A new project offers legal guidance to digital startups in New Jersey

Image: AP/Fotolia The description of Josh Stearns’ role with the Dodge Foundation below has been revised for clarity.

“No local newsroom is sustainable if they can’t afford to hire a lawyer.”

That’s what one journalist recently told Josh Stearns, who directs the journalism sustainability project at the Dodge Foundation in New Jersey, during a discussion of community-driven reporting.

The point is hardly new. Six years ago, Len Downie and Michael Schudson concluded in a report on the reconstruction of American journalism that “[s]omething is gained” when “stable” news outlets “facilitate regular reporting by experienced journalists” and “support them with … legal services.”

But the Dodge Foundation, with support from the Knight Foundation, is breathing new life into the idea. For the past year, it has worked with local journalists to understand the infrastructure that community media need—web support, marketing, insurance, and, yes, legal help.

“These are functions that have traditionally been built into news organizations,” Stearns wrote in a Medium post on May 6, “but in our ‘post-industrial’ journalism era, with the rise of more smaller, networked newsrooms, those ‘backshop’ services have disappeared for many journalists.”

In the legal realm, just one lawsuit could doom an upstart news outlet, a fact compounded by the reality that many independent journalists don’t fully understand their speech and press rights. It’s a difficult situation, and hanging in the balance are everything from public-records access to the fair use of copyrighted content.

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“I was traveling around New Jersey talking with journalists in newsrooms of all sizes, many of them startups, and I kept hearing about legal needs,” Stearns said in an interview. “It helped me realize we could take the first step toward meeting those needs.”

Through its journalism sustainability project, the Dodge Foundation already had been exploring how to create shared back-end services to support news organizations across the state. At the same time, Ellen Goodman, a law professor and director of the Rutgers Institute for Information Policy and Law (RIIPL), had been brainstorming ways to engage her students with problems in the field.

“I’d been hearing that this was a need, helping journalists with their legal questions, and I knew journalism schools were doing things to serve the industry,” Goodman said. “I wanted to find a way for us, at a law school, to be helpful.”

Stearns and Goodman found each other, and converged on the idea of creating online content that would answer the legal questions frequently asked by local journalists. Supported by a $10,000 grant from Dodge, whose news projects are supported by Knight, Goodman is collaborating with Rutgers law students to research media law issues in various areas (defamation, privacy, the use of drones, etc.) The FAQ-style explainers they produce will be posted on the RIIPL website and others.

In that respect, the project is a cousin to Harvard’s now-defunct Digital Media Law Project, which provided not only resources for online journalists but also ongoing legal support and access to a network of attorneys—including yours truly—who would take cases pro bono. Goodman’s content, however, will focus on New Jersey law.

“Media law issues very often are state law issues,” she said. “We’ve identified some that are of interest to local journalists here, and we’re starting with them. The plan is to create content that’s constantly evolving as new questions come in, new issues arise, and the law changes.”

Goodman identified the first slate of issues by asking NJ News Commons, an initiative at Montclair State University that facilitates content sharing among the state’s news outlets, to survey its members about the legal issues that most interest and vex them. Any issues were fair game as long as they related to newsgathering and publishing.

The reason for the caveat: In March, the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism released a report, “Law for Media Startups,” authored by J-Lab director Jan Schaffer and media lawyer Jeff Kosseff, that addressed all manner of business-law issues that affect new journalism ventures. Goodman said she wanted her project to build on that report, not rehash it.

“Our broad focus is, ‘What media law issues do digital natives and news startups face in New Jersey?’” Goodman said. “Many of them are the same issues all journalists face. But some are peculiar to the digital environment, and we’ll pay special attention to those. For example, if you’re asked to unmask an anonymous commenter on your site, are you obligated to do it?”

What the project won’t do, at least for a while, is offer legal representation. Stearns wrote in his Medium post that Dodge is consulting with organizations like the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the Student Press Law Center “to develop strategies for providing consistent, ongoing legal support for newsrooms of all shapes and sizes.” But right now that’s not in the works for Goodman’s project.

“She’s laying the groundwork, and as she does, we’ll evaluate opportunities to offer more customized service, to help connect journalists with lawyers,” Stearns said. “I don’t know yet what that would look like—whether it would be part of this project, a different one, an effort undertaken elsewhere. It’s too early to tell, but it’s an important piece of the puzzle.”

Goodman agreed, saying, “That would be helpful in the long run, because general FAQ content is going to take you only so far. It gets at the low-hanging fruit, but you’ll need an actual human being to counsel you for more difficult matters.”

For now, Goodman is focused on the task at hand. One of her students has completed the first content module, and more students will join her in August to begin developing the rest. The plan is to post the first few modules in the fall, and then to develop more as questions come in, as long as the funding lasts.

“New digital enterprises don’t have access to the in-house counsels the legacy media had,” Goodman said. “Even for standard questions, there’s nobody to turn to. In a modest way, we hope to change that in New Jersey.”

To contact Goodman regarding issues that the project should research, email her at ellgood@camden.rutgers.edu.

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Jonathan Peters is CJR’s press freedom correspondent. An attorney, he is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Kansas, where he teaches and researches media law and policy, with an affiliate research position exploring big data and Internet governance in the KU Information & Telecommunication Technology Center. Peters has blogged on free expression for the Harvard Law & Policy Review, and he has written for Esquire, The Atlantic, Sports Illustrated, Slate, The Nation, Wired, and PBS. Follow him on Twitter @jonathanwpeters.