The Flat Legal Blogosphere, and What To Do About It
Chris Bowers, introducing the new site Open Left, offers this extended description of the rise of a new, interactive, progressive blogosphere. Read it: it provides a nice contrast to our legal blogosphere, and a forecast of where we might be headed.
Bowers states that five years ago, the progressive blogosphere was marked by five traits
- Individual. A single writer produced virtually all of the front-page content. Group blogs were extremely rare.
- Independent. Five years ago there were virtually no “official” blogs for electoral campaigns, party committees, politically focused news outlets, think tanks or advocacy organizations. Whatever blogs were around were independent of established media and political outlets.
- Hobbies. Five years ago, political blogging as a profession simply did not exist. Advertising was non-existent on progressive, political blogs. Fundraisers for the proprietors of blogs were extraordinarily rare. No one blogged full-time and no one used blogging as a primary source of income. Blogging was a hobby that operated almost entirely outside the market economy.
- Limited Communities. Comment sections were not moderated in any way, shape or form. Registration was never required to post a comment. Opportunities for reader generated content, such as diaries, were limited. Comment threads were sparse by today’s standards.
- Less varied and original content. Original reporting and research almost never took place. Multimedia options such as video were equally rare. Guest posts from prominent media and political figures were unheard of. There was comparatively little in the way of direct activism on behalf of candidates and causes. Overall, at the time, content in the political blogosphere could be accurately characterized as micro-punditry on current events that was driven almost entirely by reporting from established news sources.
Sound familiar? It does to me. With minor exceptions, the legal blogosphere exists in a communal space that dates back to 2002. You know, before we invaded Iraq.
By contrast, Bowers states that today, the “short tail” of the progressive blogosphere (i.e., the highly trafficked sites) is marked by: (1) a norm of group blogging and a resulting wealth of new content even on weekends; (2) blogs produced by institutions; (3) professional bloggers; and (4) Self-Reinforcing communities (“Specifically, through software platforms such as Scoop and Soapblox, several highly trafficked websites now give registered users the ability to produce their own self-directed content in the form of user diaries. This has not only increased the amount of content produced on many blogs, thus further enhancing their competitive advantage in content production, but in many cases it has actually deterred people from starting their own blogs.”) Such characteristics enable modern political blogs to “evolve into fully-fledged boutique media and activist outlets” with investigative reporting, election analysis, fund-raising, etc. Such blogs don’t just report on political reporting: they are part of the story. One downside to this story is entrenchment: new blogs can’t compete or break into the ranks of the elite.
By and large, the legal blogosphere has not embraced the model of the short-tail of the political blogosphere. Let me try to provide a global sense of the landscape of the legal blogosphere.
1. Group Blogs Do Not Predominate: Unlike the political blogosphere, the one-person operation remains a very important part of the short- and the long-tail of the blogosphere. Among the highest traffic sites are many run by one individual (Berman, Bainbridge, Leiter, Caron, Ribstein, Solum, Althouse/Reynolds (if the last two count as law bloggers).) Others are run as groups (ScotusBlog, Balkinization, Volokh, CO, Prawfs, Discourse, Conglomerate, Jurisdynamics). But there is no clear trend, as I once predicted, toward further consolidation.
2. Traffic is Stagnant: Critics notwithstanding, I still think I’m right that the legal blogosphere’s growth has slowed significantly. One major law blog has seen a large increase in daily visits (SCOTUS Blog), and a few others (Opinio Juris, for example) have seen a gradual increase to around 1,000 visitors a day. But on the whole, the explosive growth in traffic of 2002-2005 no longer exists. Sites are bumping around basically where they were a year ago.
3. New Entrants are Rare: I think (though we need a new census). I imagine that almost every law professor or lawyer who wants to blog has now heard of the medium and has either joined the fray or decided to abstain. Moreover, it is becoming increasingly hard, as I’ll discuss in a moment, to break into the game and find readers. (Orin Kerr predicted this outcome in 2005; my colleague Peter Spiro discussed abandoned blogs in late 2006).
4. There are Few Professionals: Here, we can see some parallels to political blogging. A few reporters and the gossip-hounds are doing this full-time, but by and large lawyers aren’t quitting their day jobs to make money from blogging. The amateur/hobby status of law blogging is likely driven by the smaller audience of readers for law than for partisan political analysis. With the exception of Reynolds and Volokh, I imagine that no law blog could, even when fully monetized, gross more the low five-figures a year.
5. Institutions Do Not Dominate: Here again, there are some institutional blogs, from the ACS Blog to the Chicago, Georgetown, and Houston, faculty blogs. But, by and large, institutions are not an important part of the law blog universe. (Putting aside the numerous blogs sponsored by law firms, which exist primarily to market the firm’s services). Why not? I have been surprised, for example, that so few law schools have promoted in-house blogs, or (even) paid to sponsor existing blogs. This would seem to me to be a cheap (compared to glossies) way to advertise in a rich reputational market. But faculty members won’t commit to a group blog unless and until law blogging is rewarded in tangible (tenure/money/chair) terms, which to date it has been only in the exceptional case.
6. Our Communities Are Limited: Again, with the exception of Volokh, law blogs have sparse comment threads. The VC comment threads have aspects of a community, with repeat visitors and inside jokes, but in the absence of filtering software or a way to rate commentators, I have the sense that the chaotic aspect of commenting often drowns out interesting voices. This, for me, is one of the starkest differences between law blogs and politics blogs: we don’t seek to create real communities of readers to generate and react to content, but instead seem to replicate the one-directional atmosphere of the classroom. I’ve talked with some folks about this issue, and the response has been that law blogs’ unique role is to provide credible information and commentary about technically difficult legal issues. If that is true, then a wiki- or scoop- model of content generation and community development isn’t particularly tailored to what we’re about. That is probably true for law blogs written by law professors. But why hasn’t some entrepreneur started a community portal with the aim of engaging and stimulating discussion by members of the public about legal rules, decisions, and policies?
7. Law Blogs Are Largely Reactive: Here, some qualification is in order. Some law blogs, like Berman’s, Balkin’s and Volokh’s, have driven national debates on issues like torture and sentencing. They have done so through “original” reporting on legal issues, in a significantly deeper and more comprehensive way than reporters on the “law beat” ever could. These blogs really show the value added of law blogging. But, overall, most law blogging, even at high-traffic sites, remains parasitic on the main-stream media.
Despite not having evolved in recent years, law blogs have entrenched traffic flows. I bet that were you to look at the most popular/linked to/visited sites written by law professors, law students, and lawyers about law a year ago, and the top ten today, there would be at most one new entrant. This is so despite a lack of technical innovation over the last year. Even blogs written by insightful (and well-known) law profs seem to be having a hard time finding a broad audience.
So were are we going? I’ll leave that question largely to a future post. But I’ll close with the hope we are going somewhere new, whether it is a new space for legal publishing, virtual conferences and communities, or providing unique, informal connections between citizens and their government.
The old, flat, legal blogosphere can’t last forever. Can it?
Related posts by me on this navel-gazing topic: