Alan Miller commentary: Newspapers increasingly fight for open records

By Alan Miller, editor, The Columbus Dispatch We live in a culture of “no.”

That’s what officials say with increasing frequency when journalists ask for records, seek to photograph concerts or take notes at a public meeting.

It’s often the default position for an initial response: “No.” Typically, we can teach the offenders the law and win a favorable outcome on your behalf.

For others, and this is particularly troubling, “no” has become unofficial policy. They argue and stall and conveniently forget, all the while hoping that they will wear us down and we’ll go away.

Sadly, it works in some cases — especially when those seeking the information are not journalists but folks who just need it for an insurance claim or to make sure their children are treated properly in school. Bullies in the bureaucracy win. The public loses.

Reporters and editors crab about this frequently, especially when we’re in the middle of another skirmish in the unending battle.

It happened this week with the city of Columbus over records regarding a disciplinary case. The city stalled and delayed, and argued against logic and the law that the information is not a public record. But it is, and after several days, Assistant Metro Editor Doug Caruso extracted the record.

We routinely move from one fight to the next on your behalf. Sometimes, we write about them. Often, we don’t.

I brought this up with the Associated Press Media Editors board earlier this year because I was concerned about the growing scourge. As president of the national organization, I asked the board what we could do.

One thing is to create awareness. We decided to include on the group’s website a list of news stories about roadblocks to transparency.

We update the list regularly, and it has grown long, illustrating just how bad it has gotten. Here are a few headlines from among the latest additions:

Reno newspaper sues city of Sparks over marijuana licenses

Judge sides with media in open records lawsuit against state

Joplin city attorney denies Sunshine Law violation

Most oppose new public records charges in Tenn. hearings

The entire list is nothing short of stunning. You can read it online at

I often push reporters and front-line editors in The Dispatch newsroom to do their best to fight these battles. We urge everyone to learn key points of Ohio’s Sunshine Laws, and we’ve developed legal experts — reporters and editors — who serve as touchstones for those who need help in specific areas of law. Among them is reporter Randy Ludlow, who writes regularly on the topic in his “Your Right to Know” blog on

We win most fights, and here’s an example: A big-name entertainer came to Columbus, and when we filed for credentials, we received a form for the photographer to sign.

The release, had we signed it, would have had the newspaper give up ownership and copyright claims for all images made during the concert “forever for all uses throughout the world without any extra payment to you and/or royalty thereof. … You may or may not be given credit based on the discretion of the parties using the photographs.”

And my favorite: “Photography will not exceed 60 seconds of performance.”

We pushed back, telling the artist’s public-relations team that the request was as offensive as if someone asked the artist to perform his best work in a minute. Or that once he performed in a minute, his work would become publicly owned, since he was performing in a publicly owned arena. And we wondered aloud whether the hundreds of cellphone-toting fans who attend his concerts are subjected to the same demand that they shoot photos for no longer than a minute and give up rights for life.

We proposed a new agreement that allowed us to photograph the first three songs, retain rights and one-time use in print and online, and we promised that we would not sell our photos.

Within three minutes, his public-relations team approved the new agreement without comment.

Sometimes, all we have to do is push back a little. But we live in a culture of “no,” and most of the time it’s far more challenging than that to win access on behalf of the public.