Inside ALM’s Digital Leap of Faith
How the business media company is shifting from a loose collection of brands to an integrated news organization — without sacrificing staffers.
For the past serveral years, the term "reorganization" has carried with it a general sense of dread in the publishing industry, often a harbinger of reduced frequencies, shuttered titles, and laid off employees.
ALM hopes to change that.
The business media and events firm has undergone a comprehensive reimagining of its editorial structure, aimed at shifting the company from a large bucket of related but independent brands to a cohesive, integrated news organization serving the legal, financial, real estate, and insurance sectors.
Under the reorganization, ALM's 170 reporters and editors — who populate brands and verticals like The American Lawyer or Credit Union Times — will work closely with a series of "theme desk editors" to develop stories that might resonate audiences across multiple brands.
A Different Kind of Reorganization
It's hardly the first time a major media organization has attempted to integrate a house of mutually relevant but separately operated brands. The key difference here, according to ALM's editorial director, George Haj, is that this reorganization is not driven solely by a desire to cut costs or necessarily increase efficiency. No redundancies have resulted, and no layoffs will occur.
"We didn’t do it just to be more efficient," Haj, promoted from Southern regional editor-in-chief as part of the shuffle, tells Folio:. "It really was to get more stories to bigger and better audiences. Under our old structure, those 170 people were sliced into a few dozen brands. Some of the staffs were as small as four or five people. It was very difficult to get a lot of sharing, a lot of coordination."
Haj cites, as an example, recent Department of Labor regulations about the fiduciary responsibilities of investment advisors, a story which was picked up by three separate journalists within ALM's legal, financial, and insurance groups. The hope behind the reorganization is that, going forward, the curating hand of the theme desks will allow ALM to leverage its editorial expertise to produce one, multi-faceted story that can then be deployed to all relevant audiences.
"Instead of each brand hosting their own stories and being somewhat limited, technologically, in how we could share them, we are now working on Law.com as kind of the entryway for a lot of our coverage. We’re hosting about a quarter of our legal stories on Law.com each day, and by doing that we’re able to put them on multiple websites, in multiple newsletters, and get a much broader audience there."
Striking a Balance
The challenge is embracing the digital revolution at scale while still maintaining the relationships ALM's portfolio brands have worked so hard to foster with their respective audiences.
"The brands are still very important to us. In many places, they have very deep connections to their local community, particularly our dailies," Haj continues. "We don’t want to lose that. We’re trying to maintain the local coverage but also expose those audiences to a much bigger palette of news stories that we think will be very appealing to them."
Haj says the opportunities for journalists have never been greater. A reporter for the Connecticut Law Tribune, for example, whose website receives an average of 32,000 visitors each month, theoretically now has access to ALM's overall audience of six million business professionals, provided the content he or she produces is sufficiently relevant and compelling.
"Previously, if you were a reporter in Miami, there weren’t really a lot of places you could go unless you moved to New York or Washington. I think this will allow us to retain talent and create great opportunities for people to move around the company, within verticals, in a way that just was not possible before," Haj tells Folio:.
Still, the reorganization's status as a dreaded corporate maneuver in today's media industry is not without reason, even in the absence of widespread layoffs. Througohut the process, ALM proactively sought employee cooperation and input. A "Stand Up for Content" initiative was implemented, under which employees formed focus groups to brainstorm and pitch ideas for the new editorial structure to management.
Updating the Business Model
In many ways, the reorganization is a manifestation of the extent to which ALM has evolved from its roots as the publishing company formerly known as American Lawyer Media.
Six months after being reacquired by Wasserstein & Co. for $417 million, in 2014, the company purchased b2b media and information firm Kennedy Information's Consulting Research & Advisory division, a notable departure from the company's legal-centric portfolio. A $40 million acquisition of Summit Professional Networks, an insurance industry publisher, followed just two weeks later.
"ALM is looking at adjacent markets to legal that have many of the same characteristics," ALM's chief marketing officer, Lenny Izzo, told Folio: at the time.
Earlier this year, ALM acquired Legal Week from Incisive Media, a move that expanded the company's global footprint but likely brought with it some further overlap with ALM's existing portfolio of brands.
Two months later, ALM folded the print edition of Inside Counsel, saying the title's audience had, by and large, migrated to digital. As the company continues to emphasize wide ranging digital coverage of its served markets, it's easy to foresee other print editions enduring the same fate.
"The new structure really allows us to be relentlessly digital," says Haj. "In our news meetings, we don’t talk about print at all. Is print still there? Sure. We’ve got magazines, we’ve got weeklies, we’ve got daily newspapers that have to be fed, but for the first time, in our conversations with the editors, everything starts and ends with digital. That’s been a big shift."