The launch of a digital version of the Ontario Reports is a clear sign that the existing business model for the print publication that is truly the heart and soul of the legal profession in Ontario is beginning to falter. New thinking is required if the Ontario Reports are not to wither on the vine.
It is common knowledge that the Ontario Reports are funded by a combination of advertising revenue and sales of subscriptions to the hard bound volumes that are published six times a year.
With the downturn in the economy, advertising revenues have been flat at best, while subscription sales to the bound volumes are collapsing as the legal profession abandons print as the source of case law research. At the same time, the cost of publishing, shipping and handling of the weekly parts in print continues to rise.
While the publication almost certainly continues to profitable for the Law Society, the time has come to take risks and transform the Ontario Reports from the print social medium that it is, to the online social medium that it could become. Failure to do so in a creative and timely manner could have the result of triggering the eventual demise of the Ontario Reports as better internet alternatives are developed by commercial publishers to take their place.
The Ontario Reports are not just another case law reporter
It would be a mistake to consider the Ontario Reports as just another case law reporter. Rather, they are primarily the vehicle that lawyers use to communicate with each other in Ontario, i.e., they are in reality the established “social medium” for lawyers in a print format.
The key communications device used in the Ontario Reports is display advertising. Much maligned but much read, the seemingly endless pages of advertising that commentators frequently complain about, are nonetheless universally recognized as the best means of reaching every lawyer in Ontario every week.
Display advertising in the Ontario Reports is the means used by the Law Society to communicate with its members. Whether the communications are announcements by the Law Society regarding the services it offers to its members or announcements of upcoming continuing education programs, it is still advertising.
The display advertising section is also home to advertisements by law firms of vacancies and of announcements of new partners or hires. Completing the list are legal publishers and other suppliers of services to the legal profession who also view the Ontario Reports as the preferred means of reaching their customers.
Advertising revenue is critical to the Ontario Reports. It pays the cost of producing and distributing the publication in print. The advertising revenue generated by the Ontario Reports is based on the fact that the print publication reaches every lawyer in Ontario every week. Needless to say, maintaining that revenue is a key objective.
Interestingly enough, the content of the Ontario Reports is exactly the content mix that commercial publishers dream about having to use as a base for creating an advertising based social medium for the legal profession. Working with commercial publishers who are primarily concerned with developing competing products may no longer be an option for the Law Society.
As a case law reporter, the Ontario Reports are a dinosaur
Face facts, as a case law reporter, the Ontario Reports are a dinosaur. The Ontario Reports are not and will never be a current awareness service for case law research. Nor will the Ontario Reports ever provide access to all of the cases required for the practice of law. They never did. However, as a vehicle for continuing legal education, the Ontario Reports provide an important service to members of the legal profession in Ontario.
The case law component of the Ontario Reports might be better understood if the weekly “Part” were viewed as one of a series of ongoing supplements to case books used in law schools. Selected by a credible editorial board, and read consistently over time, the weekly Parts provide a means of keeping up with new developments in a particular subject area of the law. As such, the Ontario Reports are meant to be skimmed or read as each lawyer feels is necessary and then thrown into a recycling bin. Beginning and end of story.
In recent years, the educational component of the Ontario Reports has been dramatically strengthened by the addition of the summaries of Discipline Decisions and the Practice Updates. The Practice Updates alone should be required reading for anyone practicing law in Ontario.
Will the Ontario Reports make it as the internet social medium of choice for the legal profession?
While the migration of the Ontario Reports to the internet needs to be handled with care, it should not be done with excessive caution. I can understand the rationale behind tying the electronic version of the the Ontario Reports as closely as possible to the print version. At first glance, this would appear to provide the user with an internet option that does not in any way detract from the print.
This may be a big mistake. To create an internet vehicle that is ignored because it is too cumbersome, or because it fails to meet expectations, may actually result in the steady loss of readers and the loss of the display advertising that it was meant to retain. Done right, however, the Ontario Reports have the potential to be read more more frequently than before.
The initial reviews that I have seen from web commentators are not favourable. As at least one reviewer has said, the current online offering is “a case of a good idea gone bad” in that it fails to use the advanced functionality made possible by the digital environment. To restate an overused phrase, it may be necessary to “go big or go home”.
In migrating the Ontario Reports to the internet, a better approach might be to fully embrace the internet and exploit the content of the Ontario Reports to their full potential as a social medium. In the distant past, the Law Society has held conferences on state of the Ontario Reports and invited the leading lights in the field to offer their visions of the future of the Ontario Reports. That time has come again.