Practical tips, resources for entrepreneurial journalists with legal questions

Entrepreneurs leading new journalism ventures confront numerous legal questions. How and when should I determine the appropriate legal structure for my business? What contracts should I use with partners, employees and investors? What legal issues should I be prepared for and, as a journopreneur, who can I turn to for low-cost or pro bono guidance?

I’m not a lawyer, and this post isn’t intended to offer specific legal advice or replace the professional insight of a lawyer. The resources below are offered simply as a starting point for anyone launching a project who anticipates having to grapple with legal questions as the project develops.

Seeking pro bono help

One of the best places to begin, if you’re starting up a media-related project, is the Online Media Legal Network at Harvard’s Berkman Center. The center describes itself as “a network of law firms, law school clinics, in-house counsel, and individual lawyers throughout the United States willing to provide pro bono (free) and reduced fee legal assistance to qualifying online journalism ventures and other digital media creators.”

Not every journalism or media startup will qualify for OMLN’s free legal assistance, but you can quickly assess your eligibility with this FAQ. OMLN considers a number of factors, including your available resources. If paying legal fees would significantly deplete your organization’s resources, you could still be eligible for pro bono help if you’re a for-profit with under $75,000 in annual gross revenue or a nonprofit with an annual budget of $250,000 or less. (More details here.)

Law for journopreneurs 101

If you’re looking for information first, rather than professional legal guidance, the Citizen Media Law Project, also sponsored by the Berkman Center, has outstanding resources. The online legal guide has clear, well-written sections on everything from forming a business to dealing with online legal risks and securing your intellectual property.

The section on choosing a business form for your new organization is particularly helpful if you’re not clear on the relative benefits of, say, a sole proprietorship versus an LLC or some other legal structure. Download the Citizen Media Law Project’s one-page overview summarizing the characteristics, tax implications and various pros and cons for legal structures journalism entities might consider.

To keep up with new resources, tools and information, follow this Quora discussion about legal resources for startup companies.

Free contracts and templates

If you’re more focused on contracts than on sorting out your legal structure, check out Paperlex — a new startup that helps you manage common contracts. Though the full service is still in beta, micro.paperlex.com offers free freelancer contracts, talent releases and non-disclosure agreements.

Founder and CEO Alison Anthoine says she plans to add additional contracts for photographers, videographers, designers and developers. She describes Paperlex as a Web-based contract management platform for news organizations.

“My goal is to empower small businesses and entrepreneurial journalists not to have to rely on lawyers to do all of their legal work,” Anthoine said by phone. “There will always be things you need lawyers for, but a routine agreement isn’t something you should have to call your lawyer about.” Contractual.ly is an alternative platform aiming to take the pain out of managing contracts.

The incubator YCombinator has an excellent startup library of documents and tip sheets. For those considering early-stage Angel funding, YCombinator also provides free equity financing documents, so you know what you’re signing away when you bring in investors.

The term sheets were developed in partnership with Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, a firm specializing in startup law, among other things. The firm teaches a live legal issues course at General Assembly, a New York coworking and education hub, and has a term sheet generator that will assemble a venture financing term sheet based on questions you answer online.

Additional resources:

  • Docracy.com provides a range of other free legal documents, including consulting contracts. If you want to make sure a name you’re considering is not already in wide use, try Markify.com, which searches existing trademarks and domains.

  • If you’re wondering about the kinds of contracts you’ll face if you seek out venture capital funding, check out the National Venture Capital Association’s free model legal agreements. The NVCA.org site also includes a good overview of venture capital, as well as stats and research.
  • Chris Cameron’s ReadWriteWeb collection of useful legal resources for startups includes some relevant blogs, articles and tip sheets.

Join Jeremy Caplan, Mark Briggs, Bill Mitchell and Wendy Wallace for Poynter’s Revenue Camp for Journalism Entrepreneurs, May 18-19. You can join by webcast or in person for the workshop in St. Petersburg, Fla., with additional coaching available.

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  • http://twitter.com/jeremycaplan Jeremy Caplan

    Thanks, Andy, for that background on the affiliation.  

  • Andy Sellars

    Thanks, Jeremy! The Online Media Legal Network is actually a project hosted by the Citizen Media Law Project, so the two are closely interrelated. We created the OMLN after the CMLP, when we realized that there was a great need for direct one-on-one legal assistance in addition to  the resources on the CMLP website.