When a freelance reporter in New Jersey interjected herself into the public debate at a meeting she was covering this past June, the bosses at the weekly newspaper she was representing pulled her off the beat.

Mary Ellen Vichiconti’s decision to speak up at the Vernon, N.J., township council meeting June 10 sparked a national journalism debate: Is it fair to hold inexperienced freelancers to the same vigorous standards demanded of full-time journalists?

With reporters schooled in civic journalism often participating rather than just observing, where is the line?

Is expressing an opinion at a public meeting, as Vichiconti did, any different than weighing in on social media via a snarky tweet? The former is rare, which is why Vichiconti drew such attention, while the latter is common and usually does not get anyone in trouble.

Vichiconti, in an interview, said she did not realize engaging the council president from the public podium would put an end to her job as a $35-per-story freelance correspondent for the AIM Vernon weekly in Sussex, N.J.

Such an explanation, from a veteran reporter, would be difficult to accept.

But Vichiconti, by her account, had no journalism experience before getting picked by her hometown newspaper in March to cover municipal council meetings and other light fare.

Vichiconti, 60, described herself as a part-time special education teacher with an interest in writing and local news and looking to supplement her income. AIM Vernon gave her the beat even though she ran for the council in 2008, 2009 and 2011 and regularly spoke out on issues.

About 30 minutes into the June 10 meeting, Vichiconti left the reporter’s table and politely, but firmly, disputed the council president’s comments on the mayor’s authority under the Faulkner Act.

She spoke for about a minute, including a brief exchange with the official. 

Covering the meeting for the New Jersey Herald, I heard some grumbling in the audience at that moment. Another resident, identifying herself as a former reporter, went to the podium and said she had never seen a reporter do what Vichiconti did. 

Several days later, Vichiconti told me her editor had ended her freelance role, which included a $25 per photo published agreement. Her story on the meeting was never published.  

Vichiconti showed up at the next council meeting and returned to the podium, ripping the anonymous “snitch” who contacted her editor.

Vichiconti ultimately became a bigger story than any she had covered.

Among journalists, the episode, which touched on many sensitive issues facing the profession, prompted much debate.

Coming so soon after the Chicago Sun-Times laid off all 28 full-time photographers, it was a reminder that organizations often turn to less-expensive freelancers to fill the news hole. 

Perhaps because so many longtime journalists have been shown the door in cost-cutting purges, few seemed to be cutting Vichiconti any slack.

Gene Weingarten, a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist for the Washington Post, tweeted, “Pay is awful, but decision was right.”

Yet Vichiconti never pretended to be anything other than a novice journalist, and apparently never was told not to speak out at meetings she was covering. 

Jennifer Borg, general counsel and vice president of North Jersey Media Group, which publishes the AIM Vernon, said, “No single document could explain the do’s and don’ts of journalism.”

Certainly the principles governing reporting and objectivity are less clear than in the not-so-distant past when news appeared only in print and on television.

It is common for reporters on Twitter, to express stronger and more colorful opinions than Vichiconti’s dry assertions about the Faulkner Act.

Which is why, in a follow-up story on the matter, I posed a question: Did Vichiconti lose her freelance job over what she said, or where she chose to say it?

The traditional view of journalism is that objectivity is our most prized asset, never to be compromised. Becoming part of the story while covering it, at least when I completed my Queens College journalism minor in 1993, was a definite no-no. 

And yet, speaking out at a meeting as Vichiconti did arguably is in keeping with the philosophy of civic journalism, in which reporters take a more active role.

Around the time Vichiconti departed from AIM Vernon, a help-wanted ad popped up on a Patch site in New Jersey. The ad specified as a qualification “comfort with being a leader/local celebrity in the community, not merely an observer but a participant.”

If Vichiconti is interested in making a comeback, that might be a good fit.
 
Rob Jennings is a special projects reporter for the New Jersey Herald.

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