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Organizing the Lawternet: The Intersection of Legacy Publishing & Open Source

Over the last couple of years, I’ve been concerned about, and relatively unforgiving in my dislike of, the idea of law blogs, specifically lawyer-generated blogs, as a bellwether for legal publishing. Some have taken me to task, at least partially, for it. Nevertheless, I’ve remain annoyed by the chorus of social media marketers exalting the virtues of blog content (and social media streams) as a means of differentiating one from the herd. And no one has been more vocal about this than Kevin O’Keefe, the founder of the LexBlog network, which “partners with clients to develop custom social media solutions and strategies that create powerful Internet identities.”

In fact, one of Kevin’s posts earlier this year proclaiming the traditional legal publishing model could go up in smoke (the fire being blogs) is, more or less, representative of his long-standing position on the matter:

We’re seeing that getting published in legal journals, periodicals, treatises, and manuals is no longer needed to build a reputation as a subject matter expert. In the Internet age, we have blogs. We also have sharing of content from legal blogs across other social media (Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook) to further establish one’s reputation as a trusted and reliable authority.

It may take a little time to play out, but it sure seems to me that the legal publishing model of LexisNexis and Thomson Reuters is no longer sustainable in the Internet age.

Kevin has been preaching unsustainability for years now. Last year we were looking to see legal publishers threatened by blogs that would unbundle legal media and old publishing distribution channels. And years before that we were waiting for law blogs to follow the lead of Huffington Post as the new media darlings. And yet, five years later we’re still waiting for the duopoly to come unhinged.

Then six months later, as I was reviewing Kevin’s LXBN (pronounced “L-X-B-N”), it dawned on me that my position on this matter has been clouded by a nostalgic view of publishing, where our human intellectual capital met or exceeded the expectations of our customers rather than falling far below them. Back then we were more interested in organizing, sharing, and educating, than repackaging, repurposing, and reselling content. Now, legacy publishers have moved into the service industry where it seems digital tools are more important than editorial efforts and we are watching the pool of writers leaving for other pastures (I decline to call them “greener” just yet).

So, in an attempt to get a handle on this, I called Kevin to talk to him about law blogs, LXBN, and the future of legal content. Our conversation, while brief, gave me a better understanding of how one way legacy publishing might intersect with open source content (blogs) for a win-win arrangement.

One of my main concerns about the notion that law blogs are bellwethers has been this idea that they are—by design—more reactionary than, say, a practice manual, treatise, or law review article. Speed, meaning the lack of friction normally created by having to work with a publisher, is a great advantage to blog publishing, not to mention a potentially broader audience. The by-product is, of course, brand recognition, or in some more unfortunate cases, ridicule.

But it seems to me that directories like the LexBlog Network have encountered a problem. They have thousands of lawyers blogging now, writing content—good or bad—on countless topics. And most of it is reactionary, meaning its unstructured, and finding relevant content on Lexmonitor is much like finding apps in iTunes, hit or miss. [Fn. 1] So along comes LXBN to curate the “best posts” from the network, feature the bloggers who write consistently, and organize timely content. It’s the logical elevation from directory to news aggregator. But it still suffers from something legacy publishers have long recognized: writing about the law needs structure—it needs a taxonomy—for it to have long-term value.

West KeyNumber systems aside, legacy publishers are sitting on a huge taxonomy of the law with all the analytical resources they have (read: tables of contents, indexes). But what could happen if those taxonomies were opened to the public, and with universal IDs that referred back to the legacy content? What if the legacy publishers could step in, offer up a way to organize the web of blog posts, and make them relatable and discoverable in a way that they aren’t now?

It seems to me that the blog networks and the legacy publishers could find a way to organize all of this content that does two things: the content relies on the legacies’ very valuable structure and gives context to a particular blog post, while the legacies have universal IDs that they could then link to their own analytical content, allowing consumers to see current and possibly relevant blog posts on commentary, laws, etc., thus enhancing the overall network, even from behind a paywall.

The arrangement encourages lawyers to tag their content appropriately so they can not only be found through normal search, say through Google or Bing or their particular blog network like LexMonitor, but also through the legacies’ platforms. Legacies are encouraged to show the links because the content is valuable and enhances the otherwise suspended prose of a legal treatise, law review article, practice manual, code provision, or selection of cases. It’s a real chance to actually begin organizing the web, and not through search but rather through a mutual appreciation and respect for the value we all bring to the law.

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Fn. 1. I mention LexMonitor, but anyone who has ever used Lexis Web knows that findability of timely or useful blog content is problem we’ve yet to answer.

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