Navigating ALM Content and Putting It to Use for Lawyers and Legal Marketers with Vanessa Blum, Newsroom Innovation Director
In this episode of On Record PR, Gina Rubel goes on record with Vanessa Blum, Newsroom Innovation Director at American Lawyer Media.
Vanessa is ALM’s first Director of Newsroom Innovation, a role that combines vision, leadership, and editorial expertise. A graduate of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Vanessa covered courts and the legal industry in Washington D.C. and South Florida before joining ALM in San Francisco in 2012. She served as managing editor of The Recorder and led ALM’s national litigation desk before stepping into her current role in 2018. As newsroom innovation director, Vanessa has helped to conceive and launch several recent offerings for ALM including the new Law.com Radar, a tech-enabled website that provides customized early awareness of key legal developments. Vanessa lives in California’s wine country with her husband, Phillip Dubé.
What is the role of a newsroom innovation director and why did ALM establish the position?
My role as newsroom innovation director is basically to champion and spearhead new initiatives at ALM. It’s a role that we basically created in 2018. And as you mentioned, some of the projects I’ve been involved in are Law.com Briefings, which are a suite of expert email newsletters, the newsroom’s LegalSpeak podcast, which launched in 2018, and then most recently the launch of Law.com Radar.
At the time that the position was created in 2018, we were just a couple of years out from the launch of the global newsroom, which is when all our reporting teams, and the different regions, and different brands of ALM were brought together under one structure. As we carried that off, and after we came through that change, we began to look to the future to consider the rapid pace of change in the legal profession. We wanted to make sure that in our newsroom, and in the products we deliver, that we are keeping pace with our readers, and offering them news and information in the formats, and in the delivery mechanisms that they would find most useful.
What trends are you seeing in legal media? And how are they impacting the way you deliver news to your audience?
Some of the changes are similar between media and the legal profession itself. We are both operating at a pace that’s entirely different than we would have been 10, or even five years ago. When I came up as a reporter, I worked for one of those print publications. We came out weekly, and we basically had a week to report an article, talk to sources, and then put out that paper. The timeline has been compressed more and more so that now our reporters in the ALM newsroom are delivering one or more stories in a day’s time. We’re still, of course, investing the time in deeper enterprise work, and that happens on a different track even as you’re responding to the daily news demands. The pace of information for both legal and media professionals has changed a lot.
And then, of course, one of the things that we’re watching right now in legal media is this explosion of players in the legal media landscape. There have always been competitors in the legal news business. I think that’s because there’s a huge appetite for news and information among legal professionals. When you think about how lawyers and law firm leaders operate, they need a lot of information, and insight on their own industry, but also on the industries where their clients operate so they can keep an eye on the horizon and be aware of the trends that are impacting their clients. There’s huge demand for news and information, and that’s good for anyone in my job.
Of course, journalism is a very competitive and tough business. It’s great to be operating in a sector where there’s a lot of demand. I think as we’ve been seeing new publications come onto the scene, and established players launching new offerings, at ALM we’re just staying on our toes. We know that the response isn’t just to do more of the same, more competitors, more news offerings– we’ll put out more news. We’re trying to be smart and strategic about delivering news and information in the way that’s most useful, and helpful to our audience.
One of the things I’ve noticed more in the last year, or two is much more in-depth coverage of various topics, whether it be coronavirus, or diversity, equity and inclusion, or women in the profession is a real deep dive. Is that a new trend? Is that something that ALM has always done while doing it differently?
It’s something that we’ve always done. We are intensely focused on that right now. It’s gratifying that you can see that as a reader, and someone who interacts with our newsroom. We are interested in identifying, firstly, the very impactful trends in the legal industry, and not just conveying information about what just happened, but why it happened, what it means, and what happens next. We think that’s something that our readers really rely on us for, and we are always striving to achieve that next level of analysis and insight.
