The Right Intelligence

How to reform a field? Identify who's doing good.

For 15 years, FIRE has tenaciously fought for a radically different future in everything we do. 

From story grants and reporting services, to the Contract Template, Legal Consultancy, and most lately the comprehensive Tip Sheets, FIRE accelerates basic reform of public-interest journalism by providing direct assistance, surveying the results—and analyzing what works and doesn’t. 

Our new Tip Sheets, in particular, make a persuasive case that publishers and broadcasters would be better off relinquishing an outmoded contracting model

The Tip Sheets point to a counter-intuitive conclusion: Outlets that treat freelancers well actually act in everybody’s interest—and ultimately at an advantage over those that don’t. 

FIRE’s own work shows that the good work is entirely doable. 

Of the 17 outlets that had exposed freelancers to liability before FIRE intervened on request since 2021, 15 of the outlets stepped up and indemnified the reporter with FIRE’s help. 

FIRE has now developed records of more than two-dozen outlets that have done it right—and those that haven’t.  

We now intend to take the next step. 

In a project seeded by FIRE's grant from Craig Newmark Philanthropies, FIRE is launching a careful evaluation of how outlets conduct themselves in engaging freelance reporters—and you can help. 

  • If you’re an unaffiliated reporter, we invite you to broaden and deepen the fieldwide evaluation of outlets by contributing relevant intelligence to FIRE’s metrics; 

  • If you are a friend of journalism who wants to transform an antiquated journalistic status quo into a more viable future, we invite you to support FIRE’s work

Please be in touch

And thank you! 

Laird Townsend, FIRE Director 

Lifting the Veil

Tip Sheets

Revealing the mystery
of an arcane world
 

A peak at liability

For more than a year FIRE has worked with media attorneys and insurance experts to help publishers and broadcasters protect freelance reporters.

Now we've turned their expertise into a series of educational guides, or tip sheets.

The tip sheets take a bedrock of accountability journalism—the poorly understood and often-arcane world of media law and insurance—and reveal it in plain language.

The bottom line: the liability model often used for freelance investigative journalism does not work well for the public interest.

Our tip sheets inform a viable alternative, providing immediate guidance for current stories.

Even the most seasoned journalist will find some surprises.

Thanks to Craig Newmark Philanthropies, we are pleased to announce the FIRE Tip Sheets.

Let us know your thoughts, as always.

Thank you!

Laird Townsend, FIRE Director

Latest Investigations

Ferraro story

Tom Ferraro reported
on private prisons and
immigrant detainees,
for In These Times.

Recent FIRE releases, contract successes

We are pleased to announce that four FIRE-supported investigative stories have appeared in the past several months:

  • By Helen Santoro: investigates the role of the pet-food industry in Food and Drug Administration research, for 100Reporters and the Associated Press 
  • By Anonymous: investigates allegations of misconduct, for an outlet unnamed for safety concerns
  • By Jared Whitlock: lifts the veil on a nursing-home chain using corporate ownership and bankruptcy to painful effect for families, for Boston Globe’s Stat News 
  • By Tom Ferraro: documents the extent to which private prison companies use taxpayer funding to extract profits from labor practices that have triggered class-action lawsuits, for In These Times

More stories are on the way, several having undergone recent contract interventions, in which FIRE attorneys help publishers protect freelance reporters from liability.

Using the FIRE Contract Template and direct legal assistance, FIRE has helped reporters and outlets arrange this kind protection in 15 of 17 contract negotiations since 2021—eleven of which have led to story releases. 

The Story Lives On

Wally

Wallace Roberts, 1941-2018

One investigation resurrected, another defended

This summer marked FIRE’s 15th anniversary and coincided with a celebration over the release of three FIRE-supported stories in two months. 

To mark the occasion, I would like to dedicate this announcement to two FIRE-assisted journalists—one who is no longer with us, another who must remain anonymous. 

The first journalist, Wallace Roberts, a veteran social-justice reporter and researcher in his 70s, was nearing completion of a data-driven investigation of nursing-home care when he became ill and died in 2018. 

Two years later, on a promise to the deceased's family, FIRE found another reporter, the talented young Jared Whitlock, to pick up the threads of Roberts' story. Whitlock reported it out with a new angle, gained FIRE's help to secure indemnification, and published the story this year in Boston Globe’s Stat News.   

 
 

The second journalist, whose identity is being protected at the request of the legal team of a sensitive investigation, came to FIRE for liability protections, which the outlet cooperatively adopted—just in time. 

