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Jennifer Borg: Former Record executive talks about Bridgegate and her new role as first amendment lawyer

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Jennifer Borg is still doing work for the newspaper group that her family sold, as well as the larger family business.
Jennifer Borg is still doing work for the newspaper group that her family sold, as well as the larger family business. - ()

“You won't believe the emails I just uncovered.” Her inbox blinked with that message at 3:30 a.m., so she fired off a reasonable reply: “What are you still doing up?”

Following a coffee, a less terse exchange and a lot more work, Jennifer Borg and a colleague, a reporter at The Record newspaper, would go on to obtain all the records needed to verify a major story — the one that exposed the Bridgegate scandal.

Borg waged a legal battle to win access to those records, as she did many times in her position as general counsel for the North Jersey Media Group, a company owned by Borg’s family that for a long period comprised The Record and more than 50 other community publications.

As head of the company’s legal department, she took on First Amendment issues and all sorts of litigation under New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act. She also worked with the company’s finance, advertising and other departments — but her true passion lay in working on behalf of the newsroom.

That could mean fighting for a reporter’s access to records in a courtroom; it could also mean late-night reviews of important news stories the night before publication, flanking a reporter on the left with an editor on the right.

There’s an exhilaration in it. Great stories are never in short supply in New Jersey, as Borg says.

Her own story, and that of her family’s run in the news business before their company sold its core media assets to the nation’s biggest newspaper chain, is a microcosm of the news industry’s direction and its financial woes, even as advocates for journalists such as Borg convey a message of the media never being more important.

“This is not a time when newsroom budgets should be slashed,” she said. “Although I do understand, more than most, maybe, the financial reality of it.”

It’s a question of economics, she said. How do you make a newspaper viable — not to mention coming up with a budget to dedicate multiple reporters to potentially months-long investigations to corroborate stories like Bridgegate — when advertising dollars have diminished exponentially?

Meanwhile, social media’s proliferation has contributed to the rise of biased, or even fake, news — delivered as snippets of tailored content on social media sites — largely replacing investment into in-depth news gathering. President Donald Trump’s media criticisms bring another force to bear on the industry.

“And it’s not just about having reporters show up at a press conference with Trump, because the story is not always found in the four corners of that (room),” Borg said. “We need journalists to be given the tools, time and money to pursue stories requiring (deeper investigation).”

One of the things journalists also require — more and more each day, according to Borg — is a legal defense.

“It used to be that all a reporter really needed was a notepad and pen,” she said. “It’s important now for reporters to have lawyers at their side, too.”

That’s what the Columbia Law School alumna did for her family’s company, which calls on a history stretching back to Borg’s great-grandfather, the original owner of the Bergen County newspaper that become The Record.

What’s new?

Ronald Bienstock, a partner and co-chair of the entertainment, sports and media group at Scarinci Hollenbeck, says he won’t be surprised by the science fiction-like places news consumption will go.

Holographic Edward R. Murrows? Sure, why not.

“But when it comes to the nature of First Amendment issues — I don’t think that will change remarkably at all,” he said.

Even as two-thirds of the public get their news feed from social media these days, he said, the landscape of what’s important in media law hasn’t been drastically upended.

“As things continue to change, the fundamental principles will still be there, we’ll just be applying them to new technologies as best we can,” Bienstock said.

Her grandfather ran a company later known as the North Jersey Media Group before her dad took over and eventually passed the business on to her brother. But Borg was the first of the fourth generation to work for the business, which has since sold many of its assets to the Gannett holding company.

“I’m going to be honest, (when that deal was announced), it was a real day of mourning,” she said. “All of us have been in a grieving process, so to speak.”

Borg still has her foot in the newsroom, which has seen massive downsizing since the acquisition. She will retain her full-time job at the larger family business, which still has real estate holdings.

She is concurrently taking on a role at Pashman Stein Walder Hayden P.C., a firm that her family’s company has a relationship with that goes back to both her grandfathers sitting on Bergen County committees alongside Justice Morris Pashman — another noted proponent of freedom of the press.

“I’ve known this firm since I started practicing law (for the family company),” she said. “So, I’m thrilled about opportunity to work with them and to help grow their Open Public Records Act practice.”

It’s no surprise she’s excited about staying in the orbit of the media world, given its presence throughout her life.

“I grew up in a household where there was a lot of discourse about issues relating (to media) around the proverbial family dinner,” she said. “It was much more than your father going to the office and coming home — the newspaper, and its role as the fourth estate, was what we were raised on.

“I know it’s a cliché, but we were all born with ink in our blood.”

Although the family’s journalistic enterprises received their share of fan mail, it’s the hate mail that Borg tends to remember.

She recalls the distraught days of wild, red-inked letters penned to her father, accusing him of being a communist for something that appeared in the paper, or the even more severe kidnapping threats her grandfather faced for a story he was doing at the time.

“We were always around the consequences of revealing a really great story that may even subject someone to investigations,” Borg said.

She’s seen public officials be just as combative. She said it comes down to the fact that there’s likely to be resistance when there’s a story worth writing.

The Bridgegate investigation means a lot to her.

“That was a particularly exciting time,” she said. “I think a lot of reporters had been told the same story (Shawn Boburg at The Record) was, he just kept on it. ... Things weren’t adding up and he pursued it. It was fabulous investigative journalism.”

It’s the kind of work she hopes to see valued as headlines tell of the profession being under fire.

“A time when those in power are most critical of news as an institution is a time when the news matters most,” she said.

E-mail to: brettj@njbiz.com
On Twitter: @reporterbrett

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