When Volokh Met Bezos

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.

31 comments on “When Volokh Met Bezos

  1. Tim Cushing

    One thing’s for sure: Stewart Baker’s going to love this new platform from which to dispense pro-NSA rants while belittling people for caring about their civil liberties and privacy.

    1. stavro375

      As a liberal myself, I see the VC the same way I see broccoli: unpleasant at times, but (intellectually) healthy. But I view Stewart Baker (or, at least, his recent writings) like dirt: avoid consuming if at all possible.

    2. Gabriel

      Well, the WP platform will at least put paid to his strategy of disabling comments so that people can actually call him out on the garbage he writes.

  2. Dan

    I was truly surprised yesterday when my browser did some weird kind of re-route over to the Washington Post. I don’t plan on reading it much anymore, because something about this move rubs me the wrong way, but I am interested in waiting to see how long it takes for the commentary to become regular ol’ internet commentary (mostly trite, racist garbage). But then I wonder whether the conspirators will care. They’ll still be writing their posts. Some would occasionally wade into the comments (Vokokh, Kerr and Bernstein come to mind) but others, not so much.

  3. John Burgess

    I’ll enjoy VC for the next six months, likely on a rapidly diminishing basis given the tenor of WaPo comments. I’m heartened, however, by Eugene’s statement that if the experiment doesn’t work, he can bring the blog back to its earlier form — and status, I hope.

  4. Scott K

    The announcement says the RSS feed will continue to be available. You don’t get comments via RSS, but in this case, that’s a win. That’s how I plan to read it from now on.

    1. SHG Post author

      It’s certainly better than nothing, but it’s not the same. More than that, without interaction, it’s punditry, not blawging.

  5. Jim Tyre

    I asked Orin whether the Terms of Use would change. Oddly, he never answered. These terms:

    [Orin Kerr, November 28, 2008 at 1:19pm] Trackbacks
    New Terms of Use for the Volokh Conspiracy:
    In light of the verdict in the Lori Drew case, I have decided to promulgate new Terms of Use for the Volokh Conspiracy. You are only permitted to visit the Volokh Conspiracy if you are in compliance with the Terms of Use. Any accessing the Volokh Conspiracy in a way that violates these terms is unauthorized, and according to the Justice Department is a federal crime that can lead to your arrest and imprisonment for up to one year for every visit to the blog.

    By visiting this blog, you promise that:
    1. You will not post comments that are abusive, profane, or irrelevant. Civil and relevant comments only, as indicated by our comment policy.

    2. You are not an employee of the U.S. government. Yes, that includes postal service employees, law clerks, judges, and interns. We’re a libertarian-leaning blog, and we’re for the private sector only. Government types, keep out.

    3. Your middle name is not “Ralph.” I’ve always thought Ralph was a funny name, and even odder as a middle name. No one with the middle name “Ralph” is welcome here.

    4. You’re super nice. We have strict civility rules here, and this blog is only for people who are super nice. If you are not super nice, as judged by me, your visit to this blog is unauthorized.

    5. You have never visited Alaska. Okay, this one is totally arbitrary, but it’s our blog and we can keep out who we want. Alaska visitors are out, too.
    If you post an abusive comment; you are an employee of the U.S. government; your middle name is Ralph; you’re not super nice, as judged by me; or you have visited Alaska, I have kinda bad news for you: You are a criminal, as you have just violated 18 U.S.C. 1030(a)(2)(C) by accessing the Volokh Conspiracy’s service without authorization or in excess of authorization. You are only authorized to visit the blog in compliance with the Terms of Use, and by violating these terms you have become a criminal by essentially “hacking in” to the Volokh Conspiracy.

    Anyway, those are our new Terms of Use; it’s our service, so we get to set them as we want them. Meanwhile, have a safe and happy Thanksgiving weekend, everyone.

    1. SHG Post author

      Heh. I remember when he did that. I was going to complain about it, but I’ve been to Alaska and didn’t want to end up in prison. Lori Drew hadn’t been decided yet. Then again, Weev hasn’t been decided on appeal either.

  6. Bob Ambrogi

    As I read Eugene’s post, you won’t get “shut out” after six months. He says “all readers will still be able to read all the posts” via the RSS feed, Facebook and Twitter. So load The Conspiracy into Feedly or whichever feed reader you prefer and read away, even after six months.

    1. SHG Post author

      So I’m guessing you didn’t read this comment, just a wee bit above yours? It’s probably just a tech glitch that made it invisible on your screen. Dontcha just hate those tech glitches?

        1. SHG Post author

          More seriously, RSS is better than nothing but it’s not the same. Is that all that will be left of the blawgosphere, a feed? Is that good enough for you? Would you have written for Legal Feed Watch?

  7. stavro375

    I don’t begrudge VC’s decision to move — I have no right to consume high-quality blawgs for free, and understand if Volokh wants to monetize his writings — but for all his talk of “editorial independence” I can’t help but wonder about what would happen if “Amazon v. Group Amazon is Suing Under a Dangerous but Sound Legal Theory” reaches the Supreme Court.

