I joined LexBlog in January with the goal of helping it launch a global news and commentary network based on content from legal blogs. In furtherance of that goal, we announced in April that we are opening participation in the network to all legal blogs, without cost and without regard to whether the blog is a LexBlog customer.
Since then, I’ve been wrestling with a thorny question: Are there legal blogs that we should exclude from the network and, if so, what standards should guide us in deciding which to exclude?
There are two sides to this issue.
On one hand, I am a First Amendment purist. I believe that lawyers who blog should have complete editorial freedom and discretion to write about whatever they want. To be clear: LexBlog exerts no editorial control over the content of the posts you read on LexBlog — they are solely the product of the lawyers and firms that publish them.
On the other hand, we are creating an editorial product that we hope will provide value to readers. To accomplish that, we aspire to adhere to editorial standards befitting our readership. While we would never be involved in the content of specific posts, we can exercise discretion in the selection of blogs that participate in our network.
To my mind, providing editorial content of value means, among other things, excluding blogs that are primarily spam. Of the blogs that have applied to join our network so far, we have rejected at least two because they struck us as overt spam with no editorial value.
You’ve all seen these kinds of lawyer blogs. They are loaded with SEO keywords about accidents and victims, followed by a call to action to hire an “experienced (fill-in-the-blank) lawyer.”
But I am also noticing a grey area of blogs that walk a fine line between marketing spam and legitimate content.
Editorially, legal blogs are two-headed creatures. They are valuable vehicles for publishing legitimate news and commentary. But they are also, in most cases, marketing tools designed to increase exposure and draw in business.
Whether explicitly or not, almost every blog post written by a lawyer is meant to send the message, “Hire me!” Relatively few legal blog posts cross the line into pure spam, but the majority of them are marketing, even if subliminal.
Justice Potter Stewart famously wrote of obscenity, “I know it when I see it.” As someone who has spent most of my career in publishing and journalism, I can say the same about spam.
But, in fairness to those who submit their blogs to us, can we define an explicit standard to guide our acceptance or rejection? Where do we draw that line?
I asked the editors of the ABA Journal whether they apply any criteria to screen the blogs they include in their Blawg Directory, which lists more than 4,500 law blogs. Sarah Mui, assistant managing editor (Web), said that they do not apply quality criteria. She primarily checks that it is, in fact, a law blog, and that it is active.
The closest they have to “quality” criteria, Mui said, are those that they apply when accepting nominations to their annual Blawg 100:
- We’re primarily interested in blogs in which the author is recognizable as someone working in a legal field or studying law in the vast majority of his or her posts.
- The blog should offer insights into the practice of law and be of interest to legal professionals or law students.
- The majority of the blog’s content should be unique to the blog and not cross-posted or cut and pasted from other publications.
- We are not interested in blogs that more or less exist to promote the author’s products and services.
That last bullet begs the very question I’m wrestling with. In the end, perhaps the only workable standard is no standard, but rather to rely on the “I know it when I see it” exercise of editorial judgment and discretion.
I would love to hear from you. Should there be an explicit standard for accepting or rejecting law blogs as part of our network? If so, what should it be? When does a blog cross the line from editorial legitimacy to objectionable spam?