The subject of the story threatened to sue even before the story appeared. After the story appeared, the subject filed a defamation suit presenting no evidence to disprove any allegations in the story. The journalist, now fully protected, is fearlessly helping the outlet fend off the lawsuit—and to continue reporting the story.  

Contractual interventions like these, made possible by Craig Newmark Philanthropies, have broadened FIRE's ability to support marginalized freelance reporters, contributing to the recent releases

We are pleased to announce that this capacity has just expanded: A series of liability Tip Sheets will now extend expert guidance to the field at large, far beyond the journalists we can serve individually. Look for an announcement next week. 

Freelance investigative reporting is unquestionably the least supported sector of public-interest journalism. But FIRE has always fought for these agents of accountability. Along with their newsrooms and editors, they are the cornerstone of democracy. 

We look forward to announcing the Tip Sheets next week. 
 

Thank you! 

Laird Townsend, FIRE Director 

Perseverance

Statnews

Jared Whiltock's piece appeared
in Boston Globe's Stat News
in August, 2022

A resurrected story succeeds

FIRE's full array of services—from reporting guidance and research tools, to story grants and a Legal Consultancy—facilitated this investigation of the veiled practices of a nursing-home chain.

The story revealed evidence that the chain's use of bankruptcy, enabled by an opaque corporate structure, reduced its liability for alleged corruption and neglect, with painful results for vulnerable families.

It took five years and two reporters to publish the story. 

In 2017, FIRE awarded a Virtual Newsroom to a freelancer named Wallace Roberts, a longtime social-justice research and reporter in his 70s.

Roberts used FIRE's guidance and financial support to piece together two revealing data sets—one showing the ownership of dizzying network of nursing homes, the other showing their neglect record. 

Roberts was cleaning up the two data sets toward story release when he became ill and died, in 2018. 

FIRE promised his family that it would find a reporter to carry on the story.

Two years later, a reporter specializing in health-care coverage, Jared Whitlock, emerged to take the baton. 

With FIRE’s help, Whitlock built on Roberts’ reporting and took it in a new direction.

Roberts had identified a complicated ownership structure linking multiple chains and their facilities. On closer inspection, Whitlock discovered something interesting about the structure: It was facilitating bankruptcy by an affiliated nursing-home chain, Consulate Health Care, that stymied recourse for the chain's alleged neglect. 

Whitlock had the story, he brought it to the Miami Herald, the Herald commissioned the piece, his editor agreed on a fee and, with FIRE’s help, on an informal pledge to indemnify the reporter. Under its new owners, the McClatchy newspaper chain reversed the editor's offer and vetoed indemnification. 

“I felt betrayed, it was totally unworkable, we're talking about a litigious nursing-home chain,” Whitlock said. “It was heartbreaking to do all this reporting, and then have the rug pulled out from under it." 

With a FIRE Indemnification Grant, Whitlock searched for a new outlet; and with the help of a FIRE attorney, Boston Globe Stat News agreed to protect Whitlock. Whitlock had his story, the Stat readership had theirs. And so did the Roberts family, in memoriam

Risk Response

Anonymous

A FIRE-supported journalist has asked
for anonymity amid safety concerns

Protection secured in time for lawsuit

This story of bravery has to remain anonymous for now—because the protected journalist is not out of the woods yet. 

In the throes of closing a sensitive story on alleged misconduct earlier this year, an outlet agreed to field the request of a freelance journalist working on the story:

Can you make indemnification arrangements so that I'm firmly on the outlet’s media insurance?  

The story was scheduled to appear in a matter of days.

"FIRE jumped into action quickly to help ensure that my contract would protect me,” the journalist recalled about the waning days of story's close. “[The subject] has a history of acting litigiously. FIRE's access to excellent media lawyers and its doggedness in advocating for me were essential.”

The outlet cooperated with equivalent speed.

It acted just in time.

No sooner had it honored the journalist's request, than the subject of the story, when contacted for comment before publication, threatened to sue over the story.  

The outlet held its ground and ran the story. Soon after publication, there were physical threats against journalists working on the story, though no evidence has yet been found linking the incidents to the subject of the reporting.  

Since then, the subject did file a defamation suit, which presented no evidence to disprove the allegations in the story—and took other aggressive steps to quash additional reporting.  

On request of the journalist and the defense team involved, FIRE is withholding the identity of the outlet and the journalist. But the story has run, the word is out, and, with FIRE’s help and the outlet's full cooperation, the journalist is continuing to follow up on the story without fear.

FIRE will report more when it is safe to do so.

