Ground-breaking partnership expands ProJourn, an innovative pro bono legal initiative for local journalists
Together, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, Microsoft Corp., the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and Davis Wright Tremaine — four leaders in their respective fields — are teaming up to expand the Protecting Journalists Pro Bono Program (ProJourn) after a pilot phase and landscape study demonstrating the critical need for increased legal support for local journalism.
ProJourn is an innovative approach to providing journalists — small news organizations, nonprofit newsrooms, documentary filmmakers and freelancers — no-cost legal help with pre-publication review and public records access.
The initiative, piloted in Washington and California in 2020 and 2021 by premier U.S. law firm Davis Wright Tremaine LLP and Microsoft, brings together teams of seasoned media attorneys and corporate in-house counsel to build the bench of legal support and meet the growing needs of local journalists.
Operated by the Reporters Committee, ProJourn will grow into a network of law firms and corporate legal departments that could handle up to 300 legal matters each year, with an estimated annual value of $3.5 million in pro bono services by the end of 2024.
“We need local journalism to inform people about the issues impacting their communities,” said Teresa Hutson, vice president, Technology and Corporate Responsibility at Microsoft. “ProJourn brings much needed legal support to local reporters across the U.S. This work bolsters our broader efforts to support journalism which in turn protects democracy. We are excited that ProJourn will expand into new states and work with additional partners.”
“ProJourn empowers local journalists and journalism organizations by providing accessible legal assistance to carry out their work effectively,” said Alberto Ibargüen, president and CEO of Knight Foundation. “The law can be a weapon and a shield; journalists need both in a healthy democracy.”
The expansion of ProJourn is built on the twofold premise that impactful local journalism often requires lawyers and that access to lawyers shouldn’t be an obstacle to investigative work.
The legal landscape survey and analysis, “Standing up for journalism: Increasing pro bono legal assistance to benefit communities and democracy,” found that freelance journalists and small nonprofit and independent newsrooms have a growing need for legal support particularly around public records access and pre-publication review, and nine of 10 journalists supported increasing pro bono services.
ProJourn will add capacity to existing efforts, including the Reporters Committee’s litigation program and Local Legal Initiative, and the Free Expression Legal Network, a national network of law school clinics, by bringing law firms and corporate attorneys into the mix.
“A distinguishing aspect of ProJourn is the partnership and close training that law firm lawyers with First Amendment expertise are sharing with in-house corporate lawyers, said Sima Sarrafan, co-founder of ProJourn and assistant general counsel at Microsoft. “By working side-by-side, in what we call our ‘2-in-a-box model,’ we’re bringing corporate lawyers into the fold and thereby expanding the pool of lawyers who can help journalists in need.”
Among the initial law firms joining ProJourn are BakerHostetler, Covington & Burling, Gibson Dunn & Crutcher LLP, Kilpatrick Townsend and McGuireWoods, who will grow the nationwide footprint of the program.
“The impact of ProJourn has been profound and we are thrilled that these outstanding firms have agreed to help us expand its capacity,” said Joanna Plichta Boisen, chief pro bono and social impact officer at Davis Wright Tremaine. “The need is great, the goal is vital, and these generous colleagues have the skills and commitment to help make it happen on a national level.”
The national landscape study noted the financial pressures preventing more newsrooms from hiring attorneys as well as “a growing culture of secrecy” in government.
“Threats to journalism are becoming more urgent,” said Reporters Committee ProJourn Director Flavie Fuentes. “ProJourn will increase the pro bono help out there for journalists who need a lawyer.”
Read the legal landscape analysis, “Standing up for journalism: Increasing pro bono legal assistance to benefit communities and democracy.”
About the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation
As social investors, the Knight Foundation supports democracy by funding free expression and journalism, arts and culture in community, research in areas of media and democracy, and in the success of American cities and towns where the Knight brothers once published newspapers. Learn more at kf.org and follow @knightfdn on social media.
Microsoft (Nasdaq “MSFT” @microsoft) enables digital transformation for the era of an intelligent cloud and an intelligent edge. Its mission is to empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more.
Davis Wright Tremaine LLP is an AmLaw 100 law firm with approximately 600 lawyers serving clients across the U.S. and around the world. The firm is widely recognized as having one of the leading media and entertainment practice groups in the country.
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press provides pro bono legal representation, amicus curiae support, and other legal resources to protect First Amendment freedoms and the newsgathering rights of journalists. The Reporters Committee serves news organizations, reporters, editors, documentary filmmakers, media lawyers, and many more who use our resources.