(Photo: Ted Eytan, via Wikimedia Commons)
If life had gone a little differently for newly minted NPR general counsel Jonathan Hart, he might have ended up as a reporter with a legally focused publication like Corporate Counsel. He went to law school at Stanford expecting to become a legal journalist after graduation, but a class he took in media law moved him in another direction.
“That course changed my view of what I was going to do when I got out of law school, and I set my sights on being a lawyer who represented journalists,” he told CorpCounsel.com.
And that’s exactly what Hart did. The new GC, who starts his job as the top lawyer at one of the nation’s most famous news organizations on July 1, has made a career of representing journalists and the media; first at law firm Dow Lohnes and then at Cooley after the two merged. Hart’s time practicing media law has spanned a period of dramatic change in the way media is created and consumed, which has allowed him to tackle a range of challenges, from more traditional media legal issues such as libel and Freedom of Information Act requests, to issues of digital privacy, data collection and social media that dominate the conversation today.
“I’ve spent much of my career helping media companies try to adapt to the changing media landscape,” he said. “In some sense my whole career has really been leading up to this job.”
According to Hart, very few jobs would have drawn him away from Cooley—but working for “one of the world’s great news organizations” was an opportunity he simply couldn’t turn down. In a time when many media organizations are still struggling to adapt to a digital business model, he said NPR has what it takes to succeed.
“NPR is, in my view, extraordinarily well positioned for the future,” he said. “It’s got a terrific news product, it’s got a relationship with its audience that is really the envy of everyone in the media business.” It helps, he added, that NPR doesn’t have to deal with one of the main challenges facing most news organizations: the separation of content from ads and the revenue they generate.
Hart is also excited to join NPR because he is a fan of its content—he tunes in regularly to the public radio network’s Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and likes to listen to podcasts of Radiolab and All Songs Considered (one of his two undergraduate majors at Middlebury College was music) while he goes running.
The incoming NPR GC started his career clocking most of his hours in a newsroom. At Dow Lohnes he worked on prepublication review of stories, and defended privacy and libel suits all over the U.S. When the news began migrating toward digital in the early ’90s, Hart explained that by chance—thanks to a summer job in college where he learned some programming—he had a facility with technology to tackle emerging legal issues in the digital space.
His expertise in both tech and media have served him in representing media clients as both a regular outside counsel and as an outside general counsel. Hart has been outside GC to commercial ventures such as New Century Network, Cox Interactive Media, Worth magazine and AutoTrader.com, as well as to media-related nonprofits such as the Center for Public Integrity, the Online News Association, Public Media Platform Inc. and the Online Publishers Association.
Hart said he looks forward to the new kind of general counsel role he’ll be starting—and is glad he has a talented staff of around 15 attorneys working with him at NPR’s Washington, D.C., headquarters to help him get up to speed.
“In order to represent a client well, you really have to understand the business that the client is in,” he said, “and I’m going to spend the first few months taking a deep dive.”
In addition to representing clients, Hart has put his legal skills to use over the years as a teacher and author. He directs the Online News Association’s Law School for Digital Journalists program, has served on the faculty of Stanford Publishing Courses and started teaching in the Yale Publishing Course in 2010. It was during his time teaching in the Stanford program that Hart created a 12-page handout on Internet law to help students grasp the emerging concepts. He said he began adding onto the handout until a student suggested he turn it into a full book, which he did. That book, “Internet Law: A Field Guide,” is in its sixth edition and now comes in at around 900 pages.
Although sitting in for Ira Glass or Terry Gross might not be part of Hart’s job description at NPR, he confessed that he has spent time behind the mic before. Back when he was an undergraduate at Middlebury College in Vermont, Hart had a jazz show on the college’s radio station, WRMC 91.7 FM, and served as both general manager and programming manager of the station. In his own small way, he said, he’s not just going in-house, he’s “going back to radio.”