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SCOTUSblog: After a decade, an overnight sensation

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Amy Howe used to think 3,000 live blog participants was a lot. Thursday, more than a half-million users tuned into SCOTUSblog to find out how the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on health care and what it meant. No gimmicks, no video but plenty of expert answers for questions simple and complex, and a commitment to getting it right.

When the decision came down, that commitment came through. While some traditional outlets, including CNN, Fox News and even NPR’s Diane Rehm, went with an instant — wrong — read of an intricate opinion, the blog founded by attorneys Howe and her husband Tom Goldstein, who handle cases that go to the Supreme Court, held steady. But this isn’t your typical bloggers-over-journalists story: the not-so-secret sauce at SCOTUSblog is Lyle Denniston, the dean of the Supreme Court press corp who meshes 50-plus years of traditional journalism experience and sensibilities with a 24/7, real-time platform. (Howe describes him as “full time and then some.”)

When we spoke a couple of days before the decision, Denniston talked about his own careful reporting style and how that fits with his desire to show that online journalism can be trusted:

“We do like to think we are competitive and we love it when we are out in front of other media but basically being first is not the most important thing for us. It’s being first AND accurate at the same time. … Unfortunately, a lot of the internet has a reputation of not being accurate.”

So the team at SCOTUSblog took three long minutes from getting the ruling to reporting that Chief Justice John Roberts led the 5-4 majority declaring the Obama administration had a mandate, then another two minutes to declare the whole ACA was upheld with the exception of narrow reading on Medicare. Howe almost instantly mentioned the part about the mandate being judged a tax but held off on the rest. The screengrab from the CoveritLive replay below covers that three minutes:

They used Twitter to get the word out a few seconds ahead of the live blog. If that’s all someone wanted, they didn’t have to add to the server traffic.

Overnight sensation but not an overnight success

Fueled by interest in high-profile, politically polarizing cases, SCOTUSblog may be an overnight sensation but it isn’t an overnight success — and health care didn’t make it a go-to site. But visits have snowballed, aided by links from Matt Drudge and Instapundit for people following the health care or immigration cases. On one recent “decision day” they had about 97,000 people logged in concurrently on the live blog, most of them issue shopping. “When I typed the words ‘no health care today’ the numbers just dropped,” Howe recalled during an interview between immigration and health care decision days.

The influx means the user mix has changed considerably. Where once it was primarily those with some knowledge about how the often-byzantine Supreme Court operates, now the questions they get during a live session run the gamut. “We do have ways of chronicling or monitoring,” said Denniston, “but the only way we know about what kind of people is to read their questions, see if whether sophisticated or naive.” The high-traffic days bring more queries, too, ranging from questions about how decisions are drafted (by law clerks with varying degrees of involvement by the justices) and delivered to points of law. The immigration live blog drew roughly 3,400 comments and questions.

Howe says trying to balance those needs has been a challenge lately. If she explains “what it means to be pre-empted without having indicated that I was responding to questions then I get people who say don’t insult our intelligence. You just can’t win.”

But it also gives them a better chance to bring in new users for their Plain English section, where cases are explained primarily for people without a legal background or without enough of one to pull out the finer points from the usual legalese.

Howe added, “It’s helpful for us, we’re used to operating on the assumption that there’s a basic knowledge about the court.” The polarizing cases also bring a change in tone. “We see a change in tenor in the comments certainly, but I don’t think it’s changed the tenor of the blog.”

For Denniston, it hearkens back to the days when he was covering the court for the Boston Globe — writing for the average newspaper reader as well as court observers. “We want to have more and more people who are not judges and lawyers reading our blog,” Denniston said. They also want to bring readers back between cases and between sessions by “constantly trying to enlarge the fascination factor of our audience.”

It’s all part of the changing mission of a niche blog closing in on its tenth anniversary.

‘Useless business development tool’

Asked when SCOTUSblog was founded, Howe thought back to another family milestone in late 2002: “I was about 7 months pregnant with our first child when we started the blog and she will be 10 in January.” It was Goldstein’s idea, founded for promotion to encourage business development for their own firm Goldstein & Howe, P.C.. Howe thought it was a terrible idea at first but agreed it was worth trying.

