Thursday, February 4, 2010

Why I was the only reporter allowed to tweet from the courtroom during the Roeder trial

From the World Series to murder trials, the bigger the event, the tougher it is to cover. I’ve done both a seven-game World Series and murder cases drawing national attention.

You always have to find space to operate between all the reporters, and in both events, everyone is seeing the same thing and it’s tough to come up with a fresh angle. As the reporter pool grows, there are more restrictions.

In the recent trial of Scott Roeder, the judge decided not to allow laptops in the courtroom. That meant no live tweeting from the courtroom, only a media room two floors away. Well, for most reporters that was the case.

Cell phones were allowed as long as they made noise, and from the time I started covering cases on Twitter, all I’ve used is a phone. I call it the laptop in my pocket.

My phone and Bluetooth keyboard always draws curiosity from the other reporters, which reminded me that I should probably explain it again, because the set-up comes in handy, when you want to travel light.

The current edition combines a Blackberry Curve with a Freedom Universal Keyboard2. The keyboard saves your thumbs and is small enough to go unnoticed. It’s allowed me to tweet from federal courtrooms, and in trials where judges think a row of clacking laptops would distract jurors. But I can see this setup being used in other events. It still leaves room to take notes.

The keyboard connects via Bluetooth, and is much more reliable than the old infrared devices I used to pair with a Palm phone. You can find a Bluetooth keyboard for just about every kind of phone, except for an I-Phone and Android. I really wanted a Droid, but I needed one that worked with a keyboard. I went with the Blackberry, because I liked the feel of the Freedom Keyboard and it was made for the Blackberry. Plus, Blackberry has a lot of apps available similar to the I-Phone and Droid.

It proved quite the soldier during the Roeder trial. I tweeted with the keyboard for eight hours in court each day, including checking the Internet throughout he days for replies from Twitter followers. At least one day after the trial, I then went to the gym and worked out for an hour while playing Pandora. I still had battery left when I plugged in to recharge it at bedtime.

Can your I-Phone do that?

Monday, February 1, 2010

Textual healing: The Roeder trial ends with a shot for out web site

Covering a murder trial can be as invigorating as it is grueling. The pressure increases when that trial becomes a national story, as it did with Scott Roeder, convicted of murdering Wichita abortion provider George Tiller.

As I said last week, I was assigned to report for web only. Another reporter took care of the print story. I did what I had been doing for the past two years of court reporting, using Twitter for my dispatches.

I’ve received attention for tweeting trials before. But this time, more people than ever were watching my twitter feeds. And we learned even more how valuable it was to driving traffic to our web sites.

Web producer Eba Hamid said early in the trial that every time I tweeted a link to a courtroom video, it got double the page views.

At the end of every trial, I routinely ask people for feedback, and I got 11 pages of responses.

Among them:

  • @lummox_ict: @rsylvester Thanks for the tweets! Could you do the same thing for Avatar.
  • @JenWPortraits: Thanks again to @rsylvester for lowering employee productivity all over Wichita this week. Great job!
  • And @ryansholin (who introduced me to Twitter): @rsylvester’s tweets from the Roeder Trial kept me engaged with a story I’d usually only read as a headline from a national news org.

Back in the newsroom, Eba and content editor Lori O’Toole Buselt took my tweets and crafted them into text blocks for the daily trial updates. I would tweet links to those throughout the day, so people could catch up without having the read thought a bunch of tweets, scattered in the timelines with the rest of their Twitter friends.

Without rewriting the day’s events for print, however, I found myself missing one important element of what I do: writing and storytelling.

Sure, I always say Twitter helps you right tight. With a 140-character limit, there’s no room for wasted words. And people like you to filter their information. We are journalists, after all, and that’s what we do. But it’s just not the same as crafting a good story.

I got to do that at the end of the trial. My tradeoff for doing web only was I agreed to work on a narrative that was supposed to run in Sunday’s newspaper. It was a magazine-length article, taken from the week’s testimony. But when the obits ran two long in Sunday’s paper, it was sent to the web site only.

I'd been totally shut out of print for this trial.

Did it matter? Well, it was the No. 1 read story today on It drew more readers, comments and reactions than the weekend’s basketball game between the University of Kansas and Kansas State, the local Wichita State basketball team, and an online database of traffic tickets that had dominated the top spot with readers for weeks.

It also shows people will read a story, no matter where it's told.