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Tom Goldstein of SCOTUSblog [LexBlog Q & A, part 1 of 2]

January 30, 2008

SCOTUSblog, which focuses on issues surrounding the United States Supreme Court, is one the most well-known law blogs around.  It’s no surprise, then, that we feel privileged today to feature publisher Tom Goldstein in the hot seat for our LexBlog Q & A.

Tom, a Washington D.C.-based partner at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, has been running SCOTUSblog since 2003. In part 1 of the interview, below, he offers details on their innovative SCOTUSwiki. In part 2, to be published tomorrow, Tom gets more specific about the blog’s reputation in the legal community and the personal challenges of blogging.

1. Rob La Gatta: Give me some background on SCOTUSwiki: what caused you to develop a wiki companion site to the blog? What are some of the goals you have for it?

Tom Goldstein: The idea for SCOTUSwiki was really a response to what I saw as a shortcoming in the nature of blogs. That is: they are fantastic for easily finding the newest, freshest information, but what happens when you want to see everything written on a particular case? Or find all of our statistics from past years? It’s kind of like the difference between a newspaper and an encyclopedia: a paper is great for up-to-the minute news, but isn’t as permanent or comprehensive as Brittanica.

After four years, we had thousands and thousands of posts with all this high-quality, unique content on our blog. For instance, we regularly write pieces about cases when they are granted, before and after oral arguments, and when the opinion comes out. We do regular statistical updates, and we feature noteworthy cert. petitions each week. We follow the Guantanamo Bay cases closer than anyone else, online or off. We have posted hundreds – or even thousands – of documents on our website that aren’t available anywhere else (save for very expensive legal databases). And so the thought was: how do we make this stuff easy to find, not just the day we write it, but whenever our readers need the information?

The answer was SCOTUSwiki. We chose a wiki because the software is infinitely expandable: we can instantly create pages for each new case, and we can create entire new areas of the site in a day, which we plan on doing in the future. It’s not a true wiki in the sense that anyone can edit it – we’re really concerned about objectivity and accuracy, so we don’t think it’s prudent to just let anyone out there change around the pages – but we definitely plan on expanding our coverage and trying some different things with it.

For now, though, it provides that permanence and comprehensiveness that a blog can’t really offer, and we’ve gotten good feedback for that.

2. Rob La Gatta: Currently, wikis seem fairly underrepresented in the blogosphere…yours is the first (and so far only) blog I’ve seen with one. Do you expect wiki sites to become more prominent on law blogs in the future? Why or why not?

Tom Goldstein: I don’t think so, for two reasons.

The first is that, unlike other blogs, we have a very defined subject area rather than any ideology: we just want to cover the Supreme Court. That’s the beginning and end of our mission: cover this one institution more thoroughly than anyone else, and do it objectively. That uniquely lends itself to building a wiki, because it’s such a direct mission and because we already have content that tries to be “encyclopedic” and objective.

For other law blogs that discuss the law in general, and from a more opinionated point-of-view, what would their wiki be about? How would it be focused and organized? Could people trust its objectivity? I’m not saying it’s not doable or that it wouldn’t be a valuable resource. But our site already has content that is basically encyclopedia-ready, and that’s a huge advantage.

Another reason it’s so hard is that a wiki takes a substantial amount of work to launch and maintain. Most law blogs have only professors or practicing lawyers as contributors. We have both of those that contribute, but we go beyond that and also have a full-time reporter as well as several staff members that spend much of their time and energy on the blog and the wiki. I can’t imagine how a site without such staff could build a useful, up-to-date wiki.

Interested in hearing more? Recent LexBlog Q & A posts:

Or, see our full list of legal blog interviews.