"Game-changer"

Helen Santoro

FIRE's legal assistance helped Helen Santoro's pet-industry investigation

AP, 100Reporters, freelancer—the mutual benefit

With new educational guides like the FIRE Tip Sheets linked below, freelancers can better educate themselves to gain liability protections from publishers or broadcasters.

The goal, as always, is to help the reporters realize their potential in the public interest—in this case by gaining full legal protection to confidently pursue investigative stories to everyone's benefit.

FIRE is also stepping up our hands-on program to help the parties accomplish that goal—the Legal Consultancy. We are pleased to announced that the program has brought on a new lawyer and has recently experience another succesful story release.

In the spring, freelancer Helen Santoro approached FIRE with concerns that a contract offered for a sensitive investigation "was not up to snuff." FIRE responded with precise suggestions to shore up her liability provisions.   

Santoro's publisher, our friends at the nonprofit 100Reporters, quickly approved the revised contract.  

As a result, Santoro avoided the anxieties of mortgaging her assets for a story—and 100Reporters was able to publish her in-depth investigation of the pet-food industry last week, and via its Associated Press co-publishing arrangement, bring it to more than 100 publications and broadcasts nationwide. 

"Having FIRE's support was a complete game-changer. It was a huge relief having [FIRE’s suggestions on] the contract,” she said. "Without that... I might not have proceeded at all. There’s a good chance story would not be published yet.” 

By doing the right thing, she said, a responsible publisher like 100Reporters “gets the story, as opposed to losing it [to a competitor]."  

The publisher also gains after the story: “The outlet also gets to keep those good freelancers around," Santoro said. "Good freelancers want good contracts.”  

For the kind of contract changes that made such a difference for Santoro, view this FIRE Tip Sheet. For a better understanding of a smart publisher’s strategy on freelancer liability, see this Tip Sheet co-authored with Mother Jones CEO Monika Bauerlein.  

And for Santoro’s investigation, visit here.  

As always, thank you to Craig Newmark Philanthropies for supporting FIRE's legal assistance to reporters and outlets.

More next time on two other recent releases! 

New Funding for Legal Services

Craig Newmark

Craig Newmark Philanthropies renewed FIRE support.

$50,000 Newmark renewal tops $115,000 in gifts

FIRE’s popular new legal-services program received a significant boost this month in the form of a generous $50,000 grant-renewal by Craig Newmark Philanthropies and an additional $65,000 from longtime FIRE supporters.

The support, $115,000 in total, will further develop a series of tools made possible by last year's $75,000 Newmark grant.

With the tools, including the FIRE Contract Template and direct legal assistance, FIRE successfully intervened to help outlets protect reporters in 12 of 13 contract negotiations over the past year—seven of which have already resulted in story releases.

Thanks to the grant and supporters like you, the first generation of broadcasters and publishers now has the tools to systemically protect freelancers in the public interest, at just the right time—as commercial investigative newsrooms seek to compensate for layoffs, and nonprofit outlets look to expand their capacity.

“This work is important for the entire journalism field,” Newmark said in announcing the grant. "Freelancers are poised to play such a major public-interest role in the future. It’s time to advance this successful pilot and secure its long-term diversified support.”  

Newmark’s gift has been matched by more than $50,000 from an anonymous former national political reporter who helped launch FIRE; and $10,000 from the Joshua Mailman Foundation, another longtime supporter, among others.

Please consider making a donation to FIRE, on our easy-to-use new fundraising page.

And look for more stories soon.

Thank you!

Laird Townsend, FIRE Director

PS In the spirit of protecting public-interest reporters, FIRE also encourages any investigative freelancer to visit our friends at PEN America for their critical defenses against online harassment.

Esquire Story

Rowan Gerety

FIRE helped Rowan Moore Gerety's Esquire investigation.

Latest FIRE-supported investigation

Freelance Investigative Reporters & Editors (FIRE) is pleased to share the latest success from the legal services program supported by Craig Newmark Philanthropies—an Esquire magazine investigation on police accountability 

Rowan Moore Gerety’s 18-month investigation “Who Writes the Rules for Cops?” uncovers the role of a private company, Lexipol, in outfitting hundreds of police departments with policy manuals to reduce liability for the police, including for alleged misconduct. 

Knowing that he was reporting on a litigious subject, Moore Gerety was concerned that his contract did not provide him liability protections in case the article prompted a lawsuit. 

FIRE’s attorneys helped him negotiate that legal protection—and a key intellectual property clause. With Esquire’s support, Moore Gerety was able to deliver the story in February, the fifth released under the program. 

