Here’s a tip for law students: read the dissenting opinion first. Assuming you can glean the facts of the case from the dissenting opinion (and, if not, then skim the main opinion until you have the gist of the case), you should start with dissent. Why?
First, law professors love to quiz students on the dissenting author’s views. More importantly, reading the dissenting opinion first will help you quickly grasp the key aspects of the case (the dissent doesn’t have to tell the whole boring story of the case like the majority opinion does, but it does have to work harder to convince you, which is why it is usually more focused on the key points in dispute). Also, but less important, the disseting opinion is often shorter than the majority opinion so it’s a good way to grasp the case issues quickly.
This concept of ‘reading the dissent first’ is applicable to weblogs. In fact, I’d say it is a large reason why reading certain kinds of weblogs makes news gathering more efficient. Reading opinion blogs changes the news gathering process from one where the reader is a ‘passive receptor’ to one where she is an active participant. Here’s what I mean.
Let’s say that Instapundit writes a short post taking issue with something written by New York Times writer Maureen Dowd (I know, this is highly unlikely). If I had read Maureen Dowd’s column first I would likely be reading it passively, or at least more passively than I would if I had come to it armed with an opposing viewpoint.
But that’s a bad example of how this process leads to efficiency because an Op-Ed piece isn’t a long document and it probably takes as much time to read Instapundit’s dissent as it does to read a Dowd pontification. The news-gathering efficiency factor goes up when you get the following conditions: (1) the original article is significantly longer than the blog post that criticizes it, (2) the critic has special expertise in the subject he or she is criticizing, and, not a requisite, but it helps if (3) the original author is simply a journalist and not an expert.
The articles you read in the mainstream press are rarely written by an expert, and even less rarely attempt to take one side of a debate. So, naturally, the stuff you read in the typical newspaper is filled with mushy analysis —at best, a simplistic presentation of extreme points of view. This is what newspapers believe constitutes ‘analysis.’ And, I find it very unsatisfying. I’d rather read an opinionated weblog post by a smart, informed amateur than a well-written story by a professional journalist who writes to meet a deadline. The weblog will invariably have a hyperlink to a professional news story. But the professional news story will rarely point to anything.
Anyway, I have strayed from my point: Law students, read the dissenting opinion first. The rest of you read the weblogs first.