While much industry attention of today’s era of new-media companies is focused on the likes of BuzzFeed, Vox Media, NowThisNews, The Atlantic’s Quartz, The Magazine, and PandoDaily, one publication with a decidedly old-school approach to news is finding success with what is increasingly looking like an old-school medium.
While the likes of BuzzFeed and Vox Media cut a broad swathe across a wide range of verticals presented in jazzy storytelling forms – from listicles to high-production video – the SCOTUSblog drills down deep into one issue, the Supreme Court of the United States, and in an old-fashioned reverse-chronological weblog format.
What’s significant about SCOTUSblog is that it has been able to produce coverage of the court that rivals the best newspapers and television networks with a low-profile approach to analysis and zero fanfare. The blog reached its pinnacle when it outshone Fox and CNN, and matched the New York Times, with its reporting on last year’s Obamacare ruling, making a point of getting the news right rather than rushing to judgement. Both Fox and CNN were famously wrong in first reporting that Obamacare had been struck down by the Supreme Court, a debacle explained in brilliant narrative detail over the course of 7,000 words by SCOTUSblog itself.
Since that point, the blog, which has just five editorial staffers and a dozen contributors, is now considered serious competition by big media, even though it has been around since 2002 and is written not by journalists but by lawyers, law professors, and law students. In a recent interview with New York magazine, publisher Tom Goldstein said the Obamacare decision marked a radical shift “to the point where the mainstream press regards us as an extreme threat.”
“Our external press citations are down,” Goldstein told the magazine. “You can see it on Twitter as well. While we’ll regularly retweet pieces by other people, and we have the roundup every day of the rest of the press corps, the reverse isn’t true at all.”
It used to cost Goldstein about $250,000 a year to run the blog, but Bloomberg Law signed on as an exclusive sponsor in 2011, giving SCOTUSblog financial momentum just as the mainstream press was going in the opposite direction. Goldstein told New York that the blog is now able to spend half a million dollars a year. “We’re putting more work into covering the Supreme Court than anyone in history.”
I raise the case of SCOTUSblog because we who cover media-tech tend to get excited by things like big venture rounds, responsive design, and insane social sharing metrics. What is often overlooked, however, is the ability of one dedicated group of knowledgeable citizens to provide serious news coverage that can elevate the public discourse. SCOTUSblog is an indication that deep expertise and commitment to issues is just as important to a “media company” in this day and age as distribution mechanisms and content management systems.
Still, it’s not all great news. One of the reasons SCOTUSblog has been able to rise in prominence is that news organizations have been retrenching their journalistic resources. While it’s good that SCOTUSblog can help fill the void, society will be worse off if all news coverage of such important areas is consolidated in individual organizations, no matter how expert.
However, even Goldstein argues there is a still an important place for newspapers in covering the Supreme Court. When asked what newspapers do better than SCOTUSblog, he raised a point that might be considered unusual for blogs, which are so often forums for opinionated commentary.
Newspapers, Goldstein says, have the opportunity to have a strong editorial voice. “I show up and argue two or three cases a year, and I am loath to have the justices think about the blog as a thing that is intended to try and change their views,” he says. “So I think an editorial voice is an advantage I’m just going to have to leave to the newspapers.”
That’s a comment on the commoditization of news as much as anything. As news becomes easier to produce and distributed, from the likes of civilian blogs to Narrative Science’s algorithms, a clearly articulated human voice is more important than ever.