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Thoughts on NLJ/Legal Times Merger

Several blogs commented yesterday on Incisive Media's announcement that it will merge The National Law Journal and Legal Times. Having served a stint as the NLJ's editor-in-chief, I was on the fence about expressing my opinion about the merger. However, I am spurred to comment after reading Mark Obbie's assertion that the NLJ's broad focus "is a prescription for blandness" that lacks "market-driven editorial sense."

I first read the news, ironically, at The BLT, the blog of Legal Times, where writer David Ingram reported on the statement made by David Brown, the Legal Times editor and publisher who will become editor of the combined publication. "This effort is going to create a single publication that will have greater editorial scope and reporting strength," Brown said. "It's going to give our readers more of everything: More columns, more features, and more context from Washington and throughout the nation."

Bill Pollak, Incisive's CEO for North America, underscores Brown's statement on his own blog. Sure, the economy played a part in the merger decision, he says, but it also makes editorial sense.

More and more, that DC legal story -- particularly as it relates to the major law firms, courts and legislative branch -- is really a national story. Yes, readers inside-the-beltway may be interested in goings on in the Justice Department, but so are readers in California and Florida. Enhancing its Washington coverage will benefit the NLJ's readers and make that a significantly better newspaper.

Obbie's response, in so many words, is to call this editorial positioning bunk. "To spin it as an enhanced product for D.C. lawyers is disingenuous by half," he writes. While Legal Times makes editorial sense as a "well defined product for an audience of narrowly defined shared interests," he argues, the NLJ is a newspaper in search of definition. "It has lurched from strategy to strategy, and aimed itself at any lawyer who would have it."

Let me stop right here and emphasize that this blog is owned by Incisive and I receive compensation from Incisive for contributing to it. As I noted above, I was editor of the NLJ and worked for the company at the same time as Obbie, who was then executive editor of The American Lawyer. I've known Obbie a long time and can't remember ever before disagreeing with him. So whatever opinions I have come under those clouds, but they are my opinions and no one else's.

If Obbie and I were judges, then I would concur in part and dissent in part with what he wrote. I agree with him that Legal Times makes sense editorially and I share his dismay to see it go. My own editorial philosophy long stuck to the notion that all law is local. Legal journalism, I have always said, is community journalism. The trick is defining the community -- and increasingly that community is national.

Yes, lawyers care first and foremost about legal news in their own states. I learned that years ago as editor of the statewide legal newspaper in Massachusetts. But I disagree with Obbie on the editorial sense of a broader, national newspaper. "The Des Moines commercial litigator has little in common with the Newark criminal defense lawyer or Austin divorce lawyer or Boston patent lawyer," he contends. I see it otherwise. Over the last 20 years, the community of lawyers has become less provincial and more national. This is partly a matter of technology but very much a matter of law. More and more, the law we practice is becoming homogenized. Bill Pollak is right when he suggests that what happens in Washington no longer stays in Washington. But it is even broader than Washington. Astute lawyers these days need to track legal news and trends nationwide, because soon those developments will be coming to a city near them.

To me, that suggests a very clear editorial purpose for a national newspaper such as the NLJ. It should, in effect, serve as a kind of national radar, as lawyers' eyes and ears, scanning the national landscape for developments that may sooner or later affect lawyers everywhere. That means it should be among the first to report on significant legal developments that will trickle down to courts throughout the country, be first to identify trends and patterns in the law, and be first to identity emerging causes of action.

A national paper can also serve other important and well-defined editorial roles. On a practical level, it can be a sort of practice-management adviser. It can report on how lawyers can improve their skills, improve their bottom line, market themselves and make better use of technology. On a less practical level, it can be a sort of advocate for the legal profession, recognizing them as consumers of goods and services and as professionals with legislative and policy agendas and reporting in depth on these issues. Finally, it can be a kind of conscience and forum for the profession, speaking with a strong editorial voice about social and public-policy issues and enabling conversations about those issues within the profession.

So I concur with Obbie that the loss of Legal Times is a loss to the D.C. legal community. But I also believe that this combined editorial product could be even stronger than the sum of its parts and that there is a clear editorial need for a strong national legal newspaper.

Posted by Robert J. Ambrogi on March 17, 2009 at 11:10 AM | Permalink | Comments (1)

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