Q & A with an Accountability Expert

Fran Reilly, Executive Director, News Leaders Association discusses why Sunshine Week and what it stands for will only grow in the future with the challenges, and even demise, of local news. 

You are relatively new to News Leaders Association, what can you tell us about the organization and your role?

Two years ago, The American Society of News Editors and the Associated Press Media Editors joined forces to become the News Leaders Association. Last year I was tapped to lead the organization as Executive Director and help create a new organization that pulls through the best of the legacy organization’s service to journalism, while creating new programs and platforms responsive to what news leaders need today to build sustainable newsrooms. While continuing to be a standard bearer for standards of ethics and excellence in journalism, our mission is to provide news leaders and emerging leaders with a network to learn, share, grow and succeed in building diverse, sustainable newsrooms that inform and enlighten the communities they serve. Our primary goals include: advancing news organizations by building strong networks of support for news leaders, advancing newsroom leadership diversity to transform media equity, and advancing advocacy for independent journalism and first amendment rights. Through new programs and training, we want to ensure emerging news leaders have the skills and support they need to become the transformational news leaders our industry needs.

Previously, you were the executive director and publisher of City Limits News, New York City’s oldest nonprofit investigative news agency. What impact has that had on your position at NLA?

Being publisher of a local news non-profit in New York City gave me a very clear and direct understanding of the challenges facing local news from a funding perspective, and a first-hand look at the importance of local news to improve the lives of people in the community. I am very aware of what our news leaders are facing day to day, how business models are shifting, and the evolving mix of skills needed to progress in the industry today. 

Which recent accomplishments at NLA are you most proud of so far?

One of the legacy programs we brought forward is the ASNE Diversity Census, which has been an important tool for the industry since 1976.  We have created an expanded program that is designed to meet the urgency of the lack of DEI in journalism—we will soon be rolling out the Transformative Transparency Project, which still uses a data collection framework to gain insights to understand the full scope of the problem, but is expanded to include tools, resources and programs to help newsrooms improve their DEI culture, and set and reach diversity goals.

I am also proud of hiring a talented staff during the pandemic, and how we can operate with mission and a common purpose, without yet having met one another face to face.

NLA was the organizing hub for Sunshine Week this year (and beyond), can you tell us a little bit about the purpose of Sunshine Week and your perspective on how has it evolved over time?

Since 2005, Sunshine Week has been a mobilizing effort and rallying cry to educate the public about the importance of open records. Journalists have always been at the forefront of fighting for access to public information and looking out for the public; the weeklong celebration helps bring attention not only to the vital role a free press plays in holding government accountable, but to educating the public about their rights to access public information, what it means for them and their communities. Over time, organizations that advocate for FOIA, First Amendment rights, and open government have come together to plan and share resources during that week. One of the most popular tools shared and used is a collection of opinion pieces, cartoons, articles, that any newsroom can pick up and publish during the week and beyond to help inform and educate their own communities.

This year’s Sunshine Week was affected by COVID-19, what were your expectations for the week and your aspirations for future Sunshine Weeks?

Everything was virtual this year, and many people I work with have commented that they missed getting together in Washington, DC for events that typically took place during Sunshine Week; however, with this being the second year now, we have gotten more experienced in how to do virtual events well, and the events were accessible to more people this way. As a national initiative, virtual convenings are a plus.  For instance, we had a panel discussion during the week that we produced with the First Amendment Coalition, “Inside the Fight for Public Information,” that had more than 200 people register. We would never have that many attendees if this was an in-person event.

I think the importance of Sunshine Week and what it stands for will only grow in the future with the challenges, and even demise, of local news. When local communities lose their local paper, that often means there is no local media covering local meetings and no way to hold local government accountable. Citizens need to learn how to access information that they are entitled to have.

NLA partnered with the Committee to Protect Journalists to launch the U.S. Press Freedom Accountability Project. Can you tell us more about the initiative and what you hope to accomplish with it?

CPJ contacted us over the summer because of the growing number of attacks against journalists in the U.S. during the summer protests. We discussed the importance of investigating and telling these stories. They funded a grant pool for newsrooms, which NLA administers, to help local newsrooms fund the costs of investigating attacks on journalists and first amendment abuses in their communities. So far, we have awarded two grants and encourage local newsrooms to apply though a simple application process that can be found on newsleaders.org.

 As we get closer to the second quarter of the year, what does NLA hope to accomplish in the remainder of the year and how can the Open The Government coalition help you accomplish these goals?

We are continuing to build the new organization and will be rolling out new programs to members and non-members. We stand with the principles Open The Government and other good government organizations outlined in Accountability 2021, particularly principle number one: The public’s right to complete and timely information. It is through partnerships and coalition work like this, with organizations working together towards this same goal, that will bring the changes needed to continue to advance our democracy.