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Meet the Reporters Committee’s new executive director: Bruce Brown

News Media and the Law Photo

News Media and the Law Photo

The Reporters Committee announced in August that Washington, D.C., media lawyer and former journalist Bruce Brown would be the organization’s new executive director. He is the fourth executive director in the RCFP’s 43 years, replacing Lucy Dalglish who is now the dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland. Managing editor Nicole Lozare talked with Brown about his new position, why he pursued it and where he wants to take the nonprofit.

I understand that you’ve had your eye on this job for quite some time now. Can you tell me a little about that? Was this a career goal for you?

I think for anyone who’s interested in journalism and interested in media law, working over here is extremely attractive because you’re able to straddle two worlds. You’re close to the journalism world and you stay close to the legal world. And in that sense I think it offers a combination of opportunities, it’s almost unparalleled in our world.

What attracted you to media law in the first place? Did you ever have plans of staying in journalism?

When I graduated from law school I did work as a reporter for a couple of years. I thought that I might stay on that track, but then I went to a law firm. I probably went to the law firm not thinking that I’d stay on that track for as long as I did but I always had an idea that I’d get back into a job that was closer to journalism and therefore the Reporters Committee opportunity was very appealing and attractive for that reason.

If you stayed in journalism, because you actually worked in journalism for a while, and a number of our readers are journalists, where do you think you would be right now?

Well, if I had been lucky I think maybe working on an editorial board or having a column, that was always kind of the style of journalism that I was attracted to and thought would be the best fit for me. I don’t know if I ever would have been, for example, a great investigative reporter, although as a lawyer I was always interested in understanding how the law supported that part of journalism.

What have you done in your media law career that you’re most proud of?

I would say the civil rights case we worked on for El Nuevo Dia in San Juan (Puerto Rico), that was incredible experience. That was when I was a younger lawyer in my career at Baker Hostetler. That was an incredible case to have the opportunity to represent a newspaper that had found itself in the cross hairs of an angry governor, a governor who was retributive and seeking to retaliate against the newspaper for political coverage. That really felt like it put you in exactly the spot where the First Amendment and First Amendment lawyers could play the most important role in protecting journalism. That was an incredible experience.

You’ve been on the job for five to six months now, is it what you thought it would be like and what’s the biggest surprise so far?

I would say the pace. When we’re putting out three or four briefs a week the pace is very quick and that’s very different from practicing in a law firm where you might just have a handful of matters you’re working on and the deadlines are often widely spread out. And then you come over to a place like this where in any given week there are briefs to be done, reports to do, grants to apply for and the pace is very fast and in some cases we’re working at a clip that I think is unusual. And I think there’s more of an opportunity here to really do some long term thinking about legal policy to support journalism and to come up with projects that tie journalism to foundation granters who are looking for projects that really would assist journalists throughout the whole industry. And when you’re a lawyer in private practice you’re really focused on your individual clients and it’s not as often you have the opportunity to conceive of projects or strategic goals that are industry wide.

What are some of the things you want to get done in your first year as executive director?

I think there are four things. There is our own technological overhaul here. Putting our guides and magazines into tablet format and working to improve our FOIA services. Two, making a push into the technology and blogging worlds where media law will be increasingly made, and building upon the RCFP’s reputation in this area for being an advocacy organization for journalism and journalists. Three would be more engagement in the courts where we would actually litigate or defend cases for clients as opposed to just doing amicus work, and start to build a basis for doing that, whether it’s FOIA work or access work. And then the fourth area would be on the public policy front, not just being engaged in the issues we’ve traditionally had involvement in, but also looking for opportunities where we can have a voice in new set of policy initiatives to support journalism in transition into an online world and those issues will still involve newsgathering and subpoena defense and all those things we’ve always done.

You mentioned a push into tablet format. What does that mean for the magazine?

