Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Why I love my Twitter followers

I’ve been drawing a paycheck as a journalist for 33 years now, and for all of the past three I never knew if anyone really read anything I’d reported unless they were angry.

That changed the past three years, when I began reporting via Twitter.

Until then, the only feedback journalists got were usually a letter to the editor or a short, terse phone call. Over the phone, you could hear them screaming. It usually took a special kind of anger to make someone sit down and write, in detail, why they hated me and my future spawn, because they disagreed with something I’d written.

In those days, journalists rarely heard from anyone unless they were hacked off. Occasionally, a colleague, or someone you knew, might say they liked something you wrote. But mostly, it was readers and editors telling you what you did wrong.

Twitter changed everything. I’ve gotten more encouragement and support on during the past three years on Twitter than in the past three decades before that.

I’m not the only one. Tom Jolly, sports editor of the New York Times, has found a similar experience. We met at the New York Press Association Convention, where he spoke on how the Times uses social media.

“The conversations on Twitter tend to be more civil,” Jolly said. “There’s a lot less of the ‘You’re an idiot’ type of posts. And that’s not always true of conversations elsewhere on the web.”

Part of it, I think, is that people on Twitter choose to follow what I do, rather than just having it thrown on their doorstep. Online journalism gives people more choices, and they can pick where they want to receive their information as never before.

Also, social networks like Twitter allows journalists to connect with their community as never before. This is one reason I advocate for keeping one Twitter account for both professional and personal use. I received some chiding by some folks who had followed me for the Roeder trial that they didn’t realize they’d also get such detail on weekends from Kansas-based basketball teams. Or when my kids wreck the car, or when I have knee surgery.

But these details have helped people get to know me. They know I’m more than a byline on a page, and I think knowing me personally will help them determine whether they want to keep getting information from me. It’s helped bring me closer to crime victims who I cover. I’ve made friends on Twitter, some of whom have become close personal friends. Others make me laugh, and we talk, even though we may never have met.

And the comments I get on Twitter are usually more thoughtful, and less confrontational, than the anonymous reader comments left on news web sites.

That’s one reason that after a busy day in court, or the end of the big trial, I try to remember to thank everyone who follows me. It’s not something I do because I think I should. I really appreciate everyone who chooses to listen to the stories I tell. And I always ask for criticism, because I do want to know how to do my job better. Usually, responses come in the form of suggestions, and those have helped me pace my tweets better during a busy part of a trial, give background, and link to other sources.

I do love my Twitter followers. And I take much more from them than what I may put out in the course of my daily news coverage. After 30 years of hearing little more than criticism and insults, the more congenial atmosphere of Twitter has helped given me a much brighter outlook on being a journalist. For that, I thank them.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Photo galleries show cool way to display writing, too

Photographers love photo galleries. It really shows off their work. Online editors love photo galleries, because it builds up page views with each click.

Now writers can use galleries to great effect. See what MSNBC did with a gallery in telling the narrative of one of the richest, and most reclusive, women in the America.

The photos themselves may not have been strong enough to stand lone themselves. But with strong words, they play off each other, like a picture book.

The Times Herald-Record used a similar approach in the story of a man who spent decades in prison for a murder he didn’t commit.

I see all sorts of uses for this kind of story-telling, with evidence photos from court, or to spice up zoning and development stories. The photos help set up a sense of place and drive the words.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The new front pages, going viral and the myth of the nut graph

The story of the 102-year-old judge was almost an after-thought. The goal was to get U.S. District Judge Wesley Brown on video. But what happened from that exploded on our web site.

I’d first interviewed Brown when he was a spry 93. No one at my news organization had ever profiled the judge appointed for a life term by President John F. Kennedy. Judge Brown still worked full-time, took the stairs to the top floor of the federal courthouse every day and earned high respect and praise from his colleagues and the lawyers who faced him.

I said I’d do another story on him, when he turned 100. But that was before I began getting serious about multimedia. I had not gotten the judge on video.

It’s one thing to write about a man who has lived from the crank telephone to the Internet. People who’d heard about Brown, but didn’t know him, would ask: Is he really still sharp and qualified to be a judge. By hearing him talk and watching him, people would see what others did, and why most still had confidence in Judge Brown. They would also see why I no longer worry about birthdays.

Brown was reluctant. “I don’t have to do interviews,” the judge told me. “That’s not a part of my job. But I’m doing this, because it’s you.” Working hard on your beat has its reward.

I’d worked it out with our online crew to put do a series of videos on the “Common Law” video series on my courts blog. Although there’s nothing common about Judge Brown, I thought it fitting. Brown had always told me he wanted to be remembered as a good judge, not just one who lived a long time.

But after the videos started appearing, editors on the print side asked if I could do a text story for the newspaper. I wrote a short story, taking bits from the interview that didn’t make the videos. I had recently read a story in the doctor’s office pointing to studies that showed people who lived to 100 often worked.

The story didn’t have a news peg. Brown didn’t have any particularly notable cases that week. He wasn’t celebrating a birthday. And it didn’t have what anyone might recognize as a nut graph.

But it was a story about an interesting person. Human interest.

The story was the No. 1 one story on the first day it appeared.

Then Yahoo! picked it up for its front page. Online editors watched the page views ring up like a slot machine that had just hit the jackpot. The videos of Judge Brown that week surpassed anything we’d done before.

The American Bar Association Journal linked to it. So did the Wall Street Journal.

The story didn’t make the front page of our newspaper. But more people read it than any other story, and it probably set a standard for the year, according to our online editors.

Yahoo!, Google, MSN and Facebook are the new front pages and circulation that make our work go viral.

And the reaction is proof that an interesting story, whether it has a news hook, a nut graph, or not, will gain attention.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Banned in Baltimore: Some thoughts on social media and a free press

I’ve been getting phones calls lately asking what I think about the decision by a Baltimore judge to ban cell phones and social networking from the courtroom.

As I recently told a reporter from the Baltimore Sun, Twitter and other social networks have broadened public access trials, and that’s a good thing.
More people now are getting their news on their cell phones, and they’re getting it instantaneously.

Earlier this month Facebook became the fourth largest distributor of online news content. Many people are getting their news directly from sites such as Twitter. I often receive replies from my Twitter followers telling me they're following trials I cover exclusively there.

Courts and the press have been at odds in the past, and the U.S. Supreme Court has said the First Amendment should be weighed properly with the rights of a fair trial, but court proceedings are presumed open. During 10 years of covering courts, I've learned the press rarely gets in the way.

Our lawyer tells me a criminal case has never been reversed in Kansas because of a press issue. Cases do, however, regularly get reversed because of mistakes by judges, jurors and lawyers.

I’ve been asked several times what the Baltimore decision means for other courts across the U.S. My answer is: I hope not much.

Just as some courts allow cameras, while others – such as Baltimore and New York – don’t, courts should be independent in deciding about social media. Reporters using laptops and their cell phones in court should do so without disrupting the proceedings. Judges should remember to order jurors to stay off the Internet when they remind them not to follow traditional press coverage or do independent research.

More judges need to stay as plugged in as our judges in Kansas, including a federal judge here who is still hearing cases at age 102, and is an active online user.

I was asked last summer to speak at the judicial conference of the ABA National Convention about the use of social media in covering courts. I think as more judges learn how prevalent social media has become, and its value in delivering news, they’ll understand that limiting its use is limiting a free press. And there’s really no justice in that