Molly McDonough, former Editor in Chief and Publisher of the ABA Journal, on the Role of Blogs in Legal Journalism
Kevin speaks with Molly McDonough, former editor-in-chief and publisher of the ABA Journal, at the 2019 Clio Cloud Conference. Molly reflects on her career at the Journal, what’s next, and the role of blogs in legal journalism.
Kevin O’Keefe: Who am I speaking with?
Molly McDonough: Molly McDonough
Kevin: And who is Molly McDonough?
Molly: I am the former editor and publisher of the ABA Journal. I had been there for 18, almost 18 years.
Kevin: You just left.
Molly: I just left in early October, after doing a relaunch of a magazine and I was very excited and proud of how that turned out.
Kevin: What are you doing now? Because your mind isn’t going to turn off.
Molly: Well, right now I’m here at Clio, which has been a great experience. I had fun judging the launch code competition this year and, you know, meeting up with people, looking for my next direction. I don’t think I’ll be aimless too long. I have so many projects in my head spinning around. I just need to figure out which one of those to focus on.
Kevin: (0:56) Well, you’ve got great passion. I mean, you know, and I’d be talking to you about your travels or what conferences you’ve been to, and journalism, and digital media. You know, so you have a great body of knowledge, passion. It would be very valuable personally and to anybody that you’d be working with. I look forward to seeing what you’ll be doing. What do you most miss at the ABA Journal?
Molly: For sure the staff. Working with my team. They’re such a great group of journalists. They’re mission-driven. They really care about writing and reporting on the disadvantaged and people who need lawyers more than anyone. And uh, so being able to focus projects on those topics was really an honor and a privilege, really.
Kevin: Yeah, that’s a nice way to put it. I mean, I had the privilege of sitting in on one editorial meeting. I was, you know, kinda going, “wow, don’t get to do this every day. I’d never know what goes on”. You know, I watch them really driving the passion. The people in the room go around like, :this is what I’m working on. This is what I’m doing”. You know, somebody saying “I think we should do this or do that. Well, we narrowed it down to this or you know, what’s the kind of pain in our side thing that we have to deal with over here?”. And people have a lot of pride in there. They’re not getting paid $1 million to do what they did.
Molly: (2:21) They really care about what they’re working on and the people that they’re writing about. It was fun to have you there and and see kind of what you thought was interesting. I love those meetings and that’s probably one area I’ll miss is the brainstorming, the energy that comes out of those.
Kevin: You get a peek inside and I got to peek inside the publication of the flagship publication for the law and American legal journalism, you know. It’s pretty amazing. One thing that you guys did early on and, you know I’ll confess, you know, some parts I criticized the ABA on the blog site. I probably needlessly needlessly.
Molly: Oh, I remember.
Kevin: (3:10) There were you did various things for blogs. One, you recognized the top hundred early on, you know, and I got so mad because I go, “everybody’s got to decide what blog they want based on their interests. What’s a good blog? What’s a bad blog? It’s in the eyes of the reader”. Somebody told me that blogging and rage brings out some of the best blog posts, I don’t know whether it did or not, but you could sure key fast, when you got mad? Um, and that may have been needless, but you did things to recognize legal blogs. You recognized, you know, who were doing who were doing some of the better blogging. You brought blogs into legal news and in affect, when you had a site where you had a legal blog directory and then you’re pulling things out and you’re honoring “who’s doing what”. How’d that all come about?
Molly: Uh, so when we first launched ABAjournal.com, as part of that project, the publisher at the time, Ed Adams, really wanted to develop a curated list of law bloggers, to kind of break away from the search engines at the time. And create a way to pull that community together, um, as a resource for lawyers. It was really one of the best resources for our staff.
Kevin: (4:24) To get leads, ideas, sources.
Molly: It was really fantastic. We early on, we picked law bloggers for that Blog 100, partly based on which bloggers our staff used for story leads, tips, analysis, expertise. That, you know, when they would want to understand a topic more deeply, they would go into the directory or focus on law blogs and they’d pull those into the directory or flush them out more.
Kevin: That’s pretty cool. How many years ago was that when it first happened?
Molly: We launched the blog directory with the site in, in 2007.
Kevin: That’s a lot of water under the bridge and, you know, in the blog world. What do you see in legal blogging today? I mean, let me ask you this, even before we talk about today versus then, but what is the value of the legal blogger to our legal profession and to legal journalism?
Molly: (5:20) You know, back then early on, kind of going then and now, back then there were more bloggers, at least, that we were focused on talking about general news. I don’t see that as the highest value in blogging now. I see it as a really a way for lawyers to do deep dives into their passions. Whether that’s practice areas or site interests or, you know, pro bono, whatever it is that they wanna dive deeper into. Or maybe they’re making a practice transition and they need to learn more about it. You know, to be able to do a blog and to have to be the expert in that area as you’re researching, transparently researching topic areas, it really helps develop your expertise. And I think that’s great and it’s helpful to others, especially journalists, to be able to go and see how areas of practice are developing. And I still think that’s a really high value. Uh, I mean, I will say that there was a time when we eliminated, we pulled in for awhile. We had a category for lawyers who knitted and blogged.
Kevin: You had fun.
Molly: (6:43) We had special categories for non-law and we were finding coal caches of lawyers who would knit, you know, that we were getting into running. You know, there are all these areas. But then we decided, you know, really the directorate of this needed to be focused on legal issues to be a value to our audience.
