Why a legal publisher’s growth strategy might succeed where newspaper chains have failed

August 1, 2016
Image: AP

Melissa Hoffmann felt like she was standing on a diving board. She was on vacation the first week of June when she received the big news: Upon returning to work the following Monday, she’d assume a wildly different job, one that would position her as one of the linchpins in a corporate restructuring bid to create a destination for international legal news. Hoffmann, then the New York Law Journal’s deputy managing editor, had no choice but to jump. 

ALM—formerly American Lawyer Media—had been planning the reorganization for months. They intended to fundamentally alter their business, from a disconnected collection of industry publications like the New York Law Journal to a more unified news organization. While Hoffmann had known she’d get a different role in the more centralized structure, she learned exactly what it would be just days before the switch.

“You know you have icy water below you, and you have that moment of anxiety,” Hoffmann says. “But you gotta jump—you’re not going to go back down that ladder because you’re going to look silly if you do that. So you just jump into the water.” 

Uncharted water, that is. With affluent subscribers and high-end advertising, ALM has weathered the past decade of media turmoil better than some mainstream publishers. Still, it has downsized repeatedly, and many of its mostly small newspapers lagged in the digital transition. The company is now betting that it can make up ground with a more radical—and sudden—reorganization. Small wonder Hoffmann felt anxious. 

She had previously edited New York legal news for a New York audience. But since June 6 she’s worked on the litigation desk—one of a handful of new, thematically focused editing groups—managing journalists covering the topic in Manhattan, Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Atlanta, and Hartford. They still report in their respective cities, though under Hoffmann’s direction they’re now trying to pinpoint stories that may transcend any individual market where ALM has a foothold. The goal is to share more pieces between outlets and, ultimately, consolidate far-flung audiences at a single destination for legal coverage, 

The challenge is to produce local coverage that has national or international appeal.

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“I went from being a very brand-centric editor to being brand agnostic,” Hoffmann says. “It’s a very different way of looking at news.”

ALM’s creation of what it calls a “global newsroom” in some ways mimics the strategy mainstream chains like Gannett have pursued by buying up additional titles to create efficiencies and gain scale. ALM is centralizing business operations and editing of its publications in North America, London, and Hong Kong in the hope of creating more digital revenue from farther-reaching advertising and more comprehensive subscription offerings that span topic areas. 

It was a drastic step for the company, which over the past three decades grew from its flagship magazine, The American Lawyer, to a collection of dozens of publications, a research division, and an events business—several hundred employees, including 170 journalists. A private equity firm bought ALM for $417 million in July 2014. Months later it acquired an insurance industry publisher in an attempt to link together two tightly connected industries. More acquisitions could be in the works.

The difficulties of managing geographically diverse publications are many. ALM’s primary advantage in this regard is that its outlets cover a narrow set of tightly interwoven topics that it organizes into verticals: law, insurance, finance, consulting, and real estate. Still, there’s obvious tension in executing such a plan for a network of outposts with deep local ties. The challenge is to produce local coverage that has national or international appeal. 

“While some people want the Texas Lawyer, a lot of people in Texas operate globally,” says CEO Bill Carter. “Energy, for example, is a global thing. They want to know what’s happening with Shell and Exxon. So how I keep the Texas Lawyer while bringing [its content] under one bigger brand is certainly something we’re trying to figure out.”

ALM expects its more hyperlocal publications to lose traffic as the company tries to share more content among its outlets and funnel additional readers toward The site drew only 231,000 unique visitors in June, according to comScore, though early signs point to growth ahead. What’s more, ALM’s targeted audience helps it rake in digital ad rates that are much higher than the industry average. Carter says ALM properties routinely draw an astronomical $60 per thousand impressions—an order of magnitude greater than what many publishers get.

The plan is to eventually give local publications their own landing page on Carter says the focus is on improving digital ad revenue among ALM’s legal publications, while leveraging the company’s full breadth of coverage to lure in additional subscribers through non-legal offerings that have significant crossover appeal, like insurance coverage. With subscriptions, the hope is to sell more five- or six-figure site licenses to entire corporations rather than attract individual legal professionals. New digital products are slated for rollout beginning later this year. 

