Center for Cooperative Media announces winners of the 2017 NJ News Commons Excellence in Local News Awards

NJ News Commons members took home awards for collaboration, innovation, sustainability, investigative reporting, and more

The Center for Cooperative Media is pleased to announce the award winners in its inaugural NJ News Commons Excellence in Local News contest.

We revealed the six winners today during an awards ceremony and banquet, where each was presented with a certification and $100 prize for work they did in 2017 in the fields of local news innovation, collaboration, investigative reporting, sustainability, and engagement. We also presented an award for Partner of the Year.

The judges for this year’s contest were Stefanie Murray, Doug Clancy, and Meghan Jambor. The list of judges for next year’s contest will include the 2017 Partner of the Year winner, as well as a faculty member from Montclair State University’s School of Communication and Media.

The award categories are based on key areas of focus over the last five years for the NJ News Commons, which is a network of more than 230 news organizations across New Jersey. The NJ News Commons is the flagship project of the Center for Cooperative Media.

Now, let’s get to the winners:

Engage Local

This award goes to a journalist(s) or news organization that relied heavily on community engagement or similar practices as a major source or aspect of their reporting.

Montclair Local won the Engage Local award for its community engagement and reporting efforts, which have been at the core of its operations since the publication’s inception. Montclair Local was founded in 2017 due, in large part, to the Facebook conversations and other engagement efforts of its now-publisher and staff.

That’s why we weren’t surprised to learn that social media and digital community engagement has remained an integral part of Montclair Local’s reporting, which eventually led to several scoops for the organization, among them the impending closure of a beloved 95-year-old movie house and the “sexualized” logo of a new ice cream shop in Montclair, NJ.

Runner-up: Free Press is the runner-up in this category. Free Press partnered with the journalism lab at Rutgers University and taught journalism students at Rutgers how to use community engagement techniques to tell and showcase the stories of people living in poverty in New Jersey.

Collaborate Local

This award goes to a journalist(s) or news organization that leveraged the power of cooperative or strategic partnerships to take their reporting beyond what would have been possible on their own.

NJ Spark, Rutgers University’s journalism lab, won the Collaborate Local award for the work they produced as a result of a partnership with Free Press, which aimed to highlight and tell the stories of people living in poverty in New Brunswick, NJ.

Students worked with Free Press to hone their community-engagement skills, challenge how traditional media coverage depicts people living in poverty, and address the divide between residents and students.

Runner-up: Cranford Radio and TAPinto Cranford are the runners-up in this category. The two Union County outlets teamed up with Cranford.com to produce a weekly news update podcast.

Investigate Local

This award goes to a journalist(s) or news organization whose investigative reporting efforts had a demonstrable impact on the community they serve.

Village Green took home the Investigate Local award for its relentless reporting and public records requests for information following an incident that occurred in Maplewood during the Fourth of July weekend in 2016.

After local teenagers accused Maplewood police officers of police brutality, Village Green reporters spent more than a year investigating the incident and attempting to secure the release of police reports and footage from police body cameras.

As a result, the chief and the captain involved were suspended, then both resigned. A citizens review board is being created. And the town is looking at an overhaul in culture, hiring, training and promotion at the police department; it passed an ordinance to “revise the procedure for promotions within the Maplewood Police Department,” giving the town more local control and making officers’ disciplinary records more important to the process.

Runner-up: Route 40 News is the runner-up in this category for its investigation into why the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority has failed Atlantic City’s local economy for so long. Route 40’s reporting eventually helped push the CRDA to adopt a new master plan by the end of last year.

Innovate Local

This award goes to a journalist(s) or news organization that used new and emerging technologies or strategies to enhance and improve the value and impact of their reporting efforts.

Free Press is the winner of the Innovate Local award. In 2017, Free Press held 11 community forums (two in Camden, two in Newark, and one each in Asbury Park, Ewing, Glassboro, Hackensack, Montclair, New Brunswick and Tuckerton) that brought together local journalists and residents.

Participants discussed ways to strengthen local media, elevate community voices, and help reporters respond to concerns about local news coverage. The events focused on bringing communities into the “future of journalism” conversation, in particular communities of color, and sought to find ways to make journalism more sustainable, inclusive and impactful. Ideas discussed at those meeting are being implemented in various ways around the state to help strengthen local information ecosystems, and the innovative approach is now being replicated in North Carolina.

Runner-up: Brick City Live is the runner-up for this category. BrickCityLive.com launched a native news app, which delivers community information directly to readers’ mobile phones through push notifications, transit alerts, event listings, place directories and interactive maps.

Sustain Local

This award goes to a journalist(s) or news organization that found innovative and effective new ways to address revenue and sustainability issues.

Brick City Live took home the award in this category. In addition to launching a standalone mobile app, Brick City Live also unveiled a proprietary event scheduling platform called BCL Tickets that allows event promoters to earn more money per ticket sold than they would using alternative platforms such as Eventbrite.

