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New Journalism

SCOTUSblog publisher Tom Goldstein on winning the court press wars.

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Illustration by Tony Millionaire  

When you started SCOTUSblog in 2002, did you see an opening for more comprehensive Supreme Court coverage?
No, it had nothing to do with that. I had decided that I was going to be a Supreme Court litigator, and yet I had no experience before the Supreme Court. So the blog was a marketing ploy. In the beginning, we weren’t doing nearly as good of a job as the existing institutional press corps, which had started its retrenchment but wasn’t yet into collapse. There was still a serious UPI presence, a lot more national daily papers had a presence there, many more of the television networks had correspondents there. The Supreme Court press room used to be full.

How did you evolve from “marketing ploy” to Peabody Award–winning outfit?
When we hired Lyle Denniston, we radically changed our entire approach. Lyle has covered the court system for over 50 years for newspapers and is a journalist through and through, and that’s become just baked into what we are. Now there’s been a very significant retrenchment of resources journalistically at the Supreme Court, and we’re going in the opposite direction. For a while, I was paying a quarter of a million dollars a year out of pocket to finance what it is that we were doing, and then we got Bloomberg Law as a sponsor and now we’re able to spend a half-million dollars a year. We’re putting more work into covering the Supreme Court than anyone in history.

What’s your relationship like with the Supreme Court press corps?
That has changed dramatically over the past twelve months. From Obamacare on­­—when we had 1 million people on the blog simultaneously on decision day­—there has been a radical shift, to the point where the mainstream press regards us as an extreme threat. Our external press citations are down. You can see it on Twitter as well. While we’ll regularly retweet pieces by other people, and we have the roundup every day of the rest of the press corps, the reverse isn’t true at all.

And we can track the IP use. Anyone in the press corps will tell you that the Supreme Court press room is now, except on decision day, completely empty, because everybody works from their bureaus just using our blog. So it’s a very odd situation in which they make unbelievable use of the blog but really don’t want to do anything that promotes it. That’s not true for cable television. Cable TV doesn’t give a shit. But the newspapers and the wires treat us as competitors.

Did you see that change coming?
It’s weird, because I know these people. I kind of grew up with them. The Supreme Court press corps on some level made me as a Supreme Court advocate. I didn’t go to Harvard or Yale, I didn’t clerk in the Supreme Court, I didn’t work in the solicitor general’s office. My path to developing a personal profile that let me develop a Supreme Court practice initially—I really owe it to them.

What does the institutional press do better than you?
Newspapers qua newspapers have the opportunity to have a strong editorial voice, the New York Times editorial board, the Washington Post editorial board, the Wall Street Journal editorial board. But I show up and argue two or three cases a year, and I am loath to have the justices think about the blog as a thing that is intended to try and change their views. So I think an editorial voice is an advantage I’m just going to have to leave to the newspapers.

SCOTUSblog has never received Supreme Court press credentials despite trying to get them repeatedly.
There was a time when we actually prepared to sue the Supreme Court over the credential thing, and it was mostly because I was in love with the name of the lawsuit: SCOTUSblog v. SCOTUS. But we don’t begrudge them not issuing a press credential to a practicing lawyer. We don’t have this super-postmodern view of “there are no more journalists, there are citizen reporters.” We’re perfectly comfortable with a world in which there are journalists.


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