Supporting Independent Journalists and Nonprofit Newsrooms in a Time of Unprecedented Threats

March 25, 2019

Journalists are being buffeted by growing political attacks and legal threats from powerful companies, political leaders and individuals at a moment when their capacity to fight those battles is greatly diminished. In a 2016 survey, the Knight Foundation found that a majority of editors believe financial pressures on newsrooms have left publishers less prepared and less able to go to court to preserve First Amendment freedoms. Nowhere is this more true than amongst struggling local legacy press, emerging nonprofit newsrooms and independent media makers.

The challenges that small newsrooms face were recently thrown into stark relief by Jon Ralston, the founder of The Nevada Independent, when he described why he chose not to publish an article which included credible allegations of misconduct at the Las Vegas Review-Journal (the article was subsequently published by the Columbia Journalism Review). Facing threats of legal action and the prohibitive cost of prolonged litigation, Ralston had to choose between risking the existence of his fledgling organization and the livelihoods of his staff, or not publishing a well-researched and well-sourced piece that was credible. He had no doubts about the validity of the reporting, but the cost of defending the reporting could have bankrupted his organization.

These sorts of challenges and choices are a critical part of how we must understand press freedom today. No journalist was bloodied or arrested. There was never a court battle. But as the landscape of our press changes, these sorts of strategic legal threats are an increasingly powerful tool for those who want to silence the press. We must embrace a modern conception of freedom of the press that recognizes a more encompassing set of challenges and imagines a new range of solutions. Though they are hard to measure, things like self-censorship as a result of economic concerns and the harassment of journalists—both in person and online—are growing threats to the public’s right to know.

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker accounts for arrests, physical attacks, border stops, and subpoenas, but it is often hard to quantify instances of online harassment and threats to journalists that are frequently as insidious. In an attempt at remedying a part of this, the International Women’s Media Foundation partnered with Troll Busters to publish a report on the impact of attacks and harassment on female journalists. In that report, 63 percent of respondents indicated they had been threatened or harassed online, 58 percent indicated they’d been threatened or harassed in person, and nearly 30 percent have considered leaving the profession as a result.

As the threats to journalists change, so too does the public’s understanding of what is at stake. While we know the threats to journalists and attacks on freedom of the press are real and deeply concerning, polling we funded in 2017 showed that although 95 percent of registered voters believe that freedom of the press is important, 52 percent do not perceive it as being under threat.

Democracy Fund is committed to supporting independent journalists and nonprofit newsrooms through a variety of efforts, from expanding community engagement to rebuilding sustainable business models. We know the challenges are nuanced, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Our hope is to help provide newsrooms with the resources needed to both report the truth confidently, without fear of being sued into financial ruin, and to help ensure that all journalists facing harassment have access to the resources necessary to recover and take care of themselves and their families.

Over the past two years, we have invested in organizations that defend and advocate for the rights of journalists and newsrooms at every level. For example:

Legal Defense

  • Knight Institute for the First Amendment: The Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University works to defend and strengthen the freedoms of speech and the press in the digital age through strategic litigation, research, and public education. Its aim is to promote a system of free expression that is open and inclusive, that broadens and elevates public discourse, and that fosters creativity, accountability, and effective self-government
  • Media Freedom and Information Access Legal Clinic at Yale Law School: The Media Freedom and Information Access Clinic at Yale University Law School is dedicated to increasing government transparency, defending the essential work of news gatherers, and protecting freedom of expression by providing pro bono legal services and developing policy initiatives.
  • Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press: The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press works to protect the right to gather and distribute news, keep government accountable by ensuring access to public records, and to preserve the principles of free speech and unfettered press, as guaranteed by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
  • Student Press Law Center: The Student Press Law Center works at the intersection of law, journalism and education to promote, support and defend the First Amendment rights of student journalists and their advisers at the high school and college level. The SPLC provides information, training and legal assistance at no charge to student journalists and the educators who work with them.


  • Reporters Without Borders North America: Reporters Without Borders North America seeks to raise awareness and involve Americans in preserving freedom of information, as well as monitor and take action to prevent press freedom violations in the United States, Canada, and the English-speaking Caribbean. They raise awareness on the current climate for press freedom and mobilize other partners, the US government, the UN, and American citizens who want to support freedom of the press and defend journalism.


  • PEN America: PEN America’s Press Freedom Incentive Fund supports PEN America members and their allies to mobilize their communities around press freedom. During its pilot 2017-2018 year, this Fund supported initiatives in more than 20 cities and regions—in places like Detroit, Birmingham, and Denver—to build new local constituencies ready to defend press freedom.

These grants and others have and will continue to provide the traditional legal foundation for our press freedom work. However, we know they alone will not fix the broader systemic issues affecting newsrooms. They do not address the field’s need to protect itself from litigation, and they do not address the personal harassment and threats that individual journalists—particularly women and people of color—endure every day. Given that knowledge, we have been working to think bigger, and leading efforts to broaden the safety and insurance infrastructures that support newsrooms and journalists in 2019.

Three areas Democracy Fund is focusing on this year are:

Legal Clinics

We are working with partners across philanthropy to find a new way to empower a network of university-affiliated legal clinics that focus on the first amendment and media access to more directly serve newsrooms and journalists in their communities. We believe a robust network of legal clinics with increased capacity to provide direct services to journalists can create a strong new force for First Amendment litigation and legal advice.

Insurance Infrastructure

We are exploring the development of a new option for libel and defamation insurance that is affordable and serves nonprofit newsrooms specifically. We believe that the accessibility of insurance is key to a newsroom’s ability to publish rigorously sourced stories that hold those in power accountable, and we believe philanthropy can play a role in helping the field bridge the gap between need and access.

Harassment and Safety

Finally, we are starting new work around supporting journalists who face online harassment and threats to their physical safety, with an emphasis on women and people of color. A press that regularly sees its journalists self-censoring out of fear, or, in the worst cases, being harassed out of the field altogether is not free.

A modern conception of a free and independent press in the United States must be for all journalists, not only those with resources to afford legal fees and in-house counsel. It must acknowledge the economic challenges of the changing media landscape. It must be responsive to the challenges of the networked society, and engage meaningfully with the public to gain their trust and their support. Lastly, it must support journalists who suffer or face harassment as a result of their public facing work. Fundamentally, this modern conception must recognize that threats to a free press are nuanced and often not as public as one might believe.

In partnership with many others in the field, we are taking a multi-layered approach to addressing the myriad, complex challenges facing the free and independent press.We believe that this work can help us move in the right direction, and we will continue to learn and iterate throughout the year.