That they have a career path here is very important; otherwise, we’re not going to be able to get and keep the talent to build what we’re talking about.”

ALM has restructured its editing ranks in order to facilitate the new strategy. Whereas Connecticut Law Tribune staffers formerly reported to that newspaper’s editor, they’re now part of cross-country “theme desks” focused on specific topics, such as litigation. “Theme editors” direct coverage, paying close attention to stories that touch on more universal issues that could appeal to wider audiences.

“Brand editors,” who used to manage individual newspapers’ coverage, now have the strategic—if vaguely described—roles of maintaining a physical presence in their markets and connecting relevant, global-facing content with local audiences. Company brass estimate that a quarter of all ALM stories are cross-published in multiple outlets, though such content sharing varies by publication.

“The job of the [brand] editors is to figure out what makes sense for their audience in Miami,” Editorial Director George Haj says, offering an example. “It might be something about Latin American legal issues out of London. It might be something about real estate, since that’s so big in Miami. The new structure lets us take advantage of the expertise and think a little more about the big universe of stuff that we can choose from for our readers.”

The pitfall of similar efforts at mainstream chains has often been an inability or unwillingness to collaborate effectively between publications. Of course, newspapers in particular have changed hands so many times in recent years that it’s near impossible to get buy-in from newsrooms. Plans for transformation have too often resulted solely in editorial confusion, financial stagnation, and job cuts. ALM comes from a similar starting point: The company has changed hands multiple times in the past decade.

Chief Content Officer Molly Miller kept this in mind when she announced plans for ALM’s global newsroom in late January. “You can’t go out and say, from the top down, This is what we’re going to do, and then expect people to give you ideas and come along with you and stay with you,” she says. ALM launched an internal initiative called “Stand Up For Content” in response to the announcement, allowing employees to form groups, brainstorm ideas to improve the company, and pitch them to top-level managers. About 85 percent of the newsroom volunteered, Miller says. Ideas ranged from the simple, such as adding job postings to weekly corporate newsletters, to the complex. A few have already been instituted.

Miller says this internal collaboration—more involvement also adds a measure of transparency—has been central to how smoothly the transition has gone so far. “It’s also a place where we saw some previously silent big talent,” Miller says. “That they have a career path here is very important; otherwise, we’re not going to be able to get and keep the talent to build what we’re talking about.”

As with other companies’ transitions, any difficulty adapting to the new structure will likely be concentrated among veteran employees accustomed to the old system; brand editors in particular have seen their jobs change considerably. But for reporters, the upside is clear: Stories can find a much wider audience than they would have otherwise. Katheryn Hayes Tucker, a journalist at the Daily Report outside of Atlanta, said her recent story about a Georgia Court of Appeals decision on “upskirting” was picked up by and became ALM’s most-shared piece of the day.

“Suddenly, overnight, I went from working for a tiny little paper with a really thin, overstretched staff, to working for a big, national and global company with big resources and plenty of colleagues, more than one editor, and someone who can always help me,” says Tucker, 60. “I’m almost embarrassed how excited I am. It’s completely unexpected for me at this point at my career.”

Hoffmann, the litigation editor, has also seen unexpected benefits. At the moment, she’s waiting to hear feedback on her second-round “Stand Up For Content” pitch to improve ad viewability across ALM sites. “There’s these conversations happening between editorial and marketing and sales that were never happening before,” she says of such projects.

The transition isn’t seamless, of course. A universal CMS remains a work in progress. And Hoffmann is still adapting to her new day-to-day editing duties—she’s never met some of her reporters in person and has to learn about new markets on the quick. But to return to the diving board metaphor, jumping right in has forced her and others to change quickly.

“When you hit the water, it is a shock at first,” she says. “But then it warms up, and you’re just swimming along.”

David Uberti is a writer in New York. He was previously a media reporter for Gizmodo Media Group and a staff writer for CJR. Follow him on Twitter @DavidUberti.