As the Supreme Court wraps up its term and rules on its most high-profile cases, SCOTUSblog has become an invaluable guide for those trying to make sense of the court’s rulings.
Last Thursday, the blog — where the Supreme Court’s decisions are reported in real time — peaked at 70,000 readers. On Monday, when the Court ruled on Arizona’s controversial immigration law and Montana’s challenge to Citizens United, the blog had more than 100,000 readers on the site.
The site is spending more than $10,000 to handle the increased audience this week, and efforts to bolster the site’s infrastructure began almost immediately after the Supreme Court’s oral arguments on President Obama’s health care law. “We received such a crush of traffic on those three days, it became clear that the blog needed to be upgraded if it was going to handle what would be even more traffic,” deputy manager Max Mallory told TPM. The site hired a firm to redo a lot of the code that drives the blog, publisher Tom Goldstein wrote on Monday. Over the weekend, he hired another firm to do even more work under the hood. In fact, Goldstein said his team has been so busy maintaing the blog, he didn’t even notice the Twitter buzz surrounding it.
“The Court is so bad at conveying information about what it’s doing, if someone can helpfully step in in a way that’s free and accessible, people really appreciate it,” Goldstein told TPM, explaining the blog’s increased traffic. “We’re just nothing but incredibly appreciative.”
The blog covers the Court’s decisions live by convening a conference call at 9 a.m. on decision days, holding it open until every decision is out. Several major news outlets, including the New York Times and NBC News, are also on the call. The blog’s veteran Supreme Court reporter Lyle Denniston sits in the press room and receives the opinions from the Court’s public information officer. Amy Howe, a lawyer and co-founder of the blog, does most of the transcribing. Other lawyers on the blog help make sense of the opinions, Goldstein said. The site has three full-time employees, two half-time staffers and about 10 frequent contributors. “Now that so much is happening in real time, the stakes seem so much higher, I’ve taken more of a firmer hand on what we’re doing moment to moment,” Goldstein said. He expects Thursday, when the Court is set to rule on “Obamacare,” to be the blog’s biggest day for the next 10 years.
The increased attention has vaulted Denniston to mini-celebrity status. Denniston, 81, has been covering the Supreme Court for 54 years. He started at SCOTUSblog in February 2004, after retiring from the Boston Globe. He left the Baltimore Sun before that in 2001. Supporters announce their enthusiasm for his reporting with a #teamlyle hashtag. The blog is even printing t-shirts bearing the hashtag.
“It is delightful to discover, after all of these years laboring in relative obscurity, to be noticed by anybody — especially by a medium that I don’t even understand!” Denniston told TPM in an email.
Denniston stands out because he has adapted so well to the blog form. “It is the unbelievable good fortune for us that Lyle is such a good fit for our model,” Goldstein said. While Denniston seldom tweets and has “no idea how Facebook works,” technology has made the work of legal reporting easier, he said. “I used to spend lots of effort (and money) trying to get documents by mail or by fax, and now virtualy everything I want is online, and either is free or at very little cost. I also have discovered, in the blogging community, that people are mutually supportive, and the dog-eat-dog atmosphere of daily newspaper journalism is blessedly absent. The blogosphere is truly a village.”
“My colleagues at the blog leave me almost entirely alone, which I prefer, so I make my own assignments, follow my own deadlines, and write what I want when I want,” he added. ”What could be better for any journalist?”
David Taintor is TPM’s News Editor. He contributes to TPM’s Livewire coverage, among other areas. David is from Chanhassen, Minnesota, where, yes, it gets very cold. Reach him at taintor [at] talkingpointsmemo.com