"I thought I’d be a journalist," says Barbara Wall, Associate General Counsel and VP at Gannett, explaining how she started her career. "I feel I have the best of both worlds now." Over lunch in Gannett’s corporate cafeteria, Breaking News Cafe, where there are probably more journalists per square inch than anywhere else in Northern Virginia, the petite blonde with a bright smile and slight trace of a native "N'Ahwlins" drawl, admits that the path to her present position had few twists and no turns.
In fact, it was a fairly direct route from Projects Editor of the University of Virginia’s Cavalier Daily to the media giant headquartered in McLean. "My first experience with libel law was at UVa’s newspaper, when a photograph of a couple holding hands on the Lawn was used to illustrate a story I’d written about co-habitation," Wall explains it was the late 70’s, but Charlottesville was still the south, and the couple was outraged at the implication that they were co-habiting. "They threatened to sue the University."
Busy Weekends, Frantic Weekdays
That experience led to enrolling in UVA’s School of Law immediately after graduation. And when it came time to practice, her love of journalism and her undergraduate degree in English drew her to Satterlee & Stephens, a New York firm that represented CBS and several publishers, including Doubleday and Random House.
"I remember being thrilled when I entered my office the first day and saw a stack of manuscripts on my desk. I thought ‘Wow, I’m going to be paid to read books!’" And she did, indeed, read books to flag potential legal problems for publication—on weekends. Weekdays were frantic with research, drafting briefs, and court appearances..
Six years later, Wall joined Gannett, where she now works under General Counsel Kurt Wimmer, helping to manage a legal department of 20, including seven full time and two consulting lawyers. Her practice includes pre-publication review, litigation, and antitrust.
A Daily Fire Hose of Issues
Since much of her legal work is in editorial, she is increasingly involved with online issues and intellectual property. The U.S.’s largest newspaper group in terms of circulation, Gannett owns about 1,000 publications as well as 90 daily newspapers, including USA TODAY. In addition, it has 23 TV stations and 130 web sites in the US, plus more than 80 sites in the UK.
"It’s a daily fire hose of issues with our online sites," she says. "And since it’s an emerging area of the law, there’s not much precedent: "Intellectual property on the Internet is a field we’re creating as we go," she says. To cover so much territory, Gannett works with Nixon Peabody and Dow Lohnes, as well as dozens of firms in other locations where Gannett has presence.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of Wall’s job is working with journalists, whom she describes as smart and driven to get their stories, even when that invites problems. "I never say ‘Don’t publish this’ but rather: ‘Let’s find a way to get this in print that won’t draw litigation.’ I get calls in the middle of the night, asking if I can review something, but I don’t mind. That’s the fun part of my job."
Sued by the Princess of Pilau
The plaintiffs in some of her cases have been particularly unusual, such as a member of the royal family in Palau. "The tribal princess of this tiny island in the South Pacific felt that Gannett’s newspaper in Guam had defamed her by accurately reporting that she had led a group of women to file a petition that criticized her brother, the island’s president," she says. "But at that point Palau had only recently become an independent state, and it was unclear whether truth would be seen as a defense to a libel claim." The court considering the case ruled in the newspaper’s favor, issuing a far reaching decision that roundly endorsed the importance of press freedom.
How does Barbara’s work affect her life? She reads newspapers and watches broadcasts differently than most of us do. "I know those who do my job at The Washington Post, The New York Times and at the networks, and I sometimes think about how a story was 'lawyered' when I see it." But she enjoys reading anyway.
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