By: Garry Boulard
Their highly trained legal readers want more than just coverage
of the courtroom proceedings and lawyers’ press conferences sp.
FOR THE HUNDREDS of print and broadcast journalists covering the preliminary hearings to determine whether or not O.J. Simpson should be tried for murder, the courtroom proceedings have proven to be an endless source of unexpected drama and news.
But for the far fewer newspapers and reporters that exclusively cover the criminal justice industry, the O.J. Simpson hearings are a challenge requiring them to present the story in a manner that is relevant to their highly trained and knowledgeable readership.
“For the kind of paper we are, we have to put an emphasis on the legal aspects of all this,” said T. Sumner Robinson, editor in chief of the Los Angeles Daily Journal, a 25,000-circulation daily that covers the local law scene. “We’re interested in the decisions being made by prosecutors, the strategy being employed by defense lawyers. We’re not interested in the blood and guts aspect of it, as much as we are the legal ramifications.”
Even within those parameters, the Journal has managed to run at least two to three major stories a week covering such matters as the suppression hearing, rulings on what evidence is admissible, and whether or not this particular preliminary hearing is being conducted differently than other, less sensational preliminary hearings in Los Angeles County.
In its quest to cover the Simpson hearings from an angle different than the mainline press, the Journal has also broke new ground.
“We did one story talking about how spousal abuse cases are normally handled by the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office,” said Robinson, “asking if the death penalty is sought in routine spousal abuse cases. And frankly, no one else has focused on that angle.”
The quest for a different angle is also what drives the Los Angeles-based Metropolitan News-Enterprise. With a daily circulation of 2,500 and a readership almost entirely composed of law professionals, the paper is less interested in “gavel to gavel coverage the way the Los Angeles Times might be than we are in the developments coming out of the case that might be newsworthy to the legal community,” said Roger Crass, the paper’s editor and publisher.
Already the paper has published a story on the high-powered attorneys F. Lee Bailey and Alan Dershowitz, who were brought in as part of Simpson’s defense team, and it ran the transcript of Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Kathleen Kennedy-Powell’s decision to admit evidence seized by the police at the Simpson estate.
“That is the kind of thing you’d normally see in our paper anyway,” said Grace. “We cover pronouncements, rulings and opinions with an emphasis on the California Supreme Court and the appellate courts. So any opinion or writ coming out of this case will get a lot of attention from us. What we care much less about is all of the celebrity attached to the case.”
Nationally there are more than 200 publications ? newspapers and magazines ? whose principal coverage is the law. Many simply run listings of recent court decisions or citations providing a reference service to law professors and attorneys. Other larger papers, primarily based in bigger cities, also regularly publish scholarly thought pieces on recent court rulings, feature stories and interviews.
But because of lengthy lead times and small writing staffs, most of the legal press will leave the day-to-day aspects of the Simpson story to the mainline press, said Sam Lipsman, managing editor of the Los Angeles Lawyer, a monthly with a circulation of about 21,000. “But even so, the O.J. Simpson story may just be too big for us to ignore entirely.”
One method of filling the gap between the daily Simpson news beat and the more distant mission of many of the law publications could come in focusing on controversial aspects of the case that won’t be settled any time soon, Lipsman said. And no better example of that can be found than with the issue of DNA testing, a topic that polarizes legal scholars and practitioners against each other.
“What happens with DNA evidence in this case could be very important,” said Lipsman, “which is one of the reasons why we’ve decided to do a major peace on whether DNA evidence should be allowed in a California court. Even if the Simpson case is decided tomorrow, this is an issue that is going to be debated far into the future.”
Other legal publications, such as the New York Law Journal, a daily with a circulation of about 15,000, and the Legal Times, a Washington weekly with a circulation of more than 50,000, see problems in covering the Simpson case because they are on one coast and it is on another. But even against such obstacles, both publications have written on the legal ramifications surrounding a possible Simpson trial.
“You can’t ignore a story like this,” said Tom Watson, managing editor of the Legal Times. “If we find an opening, we’ll certainly not hesitate to jump in with a story of our own.”
Already the Legal Times has run a conversation with a group of law professors and prominent attorneys discussing search and seizure powers and the exclusionary rule ? both matters of crucial importance in the Simpson affair.
The New York Law Journal, meanwhile, has highlighted local attorneys who have recently seen on national television discussing the Simpson case.
“We haven’t done anything yet directly on the Simpson hearing or the case itself,” said Chris Fisher, managing editor of the Journal. “But we’re tossing around story ideas. There are obviously many angles when you have a case that is as prominent as this one, and we’re just thinking right how about which angles we might take.”
That the Simpson story matters in the sometimes arcane world of law can be seen by the most recent category offered to lawyers and legal publications through the Lexus/Nexus computer data base system. Under the heading of “Simpson, O.J.” are filed all of the testimony to date from the Los Angeles County Superior Court.
“The information on this case and about this case is just going to get bigger and bigger,” said Robinson of the Daily Journal, where two reporters are dividing up the Simpson court duties.
“If you’re a paper whose primary focus is the law, this is a natural, major story.”