Column

Requiem for a Weekly Newspaper

Fittingly, I first read it in a tweet, which linked out to a brief article online. “Your favourite legal news, delivered daily” was the headline — burying the lede with a corporate cheerfulness that seemed reluctant to actually acknowledge what was happening. Journalists are taught to tell the story in the first paragraph; here, though, you have to scroll down to the last paragraph to learn what was going on:

The Lawyers Weekly will continue to publish each week until March 31, 2017. After that date, the weekly publication will be replaced by daily access to the most relevant legal news for you.

“Shocking, but not surprising.” Sometimes, the cliché fits. If you were called to the Bar of a Canadian province anytime from the early 1980s onwards, The Lawyers Weekly was a part of your career. Tabloid-sized but broadsheet-styled, it was for many years the leading (and for a while there, the only) source of current Canadian case law updates. The Digests section, a collection of headnotes that occupied the last several pages of each issue, told lawyers, weekly, what had changed in their area of the law.

Now, The Lawyers Weekly (no apostrophe, thanks — it was never Lawyers’ or Lawyer’s) is becoming The Lawyer’s Daily. The new apostrophe makes the “lawyer” singular, which seems appropriate — a general legal publication once meant for the whole profession is now another customizable personal media feed. The legal media landscape is more heavily and diversely populated today than it was 35 years ago, and a splintered audience has only so much attention to pay. The first private-sector legal periodical in Canada is following the lead of The Recorder , Inside Counsel and other legal media outlets in switching to a purely digital format.

Is my tone funereal? It really shouldn’t be. The imminent disappearance of The Lawyers Weekly’s print edition is a shock; but considering the plight of print periodicals in general and legal periodicals in particular, it’s not really a surprise. This was obviously the right decision to make from a publishing standpoint; if anything, it’s remarkable The Lawyers Weekly lasted as a newsprint product for as long as it did. The viability of a newspaper in any industry is now a touch-and-go matter, given the ever-rising cost of newsprint, the escalating expense of postage, and the steadily dwindling pool of advertising dollars for print media.

And to be honest, the instantaneous, customizable, digital format of legal news today is probably better, in practical terms, than the traditional one-paper-for-everyone-every-seven-days approach. Law is a specialized sector, and its practitioners operate in a more competitive environment and on a more accelerated timeline than did their predecessors. I frequently challenge lawyers to ask, “If we weren’t already doing it this way, would we start?” If you were going to start a news service for lawyers tomorrow, I doubt you would choose a weekly newspaper as your medium.

Despite all that, though, I can’t keep the regret entirely at bay. The Lawyers Weekly was a part of most lawyers’ careers, but for me, in a real way, it was my career.

In 1995, I was an unemployed law graduate, fresh off the “not hired back” articling train and fast running out of law firm doors to knock on. Relying on an Honours English degree and a collection of hard-hitting stories for my undergraduate student newspaper (“New library photocopiers satisfactory”), I had turned, with a certain amount of desperation, to legal publishing companies.

So I applied to Butterworths Canada, publisher of The Lawyers Weekly and the Ontario Reports. Maybe that name ignites a little wave of nostalgia for you, unless you’ve only ever known a Canadian legal publishing duopoly of LexisNexis and Thomson Reuters, and names like Carswell, CCH, Canada Law Book and Butterworths are strangers to you. If so, more’s the pity. (Company lore said that Butterworths’ British owners, deciding to expand to Canada in the early 20th century, looked at a map of the country and opened their first office in Winnipeg, the city closest to the center. That kind of set the pattern for corporate relations with the colony thenceforth.)

For reasons I still don’t entirely fathom, but for which I remain profoundly grateful, I was hired as a staff writer by the publisher, Don Brillinger, and trained in the trade by the editor, Beverley Spencer. I learned about journalism the best way possible, which is from other journalists, people like Don and Bev, Brad Daisley, Ann Macaulay, Monique Conrod, Colleen O’Brien, and Cristin Schmitz. (There should be a Canadian Legal Journalism Hall of Fame, and Cristin Schmitz should be the first inductee.)

After about a year, I was promoted to “Focus Section” editor of The Lawyers Weekly. When Beverley left to take another position several months later, I applied to become Managing Editor, and I got that job. I kept that position for another 18 months, until I left to move to Ottawa and become editor of the CBA’s National magazine, I job I held for a decade before I set out on my own to do whatever it is that I do now. There’s a straight line between getting that first job as an inexperienced and little-qualified writer, and being able to write this column today, and I won’t ever forget that.

