The New York Times ran an interesting report on how the bad economy has impacted newspapers' decisions on whether to litigate public record and access issues. The bottom line, according to the Times -- while smaller, regional news organizations are scaling back their legal efforts, large national outlets "have been quietly ramping up."
The Times cited in particular Hearst and the Associated Press as two organizations that have been as aggressive as ever in pushing state and federal officials on public record and access issues. According to the story, both are dealing with tighter budgets by bringing more of their legal work in-house, rather than using outside counsel.
Eve Burton, vice president and general counsel at Hearst, told the Times that Hearst was at an all-time high in the number of access cases it was pursuing. Hearst's most high-profile fight is in Texas, where it has sued the governor's office for records relating to the 2004 execution of Cameron Todd Willingham, a man many death penalty opponents believe may have been innocent.
The A.P. and Bloomberg News have also been in high-profile legal fights with Treasury Department officials over Freedom of Information Act requests they have filed, the Times reported.
Unfortunately, the Times found, smaller news organizations are choosing to forgo possibly expensive legal fights because their budgets simply will not allow them.
This reluctance only highlights the importance of attorneys' fees provisions in public records statutes, as they are often the only way to truly hold government officials accountable when they improperly withhold public records.