National Press Club

New Model for Journalism, But Threats to First Amendment

November 20, 2008 | By Gil Klein

SAN DIEGO – The Voice of San Diego, an online news and investigative reporting service, provides a new model for delivering serious journalism, a National Press Club forum was told Tuesday.

But new online journalism combined with the decline in resources for traditional media are threatening First Amendment and freedom of information rights.

“Our whole purpose in being formed was to treat journalism as a public service,” said Scott Lewis, executive editor of the Voice of San Diego. “What we will do is raise enough money to provide that public service. But the days of lining the pockets of these owners and publishers, they’re done. They’re gone.”

Lewis was speaking at one of the National Press 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. At each forum, the Club gathers a panel of leading local journalists to talk about where the news business is going and how to protect its core values.

This forum, held at San Diego State University, was co-sponsored by the San Diego Press Club and the university’s School of Journalism and Media Studies with help from the Society of Professional Journalists, the Public Relations Society of America, Friends of Journalism at SDSU, the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences and the Advertising Club.

The Voice of San Diego was featured in a New York Times article Monday about the rise of online journalism. The Times said it offered “a brand of serious, original reporting by professional journalists — the province of the traditional media, but at a much lower cost of doing business.”

Lewis said the Voice is funded by donations, grants, corporate sponsorships and memberships, similar to the way public radio is funded but without government support. He insisted he is not a competitor to traditional media.

“Our purpose is not to take anything away from anybody,” he said. “It’s to add to the world.”

Tom York, editor of the San Diego Business Journal, warned there's a down side to relying on non-profit models to provide journalism.

“If you have a benefactor or several benefactors, what happens if they decide to pull the rug?” York said. “Suddenly there’s no more journalism being done because you don’t have your sources of income.”

First Amendment attorney Guylyn Cummins said she is seeing growing threats to freedom of information and the First Amendment. Reporter shield issues and prior restraint orders are popping up with more frequency, she said.

“Government is definitely getting more secretive,” she said. “In fact there is a shift in the balance of power between the public and what they know and what the government is able to keep secret because there are less resources” in the news media.

“I can go down the areas of the First Amendment and tell you that I have never seen such encroachments on the protections we used to have and less resources to fight them,” Cummins said.

And with so many cuts in news staffs, fewer reporters are covering the courts, she said.

“I worry that it is not going to be enough with charity journalism to actually do the job of keeping up with the public’s right to know,” she said.

J.W. August, managing editor of KGTV-News in San Diego, said television stations often get rid of investigative teams because they are expensive to operate and the legal bills can be high.

On the same day as the forum, he said, KGTV had to go to court to stop a judge from ordering one of its reporters to testify about something she had written in a blog describing how an investigation came together.

“That’s not cheap,” August said. “A lot of people wouldn’t do that these days.”

Diane Borden, director of SDSU’s School of Journalism and Media Studies, said she is seeing a resurgence in investigative reporting. But the faculty is wrestling with how to make sure students and the university are protected from libel suits for what students are blogging as they learn the craft.

“If we want them to have a real world experience and go live with blogging, what do we need to know and what do we need to teach them in order to protect them and to protect us in a time of lawsuits?” she asked. “I don’t have any answers, but we are talking about it.”