But my part in the history of The Lawyers Weekly, however meaningful to me, was a brief one. What I really wanted to share here is a piece of that history, a time in the legal profession that seems hard to believe, from today’s vantage point, actually existed. Consider:

  • The Digests section of the newspaper was a source of revenue for the company. Lawyers would read the headnote of a case, fill out the order form on the inside back page, and mail or fax it to the newspaper asking for a copy of the case, for which they would be invoiced. This was not the 19th century. This was well into the early 1990s, before QuickLaw and Lexum and CanLII, and this was how a lot of lawyers got their hands on the latest court decisions without having to drive to the courthouse. (We used to say that The Charter of Rights, and the waves of new caselaw it generated from the mid-1980s onwards, almost single-handedly made the paper profitable.)
  • Every week, printed copies of every court decision in the country, lower-court and appellate, were couriered to The Lawyers Weekly. Cristin took the SCC and family law cases; Brad handled the BC and Alberta rulings; I read all the rest. (To this day, I remember that the Federal Court of Canada and the Saskatchewan Court of Queen’s Bench were the only ones to render their rulings on really inconvenient legal-size 8.5” x 14” paper.) We collectively decided which cases were newsworthy and either wrote them up ourselves or assigned them out. I got to decide which stories ran on the front page, and knowing that fact should make you permanently less impressed that anything is ever “front-page news.”
  • You might remember the banner, THE LAWYERS WEEKLY in proud New Century Schoolbook all-caps, and the fact that sometimes the banner would be in colour, other times in black. That depended entirely on whether a four-colour ad had been purchased for the back page; if so, we could borrow one of the CMYK colours (Cyan, Magenta, and Yellow — the K was Key, or black) from the ad, which ran on the same four-page spread as the cover, and thereby brighten up the banner. Otherwise, colour was too expensive.
  • I arrived at the newspaper just after the literally-cut-and-paste era (“paste up,” to its practitioners), when strips of text in narrow columns were laid onto the pages with adhesives, next to black-and-white photos, on large green boards. I was among the first group to benefit from cutting-edge technology like Quark XPress, an invaluable tool for squeezing as much text as possible into a column with over-aggressive tracking and leading (my own specialty).

I really don’t mean to sound like that cranky old guy on the park bench, waxing lyrical about The Way Things Used To Be. Butterworths was not an easy company to work for, and publishing was (and remains) a hard industry in which to make a living (I took a pay cut to go from being an articling student to being a full-time legal journalist.). And as I said above, I’m not suggesting that the departure of The Lawyers Weekly is anything but a natural and necessary turn of the wheel. As an alumnus with a lingering fondness for the legal publishing life, I wish The Lawyers Daily every success in remaining competitive and relevant, the hardest balancing act in the business.

But I did want to leave a little memorial stone for the newspaper, and I wanted to do it here at Slaw — which is, in many respects, the true inheritor of The Lawyers Weekly’s mantle: national (if not global) in scope, general-interest in mandate, and as up-to-the-minute as the current technology allows. Perhaps most importantly, Slaw is also a publication that envisions a unified legal profession, one not sundered by individual specialities and jurisdictions, but joined by a common interest in the law and the profession. We now have any number of blogs and e-newsletters and Twitter feeds geared to the narrowest legal niche; but we’re running out of periodicals that speak to lawyers as a unitary group.

As lawyers face a rising set of challenges to our professional purpose and identity, the need for a shared set of experiences and a common denomination of priorities becomes more acute. We need a sense of joint history to help light the path to our collective future. There was a time when almost every law firm in Canada read the same newspaper every week. You don’t need to remember the newspaper. But I think it’s important that we remember the time.

Comments

  1. Perhaps as a reflection of where the provision of legal services is heading, SLAW will one day for ALL legal service professionas.

  2. Perhaps as a reflection of where the provision of legal services is heading, SLAW will one daybe for ALL legal service professionas.

  3. This was disappointing news. Especially since our firm just paid for 3 print subscriptions to run out Feb 2018. We circulated 3 copies to almost 20 lawyers. Now they’re saying only 3 lawyers will get to read it? So disappointing. Waiting to find out from LexisNexis if we can get a refund (if we decide to) or get a discount if we decide to order more than 3 accounts.

  4. Anand Ablack, LexisNexis Canada

    Jordan – thanks for the post and a couple of comments on the points raised:

    First, The Lawyer’s Daily remains a news service dedicated to serving the entire Canadian legal community – across the country, across areas of practice, covering both the practice of law and the profession. Individuals may choose to customize their personal media feed, depending on their interests and preferences. But that should not be confused with the “micro-blog” approach of other services that you mention. The core mandate of The Lawyer’s Daily remains to serve the entire legal profession in Canada.

    Second, we agree on the changing nature of the profession and lawyers working under more accelerated timelines than their predecessors. The Lawyer’s Daily enables our journalist team (yes, including Cristin) to deliver timely legal news – whether breaking, daily or analysis – in new and better ways.

    Great to hear about your experience during the early days of the TLW newspaper! It is the end of one era, but the start of a new one…

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