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Reporters Committee’s ProJourn Program is Standing Up for North Carolina Newsrooms

Watchdog journalism is not cheap. Journalists need zealous legal representation to fight for public records and access to public meetings. Lawyers cost money. When journalists publish stories that hold powerful people accountable, they require careful lawyers to vet their investigative work. Lawyers cost money. And when the powerful want to silence the press, journalists need lawyers to represent their interests in court. Louder for the people in the back: Lawyers cost money!

Good lawyers, like good journalists, do not work for free. However, many journalists, especially freelancers and reporters at nonprofit or startup newsrooms, cannot afford to retain counsel or pay full freight for the legal work necessary to fully protect their interests. Pro bono legal services are essential to protecting journalism in a democratic society.

That’s why the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press launched the ProJourn program in partnership with Davis Wright Tremaine LLP, Microsoft and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. ProJourn is an innovative program that partners seasoned attorneys at firms that specialize in media law with in-house and corporate counsels to deepen the bench of pro bono lawyers who can assist journalists with matters from pre-publication review to public records lawsuits.

The North Carolina Open Government Coalition and NC Local News Workshop helped connect the ProJourn team with North Carolina newsrooms at the 2022 and 2023 NC News & Information Summits. The organizations will continue to offer workshops, trainings and meetups to build partnerships to improve journalists’ access to legal representation.

Brooks Fuller, director of the coalition, sat down with Kara Andrade, editor in chief of Carolina Public Press, to talk about how ProJourn has supported CPP’s nonprofit newsroom. The following are some excerpts from their chat:

BF: How did you hear about the ProJourn program?

KA: Just recently, we launched a series on charge-stacking led by investigative reporter, Jacob Biba, looking at the practice and how it disproportionately affects POC and BIPOC community and our [introduction to ProJourn] was incredibly timely. We were able to connect with them through our development director Lisa Lopez who went to the Summit at Elon. She specifically knew that the charge-stacking series was coming up and it was just serendipity at the Summit. We were definitely looking and the workshop was perfect for us.

BF: How has ProJourn directly impacted your work at CPP?

KA: We’ve been working with Brad Kutrow at McGuire Woods. The fact that Brad has background in reporting has already helped us in part one of the series. The biggest way is that Brad has helped provide some editorial recommendations so that we are as balanced as we can be and also legally covered with sources. He’s also been really helpful thinking about how we present the charge-stacking controversy and how to best explain it. Just making sure that we’re also addressing our own biases and opinions about [charge stacking].

He helps round out the way we’re looking at a very pernicious practice with a racial bias lens and helping us look at the issues with a legal perspective and an editorial perspective. He’s brought up really helpful cases that he’s worked on to make sure we cover ourselves. He’s got all this experience with previous cases. Just having that specialized media law knowledge changes everything.

The larger driving framework is that we don’t have [the money for in-house legal counsel]. Even when we do get legal counsel, it takes a huge chunk of our budget. We build legal support into our grants. Otherwise there’s no way we can do that kind of investigative reporting.

BF: What should journalists in North Carolina know about accessing ProJourn’s services?

KA: Do it! It can only make your reporting better and more rigorous. It’s not a coincidence that reporters go on to become lawyers. It requires a lot of the same working knowledge and it always helps to have someone with a different lens look at your reporting. It’s really hard to find trustworthy folks to do pre-publication review so being able to have a trustworthy party to look it over can benefit your reporting. ProJourn is a really nimble, agile way to do it and make a win-win for lawyers and journalists.  

The ProJourn team is hosting a free webinar focused on North Carolina public records issues on June 13, 2023, from 12 p.m. to 1 p.m. The event is free and open to journalists and public information seekers looking for resources to help them access government records. Sign up here.

Lawyers from Kilpatrick Townsend, Lesli Gaither and Mark D. Boynton, will lead the legal training. Brooks Fuller, Director of the NC Open Government Coalition, will moderate.

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