New Era, New News

Just as the digital age has made news more widely available, it has also presented challenges to journalistic norms. Elizabeth Allen and Gannett Company’s legal team work to make sure that everyone’s playing fair.

It’s no secret that the information age has created upheaval in the news media industry, from its impact on the news cycle to its proliferation of content. And as more readers find news through various online distribution channels, and as distribution channels create algorithms that determine the type of news different users see, the lines between news organizations and the conduits that provide news to the public are becoming increasingly blurry.

This trend raises questions that impact not only the news business, but also society itself. “We are responsible for the content we post to our websites and face legal consequences for that content,” says Elizabeth Allen, vice president, associate general counsel, and secretary at Gannett Company. “Non-news distribution channels don’t bear that responsibility now.”

For example, during the 2016 presidential election season, there was criticism of the distribution of false narratives by non-news organizations. “To the extent any of these organizations reevaluate what to distribute or not, they are doing so without being bound by the traditions and laws guiding the news media,” Allen says. The industry is still grappling with these issues, and Allen and the Gannett Company are immersed in them on a daily basis.

Allen worked on the team of lawyers needed to consummate a spin-off transaction in 2015 that separated the more than one-hundred-year-old company’s newspaper business from broadcast holdings and certain digital businesses. Recently, she has participated in a news media trade group’s effort to wrestle with the new digital era’s impact on the news industry.

It’s a big-picture conversation that’s ongoing—and probably will be for quite some time. But the News Media Alliance (NMA), a trade group in which Gannett executives and Allen participate in, has begun to form a position. In a recent statement, the alliance commented: “We recommend that content from premium publishers should be uplifted in news content feeds of distribution platforms, whether in search or social networks, so that consumers receive information from publishers whose reporting demonstrates the principles of verification, accuracy, and fidelity to facts. We are predominantly concerned with the impact this phenomenon will have on consumers’ ability to receive unfettered content necessary for a healthy democracy.”

Allen agrees that the wide distribution of quality news reporting is a vital service to our communities and democracy. She also notes another way in which news organizations such as local publishers provide content necessary for a healthy democracy: the regular publication of public notices.

She is also involved with an internal Gannett effort to improve how the company’s 109 local media organizations in thirty-four states and Guam present public notices and legal ads. Historically, print publications have been the primary vehicles for these notices that informed people of public works projects, environmental compliance, openings in city government boards, and numerous other issues involving local and state government.

These notices may be less than appreciated by the public now, but they can be of vital community interest. One instance occurred last year. It involved the director of the Michigan environmental agency, who was under scrutiny for mishandling the Flint water supply contamination situation. After a report surfaced from a local media organization, the director admitted that her department failed to provide sufficient notice of another recent water proposal because it only provided notice for forty-two days on its own website. On the flip side of the coin, one local government acknowledged the value of public notices by publishing the names of delinquent taxpayers in the local newspaper and collecting 60 percent of the $1.37 million the jurisdiction was owed as a result.

“We are responsible for the content we post to our websites and face legal consequences for that content. Non-news distribution channels don’t bear that responsibility now.”

Gannett’s initiative is examining how the company could make these notices easier for the public to access and use. Ideas include making them more apparent on its local publication’s website through a single button, plus adding enhancements around the notices. For example, maps could be provided to accompany a notice for a public works project. Allen noted that initiatives such as these are squarely within Gannett’s purpose, which is to empower communities to connect, act, and thrive.

Allen’s work, of course, also includes the more traditional functions of a lawyer. She was intimately involved with the 2015 spin-off that separated old Gannett’s publishing and broadcast units. One of the drivers for the transaction was a legal one: the Federal Communications Commission’s cross ownership rules that generally prevent a single owner from owning both a newspaper and a TV station in the same geographic market.

The spin-off meant that “the new Gannett,” the publishing arm of the original organization, had an opportunity to reexamine longstanding policies it inherited on internal matters such as corporate governance and employee practices and policies. While there were no radical changes, the company did revamp its governance charters to incorporate best practices and make it easier for investors to use. It also updated some employee practices and policies, including expanding employee recognition programs, introducing a parental leave program, and providing some additional vacation time.

“One of the biggest challenges, though, was assembling a new network of legal support,” Allen says. “At the time of spin-off, we started with a dramatically smaller legal staff as well as a new set of strategic goals.”

The company needed to hire some additional lawyers, form some new outside counsel relationships, and wanted all of its outside counsel relationships to be tailored to its new strategic direction. “We took advantage of the opportunity that the spin offered us,” she says.

It was fitting that the changing media landscape contributed to a revamping of such a venerable media company as Gannett. Every industry faces sweeping challenges sooner or later, after all. Allen is one of a relatively small pool of lawyers who will have a hand in determining how media companies respond to the challenges of the new era.

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Nixon Peabody LLP:

“Liz Allen is a superb lawyer and creative thinker. Regardless of how large or complex the matter, she skillfully organizes and manages all moving parts and is always several steps ahead.”

—Gordon Lang, Partner