One of the things that we are doing differently in the newsroom is trying to package that together in a way that readers will recognize and understand. For instance, we have Law.com Trendspotter, which is a new column. It’s written by Zack Needles, editor-in-chief of Law.com. He collects all the pieces that we’ve been writing on a certain topic. Just like you said, whether it’s remote work during COVID-19, or the ways that law firms are addressing diversity challenges, and rather than the reader having to hunt-and-peck, and navigate all our publications, which can be difficult, we’re doing more to group that together, and make it easily accessible to the reader.
Gina: I read Trendspotter and Zack’s content quite often, in fact. And one of the things that I find interesting with a lot of law firms is that “the tail seems to be wagging the dog.” It’s “Well, what did our competitors do?” Or “What are they doing that’s innovative?” And the fact that ALM Publications are delivering that information, in my opinion, is really influencing the practice of law daily.
Vanessa: That’s great to hear. It’s a great offering. I think it came from a place where we sometimes feel that it’s obvious that we’re writing all this insightful coverage on important topics, but when we talk to readers, we realized there really is a service, and basically gathering that up and delivering it to them. And to the point you just made, Gina, one way to look at it is the tail wagging the dog, but I think one of the things that we pick up on right now, especially, with the rapid pace of change amid the pandemic is law firm leaders really do want to know what their competitors are doing, and not so they can copy, or emulate, but there’s this hunger for information on how peers are handling the same types of situations that they’re confronting.
Gina: Many lawyers are risk averse. By nature, it’s a risk-averse industry. I can’t tell you how many times in the 20 years of running Furia Rubel Communications I’ve had somebody say, “Such and such firm is doing that.” Whether it’s the right thing, or the wrong thing for the client because they’re risk-averse they often will wait to see who does it first, and if it was successful.
Vanessa: So true. It may not be universally true, but I think that most law firms don’t want to be the first mover. They want to be the fast follower. They want someone else to take that first step, but then they want to be right behind them.
Can you tell us a little bit about Law.com Radar, and how that was conceived, what it is, and why it matters?
Law.com Radar launched last year. It’s very new for ALM. It’s new for the legal media scene. I’ll quickly talk about three things that set it apart. One is that we’re using technology in entirely new ways to rapidly deliver content. Secondly, Law.com Radar is a personalized experience. When you create your account on Radar, you select the industries, practice areas, regions, specific law firms, and specific companies that you’re interested in. Then you surface news related to those topics in your personalized newsfeed.
We’re using a lot of technology that we’ve never used before in our newsroom and it’s a personalized experience. In addition, Law.com Radar offers a modern and sleek UX (user experience). That might seem like an odd thing to mention, but I was at Legalweek listening to leaders in the legal technology field, and talking about the consumerization of legal tools, and that basically, as consumers we interact with Amazon, Peloton, Netflix and others. We want these tools to be easy and intuitive. At ALM, we baked that into the development of Law.com Radar — knowing we were building a tool that lawyers would set up for themselves, that they’d use on the go. We wanted to make sure that it delivered a user experience that is easy to use, simple, and familiar to anyone who uses other mobile apps.
For anyone who’s new to Radar, it is a personalized and concise legal newsfeed that delivers updates on federal litigation, the latest corporate transactions, as well as headlines from across the Law.com network. The mission is to deliver just the key facts that you need in that moment, not a long article, but something that can be quickly skimmed to draw out and identify important information. There’s always a pathway to dig in if the user does need more information on that topic.
As a user, I’m curious if you’ve received any feedback from others on how and why they’re using Radar. Also, how might they engage with the content so that they’re more successful doing their jobs?