But that’s just one story—and freelancing will never become more sustainable without industry-wide tools and standards for working with freelancers, Moore Gerety said, citing the free Contract Template and Contract Principles. “I am so glad FIRE is a part of the landscape.”   

For a profile and the Esquire story, visit here.  

More soon! 

Template Upgrade

Modification to freelancer agreement

"I would love to see a boilerplate template that a freelancer could send an outlet, rather than the other way around." —Print and radio reporter and photojournalist, former newspaper, radio and wire staffer, from FIRE's 2015 freelancer survey

After additional legal and insurance research, FIRE has modified its signature tool for freelancers and outlets negotiating a mutually acceptable story contract. 

The FIRE Contract Template, designed by former Bloomberg News Global Media Counsel Charles Glasser, now facilitates an outlet’s indemnification of reporters via more explicit reference to an outlet’s insurance, in a change marked here in bold

5. a)….shall be solely responsible for the costs of representation, filing fees, or other associated legal costs including but not limited to claimed damages, for the purpose of which Reporter would be deemed insured under Outlet’s policy;

The change, made after extensive additional research into contracts and media insurance, will be elaborated in a series of tip sheets set for release soon.  

To request a copy of the Template, visit here

To learn more about the Template, visit this summary of its features.  

Added Value

Rachel Layne

Veteran reporter Rachel Layne used FIRE's legal assistance to release her environmental story

Service upgrade for freelancers

FIRE is pleased to highlight a year of expansion and promise facilitated by a generous grant from Craig Newmark Philanthropies.

With the Newmark support, FIRE launched a suite of legal services and tools in 2021, augmenting our traditional grants and reporting services:

*) FIRE's Legal Consultancy has helped more than a dozen freelancers like Rachel Layne (right) remove the "chilling effect" of legal exposure, as she put it.

*) the FIRE Contract Template has been requested by dozens of freelancers and outlets as a way to revise or replace untenable contracts.

*) the FIRE Contract Principlesindustry standards for fair and viable treatment of freelancers by publishers, broadcasters, and funders—is now in circulation through multiple networks. More soon!

*) a round of FIRE fact sheets, which will address the tough insurance and liability questions raised at our September roundtable on indemnification, is under vetting for release next month—with huge potential educational benefit for the field.

A Year in Stories

The latest successes

FIRE's new legal services, supported this year with a generous grant from Craig Newmark Philanthropies, has helped more than a dozen reporters safely advance sensitive investigations, including the four releases below. Additional updates soon.

Stories released in 2021 with the help of FIRE Legal Consultancies:

Cross-border Financial Corruption

By Jason Buch: A money-laundering investigation highlighting the role of U.S. banks, for the Texas Observer

Unearthing Water Issues

By Rachel Layne: Breaking new ground on the implications of a massive aquifer drawdown near the Great Lakes, for the trade publication Water and Wastes Digest

Sexual Misconduct Exposé

By Alexandria Bordas: A two-year exposé of alleged sexual misconduct in California's wine country, for the San Francisco Chronicle

Feeding Fish Farms

By Ian Urbina: A deep dive into the ocean-depleting consequences of Chinese-managed fish farms, for the New Yorker

New Story Release

Monika Bauerlain

FIRE’s editorial and contract assistance helped Jason Buch report on cross-border bank investigations 

FIRE’s latest investigative breakthroughs 

A November exposé of cross-border financial corruption has capped FIRE's most innovative year since our founding in 2007. 

Jason Buch's investigation for the Texas Observer, pictured here, is the latest story facilitated by FIRE's contract-related legal assistance, made possible this year by a generous grant from Craig Newmark Philanthropies.

Buch, who with FIRE's help was able to renegotiate his contract and protect himself from liability, was one of more than a dozen reporters who safely advanced sensitive investigations via FIRE's unique Legal Consultancy. 

Three other stories have been published. Several more, including two major magazine stories, are on the way. And in an unexpected development, a number of publishers have also used the service to reform their contracts and learn more about media insurance.

The Legal Consultancy gives unprecedented pro bono access to top lawyers to facilitate secure investigations. An associated tool, a FIRE Contract Template released in late September, has also been requested by dozens of freelancers and outlets alike.

In a democracy, freelancers need the tools to confidently pursue investigations for the public.

Please consider making a year-end donation!

Thank you!

Laird Townsend, FIRE Director

Freelance Legal Liabilities

Monika Bauerlain

Monika Bauerlein, CEO of Mother Jones, spoke at FIRE's September 28 panel.

Collective solutions on the horizon

What a panel!  

