Of Interest

1983-2011: The Bar Journal years


by Frederick M. Baker   |   Michigan Bar Journal


In my 28 years on the Bar Journal Advisory Board (later the Publi­cations and Website Advisory Committee and now Michigan Bar Journal Committee), I learned a lot about publishing, the internet, and the complexity of producing a monthly magazine for an orga­nization of lawyers. During those years, first as a member and then as its chair for 24 years, the board transformed the Bar Journal and, when it was expanded to include all Bar publications and the website, virtually everything the Bar published.

My membership began quietly enough. The Journal was a fairly self-executing publication primarily run by staff with routine contri­butions from board members. Our meetings were mostly an oppor­tunity for the Journal’s editor, Shel Hochman, a non-attorney veter­an journalist, to describe what we were doing, consult with board chair George Roumell and members on future issues, and seek any needed guidance or assistance.

At that time, we published mostly over-the-transom articles by Bar members, usually on a subject related to their area of practice. Each article was assigned to a board member to vet and edit. Articles badly written (or insufficiently improved after revision) and “fetchers” (thinly disguised advertising) were declined as gently as possible. If an article advocated a position, we often invited some­one knowledgeable to provide a different perspective, from which it was a short step to adding a point-counterpoint feature that ran for some time.

Collectively, board members possessed both considerable editorial experience and a remarkable range of substantive knowledge of the law. Conscientious editing was one of the board’s most import­ant and valuable functions. At the same time, we were mindful of cases like Falk v. State Bar and Keller v. State Bar of California. We did not censor letters to the editor critical of a published article or column, but we did reserve the right to limit length and require civil discourse and always offered the author an opportunity to respond.

We made hundreds of editorial decisions in those 28 years, some consequential and some imperfect, either through oversight, mis­take, or because no answer was satisfactory to all. But the board always took very seriously its obligation to provide a forum for all members of our unified bar and not let the Journal be co-opted to serve the vanity or agenda of any Bar leader or faction.

Board membership entailed more than bimonthly meetings and occasional editing tasks. We often had to deal with controversial questions, and our only ally was our reputation for fairness and impartiality. But the board also was somewhat insulated from Bar politics by design, unique among Bar entities in two ways. First, members could serve an unlimited number of terms unless the chair did not recommend reappointment of a member who failed to at­tend meetings or contribute to the board’s work. This allowed the board to accumulate vast experience in the complicated business of publishing a monthly journal. Second, the board was allowed to select its chair.

After my first year on the board, George Roumell left to serve as SBM president. No one wanted the chair and the responsibility for organizing meetings, setting an agenda, sending meeting notices (by mail!), and working with staff between meetings to address issues that required immediate attention. George invited Mark McAlpine and me to consider taking the chair, and Mark agreed to do it for one year if I would agree to do it the following year. I hoped Mark would like the job and want to keep it, but when he did not, I kept my word and succeeded him. At the end of my first term, I asked the board a question I repeated annually for 23 years: “Does anyone want this job?” Though some kindly said I should remain because I was doing a good job, I suspect they also saw it entailed a fair amount of effort and decided to let me do it.

The board was always exploring ways to improve the Journal’s look and content. Apart from mandated content — court rule updates, notices of discipline, and the like — the Journal consisted mostly of member-submitted articles on random subjects, sparse advertising, and classifieds ads. The Board of Commissioners granted a request to hire a firm to help us redesign the magazine, and we began to use fine art on most covers curated (and obtained without charge!) by board member Diane Duvall.

Eventually, it dawned on us that the Bar’s sections were an enormous untapped reservoir of expertise and talent. Articles from sections could address subjects chosen by the authors, section leaders, or even the board itself when important decisions or new legislation suggested the need. The sections responded enthusiastically to our proposal and the theme issue was born (soon followed by the mini-theme when the subject did not warrant an entire issue.)

The theme issue approach enabled us to upgrade the quality and consistency of the Journal’s content and illustrations, which could be keyed to the theme. When an issue’s theme was related to a prod­uct or service, it increased our ability to attract first-time advertisers or increase the size of an existing advertiser’s buy.

