California Bar Journal
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CBJ: 5 years old and going strong
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by Peter Kaye
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Months before it was born, the California Bar Journal got its obituary notices. "It'll never last . . . just a house organ . . . non-professional . . . a financial drain on the bar . . . who'll read it?" said the naysayers.

Five years later, the State Bar of California teeters on the brink of bankruptcy. And the California Bar Journal has never been healthier.

Every month, the journal is mailed to 169,000 active and inactive state bar members, as well as paid subscribers, around the world. Offering a feisty mix of news, opinion and advertising at no cost to the reader or the bar. This year, the infant newspaper will feed its starving parent a tidy profit of more than $100,000.

What happened? How could so many people be so wrong?

First, consider the sources. One was California Lawyer, the magazine that took over the bar's former publication and relegated bar news to its back pages.

The bar staff, they said, was non-professional, incompetent and incapable of publishing a newspaper. In reality, they feared competition, and rightly so. With the debut of the journal, the bar ended its $144,000 yearly subsidy to California Lawyer. As the newspaper prospered, it took advertising revenues away from the magazine.

There were concerns by the board of governors. Some feared the new publication, like its predecessors, would lose money. Others believed the paper would be a cheerleader for the bar bureaucracy.

Peter KayePublication was authorized by the board in April 1993 by a surprisingly one-sided vote. There were only four dissenters.

The board's confidence was repaid financially and journalistically. The original goal called for $300,000 yearly subsidies until the fourth or fifth year and a modest profit by the sixth.

After a $140,000 subsidy the first year, the paper broke even and then showed a modest profit. This year revenues and profits are way up.

A variety of fortuitous circumstances keeps costs down. Dean Kinley, who already was on the bar staff, was the ideal editor. Before moving to San Francisco, he had managed a small newspaper in Virginia. Kinley combines journalistic integrity and business acumen.

No empire builder, he now operates with a staff of two - a talented, part-time reporter, Nancy McCarthy, and a jack-of-all-trades assistant, David Cunningham.

Despite its financial success, the Bar Journal shared in the barwide layoffs earlier this year, losing another part-time writer and a production assistant.

New technology - computers and software - enable the paper to be produced inexpensively. Some key functions are farmed out, all paid for by newspaper revenues. Advertising is in the hands of Richard Walker, whose Santa Monica firm is responsible for the enormous increase in revenues.

Financial success is matched by journalistic accomplishments. The paper has won eight awards for excellence in writing, content and design.

More importantly, it has survived five dramatic years of discord. Two years ago, it calmly covered a plebiscite on the bar's future. In the same even-handed manner, it reported in this past year how bar funding was cut dramatically by the governor and the legislature.

Without fear or favor, it has printed exclusive interviews with Gov. Pete Wilson, leaders of the legislature and Chief Justice Ronald George.

Polls have been conducted and published on subjects ranging from the O.J. Simpson trial to the mandatory bar. Critical letters are printed, often to the dismay of bar leaders.

California Bar Journal is an anomaly. A profit center afloat in a sea of debt. Journalists adrift among thousands of lawyers. Its past is stormy and its future is uncertain. But it's shown a remarkable talent for survival.

Peter Kaye is a San Diego journalist and a former public member, appointed by Gov.