Noa Glouberman
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Tipping the Scales

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Until a few years ago Canadian legal publications had struck a careful balance between reader and advertiser needs. Then came Lexpert Magazine, and the rules started to change

The four panelists shift in their seats as the emcee makes his third attempt to quiet the audience. “Could everyone turn their attention to the front? I believe we are ready to begin.” There is a brief shuffling throughout the room as each guest finishes up conversation and turns to face the front. Mike Fitz-James, editor of Canadian Lawyer Magazine, takes a sizable gulp of his third cup of coffee and does the same.

The panel at this early December meeting of the Canadian Society of Magazine Editors (CSME) includes one editor, two publishers of Canadian magazines and a media buyer’s representative. They’re here to discuss the fine line between editorial and advertising content – a topic that is a particular thorn in Fitz-James’ side. John Black, editor of Lexpert Magazine, the newest Canadian legal publication, is not in attendance. Had he been, he may have overheard Fitz-James refer to Lexpert under his breath on several occasions; he leans over to me and whispers, “Here’s a good question for your story: ask John Black why the people he’s writing stories about are the same people who advertise in his magazine.”

Publications like Canadian Lawyer, directed at the legal profession, are in the same predicament as mainstream magazines. The appearance of a new, groundbreaking legal magazine, coupled with fierce competition for advertising dollars, obliges them to try out new approaches, which raises ethical issues about objective versus advertorial content. Things have not always been this way.

Canadian Lawyer, printed monthly in glossy format by Canada Law Book Media Inc. (CLB), has been in circulation since 1977. Ontario Lawyers Weekly, the first weekly paper aimed at the legal community (published by LexisNexis/ Butterworths Canada Ltd.), made its inaugural appearance in 1983. In late 1985, Ontario Lawyers Weekly dropped the provincial designation, having enlarged its purview to the entire country. “When you work for an international publishing company,” explains Fitz-James, then-editor of the paper, “you don’t succeed in your job unless you continually expand the product and look for ways to make more money. I figured a national version of Ontario Lawyers Weekly would be way more profitable than a regional version. I was right. We made a lot of money going national.”

The Lawyers Weekly and Canadian Lawyer are, respectively, a weekly and a monthly – a difference that Fitz-James, who now edits the latter, believes explains other discrepancies as well: “Canadian Lawyer has a slower production time and is higher quality, which has higher costs. The Lawyers Weekly is news driven, full of gossip and information.”

The Lawyers Weekly, launched at a time when legal databases were not yet in widespread use, supplied members of the profession with materials they can now access from computer terminals. Beverley Spencer, an editor at The Globe and Mail, got her start in legal journalism freelancing for The Lawyers Weekly while attending law school. She observes: “When it first started back in the ’80s, it provided a real service in terms of highlighting interesting legal decisions that would be useful to lawyers arguing another case.”

The availability of free legal databases online changed the day-to-day practice of law – and The Lawyers Weekly as well. The paper now attempts to monitor more important developments in the case law area, and includes a good deal more coverage of events in the news. Canadian Lawyer, on the other hand, remains today what it was from the start – a general interest magazine running primarily feature articles: profiles of lawyers in small and middle-sized firms, and reportage of cases of special interest to members of this community. As a means to this end, Canadian Lawyer is subsidized by the Canadian Magazine Fund (CMF), which supports many Canadian publications. In 2002-2003, the magazine received about $58,000 from the CMF.

Though the extra funding helps Canadian Lawyer maintain its standard of editorial content, Fitz-James says the magazine’s evolution has been editor-driven. A group of lawyers – amateur journalists and writers – launched Canadian Lawyer, then hired Kim Lockhart, a journalist rather than a lawyer, to edit it. Later, Michael Crawford occupied the editor’s chair; Crawford was trained in law but was first and foremost a writer and journalist. Eventually, Fitz-James himself came along. A journalist all his life, he had wet his feet in the tabloids during law school. “What we’re trying to do is tell people interesting stories and how to make more money and be happy,” Fitz-James explains. “The key to a lawyer’s happiness is a ringing register. That’s the formula I figured out at The Lawyers Weekly: if you stress money and business and things that have meaning and are useful to people, then you never have a problem.”

The Lawyers Weekly and Canadian Lawyer, then, have never been in direct editorial competition. “Where the competition takes place,” explains Fitz-James, “is for the advertising buck. Canadian Lawyer offers colour and glossy paper, but The Lawyers Weekly offers speed. When you offer speed you can get into classified and recruitment; you get a whole class of advertising that won’t go to a magazine.”

