Compromises, Compromises

Bitterness Pervades Former 'NLJ' Staffers

In the last two months, five editorial employees have resigned from the National Law Journal (NLJ), sparking rumors that the prestigious weekly is being compromised by business concerns. The departed employees are design director Doug Hunt; legal editor Dawn Markowitz; associate editor Andrew R. Dunn, now a copy editor at Crain's Investment News; and staff reporters David E. Rovella and Bob Van Voris, who jumped to a new legal unit at Bloomberg News. Ironically, their editor at Bloomberg is former NLJ editor in chief Patrick Oster, who was laid off in a restructuring last year.

None of the above-named individuals would comment for this article. But a distinct sense of bitterness pervades the former employees of the NLJ, whose parent is American Lawyer Media (ALM). Since 1997, when investment banker Bruce Wasserstein stitched together New York's legal publishing empires to form ALM, he has lavished favor on The American Lawyer and debuted the money-losing Daily Deal, while treating the National Law Journal like a redheaded stepchild. For some oldtimers, the neglect is now personified by ALM vice president of litigation services Joseph Calve, who has run the business side of the paper since last July—and whom one former employee blames for the spring exodus. According to this source, Calve has torn down the wall between business and editorial.

"Calve and the general managers of the NLJ are imposing advertising on multiple levels of editorial," says this source, "both on the front page, in special sections, and in new sales vehicles geared sheerly to increase profit at the expense of [content]." According to another insider, Calve considers the separation of business and editorial to be "old-fashioned" and "irrelevant."

In an interview, Calve praised the NLJ for its "powerful brand" and declined to respond to his critics, except to say that he stands for the principle of separation of church and state. He said his mentor is Steven Brill, founder of American Lawyer and Brill's Content. Calve left his law practice 15 years ago to work for a Brill legal paper in Connecticut. Then Brill sent him to Texas, where he was editor and publisher of Texas Lawyer five years before joining ALM in 2000, in business development.

Calve said it had been his idea for ALM to buy a series of publications that produce jury-verdict reporting. Last July, he said, the NLJ was given a new focus on litigation and reassigned to ALM's litigation services division, which publishes verdict reporting and expert-witness directories. As part of the new division, Calve said, the NLJ is profitable (at last!). He said he was sorry to see Dunn, Rovella, and Van Voris go, but understood the lure of higher-paying jobs. He declined to comment on Markowitz and Hunt.

NLJ purists have many complaints, including the strip ad that appears on every front page. Their worst charge is that the NLJ allowed DecisionQuest (DQ), an advertiser, to place conditions on editorial content.

Since 1998, DQ and the NLJ have produced an annual Juror Outlook Survey. Typically, DQ conducted the survey and compiled results; then NLJ staffers reviewed the data and wrote related stories. One insider says the NLJ always had editorial control, including the right to write nothing if the results were not newsworthy.

But this year, another source claims, reporters were told that the NLJ is contractually required to publish four stories. Four stories appeared between January 21 and March 18, under the bylines of either Rovella or Van Voris. The reporters are said to have complained that the results did not justify the news coverage.

Calve denied that the contract requires the NLJ to publish stories or compromises the NLJ's independence. "The contract is the same," he said. "I'm almost positive that that contract has never been changed." He said he was unaware of the objections. An ALM spokesman said, "There is nothing in the contract that requires specific coverage."

Design director Doug Hunt, a 14-year-veteran of the NLJ, had already wanted to move full-time to his house in the Berkshires and launch a freelance business from there. But sources say he resigned soon after Calve asked his art department to generate art for both editorial and advertising. Hunt did not want his staff to work on the NLJ's newsletters and directories, which he considered advertising. He refused to produce the cover of a special section that consisted largely of ads for continuing legal education. After sparring with Calve, Hunt agreed to stay until the NLJ found someone to replace him.

Calve explained that the NLJ readership has been dropping for years and that direct paid circulation is now about 20,000 (which sources call an all-time low, down from about 50,000 in 1990). Calve attributes the decline to Internet-obsessed young lawyers' tendency to read less and the size of the NLJ circulation promotion budget. Now, he says, circulation is rising, and ALM has invested in a three-year plan to "turn this back and to make the NLJ everything it should be."

Calve says that the new litigation-oriented NLJ gets "great market feedback," but one former employee calls the paper "a pale ghost" of its former self. While the NLJ always seemed to lose money, says this source, former owner Jimmy Finkelstein protected it, even hiding losses from investors. During a golden age in the early 1990s, editor in chief Doreen Weisenhaus provided trade coverage but also cadged enough money from Finkelstein to produce the kind of scoops and enterprise reporting that appeal to a general audience. Under Weisenhaus, the NLJ won a Polk award for a series on environmental racism. NLJ alums include The Wall Street Journal's Ann Davis, BusinessWeek's Mike France, Karen Donovan, who is working on a book on Microsoft, and Vanity Fair's David Margolick. (From 1997 to 1998, I was an NLJ reporter. I quit to take a job at the Voice.)

To be sure, many feel the NLJ was declining even pre-Wasserstein. But morale plummeted in June 2001, when the debt-ridden ALM laid off about 30 people company-wide. American Lawyer was said to be untouched, but the NLJ lost five employees, including editor in chief Patrick Oster, op-ed editor Josephine Novak, and photo editor Dave Horner. One source explains that Calve didn't like Oster and Novak's vision, and didn't see the need for a photo editor. Calve says that the NLJ layoffs "were not financially motivated. These were motivated by changes in editorial direction."

NLJ editorial director Robert Ambrogi, whom Calve brought in as his right-hand man, suggests the sources doth complain too much. "There's no interchange between business and edit at all with respect to the editorial content," he said, adding, "I would challenge anybody to point to a single instance in which our editorial judgment has been compromised."

Ambrogi added that he is more keen on running stories that appeal to lawyers than to the general public, and that he doesn't go out of his way to seek publicity. Maybe the purists are just nostalgic for the golden days, when the paper sang to journalists instead of the bottom line.

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