I’m so glad that you’re using Radar and finding it useful. What we’re hearing is that Law.com Radar is useful for business development, tracking clients or law firms that you’re interested in, legal matters and industry breaking news. You can set up a watch list of companies. It doesn’t have to be existing clients. It can be prospective clients, or a practice area, or an industry that you’re thinking about making some inroads in. We deliver news and information through Legal Radar very quickly. In fact, speed is a priority for us. That’s why we’re leveraging so much technology on the backend, data processing, and algorithmic journalism to be sure that we’re delivering these morsels of information as quickly as possible. That puts this actionable information in the hands of an attorney quickly in order to take the next step — whether that is picking up the phone and calling a client or a perspective client, or whether it’s passing that information along to a colleague — maybe there’s a little bit more research that would need to be done; or one of the things that we hear really often, especially, in the pandemic is that you need just a little bit of grease on the wheels even to pick up the phone and call a client. With the information that lawyers are accessing on Law.com Radar, it gives you that impetus, a little bit of information to pass along whether you’re emailing or directly calling a client.
There’s one other use case. That first one is around business development — being first to know and act on critical information. Another way that our readers find Radar useful is as a front door to all Law.com and ALM content. If you’re navigating content on Law.com and you’re interested say in intellectual property patent cases, you’re based in Florida, and you’re trying to find this relevant information. Perhaps a lot of websites send email newsletters. One of the ways that users can set up Law.com Radar is to pre-select the topics that they’re interested in and pull all that information, including the coverage from the ALM network into their newsfeed.
Gina: I do know that a lot of people in the legal marketing space do use it as a tool for business development intelligence, competitive intelligence, client intelligence, and prospect intelligence. You’ve hit on all those things, and that’s great to know. It’s also important that attorneys understand how they can use that as you’ve said. I’m going to repeat something. You said they’re the first to know and act on critical information. To “act” is key to success.
Vanessa: When we were developing Law.com Radar we asked lawyers how they typically get this type of information, how they find out when a client has been sued, or when a company, and their target client industry is facing litigation. This will surprise law firm professionals who know that they have this suite of sophisticated tools. We heard so often that law firms set up Google Alerts, or that the individual lawyers would set up Google Alerts with keywords, a client’s name and case, or lawsuit to be alerted to something that had just happened.
The reason that doesn’t work very well is that you’re often bombarded by information. If you use Google Alerts, you know that if there’s a lawsuit against Zoom, for instance, it’s going to spur 18 different articles that then you’re sorting through. How likely are you to get the jurisdiction and case number so you can go and look it up, or even a case caption so that you could begin to investigate it. There’s basically a long journey from being alerted to that information, to being able to act on it. One of the things that we try to do in Law.com Radar is package all that essential information into the very first update you see. You know the case number; you have a direct link to the complaint. Therefore, you can be first to act. We’re positioning the end user to be able to take the next step.
Gina: I used to counsel clients back in the day when Google was relatively new, and Google Alerts were new, that it was malpractice if they didn’t set up Google Alerts to track client mentions. They had this great tool, and at the time it was the only tool, but now there are so many other tools that you don’t have to wait until Google has crawled a website to send it such as Law.com Radar. I would say the same thing about getting the information about your clients, the lawsuits, the industry, and the space, it’s our ethical duty as lawyers to stay on top of these things, and not just leave it to the biz dev and marketing teams. It’s that much more important.
What are some tips you have for the lawyers on how to navigate Law.com Radar, and how to use it to the best of their ability?
Hopefully, folks will find that it’s easy to use since it has that user experience reminiscent of other news apps, sites like even LinkedIn or Twitter, where you’re basically scrolling a feed, and looking out for the information that matters to you. Users should take the time to set up their personalized newsfeed. It doesn’t take very long. Once you’re in your newsfeed, you’re surfacing information related to all the topics that you’ve selected. That might be your client industries, the region where you practice, a competitive set of law firms that you’re following. It’s a little bit like being on Twitter if listeners had that experience where there’s quite a lot of information related to different topics that you might be interested in. The new feature that we have on Law.com Radar is called Focus Filters. That allows users to take their feed, which has pulled in all the topics that they’re interested in, and then narrow down to a more limited view of information. To use that example of an IP lawyer in patent litigation in California, you could use the filter tool to narrow down and look at the latest news and litigation involving just those limited topics that you want to look at in a particular moment.
