Vance Center Boosts Local U.S. Journalism
Lawyers for Reporters, within a year of its launch, has proved to help dozens of local journalism outlets to organize, set up news-making and business systems, and publish from diverse, independent perspectives. This success validates the application of the Vance Center’s co-counseling pro bono model to the domestic context.
The crisis facing local journalism in the United States is common wisdom. That pro bono legal assistance can make a difference was a hypothesis that the Vance Center and the Press Freedom Defense Fund sought to prove with the Lawyers for Reporters program. Vance Center Committee member and New York Times Deputy General Counsel David McCraw initiated the collaboration and has continued to guide its progress.
Lawyers for Reporters has found clients across the country, with referrals from the Local Independent Online News (LION) Publishers, the Tiny News Collective, the Institute for Nonprofit News, and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. Its four lawyers also participated in a Google News Initiative Startups Lab Boot Camp, presenting on trademark and copyright law, incorporation and governance, defamation avoidance and other news-gathering practices.
The Lawyers for Reporters clients, significantly led by women and People of Color, are mostly early-stage nonprofits covering social justice and community issues and often offering innovative approaches to news reporting. Current clients, listed on the website, include:
- The BK Reader, reporting on its community, Bed-Sty, Brooklyn
- Austin Vida, reporting on first-generation Latinos/as/x in Austin, Texas
- Street Justice, building community engagement in Washington, D.C.
- The Asheville Watchdog, investigating Western North Carolina
- The Rio Grande Guardian, focused on the Southwest border community
- The Boulder Reporting Lab, concerned with hyperlocal issues, especially the environment
Vital to successful assistance to these clients have been more than 50 lawyers from a dozen major law firms that have joined as pro bono co-counsel with Lawyers for Reporters. The Vance Center regularly collaborates in its international work with 33 global law firms, based or with significant presence in the United States, as well as more than 130 firms in other countries, through co-counseling between these and Vance Center’s own lawyers. These pro bono partners have proved to be as eager to work with Lawyers for Reporters on U.S. local journalism projects.
Local news organizations have a broad range of legal needs. Many need to incorporate as nonprofits and obtain tax-exempt status to receive grants and donations. Some want to convert from for-profit to nonprofit. The start-ups need advice on engaging freelancers, hiring staff, and organizing their boards. Copyright and trademark issues are frequent concerns, as is obtaining media insurance and occasional pre-publication defamation review. Contractual disputes and other legal problems can be significant threats needing urgent attention.
Lawyers for Reporters recently has begun to focus on key client needs, identified by the first years’ experience, and to build capacity for more concerted help. Thus, it offers a model freelancer agreement and media insurance consultation from an insurance expert. Similar focus on board governance and employment practices is forthcoming.