Yet each publication has a rival – of sorts. In 1990, CLB Media Inc. launched its own weekly paper, Law Times, under the editorship of Jim Middlemiss, an active member of the legal press. Then, as now, Law Times targets Ontario lawyers, serving them with information on case law, professional development, governance issues and relevant topics of the day. Middlemiss says half the lawyers in Canada practice in Ontario, so it is a viable market. As well, the vast majority of large law firms are based in Ontario, and most important commercial litigation takes place in the province. “Outside of oil and gas law or Maritime law,” says Middlemiss, “Ontario is the centre of the action.”

Given the differing geographic scope of Law Times and The Lawyers Weekly, their editorial competition is somewhat blunted. Fitz-James explains that the two papers have different approaches: “When Jim Middlemiss started up Law Times, he deliberately avoided the high-class court coverage that was going on in The Lawyers Weekly and concentrated mostly on the regional, Ontario market and on hard news.”

For nearly two and a half decades, Canadian Lawyer remained virtually unmatched, both in its quality of content (winning National Magazine, Kenneth R. Wilson and other awards) and its glossy-mag, feature-article format. In 1999, though, a new glossy began homing in on its clientele. That October, Toronto-based publisher Silrun New Media Inc. launched Lexpert under the editorship of John Black. The upstart publication has clearly nettled Fitz-James. “Lexpert,” he scoffs, “is a Bay Street legal publication published for Bay Street-type lawyers. We are not.” Of the approximately 53,000 lawyers in Canada, Fitz-James estimates only 3,000 work in huge mega-firms. “If you can chip a business out of that, good for you, but I’d rather serve the three-man firm in Sturgeon Falls.”

The appearance of Lexpert has made serious waves through the Canadian legal publishing industry. Black targeted a niche in legal publishing that had until then remained largely untapped: the large, major firms across Canada. His editorial content, he argues, reflects the interests of that audience. “We are, essentially, a business publication,” he says. “Canadian Lawyer is a more general-interest legal publication. That’s their market, and it’s a perfectly good one. But it’s not ours. It’s the same sort of difference as the one between the Toronto Star and The Globe and Mail.” In Black’s view, Lexpert has almost no direct editorial competition.

Fitz-James agrees, in his typically acerbic style. “We’re not competing with Lexpert. We’re not into doing slavish profiles of big law firms. We’re into more stories about the ethics, heartbreak and conundrums of law and the richness of sentiment that can come with legal practice – a different editorial choice.” He concedes, though, that his rival has had unprecedented advertising success. “Lexpert has managed to crack big law firms and their reluctance to put full-page, colour advertisements in magazines,” says Fitz-James. “But I still scratch my head and ask myself, who are they advertising to? I guess what they’re doing is making statement of their status to other Bay Street firms, who are the only people who read it. Or maybe to corporate counsel, who are the in-house lawyers at companies who buy the services of Bay Street. Good for them if they can turn a buck off of it.”

Turning a buck is a challenge for all the publications. The common misconception is that because lawyers have large disposable incomes, advertisers will fall over each other vying for their attention. The reality is different. Lifestyle advertisers use other publications, not legal ones, to reach lawyers. Fitz-James explains that advertising agencies and advertisers look at cost-per-thousand. “Maclean’s has 15 times the circulation of Canadian Lawyer,” says Fitz-James, “and in that 15-times figure, you’re probably going to get a bunch of lawyers, too.” Black agrees: “If you are advertising vacations in Mexico, it makes much more sense to place an ad in the Globe or the Post where you reach about 300,000 people, as opposed to placing an ad in a professional publication like ours that only reaches 17,000.”

What legal publications do attract is profession-related ads, from the likes of legal publishers, software firms and other services. Competition for these ads is keen, with more publications than ever targeting the same advertising budgets. With increasing frequency they’re turning to specialty sections to generate ads. The Lawyers Weekly and Canadian Lawyer were the pioneers, printing regular editorial calendars with advertising specials such as sections on different types of law. Michael Crawford, former editor of Canadian Lawyer, boasts (though with due lawyerly caution): “I won’t take complete credit, because I think I stole the idea from another type of publication, but we were one of the very first to do regular editorial calendars with regular advertising specials.” The result was new ads – every month. The Lawyers Weekly led the way in another area, says legal journalist Jeffrey Miller. “When Don Brillinger was its editor, he made some huge innovations. He more or less invented the ‘Focus’ section, which they base their advertising on. It’s been a real boon to the industry.” In both cases, editorial reports attract certain specialized advertisers, but the editorial content of these sections always remains separate from the ads they attract.

