Bertoni: My great in-house job at The New Yorker

Fabio Bertoni has one of the best in-house legal jobs in New York City. He is the general counsel of The New Yorker, a prestigious magazine (and now website, too) that most educated, sophisticated New Yorkers read religiously every week. The magazine has a long history of publishing the most important writers, not only in the United States, but worldwide. It has ties to Italy, too—the magazine’s long time copy editor, Ann Goldstein, recently retired. She translated the four Neapolitan novels of Elena Ferrante for the English-speaking audience. As general counsel, Bertoni, born in New York and, it’s obvious from his name, an Italian-American, reads every single word that goes into the magazine and website. And he deals with the usual issues of modern media: protecting intellectual property, defending libel lawsuits, and writing contracts in an ever-changing media environment. Most recently, Bertoni participated as a speaker at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia, where he spoke about privacy rights and how they affect today’s journalists.

Are you the only lawyer on staff?
Yes, I’m a legal department of one.

What was your career path? What led you to The New Yorker?
I was a journalist before going to law school, and after graduating from Columbia Law School in New York, I knew that I wanted to practice in the media law and First Amendment [editor’s note: American constitutional guarantee of free speech] areas. I worked at two different New York City law firms, Hughes Hubbard & Reed, and a firm that no longer exists, Squadron, Ellenoff, Plesent & Sheinfeld. From Hughes Hubbard, I went to ALM Media, (publisher of American Lawyer Magazine, Corporate Counsel and others), and was there for six years, becoming Vice President, Deputy General Counsel. After that, I went to HarperCollins Publishers, where I did pre-publication review of non-fiction books, as well as handling legal affairs for the children’s division. While I loved the book publishing business, when the job at The New Yorker became available, I was very excited at the opportunity to work with such an outstanding group of writers, editors and artists.

You have a degree from Columbia’s School of Journalism. Was that first, and if so, why did you go to law school?
I was working as a freelance journalist in New York, and decided to apply to the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University. I saw that there was a dual-degree program with the Journalism School and the Law School, and I thought that would be interesting. To my surprise, I was accepted to both schools, and while at law school, realized how much I liked it and how well it suited my interests. It seemed to me to be very practical and results-focused.

You started your legal career at a large New York-based law firm. What led you in-house?
A couple of things: I knew I that wanted to focus exclusively on media law, and at a large firm, you often have to work on whichever projects come along. While I certainly learned a lot practicing in other areas of the law, at a certain point, I wanted to practice in media law full-time. Second, I find it tremendously rewarding not only to respond to legal issues that come up, but to help a client think about and avoid legal issues before they become problems.

The New Yorker is just one of many titles at Condé Nast. What is your relationship to the others? Do you report to a central legal department, or to the editor in chief of the magazine? If necessary, can you call on the resources of a larger legal department?
Yes, Condé Nast has a great in-house firm, Sabin Bermant & Gould, that is here in the same 1 World Trade Center building. They’re a terrific resource for many issues, and have a great knowledge of how other magazines have handled issues in the past.

What does your everyday work consist of?
I do a lot of reading. I read the print magazine before it’s finalized as well the website articles every day. We also have a weekly radio show/podcast that I listen to, and videos that we post on our website that I review. I follow up with fact-checkers, reporters and editors with any questions I have on pieces, and likewise, they come to me with questions as they go through the process of reporting and editing them. I also support our advertising department with drafting agreements for ad sales and other kinds of sponsorships. Finally, we have a fantastic four-day festival at multiple venues in New York every year in September, with interviews with artists, writers and newsmakers and other events, so there is always a fair amount of legal work around that. As you can imagine, there’s not a lot of down-time.

Do you ever use outside counsel? Are you empowered to hire outside counsel if needed?
If we have to go to court for anything other than very discrete matters or if matters arise outside of New York, I would hire outside counsel. I simply don’t have the time or resources to handle a full litigation in-house. Fortunately, I know many great lawyers at various firms whom I can turn to if necessary.

The New Yorker has greatly expanded its digital presence in the last couple of years. Has that led to any legal challenges that you’ve had to deal with?
It’s mostly an issue of quantity and speed. As you said, we’ve made a real effort to expand and deepen our coverage on the website with very high quality reporting, criticism, and commentary. We’re very proud of it, but it’s certainly an increase in volume. Likewise, we’re producing more and more video content, which has unique legal issues.

Looking ahead, is The New Yorker going to start using such fashionable tech as AI?
I don’t currently see a role for AI at The New Yorker. While there are apparently programs that can take data and scores from a given sporting event and produce a sports story without human involvement, those are simply not the kind of stories that we produce. We value careful thought, nuance and analysis, which (for now, at least) seems beyond the abilities of AI. Similarly, there’s been discussion of the use of AI in the legal profession, to review large quantities of data and documents in litigation or due diligence, that’s not the kind of work that I do on a regular basis. So while I’m sure AI will someday replace all of us, it seems a long way off at this point.

What keeps you up at night in this period of instability and change in the media business?
We are very lucky to have a readership that values what we do, and encourages us to keep doing it, so we do not have some of the financial pressures that other publications have had. Secondly, thanks to our editorial leadership, we’ve been able to carefully balance our tremendous legacy on the one hand, with innovation on the other. So while we’re always seeking to reach readers and audiences in new ways, we’ve never lost sight of what it is that we do and why we do it. That said, it certainly requires a lot of focus to stay on top of both events in the world and technological changes that are relevant to our business. I try not to lose sleep, though, because I need to be awake and alert every day.

You recently spoke on a panel at the International Journalism festival in Perugia, Italy. What did you think of the experience, not only of your session, but of the festival and how it addressed today’s media environment?
It was a really terrific experience. Incredibly well-organized, with very interesting panels and speakers. It’s great to see an international community of dedicated journalists all thinking about and confronting similar issues around the world, and hearing from real experts.

Leave a Reply