Johnny Depp trial is driving a new online economy. This ex-LA prosecutor is all in


Depp listens as Raquel Pennington testifies in a previously recorded video deposition, as a picture of Amber Heard is seen on screen, during his defamation trial against his ex-wife Heard in Virginia. — AFP via Getty Images/TNS

LOS ANGELES: Emily D. Baker is exasperated. In the penultimate week of Amber Heard and Johnny Depp’s defamation trial, Baker at times rises from her seat in her home studio or fans herself with a small blue book of the federal rules of evidence as she delivers a steaming critique of Heard’s attorney Elaine Bredehoft.

“This is preposterous, Elaine! You don’t do speaking objections,” Baker, 44, seethes as red lights flash to indicate another thousand subscribers have signed up to her channel. A so-called super-chat message flashes across the screen from a viewer who paid US$10 (RM44) to let the audience know she thinks the judge is being too easy on Bredehoft. “This is a mess, and the jury is going to see it’s a mess,” Baker adds.

It is just another day in the weeks-long trial for this former Los Angeles deputy district attorney turned YouTuber whose livestreamed commentary has drawn audiences surpassing that of mainstream outlets like Fox or Entertainment Tonight on the platform. As Johnny Depp testified at one point Wednesday morning, Baker had about 128,000 live viewers, compared with 72,000 for LiveNOW from Fox and 86,000 for ET.

Baker, whose shock of purple hair and tinted glasses have become her trademark look, is one of a growing number of legal experts who are making their name not on traditional media outlets like Court TV but online. This new cottage industry of attorney social media stars highlights how media consumption has shifted since the days when lawyers would drop into a TV news broadcast to comment on a big case like the O.J. Simpson trial or, more recently, the Kyle Rittenhouse case. The Depp vs. Heard legal battle is showing how much of this audience is turning to platforms such as YouTube or TikTok for information.

"There has been a kind of historic shift in how people are consuming this kind of content like I've never seen before," says Rachel Stockman, president of online media network Law & Crime. "The days of linear cable, watching a trial or watching a live event, I believe, are somewhat over."

With more than one million live viewers some days for the Heard-Depp trial, Law & Crime is the most-viewed channel on YouTube carrying the court sessions in real time, but the trial has proved a veritable gold rush for other online creators.

Baker is one of the biggest so-called LawTubers, as her channel’s subscriber count surpassed 500,000 this week. Her podcast, The Emily Show, rose to No. 1 this month on Apple Podcasts for US entertainment news, up from seventh place, according to Chartable.

That shift of attention away from broadcast media pundits to LawTube or LawTok is permanent, says Kyle Hjelmeseth, president of digital talent manager G&B.

"It's not about even going to Harvard anymore. If you can amass the following, the rest doesn't matter," Hjelmeseth says. "It really makes it so anybody can tell their story and show their expertise."

Baker calls her largely female, law-curious audience LawNerds and warns viewers she is a fan of “the cursey words”.

The mother of two first posted a video (unboxing an iPhone) on her YouTube channel in 2015 from Manhattan Beach. In 2017, she told her followers she had quit her job in the high-pressure DA office to start an online legal consulting business. But then the pandemic presented a new opportunity.

Her family had moved to Nashville, Tennessee, after her dentist husband closed his LA practice in 2020, in search of a home with an acre of land and good Internet, she says.

Back in 2020 she had a podcast aimed at helping small online businesses navigate the federal government's Paycheck Protection Program. But the uncertainty of the Covid-19 crisis led her to spend more time feeding online interest where pop culture intersects the law.

With an approachable, informal breakdown of major legal battles involving Britney Spears' conservatorship and reality TV stars Erika Jayne and Tom Girardi, her channel had fans flocking to it.

Her appeal is her approachability, says Eddie Pietzak, director of talent at Semaphore, who manages brand deals for Baker.

"She's becoming the face of pop culture legal commentary," Pietzak says. "Who doesn't look like a traditional attorney, who's that stuffy old white guy from a law firm."

