The Oprah Winfrey Show may not be the only “Oprah” disappearing this year.
A bill moving through the State Legislature would rename New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act, commonly known as OPRA, after the late Martin O’Shea, a longtime journalist and leading advocate for public access to government records.
In addition to providing O’Shea with a much-deserved posthumous honor, the bill and a companion measure would update and strengthen New Jersey’s laws regarding access to government records. The two bills were approved Monday, January 31, by the Senate State Government, Wagering, Tourism and Historic Preservation Committee and have been referred to the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee for further action.
O’Shea was a retired newspaper editor who had worked for several publications, including The New York Times. Toward the end of his career, he spent time at The News Tribune while I was the paper’s State House correspondent.
His arrival at The News Tribune was a bit unsettling for young reporters like me who were building their reputations and not accustomed to having editors go through their copy with fine-toothed combs.
The words “Martin is looking at your story” were a warning that you were about to be asked questions you might not be able to answer. You also were likely to have to call more people for comments, rework your lead, or make other changes and edits you didn’t expect. In hindsight, however, the words “Martin is looking at your story” also meant your story was going to become a better piece of journalism.
Martin also recognized the value of cultivating sources and building relationships. At a time when most of us regularly produced at least one story a day from our beats, he told me to go to events such as the League of Municipalities Conference and the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce Walk to Washington – and not worry about filing a single story. In the long run, he told me, the contacts you make and what you hear from talking with people informally will be far more valuable than a 15-inch story about the event.
Years after I left The News Tribune, I reconnected with Martin quite by accident while conducting research on open records for the Hall Institute. He wrote a short piece on the topic for our website, but neither of us made the connection – until after the article was posted – that we had worked together some 20 years earlier.
We stayed in touch, he wrote a few more articles for us, and he kept us informed of his ongoing battles to obtain public records from governments of all shapes and sizes. Sadly, he passed away in 2009 after a long illness.
Normally, I am not a big fan of naming laws after individuals, but the Martin O’Shea Open Public Records Act has a nice ring to it. I’m just curious to see if his name, like OPRA, will become a verb and adjective. Perhaps, we someday will hear people saying “I filed an O’Shea request” or “I O’Shea’d’ that document.” I also have little doubt that, had any such sentences ever come before Martin’s eyes, he would have taken a very sharp editing pencil to them.
# # #