Donate to SN&R's First Amendment legal-aid fund

Jeff vonKaenel

Click here to donate to SN&R’s Legal Defense Fund.

Earlier this summer, Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson sued SN&R. The mayor wanted to prevent us from seeing his emails, which he said were protected by attorney-client privilege. But this lawsuit was a smoke screen. The mayor hoped to prevent the public from finding out that city staff was involved in supporting his “coup” efforts to take control of of the National Conference of Black Mayors. It is safe to say that many Sacramento taxpayers would not find this a proper use of their tax dollars.

We knew immediately that the mayor’s case had no merit. We knew that the public deserved to know. But we didn’t know how we could afford a lawsuit.

The mayor has more money than we do. And he knows it. His attorneys work pro bono. Ours do not. The mayor has more to lose by having his activities exposed than we have to gain by exposing those activities. So, it makes sense for him to threaten expensive legal action. If we had done a cost-benefit analysis of taking on the mayor, we might have second-guessed doing so.

Another local newspaper, when faced with the same threat, did back down. We chose not to. And, as a result, many things have come to light: a troubling use of city staff for noncity business, a merging of city business and the mayor’s personal projects and a blend of private and public emails. We expect that there will be more revelations as we continue with our litigation.

Legal cases are expensive. Our legal bill is currently approaching $30,000—and rising. So, we are in the frustrating position of spending money on legal costs that we would rather spend on reporting.

As a result, we have decided to set up a legal fund.

On September 16, we’re hosting a fundraising event at Ten22, in Old Sacramento. (See the note at the end of this story for more details.)

In addition to this legal-aid effort, we also will be announcing soon a journalism foundation to help fund investigative and watchdog reporting in Sacramento.

Over the last four decades, I have repeatedly seen the positive impact of journalism on communities. During most of that period, this paper had a simple economic model: If we wrote interesting stories, more people would read our paper. If more people read our paper, then more businesses would pay us to have their ads in our paper.

That model is evolving. Just having a large readership no longer guarantees sufficient advertising. The marketplace has changed, too. Tower Records used to be our largest account. Tower Records is no more. The local businesses that used to be the backbone of SN&R’s advertising have reduced in number, in part due to the growth of giant Internet corporations such as Amazon.

As the New Yorker and others have pointed out in recent months, more nonprofits and individual donors who are passionate about their communities are stepping up to pay for quality journalism. That’s a great thing. And it isn’t something new in the world of journalism, either. National Public Radio, for instance, thrives under this model: Individuals and organizations contribute enough revenues to enable NPR to do excellent community journalism with real impact.

We hope to do the same—although, obviously, we are a for-profit business, unlike NPR. (Sometimes more in theory than in fact.) Nevertheless, it is unusual for a for-profit business to ask for donations. But we don’t need to raise money for our whole operation. We’re just raising money for more journalism, more stories, more reporting. We are only looking to add reporters and increase important news coverage.

Investigative reporting and beats like poverty or the environment are critically important. But they are money losers. If we publish restaurant reviews, restaurants want to run ads near those reviews. No business has ever called me and to say that they loved our story on homelessness and wanted to put their ad next to it.

So, if you believe that our region would be better with more eyes on politicians and decision makers, then we would like to provide that scrutiny. If you believe that criminal justice and income inequality need to be covered, we would like to provide that coverage. Contributions to our foundation will enable this to happen.

The foundation model helps build a natural firewall between donors and editorial coverage. People contribute, knowing that they cannot control what we write about. The reporters and editors will be independent.

Over the last 26 years, SN&R’s chosen to speak truth to power. We give a microphone to people who sometimes never have a voice. And often the powerful do not like it, sometimes demonstrating their displeasure with lawsuits. We hope that our legal-aid fundraiser, and eventually this foundation, will enable us to speak a little louder—truth to power.

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About the Author

Jeff vonKaenel
Jeff vonKaenel is the president, CEO and majority owner of the News & Review newspapers in Sacramento, Chico and Reno.