Cause Unknown

More Staff Exiting 'National Law Journal'

Last week, staffers at The National Law Journal were mystified to learn that Joseph Calve had resigned from his job. Calve, who was named vice president of the litigation services division of American Lawyer Media last July, controlled the business side of the NLJ, the once prestigious newsweekly owned by investment banker Bruce Wasserstein. Calve is best known for executing a round of layoffs last year and for trying to boost the division's profitability by launching a service that reports on jury verdicts.

To add to the confusion, NLJ editorial director Robert Ambrogi also resigned recently, and ALM management is denying that the paper is for sale. According to one unconfirmed rumor, Wasserstein recently spurned an offer from former NLJ owner Jimmy Finkelstein to buy back the paper, fearing it would look like an admission of failure.

At press time, Calve had offered the NLJ staff no explanation for his departure. Sources report that he was in the office two weeks ago and attended a convention in Atlanta the weekend of July 20. Then on July 23, ALM vice president for strategic planning Jack Berkowitz met with the NLJ staff. According to someone who was present, Berkowitz announced that Calve had resigned and that Calve would soon return to personally discuss the cause of his departure. But that visit has yet to happen, and in the absence of official explanations, speculation has rushed in to fill the void.

One staffer speculates that Calve quit because of his doubts about the future of the litigation services division. Others repeat the unconfirmed but widespread rumor that the boss was fired, either because of his unsatisfactory job performance or because of a remarkable display of poor social skills.

Berkowitz and Calve did not return repeated calls. Associate editor Sam Adler, who works on verdict reporting, had only praise for his former boss. "Joe is a very capable guy," said Adler. "He was on the right path and I'm very sorry to see him go."

Calve is not the newspaper's only conspicuous departure of late. In June, Ambrogi announced that he was resigning without a new job in hand. The editorial director expressed a personal need to spend more time with his family in Boston, but sources expect him to return to the fold. At Ambrogi's farewell party on July 25, Berkowitz reportedly praised him and said things to the effect of, "I'm going to be making use of him" and "He's not going to escape from my clutches." One source says of Ambrogi, "He'll be reabsorbed. There are people in other divisions that want him."

Managing editor Charles Carter declined to comment. Another managing editor, Jonathan Barrett, was unavailable because he, too, recently quit with no job in sight! Calve had tapped Barrett to work on the verdict-reporting vehicle.

This puzzle is still missing many pieces. For example, several sources have heard that Calve will not be replaced and that the division will be restructured so that his job will not exist—but that a new editor in chief will be hired to replace Ambrogi. When Berkowitz met with the staff last week, he told them that rumors about the sale of the NLJ were unfounded—an especially cryptic comment, according to one source, because he had never heard these rumors to begin with.

Is it possible The National Law Journal is for sale, and Calve is merely a rat with enough advance notice to jump from a sinking ship? Insiders recall that when Wasserstein brought American Lawyer magazine and the NLJ together in 1997, he imagined a company that could be fattened up and flipped for a profit in five years. But it is now 2002, and few media execs are pleased with their second-quarter earnings statements, which are now being released to the SEC. As The New York Times reported Monday, Primedia is trying to unload Chicago magazine. It is the time of the season for selling—or pulling the plug altogether.

Skeptics say it's too late to save the NLJ brand. According to this line of thinking, Wasserstein never liked the newspaper anyway, and treated it like a redheaded stepchild next to American Lawyer and his baby, The Daily Deal. Former NLJ employees like to say that the attempt to target the NLJ to litigators has turned out to be a failure and a mistake. "The bottom line," says one source, "is that they destroyed that newspaper. It has no credibility." (I reported for the NLJ before taking a job at the Voice.)

American Lawyer Media President and CEO William Pollak did not respond to several calls and a detailed request for comment.

Dan Canned?

Cell phones were buzzing last week with the rumor that media reporter Dan Cox is leaving his job at the New York Post, a mere seven months after the Post imported him from L.A., where he had been a Variety reporter through much of the last decade. So was he fired or did he quit? One source claims Cox was planning to quit all along—but who quits a media job these days without something else lined up? And why was he still filing this week?

Cox declined to comment. Post business editor Jon Elsen would say only, "Dan is leaving and we wish him well"—which left the rumor very much in play. It seems odd for Post editors to fire Cox after they sent him to the recent circus of media moguls in Sun Valley, Idaho, where he filed regular dispatches and landed an exclusive interview with Viacom's Sumner Redstone. Cox broke the stories that Vivendi's Jean-Marie Messier and AOL's Bob Pittman lost their jobs, and last week two of his stories made the front page.

But prodigious output might not be enough: The Post expects media reporters to cultivate sources at Olympian levels and break stories even their deep throats don't know. If indeed Cox was fired, inquiring minds want to know, did the decision come from Elsen, Post editor in chief Col Allan, or Rupert Murdoch, the paper's ubiquitous owner? Was something wrong with Cox's performance? Or might the problem be Murdoch's micromanagement?

The Aussie mogul has a reputation for feeding business tips to the Post in hopes the resulting stories will enlighten him and hurt his competitors. And when reporters fail to decipher Murdoch's myriad and mercurial agendas, they pay the price—as entertainment reporter Nikki Finke found out last winter, when her controversial Disney stories cost her a lucrative gig with the Post. If Cox decides to go public, he might become useful to Finke, whose multi-count lawsuit against the Post is winding its way through the courts. Finke's central thesis is that Murdoch exploits the Post to benefit his business interests—and an unemployed Cox might have something to say about that.

Last burning question: Who will be next to take on the high-profile job of big media snoop for Murdoch? Sources say The New York Observer's Sridhar Pappu is one of many who have been approached. Pappu says, "I'm not a candidate."


cc@villagevoice.com

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