She explained, “We thought these were things we should be doing anyway as part of our practice. It turns out it didn’t work that way at all,” Howe said. “It was a useless business development tool. Eventually we switched from being a business development tool to regarding ourselves as a tool for public information.” It wasn’t designed to make money on its own.

That realization came around the same time that newsrooms started cutting back, she said, devoting fewer resources to places like the Supreme Court. It fit in with the couple’s interests in teaching law; they teach appellate courses at Stanford and Harvard. Denniston started writing for them in late 2004, adding a new dimension to the site.

They’re transparent about clients and cases they take to the Supreme Court but anything promotional goes on the firm’s site. They also decided not to get into politics and do as much as they can to keep political views out of the blog. They even make sure that posts by experts arguing one side of a case only run paired with one in favor of the other side.

When Goldstein moved to Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld, LLP. in 2006 to establish a Supreme Court practice there, the larger firm became the blog’s sponsor. The sponsorship stayed in place when Goldstein rejoined Howe and her partner Kevin Russell at Howe & Russell 18 months ago. The firm’s name changed to Goldstein & Russell — and the sponsorship changed late last year.

Instead of a law firm, SCOTUSblog is sponsored by Bloomberg Law as a way to expose law students to legal information products competing with WestLaw and Lexis.

While Howe wouldn’t talk specific numbers, she said, “The Bloomberg sponsorship has been tremendous. We’re still not paying Lyle what he deserves to be paid but it’s more in line.” They’ve also been able to hire a full-time blog manager and other staff plus invest in technology. Goldstein told live blog users Thursday that it would cost about $25,000 to handle the traffic “for the 20 minutes between 10:15 and 10:35am, and mostly for the first 30 seconds or so.” Poynter and the Nieman Journalism Lab have written about the tech back flips and expenses it took to keep SCOTUSblog up and running over the past few weeks.)

In the past, Howe said, they linked to the court or to publicly available copies of decisions. Now SCOTUSblog uses “gazillions of document links” to Bloomberg Law. It’s easier and faster. Bloomberg links to the blog, too.

Always a reader out there

The shift hasn’t helped them in one area: credentialing. No one from SCOTUSblog has a hard pass, the golden ticket to the Supreme Court press room, as a correspondent for the site. Early on, Howe says they were told the site didn’t qualify under Congressional Gallery rules that ban lobbying.

Denniston came with his own hard pass, credentialed through Boston radio station WBUR. The lawyers are all members of the Supreme Court bar so have some access that way. It’s not an ideal situation but Howe said, “Lyle’s not going to retire ever.”

Technically Denniston has retired from journalism before. He just hasn’t stopped doing it. Howe says she often edits two posts late at night, then wakes up to find he posted yet another one before he logged off. When I mentioned that, Denniston told me he likes knowing “no matter what time you put something on the internet there’s always a reader out there, at least one.”

The biggest difference between newspapers and now, he told me, isn’t the screen; it’s the way he works. “I have no assignments, no editors and no deadlines so I work all the time.” He’s still a phone-and-shoe-leather reporter but says he couldn’t survive without the internet for research.

While some of his contemporaries — heck, even a lot of younger journalists — are still crotchety about online journalism, Denniston skipped that stage. He’s not into social media, even though the Twitter #teamlyle because a trending hashtag over the last couple of weeks. (Howe doubts he could write in 140 character chunks.)

He likes the cooperative spirit online and the ability to move between the conversational live blog, which he compares to an old live-radio show, and the more formal pieces he writes. “Basically I’m still writing stories for an electronic display the same way I did for a print display,” Denniston said. “The same kind of professional disciplines are at work.”

He knows there are some who have had trouble making a similar transition. His message to them: “If some in print are intimidated by the prospect of communicating via the internet, they should get over it.”

What next?

With the formal end of the session in sight, it’s back to business mostly as usual for SCOTUSblog, There are posts to write, a site to update and a new session to get ready for. Denniston is already looking ahead to affirmative action case about college students and gay marriage as two of the high-profile cases when the court resumes on the first Monday of October, around the time the blog officially turns 10.

A decade is a lot of time in internet years. Is the passion still there? Howe says yes, they have a lot more left to do:

The longer we do it the more we realize … I feel like we have helped to create this sort of institution and I think it would be very hard to give up.