Lawyers for Reporters connects local news outlets with free legal services

Lawyers for Reporters connects local news outlets with free legal services

In Shasta County, California, Annelise Pierce is the founder of the nonprofit news outlet Shasta Scout, where she covers underreported stories in her region of Northern California.

This past March, she published a story about a music producer associated with Bethel Church, an evangelical megachurch in Redding, California, who was producing a documentary series about recalling Shasta County supervisors (“Follow along as we drain our local swamp”). From her piece:

The docuseries, which was announced on KCNR in Shasta County, California, will follow a militia leader, patriot activist and others, as they work to recall the majority of Shasta County’s supervisors. The proposed recalls are motivated by what the group refers to as “unconstitutional mandates,” including Covid-related business closures supported by national, regional and local public health experts and scientists. They’re calling their docuseries the “Red, White and Blueprint” and plan to use it to provide a road map for other patriot groups to use both in California and across the nation. A trailer for the series can be seen here.

Pierce published the story with the assistance of Lawyers for Reporters, a nonprofit collective that is a little over a year old and provides pro-bono legal support to local news outlets across the United States. They reviewed the story before publication and, Pierce said, helped ensure that she did “not accuse anyone of anything that they haven’t actually documented that they’ve done.”

Lawyers for Reporters is a joint venture of First Look Media’s Press Freedom Defense Fund and the Cyrus R. Vance Center for International Justice of the New York City Bar Association.

“We felt it was very important to try to figure out a way to provide the kinds of legal resources that aren’t otherwise provided to these hyperlocal, social justice-focused, and other media outlets,” David Bralow, the legal director at the Press Freedom Defense Fund, said. That includes advice on basic corporate governance, working with freelancers, and how to create privacy policies.

Lawyers for Reporters launched in January 2020 and is co-directed by Bralow and Alexander Papachristou, the executive director of the Vance Center. Its only full-time staff member is Cindy Moore, who oversees the management of the project and is an attorney herself.

The project has 30 clients so far and relies on a network of 18 law firms and over 60 lawyers around the United States who work with local news outlets on their specific legal needs. Bralow, Papachristou, and Moore connect the clients with attorneys who are licensed to practice in their region, and then oversee their work together.

“We have never turned a client away because we didn’t have the capacity to help, which is to say we are still very new and word hasn’t yet spread widely,” Papachristou said. “However, we can handle increased demand. We are growing internally, but we also have the great resource of law firms that join us as need arises, project-by-project, and this multiplies our capacity to dozens and dozens of lawyers across the country.”

Most often, Papachristou said, clients are journalists who need help setting up their news outlets — which often cover and serve underrepresented communities — as businesses and can’t afford to pay private attorneys. Nonprofits need to be incorporated and receive tax-exempt status so they can accept deductible donations and grants. Other matters commonly handled include copyright infringement claims, trademark registration, and so on.

Some of Lawyers for Reporters’ clients include the Tiny News Collective, the Asheville Watchdog, Q Voice News, Santa Cruz Local, the Center for Collaborative Investigative Journalism, Street Justice, and others. They’re also working with two exiled Venezuelan journalists facing defamation claims.

Lawyers for Reporters also regularly works with LION Publishers. Shasta Scout’s Pierce was a member of the LION and Google News Initiative’s Startups Lab Bootcamp and first heard about Lawyers for Reporters there.

Lawyers for Reporters isn’t the first initiative to provide legal support for local journalists. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press offer similar services, while groups like the National Freedom of Information Coalition and the Committee on Open Government focus on helping news outlets with public records requests. But what makes Lawyers for Reporters stand out, Bralow said, is how it remains connected with clients as their outlets grow.

“It’s keeping lots of balls in the air,” Papachristou said. “We have corporate lawyers who tend to be really focused and specialized and result-oriented communicating with clients who have a holistic view of what’s happening. We have to mediate between very different conceptions of work so that the clients can get all the stuff done.”