She enjoys breaking down complex stories for her audience, Baker says. And when it comes to picking which cases to cover, she sticks to what she knows and finds interesting.

"I'm not a journalist, I'm a legal analyst," Baker says. "I make sure I'm interested and it's something I can actually lend analysis to in a helpful way."

Her channel was growing steadily before the Depp-Heard case, adding a few thousand subscribers every week, according to analytics firm Social Blade. Then the former Hollywood couple's trial started in April, and the growth became exponential.

Baker had around 200,000 subscribers before the trial started on April 11, but that has more than doubled. From April 22 to May 19, her YouTube channel had 1,540% more views – 20.7 million views in 28 days.

In 2021 she earned US$270,000 (RM1.18mil) from her YouTube channel, or about US$22,500 (RM98,347) a month from about a million views, more than she took home as a deputy district attorney, she says. As the trial reached its apex this week, the channel was estimated to generate up to US$109,000 (RM477,389) a month, according to Social Blade, which bases its estimate on advertising rates.

She makes money from ads that run her channel, merchandise, subscriptions to exclusive content, as well as super-chats or super-stickers (digital images that fans can pay to pop up in the live chat feed).

The most anyone has paid for a super-chat message is US$400 (RM1,748), she says.

"I didn't think people would be interested in hearing days of video depositions and expert testimony, and I was wrong," Baker says.

Depp sued his ex-wife for US$50mil (RM218.55mil) for allegedly defaming him in a Washington Post op-ed in 2018. Heard is countersuing Depp over comments from his then-attorney for calling her allegations of domestic abuse a hoax. The case is taking place in Virginia, where the Post's servers are hosted.

The case has been controversial and Heard in particular has become the target of online hate from those who question her domestic violence allegations against one of Hollywood's biggest stars.

Baker wants to bring a more compassionate perspective.

"I hope that as a female attorney streamer that has worked in the criminal context, I can bring not just sensitivity to the topic but also asking the appropriate questions if the evidence doesn't match the testimony in the most compassionate way possible," Baker says. "There's just a way to have that conversation without being hateful."

Baker is in a message group with about 20 other LawTubers who all help one another navigate the new technologies they have to learn, she says. They also appear on one another's channels, often providing subscriber boosts.

Among other prominent LawTubers are Alina "Alyte" Mazeika, who runs the channel Legal Bytes and is a member of the California Bar and DC Bar; Nick Rekieta, a Minnesota lawyer whose channel Rekieta Law has 435,000 subscribers; Kentucky-based defense attorney Larry Forman, who has the channel name The DUI Guy+ on YouTube, and was among LawTubers who queued overnight to attend the trial in person. The case has been used by some attorneys to launch their online careers.

Virginia attorney Rob Moreton combined his passion for woodwork and law to create a video on his channel, Law & Lumber, that he titled “Woodworker Attorney DEBUNKS Amber Heard's 'Broken Bed' Testimony!” – a reference to Heard's allegation that Depp assaulted her on a bed, breaking its wooden frame. Depp has denied Heard's allegations of domestic abuse. The video has more than a million views.

On the Internet, larger audiences bring more criticism. Baker says she has been called biased, accused of profiting off domestic violence, or told that she lacks professionalism with her purple hair and profanity. But she avoids exploitative coverage and has not monetised certain videos for ad revenue, she says. She hopes that she is bringing compassion to the topics she covers and that as LawTube has been boosted in recent weeks, viewers have a plethora of new options.

With the Depp-Heard fight concluding this week, Baker already has her eye on her next big case: the trial of The Real Housewives Of Salt Lake City star Jennifer Shah, whom the US government has charged with running a nationwide telemarketing fraud scheme. Shah has pleaded not guilty.

"Everyone has a different take and people get to look for the type of commentary and community that's a best fit for them." Baker says. "Choice is always a good thing." – Los Angeles Times/Tribune News Service

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