I anticipate this magazine in the near future being published in a tablet or e-pub format just as our legal guides will be published in the same format as well. This would enable readers to be able to access all that content on a tablet, on a smartphone in a way that they can easily kind of thumb through the materials that are there and bring it with them. 

If you enter litigation, would it be the first time for the Reporters Committee to do something like that?

We had brought some FOIA cases in the 70s, so in a way it’s going back to some of the early roots of the organization. We’ve developed this special role for the industry where we are writing a lot of amicus briefs during the year for different cases but we had previously played this other role where we would occasionally bring cases on our own. I think that’s something we need to return to because I feel that there is a desire for us to play that role strategically where we look for opportunities that again focus on the overall needs of the industry, not just taking any case we can find like a clearinghouse or a clinic. I think we’re well situated to do it and I think it’s fun as well and I think our senior attorneys and our fellows would enjoy those opportunities.

What are some of the challenges you are facing as the new executive director?

I think that finding a way to work cooperatively and to find common ground with the tech community is huge because those companies are playing such a major role in journalism today. The Reporters Committee should be a connection point between old and new media and it is a natural connection point. I think that figuring out where to intervene and legally how to find cases for us that make the most sense for the industry will be a challenge. I think figuring out how to make best use of our publications to engage reporters with that part of what we do – the journalism part of what we do as opposed to the legal part of what we do – is a challenge and I think that certainly an organization like ours which has been traditionally funded by media companies and media related foundations also needs to find new communities of support to tap into, whether it’s the transparency community, the technology community, those are natural places to look and we need to be doing that.

Speaking of funding, a lot of nonprofits are really struggling nowadays. How’s the Reporters Committee doing?

I think the opportunity a new executive director has to come in, to reshape and rethink the funding, is a special and unique time when you’re new and you’re figuring that out. I think the fruits of your efforts in those areas, you’ll see not even in a year but probably in two or three years down the road. And I hope at that point that within the next few years our funding will be diversified. I think the challenge for all organizations in our space is to show funders in areas that seem naturally related — transparency, technology — that organizations like the Reporters Committee, even though founded and coming out of traditional media, very much carry a vital role to these other communities as well.

So where do you see the Reporters Committee in five to 10 years from now?

I think that to be successful we will need to be handling our own cases, I think we will need to be working in tandem with organizations other than media organizations that care about journalism. I think if we have our own in house technologist in five or 10 years that would be a good sign because I think that for any organization in the publishing realm that it’s just such an incredibly important significant and vital part of understanding how to make your way in the world. So I think for five to 10 years down the road, it would be terrific that in addition to having our FOIA person and our legal defense person who knows all the substance of the First Amendment law, that we would also benefit from having personnel on board who would come out of that world of understanding and marshaling the use of technology to support free expression for journalism.

So how will you know you’re successful as the executive director of the Reporters Committee? How do you personally define success for you?

I would like to win some cases in court. I would like to be able to establish a new fellowship in key programming areas, whether we have a litigation fellowship or technology fellowship. A sign of success I think would be if we were in the future writing briefs where our participants included key participants in technology. I would like to look for opportunities to sign briefs that are important to those companies, I think the more cross fertilization you see between the RCFP and technology is a sign of success.

I would like to see the RCFP putting out more op-eds, more opportunity for us to comment on cases and policy challenges facing the industry. When the Federal Trade Commission and the FCC were holding their workshops at the future of journalism we were not represented then, and I think those opportunities when they come are natural places for us. I want officials and policy makers to think of us as an organization that does that kind of policy, that does thinking about the future of journalism but from a legal perspective. So those are the new areas of interest but I think success means partially building and maintaining success in key areas that we’ve always been a leader in, whether it’s FOIA or reporters privilege or defending the journalism that grows out of national security disclosures. Every few months there’s a cycle of hand wringing over whether the press is reporting too much in national security and the RCFP is always taking a leading role in defending that kind of journalism. And I hope we continue to do that.