Gina: That really does go back to why a newsroom has an innovation director because we must continually deliver in a way that the viewer, listener, and reader needs.
Vanessa: That’s true. We think so much in our newsroom about the ways that our audience uses information, and the types of information they need at different points for different uses. Just an example of this would be a major law firm in merger talks. You, or a law firm managing partner would probably want that information immediately even if there wasn’t very much flesh on the bones at that moment, just the news as it was happening, you would want to get that as quickly as possible. Later in the day, you would expect to see a fuller story that shares some of the details, the backstory, the context, and then maybe even two or three days later, you would be reading about the implications of what it means for competitors and getting that full picture of what this industry event means. So, we think of it as an informational spectrum from “this just happened” to “what does it mean,” and “what do I need to do with that information?” Across our newsroom, not just on the innovation desk, we’re trying to deliver the right information at the right time in the right format for the ways that our readers will ultimately want to use that information.
Gina: I love that example that you used with M&A because as a legal public relations and media relations expert, we’re often trying to land that story of, “hey, these two firms merged.” And going through this whole process, and then what does it look like? And why does it matter? So, I love that example because it takes it full circle to what we do as well on behalf of our clients. It’s interesting, and as we know there is certainly a trend in M&A going on in 2020 and 2021, and we all believe it’s going to continue.
What’s on the horizon for ALM?
First, just talking about Law.com Radar, we have an app on the way, which we’re excited about. As I described, Radar was devised to use on the go, to use on your mobile device. It has that scanning experience, but we haven’t previously had an app that you could download in the app store. So, we’re excited to get that out there. We think it’s going to be helpful to lawyers who are already using it.
Gina: I’m happy to test it.
Vanessa: I will pin you down to do that, Gina. We’re also working on, I will say “next phase,” Law.com Radar, which I can’t really talk about only to say that it’s still very tech savvy. We’re working with ALM’s proprietary datasets, and we have some cool things on the way. As for ALM as a whole and my colleagues in the newsroom, there’s so much innovation happening across the newsroom. We were talking about Zack’s Trendspotter column. There’s Law.com Barometer, which is another vehicle for really digging deep on the most critical trends across the legal ecosystem .
We have our Law.com Briefings suite which offers in-depth coverage of narrower topics like law firm innovation, legal education, and white-collar compliance. The message that I would give to listeners is if you think you know ALM, and you know The American Lawyer, and you’ve been reading it for years, take another look. Take some time to get reacquainted with all that we have because there’s so much innovation happening every day in our newsroom. So many new products, experiments, and different ways of conveying news and information with which I think people will be really delighted.
I would also point to Law.com Pro as another offering that listeners should really check out. Law.com Pro combines our newsroom content across the Law.com network with Legal Compass, our data and intelligence. It’s an incredible offering. It combines all what ALM does well. In some ways it also simplifies things because one of the things that we hear back from the market is that as you said, getting a handle on ALM can be a little difficult. We have so many legal publications across the country, across the world now. With Law.com Pro it’s a way of bringing them all together under one umbrella.
Does ALM intelligence feed information into Legal Compass, or are they two different entities?
They’re the same. Legal Compass is the user-facing product. It’s such a great tool for digging in and manipulating the proprietary data that we have at ALM. It’s run and fed by ALM intelligence.
Speaking of things like ALM intelligence, and working with the media, one of the questions, or one of the comments I often get is, “We’re a big advertiser, so why didn’t they cover our news story?” As I understand ALM, there is a wall between the two businesses, advertising and editorial. Is that correct?
I’m so glad that you’re being an ambassador on that point. ALM is a media organization. Our newsroom subscribes to all the ethical rules of any media outlet. I think that’s something lawyers can understand because lawyers themselves work in an environment that has a lot of ethical requirements. As journalists, we hold ourselves to some of those same types of standards. And there really is a divide between the money-making part of the business, the advertising sales part of the business, and the news that we produce in our newsroom, which needs to be totally independent and unbiased. Our readers appreciate that.
