With 109 media outlets in the U.S., and outside counsel at the ready at each, Gannett Co, Inc. and its chief legal officer Barbara Wall have plenty of experience working with local law firms.
“We can’t be flying around the country all the time,” says Wall, who has been with Gannett since 1985. “So we work very closely with local lawyers — and not just media firms.”
Wall, who has held her current role since 2015, takes pride in not just calling on renowned outside media lawyers or large local firms when one of Gannett’s publications has an access or subpoena problem, or a libel suit looming.
“Some of the small firms we hire have never handled a libel case,” Wall says. “But they are familiar with the local courts.”
Some large firms, she added, “don’t want to go against the powers that be,” so are reluctant to represent a reporter who is getting under the skin of powerful politicians or business leaders.
“We often look for a former prosecutor who has been to court a lot and has an aggressive streak,” Wall says. “And we only work with firms that give us a significant discount.”
Once the firms are on board, Wall and her legal team based near Tysons Corner, Virginia, offer help to outside counsel with various experience levels. “We have reams and reams of model pleadings that we send out,” she says.
Gannett’s outside counsel appreciate the help but also are glad they are not on a tight leash. “Barbara is very supportive, but I would never use the word ‘micromanager’” to describe her, says Michael Glazer, a shareholder at Ausley McMullen in Tallahassee.
“They depend on us to know the local courts,” but help when needed, says Robb Harvey, a partner at Waller Lansden Dortch & Davis in Nashville, local counsel for Gannett in Tennessee.
In 2015, Harvey recalled, Wall arranged for a moot court by Skype to help him to prep for a Tennessee Supreme Court argument.
“We try to build a sense of community,” Wall says.
Gannett has more than 35 active First Amendment cases. Its St. Cloud, Minnesota, paper won a hard-fought libel suit last year in Larson v. Gannett. Jurors declined to award damages to Ryan Larson, who had sued company-owned media outlets for reporting police statements linking him to a police shooting. Larson was later cleared of involvement in the crime.
Wall says that the Trump administration is “keeping our legal department quite busy” by provoking requests for documents. Trump’s vocal antagonism toward the press has not yet turned into litigation, but there has been a “positive side,” according to Wall. “Lawyers and law firms are coming out of the woodwork to get involved.“
Name of company: Gannett Co. Inc.
Headquarters: McLean, Virginia
Industry: News and information
No. of lawyers in the D.C. area: 10
No. of lawyers in the U.S.: 12
No. of lawyers worldwide: 14
General counsel: Barbara Wall
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Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly stated that Gannett Co. Inc. has not faced much First Amendment litigation lately. In fact, the company has more than 35 active First Amendment cases. The story also incorrectly stated that many lawyers are volunteering to help defend the company on a pro bono basis. While many lawyers have volunteered, only one has volunteered to work pro bono. The story has been updated to reflect this information.