Thanks to four trenchant speakers and roughly 130 registrants for “Freelance Contracts: a Public-interest Roundtable,"  FIRE now has fresh insights and tools to solve one of the field's most important problems—legal vulnerabilities for freelance investigative reporters. 

It also has a new mandate to do so. The diverse audience for the September 28 event—editors, publishers/broadcasters, funders, and of course freelancers—identified an urgent need to solve liability and other contractual issues in the field. 

Their energy has bolstered FIRE's conviction that this work matters—and is possible.  

Please stay tuned as we sort through the torrent of questions and comments generated at the event, which will be instrumental in shaping next steps for the initiative.  

For now, here are the four top takeways of the panel:

  1. Protecting freelancers with full indemnification is not only good for journalism and the public interest, but also is smart business and legal strategy.   
  2. Freelancers are hungry for model contract language and expertise to aid their negotiations.  
  3. Outlets are often just as hungry to help—and often unaware of how much their current contracts paralyze freelancers, or how easily they can be remedied.  
  4. Freelancers want to help publishers and broadcasters elevate their standards for fair & equitable treatment of freelancers—something FIRE has already helped happen

What you can do:  

  • Watch the recording by filling out this quick form, which helps us understand more about the landscape of legal liabilities for freelancers.  
  • Share this news far & wide to advance this conversation as much as possible through the industry. 
  • Read the newly unveiled FIRE Contract Principles and let us know any candidates for signing—outlets or funders you think already practice this pledge. 
  • Check out the new FIRE Contract Template, free to download with just a quick form to request access. 
  • Be in touch, whatever your role in journalism, with any questions, ideas about how we can work together, or related resources to recommend. 

And of course, please refer any freelancers who might need contractual assistance to FIRE’s pro bono Legal Consultancy

All these initiatives and the event itself, made possible by a generous grant from Craig Newmark Philanthropies, serve to expand FIRE's flagship gratis services: the two-hour Reporting Consultancy, and the wrap-around Virtual Newsroom, with up to $12,500 in grant funding. 

To help support all of FIRE’s offerings, please consider making a donation

Thanks and best wishes, 

Hilary Niles 

FIRE Freelance Program Coordinator  

P.S. FIRE is now on Twitter! Give us a follow at @FIREnewsroom, and thanks :) 

Tools for Broader Protection

Contract template and principles to debut at Sept. 28 panel

As reported previously, below, FIRE’s new Legal Consultancy has helped freelancers like Alexandria Bordas negotiate legal protection to enable their investigations. 

But individual intervention can only go so far. Most arrangements happen in isolation, beyond FIRE's direct-service capacity.

To help protect more stories, FIRE will be introducing a public version of our groundbreaking FIRE Contract Template for investigative freelancers—and the FIRE Contract Principles based on it.

Both documents should help all parties advance a new generation of investigative agreements. Both will be released at our panel next week. 

Again, please join Bordas, Mother Jones CEO Monika Bauerlein, and former Bloomberg News Global Media Counsel Charles Glasser, for “Freelance Contracts: a Public-interest Roundtable,” next Tuesday, September 28, 2021, at 4pm ET.  

We are expecting a spirited discussion geared to practical solutions. To register for the event, visit here

Thanks! 

Laird Townsend, FIRE Director 

Liability Roundtable: September 28

Alexandria Bordas headshot

FIRE helped Alexandria Bordas secure liability protections to safely release her two-year investigation. Bordas will speak at a FIRE panel on freelancer liability.

A public-interest discussion

FIRE's upcoming online panel, detailed below, will help unaffiliated reporters contribute sensitive investigations in the public interest.
 

Deep into her two-year exposé of alleged sexual misconduct in California’s wine country, freelancer Alexandria Bordas realized that there was one thing she hadn’t investigated—her own legal liability. 

Bordas had a standard indemnity clause in her contract. Like several other reporters this year with the same problem, she applied to FIRE's Legal Assistance program

The pro bono service, funded by a generous grant from Craig Newmark Philanthropies, helped Bordas secure indemnification from her publisher on the sexual-assault exposé.  

"Had the [San Francisco] Chronicle not ultimately found a solution to legally protect me, I would have had no choice but to pull the story and walk away," Bordas said. "I couldn't have done it without FIRE." 

In the end, her co-reported investigation dominated the Chronicle's front page throughout April. 

FIRE is pleased to invite you to join Bordas, Mother Jones CEO Monika Bauerlein, and former Bloomberg News Global Media Counsel Charles Glasser, for a virtual roundtable on solving freelancer liability on September 28, 2021.  

