After three years as editor and publisher of the ABA Journal and 18 years as a member of the editorial staff, Molly McDonough is leaving the magazine after the next issue is put to bed on Oct. 4.

Her decision to leave comes after several years of ABA-imposed budget cuts at the magazine and ahead of the magazine’s forced move to a new .org website platform that does not support all of the editorial and advertising features now available on ABAJournal.com.

The move also follows the ABA’s approval of a resolution at its annual meeting last month that took financial control of the Journal away from its board of editors — an oversight board of nine elected ABA members as well as the ABA president, president-elect, House of Delegates chair, and treasurer.

“The toughest part of leaving is leaving a professional staff of consummately talented people who are mission driven and who care about fairness, justice and being a voice for the underrepresented,” McDonough said. “But I can’t stomach what is on the horizon for ABAJournal.com. The new site is flawed and not built for editorial publishing.”

[Disclosure: From 1999 to 2001, McDonough was an editor at American Lawyer Media, reporting to me as editor-in-chief.]

Over the last three years, the ABA has cut the Journal’s budget from $7 million to $4 million. The Journal has reduced its frequency from 12 to six issues a year, reduced its page count, and laid off staff.

On top of that, the resolution last month changing the ABA bylaws was seen by some ABA insiders as a power grab to take away the magazine’s journalistic independence.

But McDonough said it was neither the budget cuts nor the resolution that pushed her to resign.

“When I took this job there years ago, I knew almost immediately that there were huge budget cuts coming,” she said. “At that time, I let people know that I’d stay through that transition, but I never said I’d stay after that. My goal was to create a publication that the ABA could afford and that was high quality. We’ve done that.”

In fact, the current issue of the magazine reflects a major, cover-to-cover redesign, including higher-quality paper, a new size, new typography and new departments.

“Our goal was to improve the quality of the ABA’s flagship magazine and the experience for its readers,” McDonough wrote in a note introducing the changes. “We determined that in its look, feel, and importantly, its journalism, the Journal should continue to be: high-quality, relevant, informative, inspirational, entertaining and designed to help build even stronger connections between readers and the ABA.”

With regard to the resolution, she does not see it as a power grab, she said, noting that it applies only to financial matters and preserves the independence of the board of editors and editor-in-chief/publisher with regard to editorial content and editorial integrity.

She pointed out that the revised bylaw now specifically states, “The Editor-in-Chief/Publisher shall be responsible for managing the operation, editorial content and editorial integrity of the Journal,” and also that the board of editors is “responsible for non-financial operations and the editorial integrity of the Journal.”

Rather, she said, the impetus for her leaving is the prospect of having to move to the new web platform. The ABA launched the new website last year, but it has been plagued by performance and technical problems.

For McDonough, the prospect of dismantling the current ABAJournal.com is particularly disheartening. As assistant managing editor/online from 2007 to 2010, McDonough created the architecture and project plan for ABAJournal.com and then oversaw its design, development and launch, including its popular directory of legal blogs, which will now be taken down.

“I believe that it’s important for the ABA to choose a new editor who can come in with fresh eyes, take a look at what I believe is a strong editorial core and take it to a next level,” McDonough said. “Having me continue to be in this position where I’m dismantling things I created won’t be as effective as having someone new come in.”

Boston lawyer Alice Richmond, chair of the Journal’s board of editors, told me that she sees McDonough’s departure as a loss for the magazine and for the ABA.

“I have been and the board has been simply amazed at the way that Molly has managed to absorb these draconian cuts and still produce a quality magazine and still have a quality presentation and presence on the web,” Richmond said. “The board of editors has never doubted that Molly could accomplish the things she was being asked to accomplish, no matter how difficult they were.”

Richmond expressed hope that McDonough might rescind her resignation and stay on as head of the Journal.

“We believed the only way we’d survive all of these changes – the transition to the new .org, the reduction to six issues – we believed and still believe that the only way we’d accomplish them was with Molly as editor-in-chief, not because she’s irreplaceable, but because she alone of anyone on the staff has the different skill sets needed to get these jobs done.”

The ABA has posted the listing for the position of ABA Journal editor-publisher.

In 2014, McDonough was named to Folio’s Top Women in Media list as a woman who innovates and guides her business into new markets. Her work building ABAJournal.com was recognized in 2008 with a Webby People’s Voice Award.

A Personal Note

It’s hard for me to write about this without injecting a personal note. Not only did I work with McDonough, but I have known her for some two decades and closely followed her work at the Journal. I can’t help but conclude that her departure is a huge loss for the ABA and for the ABA members for whom the Journal has long been the organization’s flagship.

McDonough is a consummate journalist and highly skilled editor who maintained and even enhanced the Journal’s long-standing reputation for high-quality, in-depth journalism. On top of that, she played the leading role in bringing the Journal into the digital age and making it a publication that is as vital and compelling online as it is in print.

She did not do these things alone. The Journal is fortunate to have a great staff of editors, writers, designers, production people, and others. But it says a lot that, by all accounts, all of the people who worked for McDonough hold her in the highest esteem.

As Alice Richmond suggested, during tough times for the ABA, McDonough has had the unique combination of skills to keep the ABA Journal on a steady course of quality journalism.