New Tricks: Live tweeting from the courthouse

March 23rd, 2010

Earlier this month, Austin American-Statesman reporter Steven Kreytak live-tweeted a local murder trial. The trial was emotional and at times painful because of the involvement of a child who had to testify about his mother’s death. Steven, who had never live tweeted a trial before, and was a light Twitter user before this trial, dove in. I asked Steven to answer a few questions for this newsletter because it was an interesting and successful trial use of Twitter as a breaking news tool during a highly competitive news story.

Below the Q&A, you’ll see some of my notes:

OMNT: Why did you decide to do this? Did anyone ask you to do it?

Kreytak: Around the time the trial started, the Baltimore Sun ran a story that said the Maryland Supreme Court was considering banning Twittering from courthouses. The story quoted a reporter from the Wichita (Kansas) Eagle who Twitters from court. I checked out some of that reporter’s posts and got some ideas for how to use Twitter as a court reporter.

At the time I thought to myself: A) I can do that, and B) Maybe I should consider doing that if someone is considering banning it.

I had set up a Twitter account months ago but never really took to using it. At the start of the Milton Dwayne Gobert trial I had about 50 followers. (I now have more than 125).

The most anticipated testimony of the trial was of the 11-year-old boy who was 5 the day that Gobert killed the boy’s mother. The boy was there and his testimony promised to be dramatic.

When the boy took the stand I filed a blog that he was testifying. Then I put a link to my Twitter page on the bottom of the blog. I really just made the decision to Twitter his testimony on the spot.

OMNT: How difficult was it to do? You not only live-tweeted, but you also blogged profusely and wrote stories for print. How did you manage?

Kreytak: In court I take some notes by hand and some on the laptop. Generally, because I type faster than I write, I type notes of opening statements, closing arguments as well as critical witnesses, like a defendant taking the stand in his own defense. The boy’s testimony was going to be critical so I typed it. I knew I’d want a lot of dialogue to put in the story.

So that allowed me to cut and paste sections of the boy’s testimony into Twitter. I may have missed some parts of his testimony that I would have had otherwise, but I got most of it.

When there was a break in testimony, I hurried and wrote a blog. I even wrote one once while the lawyers were discussing an objection at the bench. Usually these delays are frustrating but I managed to use them to my advantage.

As for the print stories, that came later so the blogging and Twittering served as a notebook for those stories. Now by the end of the day I was pretty tired from all of the blogging and Twittering, but not so much that I could not finish the day off with a print story.

OMNT: What was the response from readers? From your colleagues/supervisors?

Kreytak: I got great feedback from my colleagues/supervisors as well as readers. I also felt like many people around the courthouse — lawyers, private investigators, cops — were noticing my work more than usual. While I was covering the testimony I was fueled by watching as the number of followers I had increased.

OMNT: Would you do it again? What would you do differently?

Kreytak: I would do it again, but I would try to find more opportunities to send folks back to the Website and probably file fewer posts to Twitter.

OMNT: Did you see any personal/professional benefit to doing this?

Kreytak: The professional benefit is to assert myself as the authority on the courthouse. It’s great to feel like I am delivering directly to readers and can interact with them in real time. Yes, while live Twittering from court I responded to readers during brief breaks in testimony. And I got nothing but positive feedback. That’s a real psychological/emotional benefit in a time when online commenters love to beat you down.

OMNT: What tips or caveats do you have for the rest of the newsroom?

Kreytak: Pick your spots. The 11-year-old’s testimony was clearly riveting and so it was no doubt worthy of Twitter. But there are some really boring parts of any trial (public meeting, etc) and I believe that readers want us to distill those parts and not burden them with too much minutiae.

________________

Rob’s notes:

First of all, I’m excited that Steven wanted to experiment with a new way of reporting, and I think he did a great job. Not only was he live-tweeting, but he was filing excellent, frequently-updated blog posts and in-depth print stories as well. As you all know, this is not an easy task.

And people did appreciate what Steven did. How often do you get this kind of feedback from our readers?

What Steven did:

Below, you’ll see a Twitter exchange from Steven in the middle of the sentencing phase. Note that he replies to a reader (@TheDrowElf) and links to his work online, in this case, his blog post:

Linking back to the site:

Steven’s point that reporters should link back to their news site is a good one. As a newsroom, the Statesman is doing some fantastic and exciting things with new tools, from live video to live chats to social media. The key is to remember to balance it all out.  If you put all of your content on Twitter or Facebook, but don’t link back to your site at all, you’re giving your content away, and cheating readers out of seeing all the detailed work you put into your publication.

To that end, balance pouring content onto Twitter with linking people to your reports and articles online as much as possible. You can go overboard with this (only sending out links to our sites without putting any content on Twitter). Give your readers some content on Twitter, but leave enough for them to want to go to your news site for more.

- Robert Quigley

___________________________________________

NOTE: This is from a social media newsletter that I send out to the American-Statesman newsroom. You can read past newsletters here.

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Entry Filed under: New Tricks,Newsletter,Old Media Interview

  • http://www.stephanieromanski.com Stephanie

    Really good advice. We looked into being able to do this very thing, but wouldn't you know, Nebraska, once again, sucks.
    http://www.theindependent.com/articles/2010/02/

  • http://oldmedianewtricks.com/ Robert Quigley

    Stephanie,
    Thanks! I think we're going to see more courts grapple with social media. It's not quite TV in the courtrooms, but it sure can be close.

  • http://www.roanoke.com/ Jordan

    Thanks for the Q&A, Rob. We tried tweeting from a federal court trial as well, and would have save some technical issues. We ended up blogging, but the effort helped us learn/prepare the next time we might try it.

    A brief post I wrote on the trial: http://blogs.roanoke.com/rtblogs/newsroom/2009/

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  • http://www.paulmcmillanonline.com Paul McMillan

    Courts are dramatic places by their nature and this goes to show, once again, how much more open the US system is compared to Europe. In the UK you can only report what's put before the jury and – even then – the judge could turn around at the end of the day and say something has to be kept out of the report “in the interests of justice”.
    It happens.


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