Chris Geidner makes a very convincing lawyer, even though his full-time job has him covering law instead of practicing it. He’s eloquent in his delivery, articulate, makes a point well and argues for it. And he’ll answer your questions more than thoroughly. Tell him it’ll take 20 to 30 minutes to talk, and you end up an hour later wondering where the time went.
That’s what you get from someone who is, by his own admission and branding, a “law dork.” Ask questions about his seeming first love – the U.S. Supreme Court – and he’ll give you more than you could possibly type. At BuzzFeed, the journalist-turned lawyer-turned journalist again is the stereotypical SCOTUS aficionado, quoting case names like a 10-year-old in Sunday school memorizing books of the Bible. After being a copy editor and editorial writer for the Warren (Ohio) Tribune Chronicle, he attended law school at Ohio State, practiced at a private firm, worked in the Ohio attorney general’s office, and eventually found his way to Washington D.C. to write for Metro Weekly. When BuzzFeed was launching and ramping up D.C. coverage, his legal and journalism backgrounds were an ideal match. His coverage of LGBT issues eventually expanded into criminal justice and death penalty cases for BuzzFeed, where he is now legal editor.
You’ve been inside the Supreme Court when major opinions came. Do you ever reflect on being present at points in history that will someday be taught in history and law classes?
Yeah. One of the things I do is pretty much every morning I go to the court is post a picture on Instagram. From a social perspective it’s letting follows know I’m there that day. But it’s also to remember a place setter and reminder of what I’m doing each day. It’s important on both sides of that to realize what I write can be and is the first take of history. Realizing what I’m witness to matters, but also having the respect for that to know how I report on it matters too. And I need to always be taking it seriously. Especially at a place like the Supreme Court.
Is there one decision or legal issue from the past – before your time – that you wish you could have covered? (e.g. Brown v. Board of Education, Roe v. Wade, Lochner v. New York)
All of them. I wish I was kidding. The perfect example of that I’m definitely not kidding is that I went to see “Bridge of Spies” this past fall, and I then got home and spent the next four hours going through the legal issues and arguments, and was tweeting about this 40-year-old case from the movie. I mean, the court is amazing. Any time you’re covering a case, it is a history project.
Were you interested in legal stuff and SCOTUS in high school and college, or did that come later?
I remember being back in undergrad and buying the oral arguments in past cases on tape. I probably got like six or eight of them. You could drop me at any point in the court’s history and I’d be thrilled.
You call yourself a “law dork” in your Twitter bio – and that was your blog’s name, too. Do you think a lot of your readers and Twitter connections consider themselves law dorks, too? Is SCOTUS coverage really dorky when rulings so closely affect all Americans?
It depends on the case and on the ruling. I’ll say what one of my editors said. Often my stories are written with the first six paragraphs for everyone and 10 grafs for the legal people.
If you’re covering a beat, you’ll have some stories that are intended for a small audience.
BuzzFeed does things a little differently in terms of presentation, or at least that’s the perception. I wonder if your reporting process is really different. Reading and reporting legal opinions is still the same whether you’re BuzzFeed or the Times, right?
I think it’s very different in a way most people don’t realize. I am not beholden to the confines of a century-old brand. I am the first legal editor at BuzzFeed. I am the first person who covered a SCOTUS oral argument for BuzzFeed. I’m creating what that perception is. And I have the ability to think about what works and what doesn’t work in legal reporting. And that’s the key thing about BuzzFeed. When I joined, it was like, ‘Oh, that’s the cat video site.’
And that changed. The advantage is that I’m allowed to explore form, content and ways of addressing the story with no obligation, with no tradition of what it should look like.
It’s absurd that publications by and large don’t put links to documents. It’s 2016. Post it online. Make it available for your readers.
You’re very active on Twitter, not just disseminating legal info, but really showing a human side, and even saying goodnight to your followers and being very personable. Was that a conscious decision or edict from your employer to interact that way, or is that just your personality?
That is how my Twitter account has developed. I started Twitter when I had restarted my blog after I left the Ohio attorney general’s office. Something I strongly advocate is that the point of Twitter is to be yourself. We are many moons beyond creating a separate online persona. That is dumb. Your online persona is just your persona. People have tried, like politicians, and you don’t get away with it. Most people don’t like that.
Unless you’re an asshole and just going to be a jerk on Twitter. Then maybe you should just have a very professional, pre-screened Twitter account.
You went to law school at Ohio State, which I won’t hold against you even though I’m a loyal Indiana grad. (Go Hoosiers!) A lot of journalists eventually go back to law school, but maybe not so many go to law school then back into journalism. Is that what you always intended to do? I mean, journalism isn’t exactly known for its high pay and job security.
I had no intention. Honestly, I’m really lucky. I have loved each job I’ve done when I was doing it. I loved working a campaign in 2000. I loved working at a newspaper. I loved working in the Ohio AG’s office. I got to do really important work. And I absolutely love reporting. At no point did I think what I was doing then, I wouldn’t do forever. I think I have, right now, found the perfect role for me.
You’re a native Ohioan. So what’s the better amusement park – Cedar Point or Kings Island? There is a right answer, of course.
Well, it is Cedar Point. (And that’s the right answer.)
All right, but how about Browns, Steelers or Bengals?
Not Bengals. That is the answer. My father was a Browns fan. My mom is from Pittsburgh. Actually, I prefer NCAA (sports) to professional.
I understand you quit drinking some time ago. We have another story in this issue about a journalist who gave up alcohol and how that’s been for him considering how connected journalism and alcohol seem to be – meeting at the bar with coworkers or a source, or at a conference with other attendees. I wonder if you’ve felt the same. Is it sometimes hard professionally when everyone else is at the bar and you might not want to go?
I think it’s a very individual situation. I found it’s a really great thing for my job. I am able to be focused on what I’m doing. The truth is, everyone at BuzzFeed knows I am and have been sober since before I came in here. I think it’s part of what I bring to the conversation. There are advantages. Colleagues know there is an advantage to having a colleague you know will always be sober. It’s something that has made me being able to live and do my job easier. The occasional awkwardness that might ensue is minor.
Note: The line “My father was a Browns fan … ” in question nine has been changed from “is a Browns fan” to reflect that Chris Geidner’s father has been deceased for some time.