Program of free legal services to journalists expands nationwide

One consequence of the local journalism crisis is the loss of legal support available to reporters and news outlets.

Hiring lawyers to review major investigative stories before publication or help secure public records used to be common at regional outlets.

Now it’s a rarity as nearly every local newspaper struggles to cover costs, upgrade for digital competition and retain what’s left of their gutted newsrooms.

That further reduces the amount of government transparency and hard-hitting accountability journalism.

So it’s especially welcome to see a program providing free legal services to journalists expand from a pilot project in Washington and California to a national service.

Attorneys at Microsoft and Seattle-based law firm Davis Wright Tremaine started this in 2020.

They work together providing pro-bono legal services to local journalists at all types of outlets. As of May 2022, the program provided about 386 hours of services worth $240,000, according to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, a nonprofit that’s now coordinating the program.

This week, the Knight Foundation announced a $1.3 million grant over three years to expand the program, called ProJourn.

“ProJourn empowers local journalists and journalism organizations by providing accessible legal assistance to carry out their work effectively,” foundation CEO Alberto Ibargüen said in the announcement. “The law can be a weapon and a shield; journalists need both in a healthy democracy.”

A bevy of white shoe law firms are also joining the program, including BakerHostetler, Covington & Burling, Gibson Dunn & Crutcher LLP, Kilpatrick Townsend and McGuireWoods.

In turn, the firms will work with their corporate clients’ in-house lawyers to provide pro-bono service to local journalists, following the model of DWT and Microsoft.

Full disclosure: DWT has long represented The Seattle Times and Microsoft supports several of its journalism initiatives, but neither pitched this story to me and I’d be enthusiastic about ProJourn regardless.

RCFP expects the program will handle up to 300 legal issues per year through 2023, with an annual value of $3.5 million.

Beneficiaries aren’t just newspapers. They could also be nonprofit news outlets, freelance journalists and documentary filmmakers. The criteria limit services to independent journalists and outlets but there’s flexibility.

“We want to be fluid and look at the totality of the circumstances,” said Christina Piaia, ProJourn manager at RCFP.

I’m glad to hear that because much of America’s local journalism is now produced by people working for large newspaper chains. Those chains should and could afford their own lawyers but some are bleeding local newsrooms to death.

Deciding whether to assist in that situation is tricky. Philanthropy shouldn’t take the pressure off those chains to adequately support their papers. But in reality that leaves a majority of local newspapers with little to no legal support.

Legal services are key infrastructure needed for local journalism, said Mike Fancher, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, a nonprofit that collaborated on the pilot project. He’s also a former Times executive editor.

“Sadly, so few news organizations of any size have the resources these days to mount an aggressive legal action either to do investigative work that might involve the risk of being sued or to do the records work, to pursue records, where there’s strong pushback and you need to have legal advice to get the records you need,” Fancher said. “This is just a tremendous resource.”

It’s also mind blowing that a tiny newsroom could get support from $1,000 per hour law firms for no cost.

My hope is that this inspires both publishers and more law firms to pitch in.

If and when publishers find footing online and stabilize, they need to invest in services to support quality journalism. In the meanwhile, smaller law firms might consider offering pro-bono services if there’s a critical need at their local news outlet.

There is a remarkable array of firms, nonprofits and law school clinics helping journalists now. A ProJourn report estimates leading firms last year provided nearly 11,000 hours of pro bono service to journalists.

Ideally, these are temporary programs, providing support until longer-term fixes such as antitrust reform and enforcement stabilize the local news industry.

Local and regional outlets could then resume hiring their own lawyers to back more aggressive reporting, though it may be a while before they can afford some of these generous firms.

This is excerpted from the free, weekly Voices for a Free Press newsletter. Sign up to receive it at the Save the Free Press website.

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