To register for the event, visit here. To learn more about the Bordas story and other similar success stories, visit here

And stand by for more developments soon! 

Thanks! 

Laird Townsend,  FIRE Director 

Backstory of an Exposé 

Alexandria Bordas Chronicle front page

After protecting its freelancer, the San Francisco Chronicle was able to expose sexual-assault accusations against a rising political star in the region.

The tense account of a freelancer's
bid for legal protection

When freelancer Alexandria Bordas realized she had to shoulder all the legal liability for an investigation commissioned by the San Francisco Chronicle, she wrote to FIRE "on the verge of pulling this story."

FIRE's new Legal Consultancy quickly helped Bordas reach an agreement to safely publish her sexual-assault exposé. In the end, the story made waves on the Chronicle's front page for weeks. But that outcome was never a given, as detailed in the full backstory here.

Why Legally Protect Freelancers?

The case for investigative contracts that bolster democracy

The public needs accountability journalism and investigative freelancers are increasingly crucial to accountability journalism. But to realize their full public-interest potential, freelancers require legal protection, just as staff reporters do.  

That is the simple truth behind a series of recent FIRE measures. It's also the basis for a key philanthropic emphasis in the field: No funder or facilitator should support a story that leaves its freelance reporter vulnerable. Every FIRE counterpart—and all of our funders—should ensure that any freelancer we support is indemnified.

Grounded in expertise in the practice of insurance and media law, FIRE’s case is straightforward—and makes the best business sense for outlets. 

Read all about it.

Safety Training

Deadline Friday, July 2

FIRE works to strengthen freelance investigations by providing contract-related legal assistance, especially on liability and indemnification. We also support our ally, the ACOS alliance (A Culture of Safety alliance), in their work promoting the physical safety of freelance reporters. 

ACOS is announcing a limited number of FREE spots for US based freelance journalists in VICE Media’s two upcoming in-house safety training courses in New York City, on July 12-13 or July 15-15.  

More info and to apply via the ACOS Alliance and FFR by Friday 2, July: https://bit.ly/3cYlE46 

Link to Tweet

More Support for Freelancers

Extended deadline, two new grants

Earlier this month, FIRE announced a $75,000 grant from Craig Newmark Philanthropies to advance FIRE’s new contract-related legal assistance.

Within days, two longtime FIRE contributors pledged $55,000.

The gifts, especially the $50,000, from the anonymous donor who originally seeded FIRE, are intended as challenge grants. Please donate if you can!

The $130,000 infusion has already allowed FIRE to 

  • expand our pilot project, extend today’s deadline for FIRE’s contract-related legal services, and accept applications indefinitely by rolling deadlines, effective today

  • award five Virtual Newsroom grants, up to $12,500 each, to eligible reporters accepted for the legal services by June 1, 2021
  • reactivate the legal-services survey, which has proved invaluable in designing the service. Any reporters may take the 5-7-minute survey

The legal service is anonymous and confidential. Eligible reporters don’t need a contract in hand. For an investigation, you may apply for FIRE's legal assistance, reporting assistance—or both services. You may also receive support from another journalism organization.

You may apply at any time. But to qualify for the June 1 selection deadline and the $12,500 grants, we advise you to submit an inquiry no later than May 15 for the contract-related legal assistance. We do our best to communicate decisions within two weeks.

We look forward to helping freelancers safely advance their investigations in the public interest.

Strengthening Investigations

Newmark gift for freelance legal protection

A $75,000 gift from Craig Newmark Philanthropies will foster contract-related legal assistance and education.

Today Freelance Investigative Reporters and Editors (FIRE) is pleased to announce a generous gift from Craig Newmark Philanthropies to strengthen the ability of freelance reporters to produce investigations in the public-interest.

The gift, a $75,000 grant for FIRE’s contract-related legal assistance, significantly bolsters FIRE’s role as a service bureau for freelance investigative reporters, primarily by enabling freelancer access to First Amendment attorneys for pro bono counsel on rights, indemnification, insurance, and other issues.

This legal service, the only program of its kind that we know of, helps to demystify contract provisions and media insurance so reporters can protect themselves enough to take on accountability stories, something the new service has already enabled.

According to anecdotal evidence, publishers and broadcasters are increasingly shifting legal exposure onto freelancers, hindering their ability to pursue sensitive investigations. The grant seeks to reverse that trend.

“A trustworthy press is the immune system of democracy,” Newmark said. “We rely on that to know how to protect our country, and we need to protect journalists as they protect us.”