  8. James

    If you get a limited number of articles for ‘free’ every month, then putting your browser into ‘privacy’ or ‘incognito’ mode should get you around the paywall as well.

  9. Neil

    As a non-lawyer who reads this blog, it strikes me that defense lawyers must communicate to a fixed audience, where either the audience is captive to the lawyer, or the lawyer is the captive of the audience. Consequently, they do not develop the skills to deal with the volatile and elastic audience the internet delivers. I hope this statement does not make me guilty of Libel, Libel Libel!!!

    Those in the Shiny Toys business will tell customers that ‘Online interactions are not rated by the ESRB’ . That does not mean they do not care about those Online interactions, or that those interactions are not important to their commercial success. For this reason, studios such as Riot Games, the producers of League of Legends, find it fit to hire ‘Lead Social Systems Designers’. These people have the job of tackling the poor behavior within the product’s audience.

    A search for ‘League of Legends Honor Design’ would take you to interesting examples, if SHG decides to delete the following link.
    http://forums.na.leagueoflegends.com/board/showthread.php?t=2660000

    With the recognition that some minds are bent to influencing these interactions, you may start to recognize it as a wide spread phenomena. Why does Amazon ask you if a particular reviewer’s comment was helpful to you? Is this only to help sales, or does it solve other problems as well?

    VC was the gold standard for blog comments in the early years, having the most well-developed and thoughtful commentary in the blawgosphere.

    Is this just going to remain a happy but historical accident, or are you going to do something about it? Must my off topic comment permanently keep it’s position within the layout of this page?

    To date, your efforts to protect the borders of your blog from the tinfoil-hatted horde resemble a bored border guard, tormenting the unfortunate. So if you ask me, “Papers, Please” – I have no credentials to show. However, I pay attention to the artists who try to tackle the issues you pose within your blog, such as in your post titled ‘The Content of Their Character’. Those who actually play “Papers, Please” will be much more aware of the breadth of expression enabled by the internet and it’s associated Shiny Toys. Thus educated, I think they will reach a different conclusion then you did in your prior blog post.

    You do not have to abandon the gold standard, and not all internet lessons are to be found within the Washington Post.

    Glory to Arstotzka,
    Neil

    1. SHG Post author

      It’s not nearly as much fun playing bored border guard as people think. It’s difficult at time, and it’s barely effective at keeping the tinfoil-hatted horde away. But the alternative would be unacceptable and violate one of my cardinal premises of not being the purveyor of ideas that make people stupider.

      Others differ, and that’s fine. Just not in my home.

      The audience isn’t as fixed as you might think. I’m still surprised by how many new people who discover SJ every day, some of whom want to recreate it (and its rules) to suit their preferences. This is partially accidental and partially due to the influx of new blood to the internet. Because it’s new to them, they assume it’s a blank slate and they get to write whatever they want upon it. They think they “get” the rules, and they believe whatever gravitas they carry over from the real world is magically transmitted across the interwebz. Sometimes it is. Most times, it’s not.

      Part of my issue with Volokh’s decision is that I see the best parts of the blawgosphere fading away, and I don’t like what I see replacing it. I may be wrong, and it may work out fine. But I’ve been around here long enough to venture a pretty good guess as to what will happen. As Joni Mitchell sang, “you don’t know what you got till it’s gone.”

  10. Steve Tower

    WapPo’s paywall is incredibly easy to maneuver around, for anyone concerned about access. A quick google search with show you 5 or 6 separate ways of doing it.

  11. Robert David Graham

    “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.”

    Unless you are like me, and simply ignore the paywall and read the content anyway. I don’t even know how I evade WaPo’s paywall. I suspect it’s probably the fact that most of my browsing is done in the “incognito” window in Chrome, which discards the cookies. It’s cookies that track whether you’ve read your 10 article limit, so if you aren’t saving the cookies, they can’t track how many articles you’ve read.

    Though, this may mean that I might start not commenting on their posts, since I’d need to be logged in with cookies to comment.

    1. SHG Post author

      I know that I can circumvent the paywall easily enough, but that’s not the point. The point is VC is gone as a blog. They can still call it a blog, but it’s not. And I suspect that for all my disappointment at seeing it go this way, I’ll still read it because it’s worthwhile, but it won’t be the same.

      And that’s really what I mean when I write that it’s gone. Even if it’s still there to be read. Come to think of it, I don’t know that I really want to circumvent the WaPo paywall. And I surely don’t want to pay WaPo for the pleasure.

  12. Carolyn Elefant

    Maybe this is where blogging is going? A victim of its own success. I am not sure that niche blogs or privately run blogs can ever keep up with corporate-sponsored sites.

    1. SHG Post author

      I’m waiting for Bloomberg Law to make me an offer I can’t refuse. Hey Mayor, the lines are open and operators are standing by.

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