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In the same week that Yale announced an elite new journalism program funded by Court TV creator and all-around journalism grandmaster Steven Brill '72, '75JD (see Light & Verity), another journalistic venture on campus foundered and sank. After a run of almost four years, Legal Affairs ran out of money.
In a celebrity-struck, Brad-and-Angelinafied media culture, a magazine for non-lawyers about the law—especially a magazine that proudly calls itself “literate and probing”—is likely to have financial trouble. Even magazines like George and Talk went under—and those were the ones with bona fide money-making potential. DoubleTake, Book, The Sciences, Civilization—the field of literate and probing general-interest magazines is littered with the pages of the fallen.
Under editor Lincoln Caplan, Legal Affairs brought elegant analytical precision to critical issues of the day, from hedge fund regulation to the future of the Supreme Court. It also covered a host of utterly unexpected and fascinating topics. (When Huck Finn failed to report finding a dead man by the Mississippi, was it a felony? Amish mores dictate forgiveness and community absolution, so how do the Amish handle serious repeat criminals such as sexual abusers?) Other publications recognized Legal Affairs as something exceptional. The list of kudos on its still-operative website is long, and its dynamic young staff, which included many Yale alumni, was constantly being raided by the likes of Slate, Wired, and the New York Times. “We’re their alumni association,” says Jacob Weisberg '86, Slate’s editor. (Legal Affairs staff who have written for the Yale Alumni Magazine include Emily Bazelon ’93, ’00JD, and Nadya Labi ’02MSL, author of this issue’s cover story.)
Legal Affairs is also a particular loss to Yale. It was midwifed by two Yale law greats: Boris Bittker '41LLB, made the original proposal for a magazine that wouldn’t be just another law journal but would publish articles about “law and actual life"; Anthony Kronman '72PhD, '75JD, secured start-up funding when he was dean of the Law School. Caplan himself, a former staff writer at the New Yorker, is a Knight Senior Journalist at the school.
In 2005 the magazine, which had always been editorially independent of the Law School, became financially independent as well. Both parties say it was an amicable separation; Caplan had always intended to take the magazine out on its own. He hoped to reach 37,000 readers in all media. Instead, by the time it closed, Legal Affairs had 25,000 print readers and 100,000 to 125,000 online readers.
It wasn’t enough. Start-ups take time to become profitable. Brill himself, one of the very few people who know how to make a serious fortune as a serious journalist, also once launched a literate, probing magazine for laypeople about a single profession—journalism, in his case. But Brill’s Content closed, and so did Legal Affairs.
Still, Caplan would rather celebrate than grieve: “If you’re looking for lessons about this kind of venture, the positive lessons are the most important.” As an intellectual enterprise, as a talent farm for up-and-coming Yale alumni in journalism, and as a public service of the Law School, Legal Affairs was a roaring success. Its back issues and its blog, the “Debate Club,” are alive on its website “for the foreseeable future,” Caplan says. Be sure to visit.
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