With fewer newspapers able to wage costly fights for open government, this public service is increasingly provided by nonprofits.
That includes 39 open-government groups fighting for transparency across the U.S., Puerto Rico and Guam, allied as the National Freedom of Information Coalition.
The coalition recently elected Jeff Roberts, a former Denver Post journalist, to be its president, succeeding Arizona journalism professor David Cuillier.
Because Roberts is a leader in efforts to keep the public informed, a victim of the news industry’s contraction and part of Colorado’s resurgent local-media ecosystem, I wanted to learn more about his plans.
He was laid off by the Post in 2007, when it had 300 journalists. Now the hedge-fund owned paper has 60 and the competing Rocky Mountain News is gone, he noted.
Post veterans started the Colorado Sun; the Colorado Springs Gazette is expanding statewide, and philanthropists are backing an array of smaller outlets.
There’s growing collaboration, Roberts said. People are trying to do “everything we can to protect what we have and see if we can grow it back a little bit.”
Roberts has been executive director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition since 2013. It’s a model program, with funding for paid staff and a heavily used hotline for reporters and the public.
The hotline received more than 5,100 inquiries over the last decade. Roberts offers advice on obtaining records, shares resources and connects callers with lawyers if needed.
“You don’t hear a whole lot about these ongoing, daily battles to fight for freedom of information,” he said via phone. “A lot of this is happening at the state and local level with freedom of information laws. Reporters are using these laws every single day to try to keep the public informed.”
Colorado also benefits from an attorney that the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press employs in the state, one of five funded nationally by the Knight Foundation to assist local news outlets.
Washington has a similar group, the Washington Coalition for Open Government. The state also spawned a national legal program, started by Microsoft and law firm Davis Wright Tremaine, providing pro-bono legal services to news outlets.
This all backfills for the news industry’s decline, which left few outlets with resources and owners willing to pursue costly investigations and fight for records and open meetings in court.
One recent focus for Roberts has been preventing agencies from increasing the cost of public records.
“We shouldn’t be making it harder to get public information, we should be removing barriers,” he said. “Especially at a time when news organizations have been diminished in general, local news organizations in particular. People have to realize the role that local news organizations play, very vital role they play, in keeping our democracy. We’ve got to keep emphasizing that — people are taking that for granted.”
Here are edited excerpts of our conversation:
Q: What are some of the challenges to obtaining public information nowadays?
A: There are all sorts of obstacles in the way. One is the cost. In Colorado, the government can charge for what’s called research and retrieval. That can be hundreds or thousands of dollars sometimes. It can make a records request extremely expensive and news organizations don’t have the resources they used to.
There are still ongoing problems in many states with obtaining criminal justice records — bodycam footage, things like that.
Q: In Washington, records are increasingly requested from the general public.
A: I know that from my hotline, 40% of those calls are from the public and occasionally from people in government.
Q: Colorado is a laboratory for local-news funding models. Is that leading to more transparency?
A: From my perspective, the more journalists covering Colorado the better. At the Post, there are still good, hardworking journalists. I know how dedicated they are and how underpaid and overworked most of them are.
Q: How can government navigate privacy concerns while maintaining openness?
A: It’s really tough because it’s very hard to convince the average person that information about another average person should be out there, right? Our job in these cases is to make lawmakers aware there’s another side to what they’re doing. One example of that is we had this awful shooting at an LGBTQ nightclub in Colorado Springs. It turns out the alleged shooter had been arrested for making a bomb threat against his grandparents a year before, for various reasons that ended up not being prosecuted, and it was wiped from his record. It made it really hard to show anything about that … it had been automatically sealed.
Q: What are your priorities for the national coalition?
A: I would like to see more state organizations be more active on a daily basis. I know that takes resources. There’s a lot more you can do if you have paid staff. I don’t know if there’s a way we can promote that. Part of that is just calling attention to the fact there are people in the states that are on the front lines of these public records-open government battles every single day, doing this work on behalf of the news media and the public, and they often don’t get a lot of attention for doing that.
Q: Does declining trust in media make it harder to advocate for transparency?
A: Yes. If they don’t believe in what you’re doing, or they believe you’re fake or whatever, all that makes it much harder. One thing I do find and really appreciate is that freedom of information is not a left or right issue, it is an American issue, it’s an American value. I take questions from people I know are lefties or people on the right and it doesn’t matter — what matters is whether they’re entitled to the information or not. These are rights of all Americans, the right of everybody, to know what your government is doing.