The announcement yesterday came as a shock. Eugene Volokh explained that his blawg, The Volokh Conspiracy, has “partnered” with the Washington Post. Some took the news with a quiet, abiding shrug. VC was primarily a libertarian quasi-conservative lawprof blog, often mired in Federalist politics which produced some fascinating discussions in the comments.
Indeed, if there was one aspect of VC that I found most important, it was the nature of the reader comments. VC was the gold standard for blog comments in the early years, having the most well-developed and thoughtful commentary in the blawgosphere. Unlike other lawprof blogs, its readers tended to span the spectrum, and their comments covered the practical as well as the theoretical. In the past few years, they’ve gone the way of the rest of us, with the loony edging out the thoughtful.
But now, as a part of the Washington Post “network,” a seismic shift in the blawgosphere is happening.
1. For the first six months, you can access the blog for free. We negotiated that with the Post, by giving up likely about half of our share of the advertising revenue for that time. (Six months is the longest we could get.)
2. Even after the six months, the blog will be outside the paywall for any .edu and .gov readers. If you are an .edu and .gov user, but want to access the blog from home, you will be able to do that just by registering for a free account. (Indeed, that’s true for all Washington Post content.)
3. The first 10 page accesses per month to Washington Post material will be free, so if you’re an occasional reader, you’ll likely be able to read the blog the familiar way.
Which means, for those of us who do not have a .edu or .gov email, were regular readers of both posts and comments, and don’t plan to pay the Washington Post, the Volokh Conspiracy is gone.
Over the years, I’ve come to think of Eugene and Orin Kerr as friends. Despite our different views of the law, I’ve come to respect and appreciate their posts and the ideas they’ve brought to the table. It’s been enriching for me. And in six months, I will be shut out.
Josh Blackman has already raised a number of issues about what this shift could mean, both for VC and blawging in general, with which I agree (see Josh, I don’t always disagree with you). But his view here also differs from mine:
Also, there is an important, unstated boost for all legal bloggers. The incentive to get a cross-link from Volokh/WaPo has just multiplied by a lot. Today, a link from Volokh, or Instapundit, may generate a few thousand hits in a day. That benefit will increase significantly.
There is also the issue of the paywall. I have been flirting with paying for a WaPo subscription for some time. I already pay for the Times, and it seems annoying to have to pay for two newspapers, but Volokh may push me over the threshold. Plus, with the addition of Radley Balko, who will also probably sit behind a paywall, the balkanized internet emerges (a strong net neutrality irony there).
A lesson learned from being linked by Glenn Reynolds (Instapundit) is that it can bring a huge number of day-tripper readers, but they aren’t readers anyone wants and, frankly, more likely to be trolls and nutjobs than anything else. Where Josh sees opportunity to enjoy fame, I see the nightmare of dealing with a tidal wave of whackos. And while VC will have ten times the number of comments, they will be worthless comments. Josh has a lot to learn about numbers.
But Josh raises the Radley Balko card, as he too has gone to the dark side by teaming up with WaPo. This presents a different issue for me, as Radley is a writer, not a lawyer or lawprof. His job is to write, and when he left blogging for the HuffPo, he did so in furtherance of his chosen occupation. Now that he’s moved to the next platform, his reason is no less legitimate. He’s allowed to earn a living by writing for whoever pays him. This is America, dammit.
A while back, SCOTUSBlog shifted from blog to business. It made sense for Tom Goldstein to take Bloomberg Law’s sponsorship, as it had long since shifted from blog to niche resource. There was money to be made, and there is nothing wrong with Goldstein making it. Not that I was inclined to provide free services to help him make it, but I was cool with his choice.
And yet, this move by VC doesn’t strike me as having any similarity to what Balko or Goldstein did. Sure, it eliminates the cost of maintaining the blog (which, I might add, is not insubstantial), and will likely provide some walking around money. But Eugene (and the other conspirators) gets a lawprof’s paycheck, and won’t miss a meal without his cut from the Washington Post ad revenue.
Venkat Balasumbramani’s reaction was that the Volokh Conspiracy won’t last 12 months. “They’ll fragment or go their separate ways.” Of course, when the Volokh Conspiracy is Balkanized behind the WaPo paywall, it really won’t matter whether they stick it out or fragment. It will be a huge loss of a foundational blawg that has given enormously to the blawgosphere.
Maybe Eugene can post a picture of Jeff Bezos delivering his split of the advertising revenue by drone as a way to remember what the Volokh Conspiracy once was.
And lest anyone be concerned, I am unaware of any entity, WaPo, HuffPo, Bloomberg Law, showing any interest in sponsoring or partnering with any criminal law blog. We will remain aloof from corporate involvement and, unfortunately, blawg without profit.