The McCormick Foundation’s commitment to defending press freedom originates with our establishment. As Robert R. McCormick wrote in his will, he hoped his charitable trust would use his bequest “to assist in repelling any attacks upon the right of freedom of speech and freedom of the press.”
He recognized that informing the public, the central responsibility of the press, carries risk. In the U.S., the First Amendment to our Constitution sought to mitigate this risk and provide the American press a protection from censorship to which the English press was vulnerable.
Over two centuries since the First Amendment was ratified, informing the public remains a challenged practice. Sometimes these obstacles are evident, such as government action to prevent publication of information. The U.S. government famously tried to do this during the Vietnam War when it went to the Supreme Court to prevent the New York Times and the Washington Post from publishing the “Pentagon Papers,” classified government documents about the war. In 2017, Steven Spielberg dramatized this historic victory for the press.
Yet, orders of prior restraint are not just historical practice. In just the past few months, ProPublica Illinois and the Chicago Sun-Times have been prohibited from publishing information they uncovered in the course of their reporting. According to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, an order of prior restraint is “relatively rare,” but especially serious because it prohibits an organization with no connection to a case from publishing information it independently collected.
Prior restraint is just one of myriad legal challenges journalists face in the course of reporting. Denials of access and chilling statements can stymy an investigation at its outset, while private defamation suits and subpoenas for a journalist’s notes and sources can place a punishing burden on reporters and their outlets after stories are published.
The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker highlights recent threats to press freedom, including chilling statements, denials of access, orders of prior restraint, and physical attacks on journalists, but these reports are indicators of a potentially broader current legal risk to journalism. My colleague at the Democracy Fund, Estizer Smith, lays out in a recent piece a concerning description of how mounting public and private assaults on journalism are coming at a time when it is at its most vulnerable financially, politically, and socially. These threats include disturbing action that is reported upon, as well as insidious public and private assaults that we don’t yet know of or understand.
A committed defender of press freedom, McCormick famously funded, out of his own pocket, a case cited by the Supreme Court in repudiating the government’s claim against the Times and Post. Chicago Tribune reporter Ron Grossman recently reminded readers of McCormick’s ties to the precedent-setting Near v. Minnesota, noting that so important was this 1931 Supreme Court verdict affirming “the primary need of a vigilant and courageous press, especially in great cities” that an excerpt from the majority opinion was etched into the wall of the Tribune Tower lobby.
Therefore, in executing our fourth journalism strategy, our first priority is to better understand the types of supports local outlets need. We will then use this knowledge to structure additional interventions that will help ensure local conditions continue to support a vigilant and vigorous press that can meet the information needs of all our local communities.
In the meantime, the Democracy Program is accepting applications through June 15, 2019 from nonprofit organizations that believe their work helps advance our goal to defend press freedom. We are also accepting applications for work supporting our other three journalism strategies, which you can learn about on our website and read more about on this blog.
Much has been written about the challenges of being a journalist in today’s media environment. Resources are scarce, advancement opportunities limited, the public’s perception sour, and the outlook bleak. For the sake of our democracy, however, we need people to thrive in this industry. Therefore, we are investigating how to support those who persist in their service, especially women and people of color, whose voices need to be elevated if journalism is going to reflect and resonate with the residents it must serve.
When I started at the McCormick Foundation in 2017, I embarked on a listening tour to learn from reporters at various stages of their careers what they needed to succeed in their work, and what obstacles they were facing. I heard how legacy newsrooms have been left with limited capacity to provide the professional development, legal, editorial, and other supports they had offered in the past. Meanwhile, though the number of nonprofit newsrooms has been growing steadily over the last decade, their individual capacities to withstand threats of litigation, much less support deeper dives on stories, was limited.
Through my conversations with many staff reporters, I began to connect with freelancers from whom I learned the unique struggles of working independently. I remember one reporter describing the precariousness of stringing together a month’s rent from gigs paying far less than $1 per word, which seemed to, sadly, be a lofty standard.
Despite the constraints, the reporters with whom I spoke were producing great journalism. I say this not to minimize their challenges, but as evidence of the potential return an investment in human capital could have. Unfortunately, philanthropy is not well placed to mitigate all the pains, but a few issues might present an opportunity for philanthropic intervention.
The contraction of the media industry has taken its toll on the ranks of editors. In many newsrooms, fewer editors are juggling more projects leaving them less time to work with reporters. Ensuring reporters and their stories blossom requires partnership, from editors and from mentors in the industry. Some organizations are responding to this need at a national level, such as the Online News Association and Investigative Reporters and Editors. We are interested in possible local approaches to address this challenge.
Providing Exposure and Enrichment
For many years, the Foundation has supported partners, such as The Poynter Institute, to develop and deliver trainings that offer local journalists tools and help them develop the skills and deepen the knowledge they need to report effectively. Trainings have been consistently well attended and well rated and we look forward to continue working with partners locally and nationally to bring accessible and relevant professional development opportunities to the region. We always appreciate recommendations from local journalists on the type of training they are seeking.
There are many obstacles to creating a robust, diverse, and resilient local talent pool. We have identified a few opportunities for further exploration. Over the next year, we will continue to consider how the Foundation might best leverage the tools at its disposal to provide journalists in the region, especially women and people of color, access to the support and training they need to explore broadly and dive deeply.
In keeping with the Foundation and the Democracy Program’s values, we believe our future work must focus on addressing the racial, ethnic, and gender disparities in investment and access to resources in the newsroom. To meet our program’s goal of closing the civic empowerment gap and serving under-resourced communities, we expect our work to support newsrooms that commit to equitably provide resources and create opportunities.
In the meantime, the Democracy Program is currently accepting applications from nonprofit organizations that believe their work helps advance our goal to increase the racial and ethnic diversity and the capacity of reporters working locally. We are also accepting applications for work supporting our other three journalism strategies, which you can learn about on our website and read more about on this blog.