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Our vision for the new SCOTUSblog

You are now using the new SCOTUSblog, which internally we call “SCOTUSblog 4.0.”  The version number reflects that it is the third complete overhaul of the site since we launched the original version as a very simple site nearly eight years ago.

The previous revisions have been stylistic and technological: they affected how you saw the blog and added some features (such as a calendar).  In addition, over time, we covered more of the cases at the Court; now we cover them all.  But throughout, the blog retained its essential character:  SCOTUSblog presented a series of chronological posts on issues closely related to the Court.

The shift to version 4.0 is different.  Not only is it much more significant in scale (it uses a huge array of new technology and the blog looks radically different), but it also is quite different in our approach to the nature of the blog and to the substance of what we write.  This post explains why and how.

In blogging, form traditionally drives function, rather than the reverse – which would make more sense.  The platform’s greatness is that you can publish, at almost no cost and with little effort, your thoughts to the world.  Blogging thus rests on a principle of expressive egalitarianism – all posts from all people at any moment are created equal.  Value is assigned exclusively by readers, who pass links to friends and perhaps discuss posts on their own blogs.

That egalitarian principle carries over to blogs’ visual structure:  posts uniformly appear in reverse chronological order.  Although one post might be brilliant, and the next four trivial or idiotic, that doesn’t matter:  each is given equal attention (except perhaps to the limited extent that one might receive more space on the home page before the reader must click on a “jump” link to read the rest).  Unlike newspapers, which have organizing principles that give new articles prominence based on their significance (for example, above the fold to the right), a blog gives each new post equal prominence on the “scroll,” to be pushed down by the next item that happens to be published, even if that happens only seconds later.

Thus, on SCOTUSblog 3.0, you might have seen an extremely detailed analysis of the Term or the current state of litigation regarding the Guantanamo detainees.  But those posts might immediately have lost their prominence if by happenstance we noted a newly filed cert. petition.  We adopted systems to try and keep important pieces at the “top” of the blog for a few hours – and in rare cases we would even “bump” posts by putting them back at the top – but inevitably other posts have to go up; when they do, they assume visual prominence.

There is, moreover, significant pressure to get new posts up, thereby diluting great content.  As noted, we have a commitment to comprehensively covering the Court, including cases that few people care about.  More broadly, blogs sustain and increase their readership by providing new content.  If a site does not have new material daily, then readers will not visit each day, and they may in fact fall out of the pattern of visiting at all.  Inevitably, then, the most valuable content is treated equally with everything else on the blog, all of which quickly loses its prominence.

So structured at their foundation, blogs convey to readers the impression that value should be based significantly on newness.  Most blogs attach a date- and time-stamp to each post.  There is an au courant feel that, however important a thought was when first published on the blog, a few hours later it is stale and potentially superseded.  Occasionally, a post’s relevance will be sustained for a few days or even weeks by discussion on other sites (or by heavy exchanges in comments on sites like Volokh that allow them), but that is the exception which proves the rule that timeliness is perceived to matter most.

Ironically, blogging (in its traditional form) is a bad platform for SCOTUSblog.  The value of our content – in the sense of what it adds to public understanding and debate – can vary radically from post to post; all our posts certainly are not created equal.

In addition, many of our posts and the documents that we republish also have significant research and archival value:  if you want to retrieve a brief or review our analysis of a ruling, it does not really matter when those posts happened to be published.  Similarly, if you want to know what is happening at the Court this week, it should not matter whether you coincidentally visit the blog soon after we publish a “This Week At The Court Post,” which you otherwise might miss.  And if we publish a write-up of a case, it may be more relevant on the argument day, which could be weeks later.

We first tried to overcome the constraints of the blogging model by creating an entirely new site:  SCOTUSwiki.  It might more accurately have been called SCOTUSbase – i.e., a database of our posts and materials.  But the name reflected the fact that we gave some thought to opening the site either to the public à la Wikipedia (and experimented with three of the case pages) or to a set of experts (another experiment), and we built the site on wiki software.  The importance of that archival function is reflected in the fact that  so that by the end of last Term one-quarter of our hits were on the wiki.

Two developments made it possible for us to fully implement our vision for the blog on a new version of SCOTUSblog itself, rather than splitting between two sites that were integrated only indirectly.  First, our blogging platform – WordPress – evolved, including through the development of many free or inexpensive themes and plug-ins.  Second, we were joined this summer by Matt Scarola (now a Harvard 2L) who, in addition to being great in legal thinking and writing, is incredibly good at implementing that technology.  All of the programming for the new site was either created or customized by Matt.

A great deal of thought and effort – thousands of hours and hundreds of revisions – has gone into the new design.  Much of it was driven by the results of our reader surveys.  Matt patiently accepted massive lists of changes from me (one had roughly a hundred, many had thirty or more), some of which reversed changes that I had requested only the day before. Since the first “draft” of version 4.0, I expect there have been at least 500 changes — 1000 might be a better estimate.  The tiny Court icon that appears on browser tabs went through ten versions.  We debated moving words individual dot points to the right or left.  And so on.

The upshot of all this work is that SCOTUSblog 4.0 works much better for us than the classic blog “scroll.”  We believe that you can now use the site as a comprehensive source for information about what’s going on at the Court.

To really understand the new SCOTUSblog conceptually, and to make the most of it, it is easiest to contrast a news ticker (which corresponds to the traditional model of a blog) with a well-indexed book filled with hundreds of constantly updated individual pages (which corresponds to SCOTUSblog 4.0).  On the new blog, every case has its own page; all of these pages collectively make up the blog.  All of our separate posts about that case, as well as all the material we collect (such as briefs and commentary by others), are added to the page.  As we update this virtual “book” with new posts — such as an oral argument preview or opinion analysis — each update appears as a blog post; but fundamentally the organizing principle is each case’s page.

