Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Misunderstood? West Publishing as Content Provider

I read with interest this morning, Simon Chester's interesting post on SLAW about Thomson Reuters' Bold Leap to become a software company. It's an interesting piece that gives additional perspective on the announcements TR made at the recent blogger event in St Paul and blogged about by many worthy commentators, such as +Jean O'Grady, +Jason Wilson and +Greg Lambert, to name a few.

The over-arching theme of the reactions to TR's announcement that they now see themselves primarily as a "software solutions" company as opposed to a "content" company is that this is a departure from what West Publishing once was. While I agree the announcement is significant, it's also an interesting glimpse into their own self-image problems.

While it is true that on the surface, West has always been primarily a "content" company, there's a significant misunderstanding about exactly what that means in the context of West Publishing Company. Most observers, lawyers and librarians tend to see West as the producer of the National Reporter System, Digests and Westlaw as their bread and butter. And because each product is so large, it's easy to see them as the primary things they do, produce content. Encyclopedias, treatises, and educational materials pale in volume so seem minor within the West universe of business. It appears that West has always seen themselves in this light, too.

But if you look more closely at their catalog over the years, the most significant product of all is rarely mentioned or given the light of day. While the National Reporter System made West's millions and billions, it would have failed without a method for using the materials. From the start, West's Topic and Key Number System was the thing that actually made the reporters useable and made the company a success. At the turn of the 19th Century Chancellor James Kent complained about the proliferation of case law proclaiming that so many cases were being published that it was driving our legal system into ruin. The rise of the great treatises and encyclopedias of that century were partly a response to that general complaint. West Publishing in its early days was all about publishing more cases, not fewer, so there needed to be tools that facilitated the use of the case law. The Topic & Key Number System and Digests provided the indexing needed to make the case law accessible.  All the secondary materials that West produced over the years were crucial commentary that gave sense to the mass of cases produced by West.

The content produced by West, all the primary case law and statutes was not West's main product at all, it was their indexing, commentary and, later, computer algorithms (squirrelly as the are!) that facilitated lawyers and scholars access to the primary law that they needed. There are twelve million published cases. The fact is, without systems and services that facilitate their use, simply publishing twelve million cases is worthless. Therefore, West's main product over the years, wasn't primary law, or even the secondary materials, it was their indexing structure and systems that made that primary law useful.

Perhaps West was a service company all along and just didn't know it.... All along, West has been fighting with potential competitors who came along and tried to publish the cases. They defended their pagination in attempt to strengthen their hegemony in the field of publication of case law when all along it wasn't really their strong suit: it was their finding tools.

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