The forthcoming 2016 Law and Religion Scholars Network (LARSN) Conference on 5 and 6 May will include a plenary session, “Meet the authors and bloggers”, in which the editors of the Ecclesiastical Law Journal, Law & Justice and the Oxford Journal of Law & Religion – along with us – will discuss what we are looking for in terms of contributions (articles, comments and guest blogs), the focus of the journal / blog and how we see the study of Law and Religion developing. Coincidentally, on Easter Sunday we passed the 500,000 page-view milestone; so what follows is a prequel to our presentation, looking at the problems and pitfalls of communicating with up to a thousand potential readers through a couple of clicks of the mouse.
The experiences of a single blog in a niche area within the blogosphere are not necessarily typical; and since starting in 2012 both the format and content of L&RUK have undergone a gradual organic development. Rather than chart the development of the blog, however, this post considers what we believe it does now and the future directions it might take. Lord Reith said the role of the BBC was to “inform, educate, and entertain“. We do not blog with such criteria in mind – we would not be so presumptuous – but the headings provide a convenient framework for describing what we understand to be the differing functions of L&RUK: what we claim is “an academically-rigorous exploration of the interactions between law and religion, together with the associated human rights issues”.
It is inevitable that anything labelled as an “academic blog” will have a certain educational content; but it we would not dream of suggesting that the role of L&RUK is “to educate”. Writing the blog has been a learning experience for both of us as we have had to move out of our respective comfort zones – a necessity for any broad-based blog driven by external issues. Writing on what we have previously described as “the Graffiti Wall of Death” reflects both the uncertainty associated with publishing in areas that are sometimes unfamiliar to us and the importance of the instant peer-review from our readers, many of whom are specialists in the theory and practice of blog topics on which we are not. So blogging is a two-way process, with much important information coming from comments, guest posts and occasionally from those about whom we blog, and we hope that L&RUK provides a useful vehicle to explore and exchange ideas on current developments in this area of law.
Whilst we have been the primary initiators of published items, we place no restriction on the submission of guest posts and comments, always provided they conform to our terms and conditions, which are similar to those one can find in the “fine print” in almost any similar blog. The average length of a post is ~1,100 words, although they can vary from a few hundred works to several thousand, depending upon the complexity of the subject matter.
We are acutely conscious of the “TLDR” problem (“too long, didn’t read). On the other hand, we disagree strongly with the “TLDA” approach (“too long, don’t agree) highlighted (but discouraged) in a recent blog:
“What if I read a post and find that it clashes with my particular worldview? What if I waste precious seconds scanning through an article to find it’s by a conservative or a liberal when I don’t agree with their politics? I usually take care to make sure this doesn’t happen by carefully choosing what I read and where.”
Every now and then, reading something by someone with whom you usually disagree can be both salutary and educative – even if, having read it, you remain unconvinced. So our own daily background reading is quite catholic: the National Secular Society’s Media round-up is an early port of call for its comprehensive coverage of law and religion and il Bollettino provides the official view of what is happening oltre Tevere. Our own posts are frequently cited in the Church of England’s Daily Digest and the invaluable European Headlines of the US International Center for Law and Religion Studies.
In his excellent post Why some lawyers should blog, and why some should not, David Allen Green suggests that:
“Blogs which are mere pedestrian accounts of the law in the abstract that anyone could copy and paste from the same resources are of no interest to anyone, including the author. You will also need to do more than just posting the latest press release or lecture: such publications can be stilted and dull to read online, and that is because they were not written to be read on the internet.”
We would have a (very qualified) disagreement with that statement even if “mere” were replaced by “solely”. There are a number of “postbox” sites on religion and belief which forward on press releases and suchlike; however, we would argue that even though they do not add very much to their readers’ understanding of the law, they do provide an important resource for anyone seeking information focused on a specific area.
