How do you develop newsroom expertise? Here’s a new option for the legal beat

Among the important challenges facing newsrooms these days—and local newsrooms in particular— the question of how to build journalist expertise is right up there with how to connect to digital audiences and figuring out the whole business-model thing. As “explainer” sites proliferate and niche blogs are absorbed into mainstream news outlets, expectations for policy sophistication among reporters are on the rise. At the same time, legacy newsrooms around the country are shrinking, startups are often small, and resources in either case are stretched to the max.

One solution: Get some experts to teach journalists, at little to no cost to the reporters.

That’s the idea behind Journalist Law School, which has been running for about a decade at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. The four-day program is so successful—and so oversubscribed—that a similar program is now being planned at the University of South Carolina in October.

“We decided that the time was right for the creation of an East Coast version,” said Joel Collins, a Columbia, South Carolina, lawyer and the president of the American Board of Trial Advocates, which is a sponsor of both programs. “The main reason we went with a second journalist law school is because of the demand.”

Legal instruction for journalists isn’t a new idea. State bar organizations in states from Florida to Colorado have offered workshops for years; at a different scale, Yale offers a master’s in law that counts plenty of mid-career journalists as alumni.

But the four-day journalist law school—with the cost of instruction, lodging, and partial travel covered—fills a niche, and demand for it seems to exist. At the Loyola program, journalists learn some key concepts about the court system and how to interview lawyers, understand the significance of cases, and identify new legal stories. Loyola accepts 35 fellows each spring and had to turn away about 205 applicants this year, said John Nockleby, who directs the program.

The application rate has remained steady or grown in recent years, he said, and it’s been hard to whittle down the list. “We fight about that,” Nockleby said. “Because with all the cutbacks in the profession, all the cutbacks in media, what is amazing is that the applications we get are astonishing.” (Competition is similarly steep at Vermont Law School’s Environmental Law Center, which offers three no-cost media fellowships for two weeks each summer for environmental journalists, along with a stipend. Applications have remained steady at around 45 in recent years.)

At the East Coast program, there isn’t yet an online presence or application process—interested journalists should keep an eye on the webpage of USC’s law school—but the plan is for 25 fellows this fall. The focus will be on how civil and criminal cases unfold and explaining proper legal terminology. The idea is to make it easier for journalists covering the legal system to understand the basic concepts and framework relevant to news coverage. “We’re not trying to make it law school-like,” said Jay Bender, a USC professor and South Carolina’s leading media attorney who’s involved in the latest effort.

Law is hardly the only field to offer free training to reporters on how better to report on it—but as a path to better knowledge through underwriting, it may come with fewer ethical complications. Industries from Big Pharma to Big Food have come in for scrutiny of their subsidies for journalist training, over suspicion that reporting boot camps might be opportunities for corporate propaganda that minimize other concerns. There are rival camps and interested parties in the legal world too, but a shared relationship to the process makes those concerns less acute. (The Loyola program is sponsored by several groups associated with the civil plaintiffs’ bar, but also by the Defense Research Institute, which represents the civil defense bar.)

In addition to the general demand, the new program is a response to changes in the media industry. “We’ve seen broadcast and print is on the wane, and internet journalism, blogosphere journalism, is on the rise,” Collins told me. “We won’t exclude anyone based on the nature of their news organization, but our emphasis will be on digital media-type journalists.”

It might also be a response to lawyers having to answer the same basic questions from journalists a few too many times, or seeing the same simple mistakes appear in print or on the air.

“Newsrooms are cut to the bone now and very often it’s the people who have experience that have taken buyouts and have gone away,” Bender said. “So we have in newsrooms all over the country people who don’t know a thing about the legal system and court system and are being asked to cover it.”

Said Collins: “I know from working with reporters over the years, you want to get it right and sometimes it’s difficult. I’ve often read about a case that I was trying and asked if [the reporter was] in the same courtroom that I was.”

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Corey Hutchins is CJR's correspondent based in Colorado, where he is also a journalist for The Colorado Independent. A former alt-weekly reporter in South Carolina, he was twice named journalist of the year in the weekly division by the SC Press Association. Hutchins recently worked on the State Integrity Investigation at the Center for Public Integrity and he has contributed to Slate, The Nation, The Washington Post, and others. Follow him on Twitter @coreyhutchins or email him at coreyhutchins@gmail.com.