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The future of news

From the Fall 2010 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 1. One of the primary (and certainly…

From the Fall 2010 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 1.

One of the primary (and certainly most enjoyable) duties as executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press is to attend and speak at journalism and legal conferences across the country. The benefits of attending these events are obvious: I get to spread the word about the Reporters Committee’s services to journalists and potential funders, and attendees hopefully learn something about media law.

As time marches on, it’s impossible to not take note of changes in the journalism business. But the Online News Association conference in Washington, D.C. over Halloween weekend brought the changes front and center. As I prepared to speak at a session on legal issues online journalists need to know, two people came up to say hello. They looked vaguely familiar. Then it dawned on me: These were two former colleagues from the St. Paul Pioneer Press, which I left to become a lawyer in 1993.

Linda Lockhart and Mark Plenke were there learning to navigate the new reality of online journalism. Caught up in newspaper downsizing, they are experienced journalists trying to do what the job they love via a new delivery system. 

A couple months earlier, I was standing in line at the drugstore in my new neighborhood. It turns out one of my new neighbors is former American Society of News Editors employee Bobbi Bowman. Caught up in layoffs at ASNE, Bobbi is on her own, running first a suburban news website and now a Northern Virginia zone of Patch.com. I’d never seen her so excited.

Linda, Mark and Bobbi are proving it’s never too late to learn something new.

The same is true of the Reporters Committee. For 40 years we have been in the business of providing general legal advice, “how to” guides, breaking news stories about the media law business and pro bono referrals to lawyers. You can read more about our services at www.rcfp.org. But changes in traditional newsrooms have had an exponential effect on us.

Reporters working in traditional newsrooms were long accustomed to having attorneys on call — via in-house counsel or special relationships with a local media lawyer. Now that many of these journalists are on their own, they need a free alternative. That’s usually the Reporters Committee. We’re ready and willing to help out. 

In fact, we’ve never been busier. That’s a good thing. But it raises other issues for us. For 40 years we’ve been largely dependent on contributions from media-based foundations, media companies and individuals. Many of the media foundations have gone out of business. Media companies still appreciate the services we provide, but the sizes of their contributions have declined precipitously.

Unlike most journalism groups, the Reporters Committee has never had “members.” We provide services to any reporter who needs us. In coming months, you will see the Reporters Committee working hard to reach independent journalists. We’re going to do a better job of telling the world about the important work we do every day, starting with the scores of non-profit investigative reporting centers that have popped up all over the country in the last two years.

We will attend every conference of online reporters we can find. Our website will be redesigned so that journalists who’ve never been taught the difference between libel and a prior restraint can find valuable information at their fingertips. (Although we hired a consultant to help us launch the new communications effort, the best advice so far has come from our three fall interns, all recent journalism school graduates. They were paid with pizza. Thank you, Rosemary, Daniel and Stephen!)

The Reporters Committee has always been governed by a steering committee made up entirely of working journalists. The committee has expanded carefully when necessary, managed its funds wisely yet conservatively and adapted to changes in the media business. Our steering committee members from “new media” are particularly valuable to us these days.

The Reporters Committee appreciates your support. We welcome any advice our constituents can provide during this period of rapid change. And a nice check wouldn’t hurt, either.