Kevin: Yeah. And there’s still these opportunities I’m seeing, and I still go back to the idea of, you know, that the internet democratized the ability to speak. I mean, before, if I’m in the middle of a news thing, the reporters would find me in a minute. Um, but at other times, I mean, I’d have to go down to the newspaper and, quite frankly, pitch in a story. You know, “I think this is breaking news. Here’s what it is. Here’s what you may want to follow up on”, those types of things. All of a sudden now if you have a niche, you know that you’re covering whether it’s the locale or area in the law or what not, you have an instant way to publish. You have the printing press, you have the distribution means. To me, it’s still phenomenal what’s in the hands of the lawyer. And the lawyer should be in the middle of that based on their role in society.
Molly: (7:48) That’s true. And it’s also just getting back to the practical part of it though, Kevin is the, you know, when you have to articulate in a blog post what something means and why it matters, you really have to think through that. And I really think that helps build your confidence and expertise in the area. And, you know, being able to write and or type, you know, whatever your, however you, do your first draft is an important way of developing that skill.
Kevin: My first draft goes up and then when people start to read it and share it on social media, then I go, “well, I better go back and look now cause people are going to read this”. Or they’ll take me and say, “Hey you made these typos and those typos”. But I absolutely agree with more than one lawyer. And even lawyers here at Clio have told me that the blog has made them a better lawyer. And they had to think through things, they may be learning new things, they’re processing this, they’re sensing what people may say on the outside sorts a little bit more critical analysis. And then it makes them keen to be following things, cause they feel like they’re going to share what they’re observing.
Molly: (9:03) We used to do a survey. We did this a few times and one of the things we really focus on is that at the beginning of a blog, it would take hours for somebody to do a post and they would just labor over there and come up with the topic and research. And then, you know, the more they got into it, the more they understood how, you know, what was interesting to write about, the quicker those posts would come. So, you know, what took hours before would go down to 45 minutes, down to 30 minutes down to, you know, I could crank out in 15 minutes during a break in my day on my thoughts on a new case or a topic that was exciting.
Kevin: Dan Harris with China law. I mean, hell, you know that blog. It’s prolific and Dan swears that one doesn’t take longer than 15 or 25 minutes. And I’m going, “come on Dan”. But I think he’s serious and just gets it in any goes. I want to be able to follow up with you over time to get more of your thoughts on blogging and even, you know, from the standpoint of “what would you do in this situation, in that situation””. Cause it would be extremely invaluable for lawyers as a guide, especially the lawyers that are being pulled, you know, maybe by marketing departments or business development that it “needs to be this long, it needs to have these words, it needs to have this title, it needs to have this for SEO, and we need to have this amount of traffic coming from these places from, or we need to pay to distribute it”. And you’re looking at it from, I mean it’s not the same as a story that has editorial review and copy and everything at a publication like the ABA Journal, but you’re looking at it a little bit differently than just a marketing thing.
Molly: (10:39) Quality, authenticity, you know, “authentic” is a buzzword right now, but it’s true. It’s, you know, having that quality is job one.
Kevin: I think you’re going to be a judge for the blog excellence?
Molly: I am. I’m very excited about that.
Kevin: Which is really cool for us. I was really excited when Bob shared the list. I saw that list and I go “leaders who are women in the law”.
Molly: I’m actually really, really excited about that.
Kevin: I mean I looked at that and said, “this is good”. I mean it was a who’s who of people and now the onus was on us to make sure that every one of the law firms that we have knows I think we should announce the judges and say, “this is the people that are gonna be looking at this. Don’t miss the opportunity for your lawyers that have done particular posts in different areas. Get it in here and then just see what it’s all about”. Yeah, I think it’s going to be pretty cool. And I think you may have influenced Bob on an idea when we said we needed to make sure more layers are coming into the community with their blogs and you said, “you should have a contest”. I believe.
Molly: (11:43) I did. I think that is true.
Kevin: How have you enjoyed Clio? What do you think of this year?
Molly: This has been great. I had not been to the two conferences in New Orleans. And this has just grown exponentially, but the energy hasn’t waned. Jack Newton said in his closing that he, you know, “fears how he’s going to top the next one”. They’ve really done that as a team every single year. I don’t even know it. I’m not sure it’s topping it as much as just delivering that same energy and excitement, enthusiasm, leaving with good ideas and good interactions.
Kevin: Puts up the picture of 140 people. So I’m sitting there thinking, “how does any legal or legal tech conference compete with 140 passionate, driven people right on the ground that they’re taking pride in this thing?”. Cause they feel part of this.
Molly: I’m sure that doesn’t even include all the folks, you know, back at their home offices doing support.
Kevin: It is really a cool phenomenon. And then to realize that these guys aren’t lawyers. I mean, Jack is not a lawyer, but he talks about the synergy in the way he looks at passion and centric and doing things and learning things from lawyers as to how he can help them and the profession to do better in a way to do things. It’s a pretty cool thing. You’ll be coming back next year maybe?
Molly: Yes, I would love to come back.
Kevin: You should.
Molly: San Diego is an easy choice for me. One of my hometowns.
Kevin: Maybe we can do something with inviting bloggers and having them talk about their blogs and have you talk to them. It’d be very cool.
Molly: That would be very alright.
Kevin: Thank you. Thank you very much. That was great.
Molly: Thanks, Kevin.