel of judges said the papers “documented arrogance of some public officials quoted in the series was remarkable.” A similar project, focusing on Arkansas’ Freedom of Information Act received an honorable mention. The judges for the competition included Kyle Niederpruem, president of the Society of Professional Journalists, and a reporter at The Indianapolis Star, Bill Theobald, another reporter with The Indianapolis Star, media lawyer Karen Kammer, and Michael Hoefges, a media law professor. Niederpruem and Theobald were involved in last year’s winning entry.
The annual award was established by the late Joseph L. Brechner, an Orlando, FL, broadcaster. Previous winners include the FOIndiana, the Asbury Park (NJ) Press, the Sun-Sentinel, The Times-Picayune, The Washington Post, the Houston Chronicle, The St. Petersburg Times, the Dallas Morning News and the Columbia Journalism Review.