June 28, 2012

U.S. Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr. wasn’t the only one who choked during the Supreme Court’s health care hearings this past March: Max Mallory remembers ruefully the toll exacted on SCOTUSblog’s servers by Web readers hungry for updates.

“We went from receiving 40,000, 50,000 hits to receiving a million hits in a couple of days,” he said by telephone. “Our servers were overwhelmed. We never went down for an entire day but service slowed so much.”

This morning, the Supreme Court is expected to issue one of its most anticipated opinions since Bush v. Gore, on four points concerning the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare). Mallory is SCOTUSblog’s deputy manager and the guy responsible for making sure it’s able to handle what promises to be an epic traffic spike.

Mallory graduated from Sarah Lawrence College in 2011 with a humanities concentration and zero Web experience. It’s up to him to communicate with developers and coders about what SCOTUSblog needs, then convey the information to site publisher Tom Goldstein, who is disconcertingly well-informed about Web technology. When Goldstein tasked him with figuring out how to keep the site going on heavy days, “It wasn’t enough for me to hear what the developers were saying and then come up with some sort of half-correct understanding to tell Tom,” Mallory said.

SCOTUSblog’s backbone is WordPress, which it’s used since 2003. Mallory’s team first tried tinkering around the margins — compressing image files, for instance. It quickly became evident that incremental change wasn’t going to help. Going into the first day the health care ruling could have come down, a “big spike” in traffic flooded SCOTUSblog again. The site stayed up, but it was slow.

Part of the problem was how huge SCOTUSblog’s database has become. The site’s generated roundups, analyses, podcasts, calendars, interviews and more since 2002, all of which its dedicated readers expect to remain available. It used to serve a rarefied audience of hardcore court-watchers, but in recent years it’s become exponentially popular with people who want to know what the court has decided.

That’s due in part to the growing Web popularity of SCOTUSblog’s 81-year-old reporter Lyle Denniston, who’s become sort of a Betty White figure for wonks. Writing in The Washington Post Wednesday, Sarah Kliff profiled Denniston and discussed with him her own experience of trying to help the #teamlyle hashtag trend on Twitter.

“It sounds like if you get mentioned a number of times, with a hashtag, you end up trending,” Denniston told me. I told him that was accurate.

“Does that get me a cup of coffee?” Denniston asked.

I informed him that it did not, but did bring some Internet fame and glory.

“Oh, okay,” he responded.

The other factor contributing to SCOTUSblog’s popularity is that the Supreme Court is not really set up for the needs of Web newsgatherers.

“There is one press copy of all case filings, which may be copied in the pressroom during business hours for 10 cents a page,” its guide for reporters says. Computers and devices aren’t allowed in the pressroom (don’t even think about cameras), and as Denniston pointed out in a post Wednesday, even the formatting of the court’s opinions resist easy summation.

So Denniston and Editor Amy Howe have devised a two-step ballet: He runs from the pressroom to his office to deliver her information via Skype, which she types up and posts. SCOTUSblog has lawyers on-call to help make sense of opinions, Goldstein — who like Howe is a lawyer — told David Taintor for his recent profile of the site.

That leaves Mallory, as Goldstein joked on Monday, clutching “four sets of rosary beads” as many eyes turned to SCOTUSblog in anticipation of a health care ruling that never came. Before that, SCOTUSblog brought in several teams to completely rework the site and figure out a way to split its traffic onto different servers. It ended up with a page that looked like SCOTUSblog but was hosted elsewhere, with an embedded live blog and PDFs of previous stories served over cloud servers as links. The last team didn’t finish its work until this past Sunday, and the SCOTUSblog team nervously watched as readers began to run water through the new plumbing.

It held: The liveblog had 100,370 readers, and the site gathered 535,421 pageviews. More important, Mallory said, SCOTUSblog typically used between 50 and 80 percent of its allotted CPU usage on a heavy day. With the changes, it used between .2 and 1 percent, he said.

SCOTUSblog is Mallory’s part-time job; he’s employed full-time as the manager of Goldstein’s law firm. He loves the attention the blog’s been getting lately, especially as it’s been showered on Denniston. It ordered 20 T-shirts with the #teamlyle hashtag, but he said there are no plans to sell them. “We’re really not-for-profit at SCOTUSblog,” Mallory said. There may be a photo shoot of people wearing those in front of the court. Also, since I asked, he said he doesn’t in fact keep rosary beads on his desk. “I may have been having a stress migraine during the process,” he allowed.

Related: SCOTUSblog spent about $10,000 to keep site running during final days of Supreme Court term

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Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at TBD.com and managing editor of Washington City…
Andrew Beaujon

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