Newmark, founder of craigslist, has contributed nearly $200 million to efforts aimed at supporting trustworthy journalism, combating disinformation, and countering online harassment. His support for journalism is a central focus of a diverse network of grantees he has funded through Craig Newmark Philanthropies (craignewmarkphilanthropies.org).

“We need to protect journalists as they protect us.”

The Newmark grant enables FIRE not only to expand the contract-based legal service, but also to translate advice into tipsheets, webinars, and other educational material and events—for reporters, publishers, and broadcasters alike.

The activity, in turn, advances FIRE’s wider groundbreaking legal-protection initiative, which also includes an innovative boilerplate contract to protect freelance reporters; and a policy of supporting only stories for which the outlet protects the reporters.

FIRE, operating in various forms since 2007, develops the capacity of freelance investigative journalists from diverse backgrounds to produce investigations in the public interest—historically by providing grants and editorial services, now also by key legal education for the field.

“Craig Newmark Philanthropies is shoring up one of journalism’s most vulnerable constituencies, and one of the most important,” said FIRE director Laird Townsend. “This grant will foster confidence to propose and complete sensitive investigations—exactly the stories the public needs the most, and the stories that need the most protection. FIRE is deeply grateful for the support.”

Applications are open until April 15 for the contract related legal assistance, and on an ongoing basis for grants and reporting services.

New Yorker Story

First release under new FIRE Policy

A Gambian fishing boat
Photo credit: Fábio Nascimento / The Outlaw Ocean Project  

A FIRE-supported story released in The New Yorker's March 8 print edition has become the first success of FIRE's new policy to support only stories for which the outlet legally protects the freelancer.

The story, by investigative reporter Ian Urbina, revealing troubling global implications of fish farms, was released online here, with associated back-story and videos here.

Conservationists have often hailed fish farms as the best hope for slowing ocean depletion. Urbina’s reporting from Gambia shows that the lucrative production of fishmeal for the farms is actually decimating fish stocks, in addition to causing pollution and other threats to local populations.  

Urbina received a FIRE Virtual Newsroom and grant for the piece, the first one published under FIRE's new policy.

The policy ensures that outlets receiving a FIRE-supported story protect the freelance reporter, as they would a staff reporter—a standard The New Yorker had met for Urbina.

More on the new policy below or here; and more on Urbina's story at the nonprofit journalism organization he directs, The Outlaw Ocean Project

Good Counsel

New legal service for investigations


FIRE is pleased to launch an important and long-sought initiative for sensitive freelance investigations in the public interest—pro bono counsel on legal protection and contractual issues.

FIRE is a service bureau for freelancer investigative reporters. We strengthen our constituents’ investigative capacity, primarily via grants and editorial assistance.

Our new service, the only one of its kind we know of, responds to reports that publishers and broadcasters are increasingly shifting legal exposure onto freelancers, hindering their ability to pursue public interest investigations.

Effectively immediately and on a rolling deadline until April 15, 2021, reporters may apply for one-on-one counsel by two veteran media attorneys on a range of contractual issues, including indemnification and insurance. A brief survey (linked below) will help us refine the service. 

Stronger protection for unaffiliated reporters means stronger accountability journalism for our fragile democracy. We are encouraging freelance journalists to take the survey and explore the new service.

Thank you for your support!

Service Changes

Expanded Editorial Consultancies

FIRE provides editorial services and grants through two programs: the Editorial Consultancy (which now includes the new service outlined in the news item above—pro bono contract-related legal assistance); and the Virtual Newsroom, which provides grants and more robust editorial resources.

Effective immediately:

*) All new Virtual Newsrooms come with story grants up to $12,500, or proposal grants up to $2,500. Formerly some did not come with grants. 

*) The Editorial Consultancy offers a minimum of two hours of staff time, instead of one hour.

*) The Consultancy has become the gateway to all FIRE Virtual Newsroom grants: You must be an Editorial Consultancy recipient to qualify. 

FIRE is currently accepting applications by rolling deadline for all its programs. Until April 15, 2021, that will include the new service, contract-related legal assistance.


Until March 30, we are also inviting reporters to share their contract-related experiences by taking a brief survey.


For full application details, see FIRE’s Guidelines or FAQs.

Innovation Rewarded

New Story: Legal Protection

We are pleased to report the first success of an innovative new FIRE tool—a key reason to support FIRE’s work ahead.

FIRE-supported reporter Emma Penrod

“Freelancers are especially exposed.” —FIRE-supported freelancer Emma Penrod.

