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May 30, 2008 12:14 PM

Slate Publisher Taking His Media Savvy to Skadden

Posted by Francesca Heintz

Cliff_sloan_3 After eight years as general counsel of Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive (WPNI), Cliff Sloan is on his way back to private practice. Next week, Sloan--a Harvard Law grad and classmate of former New York governor Eliot Spitzer--joins the Washington, D.C., office of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom as a partner in the intellectual property group. Sloan also served as vice president for business affairs at WPNI and, for the past three years, publisher of the online magazine Slate.

We talked to Sloan about the upcoming move, trends in new media, and the future of journalism.

Given the rapid advancement of technology--and the push at WPNI on tech projects--how has your work in recent years differed from when you first started practicing IP law?

One of the big developments is that online advertising has matured into a booming and growing business. Complex legal issues have come up alongside online advertising and there is an overlap...that is very important because online advertising is the lifeblood of online media. [One example of this] is the litigation I was involved in with other media companies against Gator. The company was putting ads on mainstream media sites like WashingtonPost.com and the New York Times site, selling the ads without permission from those sites....A coalition of six media companies filed suit and we succeeded in gaining a preliminary injunction against Gator.

How involved were you in launching WPNI’s new Web sites?

I spearheaded the redesign of the Slate site in 2006, which coincided with the tenth anniversary of Slate's launch; it was the biggest change in the history of the publication. And I was very active in the changes both on the business side and the content side. In 2007 we launched an online video magazine site, Slate V, another big undertaking. I also was responsible on the business side for the launch of The Root, a site geared toward African Americans. We launched it earlier this year.

With all that excitement, why move back to private practice?

For two reasons. In terms of why I left, I felt I had accomplished what I had wanted to accomplish at WPNI, and in particular at Slate. In the three years that I was publisher we put Slate on a very strong financial foundation. I had been involved in the acquisition of Slate when Washington Post Company acquired it from Microsoft and felt strongly about bringing it to a strong financial and business position so it could continue to expand, grow, and flourish.

And then this fantastic opportunity came up with Skadden. It has a terrific client base. The lawyers are outstanding--they're creative, they're fun. There was a sense that Skadden had, and that I had, that this would be a really great fit in terms of my IP and new media experience. There was a mutual excitement and it clicked right away.

So your practice will focus mainly on new media issues?

I think it will focus on new media issues and IP issues, since it's an area I know very well both from the legal perspective and from the business perspective. And over the next few years, important questions about the future of new media are going to be teed up and resolved. I have a very wide-ranging IP background and a pretty wide-ranging litigation and appellate background; I've argued five Supreme Court cases.

What kinds of questions?

There are important copyright and trademark issues in new media that are going to be resolved and will have tremendous consequences. My experience in the last eight years is that it’s very hazardous to predict what's coming down the pike.

You've worked in government, in-house, and in private practice. How do the skill sets differ?

It's interesting to compare the different contexts. One of the things about in-house that is interesting and in some ways has some similarities to the government is that you are working for an organization and you feel very tied to the broad mission of the organization and helping to achieve it, whether that organization is the federal government or whether it's the company you're trying to move forward. At the same time there are some similarities between an in-house role and a law firm role, in terms of the importance of the relationship with clients and with customers.

Does private practice afford you certain things that working in-house doesn't?

The range of clients provides a broad perspective. Within a particular company you see a range of issues, but in private practice you see tremendous diversity of issues and how they play out in different contexts for different clients. I think there is more of a broad gage perspective in private practice. I also think its going to be enormously helpful in private practice to have the perspective of an in-house lawyer. There really is nothing like being in the trenches as an in-house lawyer and understanding the demands and the rewards of the job.

After eight years at WPNI--through lots of changes, but still with a strong base in news and editorial--do you have any thoughts on where the practice of journalism is headed?

I'm much more optimistic about the future of quality media than many people because I think there's a fundamental fact that tends to get overlooked in the discussion of the future of media. Which is that people are flocking to quality sites online, far more people are reading Washington Post journalism than ever before in history, far more people are reading New York Times journalism than anytime in history, and that's a very important empirical fact to build on.

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