National Press Club

Freedom of Information Hurt by Newspaper Revenue Losses, Panel Says

October 23, 2008

SEATTLE – All types of news media depend on a robust newspaper industry to take the lead in defending freedom of information against state and local government, leading Oregon journalists told a National Press Club Centennial Forum here Tuesday.

And when newspapers can no longer afford those legal costs, they said, the public’s access to information suffers.

“We’re spending less on legal fees,” said Ryan Blethen, associate publisher of the Seattle Times and a member of the fifth generation of the family that has run the Times since 1896.

The paper cannot abandon freedom of information challenges because they are essential to the news business, he said, but they can no longer be indiscriminately pursued.

“A lot of what we do is not necessarily on our pages,” he said. “It’s fighting the battles behind the scenes. Especially now with our budgets … you can’t blow up at everything. You have to pick your battles and figure out where you’re going to apply some pressure and be smart about it.”

But the government is only getting more secretive, he said.

“Washington state has done a terrible job on open government,” he said. “The Supreme Court has been consistently hostile toward the press. The Sunshine Committee is a joke. It’s getting tough. That just adds more cost because you have to litigate everything.”

Blethen was speaking at one of the Club’s forums on “The First Amendment, Freedom of the Press and the Future of Journalism” the Club is holding around the country to mark its 100th anniversary. The Seattle forum was co-sponsored by the University of Washington’s communication department.

Knute “Skip” Berger, a columnist for Crosscut.com and former editor of the Seattle Weekly, said smaller papers have always been dependent on the large dailies to fight freedom-of-information battles.

“I worry about the loss of the Seattle Times’ legal budget,” he said. “We can’t hire lawyers to fight all the battles. The open-government battles that the Times has fought have benefited everybody.”

As the government realizes that it will not be challenged as often, he said, it will find more ways to hide information.

“The watchdog element that a big purse carries with it is important,” he said. “That’s one of the things that the rest of us worry about.”

Lori Matsukawa, an anchor of KING-5 TV news, said television news cannot pick up the costs that newspapers have been incurring to fight legal battles.

“We really appreciate the fact that the Seattle Times will take the lead on litigation,” she said, “and then we will send our attorney out there to file a friend-of-the-court brief.”

Quipped Blethen, “If you ever want to cut us a check, we’re open.”

Randal Beam, a University of Washington professor who has been part of a team that has studied reporters during the past three decades, said they are not as discouraged with the state of the news business as many reports would indicate. Last fall, he said, the team interviewed 400 journalists it had talked to in 2002 to see how their attitudes had changed as the news business has suffered.

“They seem to be committed to trying to do good work, just as they had five years earlier and 10 years before that,” he said. “I think a relatively small percentage have become more discouraged. But by and large you don’t find them down in the dumps as you might believe.”

The next forum is today in Spokane, Wash.