We were careful, however, to reserve room for a non-theme inven­tory article in most theme issues and scheduled several general-in­terest issues to publish unsolicited articles we received from mem­bers. These measures and our column content ensured that each issue remained useful and interesting to our general readership and that members who wrote articles still had a forum.

If you are too young to recall the Bar Journal of the ’70s and early ’80s, you probably take today’s full-color publication for granted, but the work we did to increase reader and advertiser appeal al­lowed this to become a reality. We first added interior color to just one 16-page signature (a printing term referring to page layouts on a press sheet), attracting advertisers who could not afford to buy the back covers, which were previously the only color pages. Even­tually, we added color throughout the magazine, making it more attractive to readers and advertisers alike. And we periodically sur­veyed readers so we could respond to their preferences rather than basing our decisions on hunches.

Nancy Brown continued as editor for several years after Shel Hoch­man retired and became a remarkable journalist and publisher before my eyes. When I joined the board, the Bar Journal’s rough layout was done in-house. (See Nancy’s article in the May Michi­gan Bar Journal for more on that process.) After the first of at least two redesigns of the Journal, we used outside design assistance.

The Bar Journal Advisory Board morphed into the Publications and Website Advisory Committee (PWAC) and, with Nancy’s guidance, we introduced an in-house print center that helped Bar sections reduce publication costs for typesetting, design, and print services. Revenue from those services helped offset the overall cost of the Bar’s in-house printed materials (excluding the Journal which, due to quantity and number of pages, was first printed on a sheet-fed press and later on a web press.) Also, instead of paying the printer a markup on paper often purchased in a volatile market, Nancy worked directly with a paper merchant that bought direct from the mill and shipped the paper by the truckload to our printer for a significant savings.

PWAC was also given responsibility for overseeing the develop­ment of the Bar’s website, which was in a primitive early stage. It is now a rich resource with extensive content for members. And PWAC worked with staff to establish the e-Journal that provides free email summaries of Michigan court decisions within days of their release.

I resisted discontinuing the annual directory issue, which at the time was our biggest revenue source. We sold more than 130,000 vol­umes each year, with sales to non-members at a premium price of about three times cost. Shortly after I left, PWAC put the directory online. I understand why. The paper directory required a months-long expenditure of staff time, inevitably contained errors, started to become outdated as soon as typesetting began, and no longer generated revenue because of the growth of membership and the telephone-book size of the issue. Today, the online directory is up­dated within minutes of a member record change, making it much more accurate.

I thank, but cannot name here, the scores of members who served with me, but I must mention four people. Nancy Brown, whose friendship I treasure, was the tireless engine of most of the import­ant changes we made. Two editors who succeeded Nancy, Amy Cluley Ellsworth and Linda Novak, lived their lives on deadline. Their sharp eyes and pencils enabled us to maintain the high standards that made the Michigan Bar Journal one of the most copied — and honored — state bar publications.

Finally, Joe Kimble, the longest-serving member in the board’s his­tory, has edited the Plain Language column since 1988. He helped to pioneer advocacy of plain language in the law and his column has hosted every luminary in the field, including Bryan Garner. Joe made the Bar Journal an early and influential voice in the plain lan­guage movement. But I am not just being sentimental. Joe’s column was also an important revenue source, generating more reprint sales than all other columns and articles combined. Just before I left the PWAC, I completed a two-year negotiation with HeinOnline, which wanted every issue of the Journal in its database. I used Joe’s column as a bargaining chip to obtain a unique benefit: Our mem­bers have free website access not only to a searchable database of every issue since 1921, but also to the entire HeinOnline multistate library. That extra access was unique to Michigan, and we have Joe to thank for it.

If you wish to meet the cream of our profession, seek a place on this committee. There, I worked with some of the finest minds — and finest people — in our profession. Those who freely volunteer their time and share what they know for the betterment of their profes­sion are the best of the best. It was my honor to serve with them.