We also have numerous indices that let you access all of the pages — for example, we have sortable lists of all the merits cases for the term and all the petitions we’re watching; each author’s posts are indexed; and you can see indices organized by topic (such as detainee litigation or “Plain English” posts).

In terms of how we present this information, we continue to note our most recent posts in the Latest section.  But a new Featured Posts section maintains the prominence of our most important work.  The Archives allow readers to retrieve everything that we have written, and all the materials we have collected, on every case.  There are sortable and searchable tables of all the Merits Cases and Petitions We’re Watching, as well as regularly updated Statistics.  A separate section tells you everything that is going on This Week at the Court.  If you are interested in only a particular kind of post – for example, Detainee Litigation or Plain English – you can find it much more easily using either our Categories or a separate RSS Feed.

We have also tried to address the issue of the blog becoming unavailable at times of peak usage – for example, on the last day of the Term when we have incoming links from sites like Drudge Report.  The blog shut down like that only once last Term – a big improvement over previous years – and hopefully the technology and procedures that we have put in place mean that it will not happen at all any more.

Those major changes are in addition to dozens of other, smaller ones.  We now have a mobile site for smartphones.  The Calendar is now more comprehensive and accessible.  So is the Blogroll.  Our RSS feeds are much more flexible.  You will see more photos and other images. We note all our corrections and make them available through a single link on the sidebar. We have systematized our coverage of new petitions through a new Petition of the Day feature.

All of the discussion above has been about form, and its influence on substance.  But even the most beautiful website in the world will have no readers if the content isn’t good.  In the past, our most significant developments on the content side have been the addition of reporter Lyle Denniston and Amy taking on the role of editing every piece.  Other important developments were the creation of teams of students doing daily Round-ups, the addition of the Plain English (by Lisa McElroy) and Academic Round-up (now by Amanda Frost) features, and posts by Marty Lederman (who left the blog when he went into the government).  Based on our existing content, we were honored to be the first blog to receive the ABA’s Silver Gavel Award.

Also important was our adoption of a series of policies that implement our commitment to the highest legal and journalistic ethical standards.  We have always been concerned about the prospect that others would try to use the blog to influence the Court, and that our own writing could do so inadvertently.  Initially, we simply imposed a disclosure requirement and permitted only Lyle to make the judgment whether to write a feature post about a cert. petition. But as the seeming influence of the blog grew, we went further and eliminated any instance in which we were highlighting our own cases and prohibited lawyers from writing about cases in which their firms were involved, unless absolutely unavoidable.

Now with SCOTUSblog 4.0, we are making several more significant content-related improvements.  In recent years, our students at Stanford and at Harvard, as well as summer associates at my firm, Akin Gump, have written up a majority of the cases, including virtually all the lower-profile decisions.  They work very hard and do a tremendous job.  But because they are not experts, they have little context or experience to use in making judgments and predictions.  Now, for a substantial number of cases, we have decided to shift in the direction of using more experienced writers.  The American Bar Association issues a print publication called “Preview,” in which (generally) expert academics write up each of the cases that will be argued.  Starting this Term, half of those previews will appear on SCOTUSblog.  We hope and expect that many of the expert authors of those pieces will cover the oral argument and decision for us as well.

In addition, we have expanded our relationships with other bloggers as we try to cement SCOTUSblog’s role as a hub for analysis and commentary relating to the Court.  For example, Orin Kerr has posted here about Fourth Amendment cases.  Starting this Term, we will have contributions from other well-known commentators (such as Jack Balkin and Eugene Volokh), whom we expect to (generally) cross-post material from their own blogs.

All of this expanded effort requires additional human and financial capital to produce.  The blog started as a part-time project for me, Amy, and our assistant.  This Term, we will have four people working full- or substantially full-time (Lyle, Amy, Anna, and Adam), while the blog will be a material part of the lives of more than a dozen others, most as volunteers.  You can see that our Masthead now has more than 20 different people.  Five different people work on the Round-up, in addition to Amy’s editing.  Different features – such as Statistics, the Calendar, and Petition of the Day – each have interns or contributors assigned to them.  Despite all the free labor generously contributed by so many people, I expect the blog will cost more than $200,000 to run this Term.

Generally speaking, our readership has grown by around thirty percent per quarter.  Last Term, the blog and wiki together had roughly seven million “impressions” – i.e., clicks – which I equate with roughly four million visits (because in a single visit a reader who arrives at our front page and sees an interesting post may click on a “jump” to read the full entry, creating a second “impression”).  Our readership also includes roughly 8000 subscribers (through RSS and email), who generally do not need to visit the blog because we deliver all the content to them through the subscription.  In general, judging blog readership is notoriously difficult, but I expect that we have roughly fifteen thousand committed daily readers.  Our traffic of course goes up significantly when the Court is doing more interesting things – particularly, deciding important cases.  On those days, I believe we have closer to forty thousand readers.  And on truly huge days we can approach one hundred thousand.

My hope is that new SCOTUSblog will cause our readership to grow still more, maybe significantly.  We may of course some lose readers who do not like the new design; dramatic format and style changes like these notoriously create some backlash.  (We have already gotten an email from a reader named Jackie who assures us that we have “now officially jumped the shark” by “[t]ak[ing] a perfectly good site, and render[ing] it useless.”)  But in general, I expect that more people will come to treat the blog as a one-stop resource for information about the Court.

Our entire team hopes that you find the new blog a big improvement.  We are not professional web designers, so there inevitably will be glitches we need to fix and further changes we should make.  Please send us your reactions and suggestions.