On December 23rd, 2020, a U.S. magazine became the first outlet to sign FIRE’s historic boilerplate freelancer’s agreement (see below), which codifies progressive solutions on copyright, revisions, proofs, severability—and indemnification.

The new legal-protection tool is just one way that FIRE’s popular services enable freelancers to confidently investigate in the public interest.

FIRE can now build this confidence, one story at a time. Please donate to strengthen public-interest reporting! 


Over the past three years, FIRE has served 79 reporters, including nearly two dozen in 2020, on a range of stories, including winners of three major awards and finalists for four more.

Now we are turning to one of the biggest vulnerabilities facing freelancers in this vulnerable time: liability for court costs, or indemnification

By default, publishers and broadcasters indemnify their own staff reporters for stories. But outlets increasingly won’t commission freelancers unless they accept the legal exposure of an investigation—sometimes even the outlet’s own court costs.

It’s one more reason why, anecdotally, freelancers are increasingly foregoing public-interest investigations for safer stories—a significant public-interest problem. 

In December, with the help of an ex-Bloomberg News general counsel, FIRE introduced a template agreement that includes several provisions for freelancers, including indemnification. As of today, FIRE will support investigative stories only for outlets that indemnify the reporter, via the new contract or the equivalent.

We are taking this stand for a number of reasons. But it means we now have to facilitate even stronger, more complete, more insurable stories for selective and busy editors. 

To succeed, we will invest in fewer stories, providing more resources to each—including editorial guidance, fact-checking, and legal review. 

FIRE is primarily a service-provider. Our customized assistance and mentoring have proved highly popular. We think this additional protective tool will strengthen freelance investigative capacity—and our successful service model for delivering it—at a critical time.

Please donate to help public-interest journalism!

Thank you!

Laird Townsend, FIRE Director

2020 Story Updates

Award Finalist

FIRE-supported reporter Gretchen Rachel Hammond

Award finalist and FIRE-supported reporter Gretchen Rachel Hammond

Since its founding in 2016, the FIRE program has provided custom reporting services to 150 reporters on a range of stories, including winners of three major awards and finalists for four more.   

A few latest releases below—followed by prior stories.  

  • Gretchen Rachel Hammond (Editorial Consultancy)
    Produced a five-part series on corrupt guardianship laws in Michigan, in 2019, which was a finalist in the 2020 Chicago Society of Professional Journalists (Lisagor) awards.


  • Natasha Haverty (Editorial Consultancy) 
    Created a podcast on prison gerrymandering, the practice of incorrectly counting inmates in the census for political gain, for Reveal in 2020.


  • Karen Landman (Editorial Consultancy)
    Delivered an October, 2020 story on the creation of Georgia's faulty COVID-19 dashboard and its consequences, for Atlanta magazine.


  • Scott Morris (Editorial Consultancy)
    Released a series, published by ProPublica in June 2020, on California businesses that profit from negligent disposal of toxic waste. 

New Stories Out

Guardian, Globe, EIJ

We are pleased to announce that two more investigative freelancers have published important public-interest stories with FIRE’s Virtual Newsroom Services.




















FIRE-supported Freelancer Emily Palmer
  • As reported last week, FIRE-supported freelancer Ayo Awokoya co-won a Frontline Club award for a Guardian UK investigation.

  • Then Emily Palmer’s co-reported Spotlight investigation into federal child-abuse protections, which originated with her FIRE Virtual Newsroom award, appeared Friday in the Boston Globe.

  • And Monday, another FIRE-supported investigation—Christopher Pala’s story of pesticide encroachment in Hawaii by Monsanto and DuPont Pioneer—ran in Earth Island Journal.

FIRE has served more than 100 reporters in the past four years. Since 2018 alone, we have provided one-hour Editorial Consultancies to nearly 50 freelance investigative reporters and full-service Virtual Newsroom awards to about a dozen reporters

This service has proved vital to reporters like Awokoya, Palmer, and Pala. And this is a crucial time to keep these stories coming. Thanks to the pledge of a generous FIRE donor, we will double any dollar we raise up to $10,000. Please give $25, $100, $250—or any amount within your means—by clicking here.


Thank you!

Laird Townsend, FIRE director

Spotlight

Globe Story on Child Abuse

Boston Globe Spotlight team represent



With FIRE's help freelancer Emily Palmer, co-reporting with Jessica Huseman at ProPublica, uncovered potentially deadly compliance failures in federal child-abuse protections to win the coveted Spotlight fellowship. 

On December 13, 2019, their investigation appeared in the Boston Globe.

Here is the story and how it happened.