The Hoboken Reporter staff has been honored for its community service reporting by the New Jersey Society of Professional Journalists.
The Hoboken Reporter is one of the Hudson Reporter newspaper group's eight weeklies in Hudson County. All of them can be found on the web at www.hudsonreporter.com.
The Reporter was honored for its stories on the high cost of housing in Hoboken. The award, new this year, was created to recognize work done by a community weekly that had an impact on the area it serves. It was named in honor of Stuart Awbrey, long-time publisher of the Cranford Chronicle and author of a memoir about his years as a newspaperman.
The award was meant to recognize journalistic efforts that draw attention to important community issues, aid in community decision-making or help bring about actions.
"We're very honored to win this award," said Hudson Reporter Editor-in-Chief Caren Lissner. "It shows how seriously we take our mission of making the public aware of important issues, both by writing investigative articles and by publishing letters from the community on the letters page."
Lissner said the achievement was the result of the staff's commitment, with various staff members doing research and offering suggestions. The newspapers who entered were asked for stories, editorials, published letters to the editor, and other initiatives done to help support the editorial effort such as community debates and meetings.
The articles and letters that were submitted pertained to controversial rent control changes and to other affordable housing policy issues. The rent control articles were written by former Hoboken beat reporter David Danzig, with other housing articles written by other members of the staff.
"It's a credit to everyone involved in putting the newspaper together," Lissner said. "Each member of the staff contributed in some way."
In addition to announcing the new Awbrey award, the NJSPJ also released the results last week of its regular annual writing awards. Al Sullivan, the Secaucus beat reporter, won second place in profile writing for a story about a genealogist, called "Uncovering the Jewish Past." The article was published in the Secaucus Reporter last year and can be found at www.secaucusreporter.com by clicking "advanced search." Sullivan also recently had a book of his articles published by Rutgers University Press.
'Role in community life'
Star-Ledger business writer Guy Baehr, one of the judges, said that unlike other contests, which are judged by journalists from outside New Jersey, the NJSPJ board judged the Awbrey award.
"We felt that it was important for those judging to have an understanding of the local community," Baehr said. "We wanted to recognize a community newspaper that really played a role in community life, more than just gathering the facts. We were looking for a newspaper that did something to help resolve an issue and help the community move forward. This makes it one of the one of the highest missions of community journalism."
"It is a very big honor to receive this award," said Lucha Malato, co-publisher. "I am very proud of the expertise, effort and hard work of our staff that made this award possible."
"We recognize our responsibility to the community, and we strive hard to meet that responsibility," said co-publisher David Unger. "It is gratifying to be recognized for both the quality of our editorial product and our service to the community."
Baehr said the Hoboken Reporter - in dealing with the rent control issue - played an important role in bringing the issue into the public for discussion, and a role in helping to get the issue resolved.
"We felt that the paper raised the issue in a pretty balanced way, clearly telling the community that this was an important issue and that the community should think about it," Baehr said. "We believe this led to a better outcome than what might have occurred if the paper had not acted."
Baehr said the award was designed to generate an interest in a relatively new kind of journalism called "civic journalism" and to encourage newspapers to become good citizens in the communities in which they report.
"The idea is to step beyond just the facts and provide a forum in which issues can be resolved," he said. "Newspapers then become facilitators not merely watchdogs, and become a part of the civic life of a community."
Baehr said weekly newspapers are particularly suited to this kind of reporting.
Issue was affordable housing
In winning this award, the Hoboken Reporter's stories covered emerging housing issues that had resulted from a changing community. Hoboken, a town bursting with young professionals who have moved in to take advantage of the proximity to Manhattan, has long found itself facing a crisis in affordable housing. Residents and town officials often find themselves struggling with issues surrounding the preservation of affordable housing units.
In February of 2000, the Hoboken Reporter became aware of proposed amendments to the town's rent control laws. These amendments could have resulted in the removal of some affordable housing units from Hoboken's rent control laws. It became clear that many of the parties who would be affected had little notice of the upcoming vote or understanding of it. The amendments were about to pass without discussions at council meetings.
"As we interviewed town officials for the first article on the topic, they often gave conflicting interpretations of the ordinance," Lissner wrote in her letter to the NJSPJ.
As the story evolved, those on all sides of the issue came to understand it better.
"We were dealing with an issue so complicated, and with so many sides, that we were often one of the bridges that would bring information from one side to another," said Danzig last week, commenting during a telephone interview. "Sometimes relations were strained. We'd hear, 'Such-and-such said this or that.' Another person would say that he had not heard that."
Danzig said that often people who were intimately involved in the process had not talked to each other, and that the newspaper became a vehicle of communication between them, a sharing of information that in the end allowed people to make a rational decision.
The Hoboken Reporter followed its initial rent control story with other stories. The issue and the stories generated a debate, not only in the council chambers, but in the letters pages of the newspaper as well.
"The role of weekly newspapers is changing," Lissner said. "As more and more daily newspapers are folded or combined by media conglomerates, the weeklies are becoming the main news source in many communities."
Danzig said the award served as a measure of appreciation, noting that most newspapers do not get reactions to stories until people are unhappy with what is being printed.
"Sometimes it is unclear if there is a reaction," he said. "When people are happy, they don't usually call."
Danzig had also won a first place award in a different statewide contest earlier this year for his Reporter stories on rent control. That contest was sponsored by the New Jersey Press Association. Former Jersey City beat reporter Jonathan Miller and current Secaucus beat reporter Al Sullivan also won writing awards in those contests.
Credit should be shared by community
Lissner noted that credit should be shared by the community activists, "who are willing to stick their necks out by writing letters to the editor or being vocal about an issue." She said that housing activists made the Reporter aware of some of the ramifications of the proposed rent control amendments.
"There are too many people who privately steam about an issue but won't comment on it or call the newspaper to voice an opinion," Lissner said. "We sometimes get complaints that we haven't written about a certain issue, but what actually happened was that we wrote it and no one responded at the time. Other times, we didn't even know about the issue, and everyone assumed for some reason that we did. We try to keep on top of things, but we can't necessarily hear about every issue or know what's on readers' minds unless they have a dialogue with us. When we can properly document a news story or situation, we will. The best way to find out is to simply call and ask, rather than making an assumption."
Lissner said that readers who have a suggestion for a story or a question about something in the newspaper should call her at (201) 798-7800. Letters to the editor should be faxed to (201) 798-0018 and must include a name, address and phone number for verification.
For the NJSPJ's annual awards, including the Awbrey award, they received more than 600 entries.