Our leadership supports that type of divide because we know that the strength of our content, the quality of our journalism is the foundation of the business. It’s why people come to our events. It’s why people want to advertise in our publications. It also has a lot to do with the quality of journalists that we recruit to work in our newsroom. Reporters who are well-trained, bright and ambitious want to work in a newsroom that adheres to these types of journalistic ethics. We also view it as incredibly important for our pipeline of talent.
Gina: Speaking of which, I’ve been fortunate on this podcast, and I do thank you for joining me. We’re not done yet, but we have interviewed other members of ALM including:
Each brought a different perspective and different information, which is one of the reasons why it’s so important to stay engaged in our podcast, On Record PR, because there are so many different deliverables coming from ALM, and so many ways to engage with it effectively.
I’m going to change the tide a little bit, and ask you if you have any book recommendations whether they’re business, or personal, or just pleasure for our listeners?
I’m a huge audiobook listener. One of the transitions of the pandemic for me is I used to have quite a commute into our office in San Francisco, so it gave me all this time to listen to great material — both audio books and podcasts. Now I fit that in in different ways. I’m reading a novel right now called Interior Chinatown. It’s fascinating. It’s focused on the Asian American male experience. It happens to be written by a high school classmate of mine named Charles Yu. I’m enchanted by it. It uses a very interesting narrative structure. I don’t want to give too much away, but the storytelling is unique. And as a writer, I’m always excited when I see other writers who are telling stories in new and creative ways.
Gina: Given the state of American politics, and the need for more diversity, inclusion, equity, and understanding, I will add it to my list.
The New York Times wrote about Yu’s book in February’s Book Club Pick: A Devastating (and Darkly Hilarious) New Novel From the ‘Westworld’ Writer Charles Yu
NPR interviews Yu in ‘Interior Chinatown’ Puts That Guy In The Background Front And Center
We just have a few minutes left. Do you have any questions for me?
I have a question that I love to ask people. This is taken from the Make Me Smart podcast, I must give credit, but it goes like this
What is something you thought you knew about the legal industry, and later found out you were wrong about?
Gina: Where do I start? Before law school, I thought that people in law focused on one area. I thought you went to law school to learn one area of law and become proficient in that – akin to a doctor. What I learned is that doesn’t happen at all. You are a generalist, and then you practice in an area. And if you’re so lucky to work in certain types of cases over and repeatedly, you become what we in the industry like to call “experienced.” And there are a few certifications, so that’s about the industry.
In media relations, when I was a trial attorney, I thought all my stories and all my cases were important. And while they were important to me and my clients, they weren’t necessarily important to the media. Where that translates is that I’ve really learned that it’s important to understand what the listeners, viewers, and readers need, what they’re consuming, and why it’s important to them; otherwise, it’s not important. All those attorneys who called me over the years, and said, “I should be on Oprah,” put up a big red flag. I’d then think, “Oh, yeah. No, I don’t think so, not the right client for us.” It’s understanding that it’s not about you, me, the former trial attorney, or my client. Public relations and media relations are about relationships, telling stories important to others, and when you’re looking for media attention, or a story to be covered, it’s about why other people care.
Vanessa: That’s so true. I think that’s such a great piece of advice for pitches as well. In the newsroom, we’ll get pitches that are just, “I have this brilliant lawyer who knows everything about ERISA law, write about them,” or we’ll get pitches where it’s really connected to something we’re already paying attention to. We’ve been following an issue. When a media professional can make that connection between whether it’s a case, or a source, and the issues that are really driving our coverage at that time, it makes a huge difference.
Gina: There’s so much to learn about the legal industry. There are so many myths. Lawyers are great people. We all need them. We use them all the time. It’s one of those spaces where we just have so much opportunity to raise the bar, pun intended, in the profession. And that’s one of the things I know that we’re doing by having you as a guest today.