By Jan Schaffer and Jeff Kosseff

Day 48/365
Photo Credit: Brian Turner

Digital news startups face a range of legal issues as they set up their business operations, gather and report the news, protect their content, and market and support their news ventures. They need to know classic First Amendment law – and much more. This guide offers an introduction to many of those issues, from hiring freelancers and establishing organizational structures, to native advertising and marketing, to maintaining privacy policies and dealing with libel accusations.

—March 4, 2015

Disclaimer: This information is offered for educational purposes only, and not for legal advice. Do not rely on any of its  content or communications as a substitute for the advice of a qualified attorney. No attorney-client relationship is intended or created by communications pertaining to this site or its related content. The viewpoints expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of the authors’ employers, clients, or business associates.

Table of Contents



Why your new media startup needs to stay abreast of the law.

Chapter 1: Forming your Business: Sole Proprietorships, LLCs, Nonprofit Startups

Forming your Business: Sole Proprietorships, LLCs, Nonprofit Startups

  • Naming your business
  • Creating a sole proprietorship
  • Forming a limited liability company
  • Applying to be nonprofit enterprise
  • Piggybacking on another nonprofit
Chapter 2: Labor Law: Hiring Employees, Freelancers, Interns

Labor Law: Hiring Employees, Freelancers, Interns

  • Employees v. contractors
  • Employer responsibilities
  • Freelance scope of work agreements
  • Hiring employees
  • Hiring interns
Chapter 3: Copyright, Fair Use and Trademark

Copyright, Fair Use and Trademark

  • Copyright
    • Ownership
    • Duration
    • Copyright of breaking news
    • Republishing of copyrighted works
  • Fair Use
  • You Tube, social media and copyright
  • Trademark Law
Chapter 4: Native Advertising, Testimonials, Endorsements

Native Advertising, Testimonials, Endorsements

  • FTC guidelines
  • Native advertising rules
  • FTC regulatory options
  • Blogger testimonials and endorsements
Chapter 5: Selling Online Advertising

Selling Online Advertising

  • Strategies for selling ads and getting paid
Chapter 6: SPAM; Email and Text Communications
Chapter 7: Privacy Policies and Terms of Use

Privacy Policies and Terms of Use

  • California Online Privacy Protection Act
  • California Shine the Light Law
  • Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act
  • Drafting a Privacy Policy
  • Terms of Use
Chapter 8: Defamation


  • Defamation and false statements
  • Fact vs. opinion
  • Standards of care
  • State law protection
  • Privacy torts
Chapter 9: User-generated Content

User-generated Content

  • Absolution for liability
  • Myth busting
  • Exceptions to the rule
Chapter 10: Access to Information and Places

Access to Information and Places

  • Access to government meetings and property
  • Access to government records, FOIA requests
Chapter 11: Confidentiality and Government Surveillance

Confidentiality and Government Surveillance

  • State shield laws
  • Government surveillance
  • Subpoenas for anonymous commenters
Chapter 12: Finding Legal Help

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About the Authors

Jan Schaffer is executive director of J-Lab, an incubator for news entrepreneurs and innovators, and Entrepreneur in Residence at American University’s School of Communication, where she teaches in its MA in Media Entrepreneurship program. She launched J-Lab in 2002 to help newsrooms use digital technologies to engage people in public issues. It has funded 100 news startups and pilot collaboration projects and it has developed a series of online journalism resources. As the federal court reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer, she was part of a team awarded the Pulitzer Gold Medal for Public Service and other national awards. Her stories won freedom for a man wrongly convicted of five murders and led to the civil rights convictions of six Philadelphia homicide detectives.

Jeff Kosseff is a communications and privacy attorney in the Washington, D.C. office of Covington & Burling, LLP, where he represents and advises media and technology companies. He is co-chair of the Media Law Resource Center’s legislative affairs committee. He clerked for Judge Milan D. Smith, Jr. of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit and Judge Leonie M. Brinkema of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. He is an adjunct professor of communications law at American University, where he teaches in its MA in Media Entrepreneurship program. Before becoming a lawyer, Kosseff was a journalist for The Oregonian and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and recipient of the George Polk Award for national reporting.