BERLIN, Conn. – Hyperlocal watchdog journalist Nancy Chapman won two awards for excellence in journalism Thursday from the Connecticut Society of Professional Journalists, and videographer Harold Cobin won an award for video storytelling.
A panel of judges awarded Chapman the First Amendment Award for her story “D’Amelio attorney says arrest expunged; threatens lawsuit.”
The First Amendment Award is given to a single story, column or series of stories that increase the understanding among the public of the role the press plays in a free society. It it was the first time a hyperlocal site won the First Amendment award. SPJ calls it one of their “three big awards.”
Chapman’s story reported details of unsuccessful State Senate Candidate Marc D’Amelio’s 2014 DUI, which had been expunged. The reporter received a copy of the arrest report by mail in an envelope with no return address. When she contacted D’Amelio for comment, his lawyer threatened a lawsuit if she wrote about the arrest. She verified that she was on solid legal ground and published a story. D’Amelio lost the election and sued Chapman for negligent/intentional infliction of emotional distress and false light invasion of privacy.
Chapman’s attorneys responded with a special motion to dismiss under Connecticut’s new anti-SLAPP law, designed to provide for the quick dismissal of suits arising from the exercise of rights covered by the First Amendment. Contesting the motion and losing could have obligated D’Amelio to pay court costs; his attorney withdrew the lawsuit on May 6, before a judge could rule on the motion, claiming that he could not proceed without an expert witness who had developed a conflict.
“Nancy Chapman showed tremendous determination and courage to tell these stories and to continue to tell these stories, based on public record mind you. She faced direct threats and stood down litigation. She should be recognized for this dedication,” SPJ judges wrote.
“I’m astounded. I’m going to put (the award) next to my husband’s urn,” Chapman said to the more than 150 Connecticut journalists in attendance. Chapman founded NancyOnNorwalk with her husband Mark in 2012. He died in 2016.
During her remarks Chapman expressed gratitude for pro bono legal representation from attorneys Bill Fish, Jr. of Hinkley Allen, David Shulz of Ballard Spahr, and the Yale Law School Media Freedom Information Access Clinic.
Chapman also won a first place award for hyperlocal government coverage for her story “Norwalk wired $900K to scammers; may settle reimbursement lawsuit,” which revealed payment of a fraudulent invoice by City Hall finance personnel.
NancyOnNorwalk videographer Harold Cobin won a first place award for hyperlocal video storytelling for his video “Norwalk plants trees at Roodner Court.”
Connecticut’s SPJ President Bruno Matarazzo, Jr. said the contest received 843 entries.
NancyOnNorwalk is a 501(c)3 nonprofit and a member of the Institute for Nonprofit News.