Since the appearance of Lexpert, however, a change in advertising patterns seems to have occurred. Many law firms now advertise to in-house council and lawyers who read the magazine, touting their dominance in certain markets or practice areas. Lexpert deserves credit for opening up this hitherto untapped ad stream: it managed to persuade law firms that, since their readership consists mostly of practicing professionals, self-promotion among its peers is a wise and potentially profitable course of action.

When similar advertising innovations began multiplying in consumer magazines, so did the pressure on editorial content and the arguments about editorial objectivity. These legal publications are no different. Fitz-James dismisses the Lexpert approach caustically: “John Black basically focuses on the law firms that put the deals together. That’s all very well, but he never says that a law firm screwed up or almost lost a deal. It’s all uniformly Pollyanna and apple pie and good news.” This argument explains why law firms and lawyers would be more inclined to advertise in Lexpert, which sings their praises, rather than Canadian Lawyer, which may show them in a more negative light.

Black insists that the editorial content of Lexpert is “very objective. It has to be. Our whole business is built on having credibility within the profession.” After looking through a number of issues, though, one notices the magazine does appear to be less interested in objective reportage than in a kind of boosterism: positive articles abound.

The other editors agree with Black’s statement about the importance of objectivity, and, like Black, claim that it is of utmost importance. The Lawyers Weekly’s editor Tom Claridge says, “If I spot any comment in anything other than a letter or opinion column, it gets edited out. We don’t even run editorials.” Gail Cohen of Law Times maintains, “We do not have ‘advertorial’ content and if there ever were any it would be so marked. In addition, the news, feature and commentary sections are all marked and distinctly separate.” Fitz-James says, “Canadian Lawyer is very objective – I stand by everything I’ve written and everything I run.”

Lexpert’s style of journalism does have consequences. The feel-good atmosphere, where the journalistic hand washes that of the lawyers and law firms, has caused the latter to react predictably – with advertising dollars. So far, the other editors have responded primarily by criticizing Lexpert, but what happens next is anybody’s guess. The desire for increased readership and profit may force Lexpert’s competition to alter its editorial mandates. They’ve already bent a little on the advertising side – tailoring editorial calendars and special sections to suit and attract advertisers, though there is no direct correlation between the advertisers and the content in any given issue – and one wonders whether part of an organism can bend without its other parts eventually doing so as well.

In recent years, law has morphed from a profession, like medicine, into a business. There is no reason why legal publications should neglect the business side of their own operations. Profit, perhaps not a worthy end in itself, is certainly not to be dismissed as irrelevant. Black puts the case vigorously: “Lexpert was started to focus on the business of law, like in the U.S. and the United Kingdom. It’s been profitable since day one. We don’t receive subsidies from the provincial or federal governments. Personally, I’m not sympathetic toward the legal publication industry in this country.”

The final panelist at the CSME luncheon finishes her speech, and the crowd breaks into polite applause. Fitz-James lifts his coffee cup and downs the dregs. Before he leaves, I want to get his take on Black’s sentiments about legal publications receiving government subsidies. Predictably, he finds the Lexpert chief’s stance hard to swallow. The financial support makes for a higher brand of journalism, he says, because it allows Canadian Lawyer’s research and writing to be less market-driven and more independent. “We gave writers a 30 per cent raise and artists and photographers more money. If we didn’t have that money, we’d still publish and still be profitable – but the magazine wouldn’t be as good. We might not win as many awards as we do and, unlike Lexpert, we win many.”

Targeting five per cent of the legal universe (according to Fitz-James’ estimation), Lexpert is a journalistic thorn – not a business threat – to established law publications. As Fitz-James points out, Black has “cracked” the corporate law firms, in effect creating a new category of advertiser and expanding the pie for everyone. Lexpert’s business model – glossy magazine stock, vanity announcements of deals previously reported, public relations quality prose – is more of an irritant to the other law publication editors than anything else. To them, it is appalling that Lexpert would even be considered in the same category. We’ll leave the final words to the affable, yet pugnacious man from Canadian Lawyer: “[Black]’s managed to convince the smartest lawyers on Bay Street that what he does has value. I wouldn’t dignify it with the term ‘journalism,’ but he certainly is putting ink on paper.”

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