We tend to work on the assumption that readers will wish to follow the principle enunciated by W S Gilbert’s Don Alhambra del Bolero, that “A Grand Inquisitor is always up to date”. With that in mind, we quite often post a cut-and-paste “Stop Press” item and follow it with more detailed consideration in a subsequent post after we have had a chance to read around an area that may not be within our comfort zone. A prime example was the terse “Surprise resignation of Benedict XV“; on this, even the leading canon lawyer Ed Peters was forced to sum up the events of the sede vacante as:
“Beyond the barest of canonical points (Canon 332 §2), almost everything about Benedict’s future—his status under law (canonical and international), title(s), appropriate dress, relations with peers (assuming he has any), and so on and so on and so on—must be fashioned practically from scratch. One should not assume that any announcements being made about Benedict’s future are based on the authority of some arcane-but-accessible protocol tome for dealing with ex-popes, because there is no such tome. We’re making most of this up as we go.”
Although the Church gave little formal attention to these issues subsequently, if and when Pope Francis should decide to retire, we can all look back on our earlier notes.
In relation to religion and belief, Eccles is Saved and The Beaker Folk of Husborne Crawley with its associated Letters to the Church Magazine often provide not just entertainment but some very acute comment on current issues. However, it is not our aim to imitate them or to include topical cartoons and other material, not least because we are always conscious of the copyright implications of using anything which is not clearly in the public domain. Our posts in this area are restricted to the “And finally …” section that ends most of our weekly round-ups of the news, and the “End of Year Quiz” to amuse readers (we hope) over the Christmas/New Year period. Perhaps more importantly, though, we attempt to publish items that are readable by all those with an interest in law and religion.
Towards the next milestone
The most obvious facet of L&RUK that needs further development is to encourage more of those with an interest in law and religion to contribute comments and guest posts. We have written the bulk of posts to date ourselves, split almost equally, with only about 4% from guest authors.
If there were ever an area in which material “goes off” between the initial writing and final publication it must be academic law: remember all those wise commentaries on the Chamber judgment in Lautsi v Italy about how the ECtHR was striking a blow for respect for the individual, tolerance and religious pluralism – only to be dashed when the Grand Chamber reversed it?
The great advantage to potential authors of writing a blog post is almost instant publication – in comparison to the delay of several months common to most academic journals. We normally publish within a couple of days of receiving the copy, which is then available to our >600 daily readers and 900-odd Twitter followers (and to our 9,000-odd followers via the RSS feed, of whom maybe fifty might even be genuine: the rest just want to sell you their fake Rolexes or whatever).
In short, serious academic blogs such as L&RUK positively welcome guest posts from people who know their stuff. Guest posts provide a change of voice and a change of perspective and give the editors an occasional breathing-space. They also provide an opportunity for on-line publishing without having to run one’s own blog. And as we have found in our own academic work, frequent blogging on a specific issue provides a very useful aide-memoire for further research and writing, and it is not unknown for an item on L&RUK to reappear in an augmented form in an established law journal.
Our bottom line is to try so far as humanly possible to do what our strapline claims we do: “an academically-rigorous exploration… “. We don’t always get it right – and we are always delighted (if somewhat chastened) when a reader tells us exactly where we have got it wrong or supplements a post with valuable practical illustrations on the operation of the law. Though relatively infrequent, it is not unusual to be contacted personally by someone who has been mentioned in a post.
Blogging is pretty well instantaneous and we believe that just about the most useful service we can provide is current awareness. But current awareness carries its own pitfalls, of which the greatest is that one’s first thoughts may not be as accurate and helpful as something written after three months’ reflection and the chance to read around the topic. Unlike the printed word, however, errors and updates can be readily addressed ex post facto; so, though blogging can never be a substitute for the properly-researched, reflective journal article, we strongly believe that it is an increasingly important adjunct to it.
Though we are just as interested in making money as the next person, we continue to resist the temptation to accept advertising simply because most advertising on the Web is so toe-curlingly dreadful in content and intrusive to the reader that we just don’t want to go there. Likewise, we do not intend to restrict the content of our posts with “subscribe to read more”, nor do we intend to hold out a begging-bowl. Ultimately, we do this for fun (fun???) and, as it says on Facebook, “It’s free and always will be”.
David Pocklington and Frank Cranmer