Brick City Live also sold the first instance of a “subapp” for Newark Arts’ Open Doors Citywide Arts Festival as part of a sponsored content deal, and created an e-commerce store before partnering with a different Newark artist each month to offer a limited supply of collectible t-shirts and memorabilia.

Runner-up: New Brunswick Today is the runner-up for sustainability. Last year, New Brunswick Today partnered with Samantha Bee and the folks behind “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee” to launch a gamification project that allowed readers to participate in a sweepstakes and win rewards. The project supported NBT’s local reporting efforts while also attracting new subscribers through a simultaneous membership drive.

Partner of the Year

This award goes to a journalist or news organization that showed overall excellence in their work in 2017.

This was, by far, the most difficult category to judge. We received AMAZING responses, and because they were so good, we’re printing them all at the end of this post.

In the end, the judges selected a partner that both showed growth in its work and contributions to improving the overall news ecosystem in New Jersey.

The 2017 Parter of the Year award went to TAPinto.net and its growing network of independent and franchisee publications. TAPinto increased the number of franchisees from 54 to 71 sites in 2017, 66 of which are independently owned. That’s helping more communities in New Jersey get access to news and information about the place they live. The company’s total site traffic also increased by 29 percent and the number of unique users grew by 32 percent.

Meanwhile, TAPinto Westfield formed a partnership with Westfield High School to bring a hands-on internship program to students. TAPinto Cranford recently began working with Cranford Radio to present a weekly podcast highlighting the best articles of the week, and TAPinto Newark Editor Mark Bonamo has become a fixture on My9’s Chasing Jersey show. TAPinto also built and launched a proprietary mobile app that delivers TAPinto stories about a user’s community directly to a reader’s phone — this app is available to all communities that have a TAP organization.

Honorable mentions

Here are some of the other amazing Partner of the Year submissions we received, each of which deserve their own award (if we had enough money to give them all)!

  • John Heinis of Hudson County View published more than 1,200 stories, produced more than 400 video clips, streamed dozens of interviews and press conferences, and hosted a debate between all six Hoboken mayoral candidates.
  • From covering homelessness in New Jersey, to questioning Gov. Chris Christie, to giving viewers a behind-the-scenes look at a Morris County taping of ABC’s “What Would You Do?,” Jared Kofsky of Essex Count Place and Jersey Digs reported on a wide variety of topics throughout the Garden State during 2017. Kofsky’s reports on economic development, planning, government, and history in New Jersey — all while serving as an editor of The Wall and pursuing a degree in communications and public policy at TCNJ.
  • Last year, Mary Barr Mann and Carolyn Maynard-Parisi of Village Green published stories that went viral nationwide, broke stories on police brutality against local youth that ultimately led to the resignation of the Maplewood Police Chief, and covered an incident in Millburn where a 5th-grader dressed in blackface at a school event. In the three-and-a-half years since its launch, Village Green become the destination for an average of more than 45,000 unique viewers each moth, with more than 500,000 visitors and 1.2 million pageviews each year.
  • TAPinto Newark was launched with the goal of providing watchdog-style reporting on Newark’s most important institutions, city government and education system — which collectively make up close to $2 billion in taxpayer money. In just a short period of time, TAPinto Newark has become a go-to source for readers seeking serious journalism in New Jersey’s largest city, providing a range of coverage from breaking news to investigative reporting.
  • “Do you ever sleep?” Kevin Coughlin of Morristown Green was asked that question more than a few times in 2017. Morristown was a very busy place last year. A bustling downtown. Explosive development. World-class theater. Festivals. History. Weekly protests. Scared immigrants. Traffic. Public housing turmoil. Bar wars. Nasty campaigns — the common thread? MorristownGreen.com.
  • Montclair Local’s first issue was printed less than a year ago. Sparked by Facebook conversations about the radical changes to the local news landscape, the new weekly made its mission to cover Montclair — and only Montclair — responsibly and responsively. And the breadth and depth of coverage produced by a small staff of award-winning reporters and editors has resulted in steadily growing, paid circulation.
  • New Brunswick Today staff members have worked tirelessly to serve the residents of their community. They sat down with a crowded field of candidates for governor for extensive, live interviews, filed stories that made people aware of ICE activities in the community, exposed corruption by city officials and uncovered conflicts of interests between city government and private enterprise. Many of their stories also focus on the under-represented Latino community in New Brunswick, and are translated into Spanish for both the print and digital version of the publication.

Looking ahead

Congratulations once again to all of the winners, and thank you to everyone who submitted their work for consideration. We’ve learned a lot and plan to incorporate all of your feedback into our plans to improve the awards process for next year.


Joe Amditis is the associate director of the Center for Cooperative Media. You can reach me on Twitter at @jsamditis or via email at amditisj@montclair.edu.

About the Center for Cooperative Media: The Center is a grant-funded program of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. The Center is supported with funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation and Democracy Fund. Its mission is to grow and strengthen local journalism, and in doing so serve New Jersey residents. For more information, visit CenterforCooperativeMedia.org.