January 21, 2020; Colorado Sun (Associated Press)
One of the benefits of the news diaspora to the nonprofit sector is that it provides an opportunity to develop supportive infrastructure that can resolve problems that are occurring across news site and state lines. The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation has helped to fund a lot of this national work, and now it has announced that it will fund the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press to provide pro bono legal services in five states to improve reporters’ access to public records and court proceedings.
The states are Colorado, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee. Most are states where the enforcement of public records laws is particularly difficult. Each site had to apply for inclusion into the project. The five states were selected from among 30 where advocacy groups and news outlets submitted applications, the group said.
The Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, which was among the groups applying for that state, said in a statement, “In Tennessee, the only way to enforce the public records and open meetings law when a government entity refuses to follow it is to file a petition in the courts. Unlike in other states, there is no administrative appeals process and no automatic attorney fee award even if a journalist prevails.” Colorado similarly has no administrative appeals process.
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Part of the reason Oklahoma was selected was because journalists in the state say public officials are increasingly resistant to compliance with laws aimed at the public’s First Amendment rights. In Oregon, which has its own public records advocate, a clash over transparency led to the advocate’s resignation—but not before she laid out a roadmap of the barriers to government transparency. And in Pennsylvania, where the state’s Right to Know Law has only been in effect for ten years, the grant will help pursue its implementation.
As we have mentioned before, the Knight Foundation can claim a significant part in the rapid development of nonprofit news through its constant tracking of the field. It has addressed technological issues, business plans, and emerging opportunities, and developed core infrastructure like the Institute for Nonprofit News. Not everything has been a success, but enough has been on the mark, and their constant attentive presence has made them unusually effective as a national philanthropic partner.
“It’s not enough to have First Amendment protections on paper,” Knight Foundation president Alberto Ibargüen said in a news release. “Freedom of the press needs to be defended on the ground, where local journalists are doing the work of holding the powerful to account.” —Ruth McCambridge
Note:NPQ received a small NewsMatch challenge grant last year; these are funded by the Knight Foundation.