A Shrinking Sunshine Week

Press open government initiative likely to lay off only staffer

In case you haven’t heard, it’s tough times out there for newspapers: Jobs are disappearing, pages are shrinking, bureaus are closing. Here’s one more casualty for the count: unless some unexpected funding comes through, Sunshine Week, the annual nationwide media event designed to draw attention to open government issues, will soon go without a full-time coordinator.

According to Debra Gersh Hernandez, who works as the Sunshine Week outside contractor for the American Society of News Editors, she will likely be without a job by the end of the month.

“We’re still going to do Sunshine Week,” promises Scott Bosley, the executive director of the ASNE. Bosley says the organization will transfer the workload to an in-house staffer, who will plan the event on a part time basis.

“That won’t support Sunshine Week at the same level,” admits Bosley, who adds that it is unclear exactly how the event will be affected by eliminating the coordinator’s position. Both Bosley and Gersh Hernandez are hopeful that the week has built momentum since it was inaugurated in March 2005, and will remain sustainable with less national coordination.

“A lot of it is volunteer effort anyway,” Bosley notes. “And some of the volunteers are very dedicated to it.”

“People like to joke that with Sunshine Week you only work one week a year,” says Gersh Hernandez. “And I like to joke that with Sunshine Week I only don’t work one week a year. Because if it’s not done, if it’s not on autopilot, by then there’s nothing you can do.”

Gersh Hernandez’s salary as an outside contractor was paid by ASNE with funds from the Miami-based and journalism-focused Knight Foundation—which also supports CJR. According to Eric Newton, vice president of Knight’s journalism program, the foundation provided several rounds of annual funding to support Sunshine Week, before reducing that funding and agreeing to sponsor a matching funds drive with ASNE, aimed at providing a $6 million-plus endowment for the organization.

But the fundraising was much less successful than anticipated, and last month ASNE announced the drive would be wrapping up at the end of 2009. As of early May, ASNE has raised only $471,600 of the anticipated $2.5 million.

“[W]hen the fundraising campaign didn’t go as well as was hoped, we agreed that ASNE could repurpose some of the money it was going to use for additional fundraising to continue annual Sunshine Week support,” Newton e-mailed in response to questions from CJR.

“If we’d raised the full amount, it would have been the core support for Sunshine Week forever,” says Bosley. “Most of our support for doing that has been the [newspaper] industry.”

“We hit a bad time for doing that,” adds Bosley. “I think in better times we’d be able to do it.”

The shuttered drive, and Gersh Hernandez’s anticipated departure, comes soon after other big changes at ASNE. This year the society decided to cancel its annual convention, held in April; the next month it voted to change its formal name from the American Society of Newspaper Editors, as it had been known since 1922.

Politicians and officials from both parties have used Sunshine Week to announce legislation and policy changes designed at opening up government. Senators Leahy and Cornyn have regularly introduced legislation during the week aimed at curtailing unnecessary exemptions to the Freedom of Information Act. In other years, Representatives Boucher and Pence introduced a version of their shield law bill, and Senators Schumer and Grassley wrote a bill that would allow federal courts to admit cameras. And in 2009, the Obama Justice Department used the week to issue new disclosure-friendly FOIA guidance.

“I knew we had arrived when both the Heritage Foundation and the Brookings Institution called to make sure that their events wouldn’t conflict,” says Gersh Hernandez.

Other organizations interested in access and good government issues—like the League of Women Voters and the American Library Association—have also joined in. In 2009, Gersh Hernandez estimates that around 1,000 media outlets took part, exposing communities across the country to right-to-know issues by publishing editorials, producing stories, or sponsoring local events. Participants are tracked and encouraged by volunteer state-level coordinators.

“The people who take it out into the field, it’s really going to be up to them now. And I feel bad about that,” says Gersh Hernandez. “Besides for losing my job.”

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Clint Hendler is the managing editor of Mother Jones, and a former deputy editor of CJR.