NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ–A cartoonist and several New Brunswick Today journalists can now call some of their work "award winning," after the NJ Society of Professional Journalists (NJ-SPJ) announced the winners of its annual "Excellence in Journalism" contest on May 12.
In total, this newspaper won six awards, including four first-place honors. Matt Katz of public radio station WNYC earned the top honors, and the title "Journalist of the Year."
The awards are for reporting and content published during the 2015 calendar year. This year was NBToday's first time participating in the annual contest run by the non-profit organization.
This reporter, who co-founded NBT in 2011, won three awards, including the Stuart and Beverley Awbrey Award for Community-Oriented Local Journalism, which honors "the weekly or local online publication that goes beyond standard reporting of local events, instead seeking to inspire communities to better themselves."
"The Awbrey is all about showcasing work that seeks ways to encourage community dialogue, promote civic leadership and just make communities better," reads a detailed description of the award on the NJ-SPJ website, which cites previous award winners like the late Bill George of the Perth Amboy Beacon.
"George… helped force the construction of a new elementary school in Perth Amboy by relentlessly focusing news coverage on children who were being educated in temporary trailers."
"New Brunswick Today is being honored for a series of stories it called Watergate — except unlike the original Watergate, this one involves actual water," reads the announcement of the award winners, which credits us for engaging in a "relentless inquiry into the operations of New Brunswick’s water treatment plant, ofttimes putting [ourselves] at odds with city officials."
Our coverage of the fallout from a years-long water quality cover-up and the subsequent privatization of key parts of the New Brunswick Water Utility's operations "raised the profile of an important local issue" and got the city's residents involved, according to the NJ-SPJ.
NJ American Water, the contractor responsible for the city's most serious water quality violations since the original scandal broke in 2013, was dismissed after its contract expired in September 2015.
NBT also made it a point to regularly follow up on the case of the suspended city worker allegedly responsible for the initial water quality coverup, which spanned over three years and took nearly as long to investigate.
In 2015, more than two years after first being accused of falsifying water testing records, Edward O'Rourke had not yet been charged with a crime, despite endangering hundreds of thousands of people when the city failed to notify its water customers they should be boiling their water before use on multiple occasions between 2010 and 2013.
But NBT kept asking questions, and in October 2015, O'Rourke finally resigned his position with the Water Utility, and in December 2015, he pleaded guilty to public corruption in exchange for a three-year prison sentence.
Daniel Muñoz, one of NBToday's top reporters who recently began working at North Jersey Media Group's Northern Valley Suburbanite, will receive a high honor of his own.
The Tim O'Brien Award, which honors the "best reporting that uses the N.J. Open Public Records Act [OPRA] to expose issues of public significance," will go to Muñoz for his series of articles about the use of anti-cheating software in a growing number of online classes at Rutgers University.
Muñoz told NBT it is important "to help the public understand their rights and resources available to them."
"I am honored that my efforts in this have been recognized," said Muñoz.
This year, NJ-SPJ decided to give one O'Brien award to a journalist at a statewide or regional news organization and another to a journalist at a local outlet like NBT.
The statewide O'Brien award went to Christopher Baxter of the NJ.com for his series "National Guard Under Fire."
Meanwhile, Muñoz's award came in response to his local coverage here at Rutgers, coverage that was picked up on by NYC-based television stations, the New York Times, and national technology blogs.
Muñoz used the OPRA law to reveal that Rutgers had no written contract for the first seven months of its deal with Verificient Technologies, the company behind the ProctorTrack software abruptly rolled out in early 2015.
When the university finally signed a contract in August, they provided it to Muñoz, who reported that the company was charging Rutgers students a higher price than other students were paying at other universities.
Although Verificient still works with Rutgers, another contractor who provided similar software services recently terminated their relationship with the school, another fact uncovered by Muñoz through his use of the OPRA law.
NBT also recieved first place awards in two other categories, including the award for best cartoon, which went to artist Sam Romero for his take on the Rutgers football crime scandal that appeared in our September-October 2015 print edition.
The other first place award for NBT came in the competitive category of best local investigative reporting.
That award will go to this reporter's series of articles on the New Brunswick Housing Authority, one of which resulted in the resignation of that agency's chairman in August 2015.
"These articles reflect effort and guts in holding an important local agency accountable," said the NJ-SPJ.
Other awards won by NBT staff include:
- Reporter Dave Schatz won second place honors in "Business Reporting" category for his coverage of Johnson & Johnson
- An article on the controversy over a building planned for Mine Street, written by this reporter, Richard Rabinowitz, Michael Benavides, and David Bedford won third place in the "Headline Writing" category
With the exception of the Awbrey Award, which is chosen by the NJ-SPJ board, the other awards won by NBT were judged by SPJ chapters in other states "to eliminate the possibility of bias entering the judging process."
One award, the "Courage Under Fire" award, has not yet been announced. The awards brunch will be held at the Robert Treat Hotel in Newark on Saturday, June 11 at 11am.
Registration is required and the brunch costs $15 per person. The link to register is: http://events.r20.constantcontact.com/register/event?oeidk=a07ecodt3mpb3a5dd23&llr=7iphyzbab