News Leadership 3.0

March 17, 2009

In Philly, trial by Twitter

Twitter in the court: A juror creates an uproar with a tweet on jury deliberations in a high-profile corruption trial and Twitter rescues The Philadelphia Inquirer’s live blog report on the controversy

The Philadelphia Inquirer provided live blog coverage of the corruption trial of a Philadelphia-based state legislator since October. Things got really interesting and Twitter was involved as the trial came to a close earlier this week. I asked Chris Krewson, executive editor/online news, to describe what happened in this guest post.

UPDATE: Adds correction about Twitter use in reporting from courtroom. Internet connection did not fail but the reporter on the move found Twitter handy way to file breaking news updates.

By Chris Krewson
 
A federal jury was in recess for the weekend after nearing the end of its deliberations in the corruption trial of former Democratic State Sen. Vince Fumo - a legend in Philadelphia politics - when Inquirer City Editor Julie Busby called me Sunday night.

One of the jurors has been posting about the deliberations on his Facebook and Twitter (pages),” Busby said. “We’re posting our story.”

This began a series of social-media-inspired events that kept our users riveted to their computers and televisions through Monday morning, after four months of The Inquirer’s
gavel-to-gavel live coverage of the trial and exclusive reporting when the jury quickly delivered its decision on 137 counts.

The back story

Former state senator Vince Fumo has been on trial since October. Editor Bill Marimow had long wanted the newsroom to do a live blog of a trial, so The Inquirer reported live from inside the courtroom every day, using the CoverItLive platform for the immediacy it allows.

We also collected the audio through the PACER federal court document tracker service, and posted after the court recessed each day. All that is available on the page that collected our coverage.

Reporter Bob Moran, who was behind the keyboard in the courtroom most of that time, has this to say about the experience:

“Cameras are not allowed in federal courtrooms, so this was the closest thing to “live” coverage that anyone could offer. I don’t know what numbers the liveblog generated (ed note: When big names were on the stand, the live blog often topped the list of most-trafficked blogs on the site), but it did have a core audience from local and state politics and from the legal community in Philadelphia. Also, many people close to Fumo, including prominent politicians, were on his list of potential witnesses. As a result, they were barred from attending court, but had access to the proceedings through the live blog. We needed to get permission beforehand from U.S. District Court Judge Ronald Buckwalter to transmit from the courtroom. The AP reporter would file stories and updates from the courtroom, so what I was doing was not unprecedented - just different. And more immediate.”

So we settled into a routine of covering the trial in a very 21st-century way. And we discussed how to present the verdict to our users, settling on a graphic presentation of the charges over a photo of the ex-senator.

Our plans were nearly stalled by a text message, by a juror, on March 5, to his Twitter account.

The social media aspect

Our Page 1 story in The Inquirer on Monday describes what happened:

“Defense lawyers for former State Sen. Vincent J. Fumo moved late yesterday for an immediate halt in jury deliberations and the removal of one juror, contending that the juror posted oblique remarks on Facebook.com and Twitter.com - including one declaring, “Stay tuned for a big announcement on Monday everyone!”

“The petition, filed on the eve of the scheduled sixth day of deliberations in Fumo’s federal corruption trial, stated that there was “substantial evidence” that the juror, who was not identified, had violated admonitions not to disclose the status of deliberations.”

In the newsroom, we prepared for a delay. One theory held that the juror would be dismissed and an alternate juror appointed, which would mean the two weeks of deliberations so far would be tossed out and begun anew.

An alternate juror was summoned to the judge’s chambers. As Moran tried to update developments, he had to move around so much that he could not live blog from his computer. (Note: Earlier post incorrectly reported that the internet connection failed.)


Twitter connection

Bob broke news on Twitter from his iPhone: First, that the alternate had been called to the hearing. Then, that the judge was allowing the original juror to remain.

Bob clarifies the chaotic situation inside the courtroom Monday:

“I went to the courthouse expecting to cover a hearing on the Facebook juror. No one outside the jury expected a verdict. The courtroom was closed and there were only a few people present roaming the halls. Then there were developments on several floors of the court building. At that point, I was calling in updates to the City Desk and posting basically the same stuff on Twitter ... I could not liveblog at that point because I had to keep moving. Once it was announced that a verdict was reached, I went into the courtroom, sat down and started to liveblog using CoveritLive. ... (so) it wasn’t Twitter to the rescue because a connection failed. It was Twitter being handy while I was being mobile, which was also the case when I had to stand around outside afterward.”

Finally, that the jury was very near a verdict. As in, they were ready to announce it that morning.

Bob logged back into Cover It Live as the jury assembled, and then began his live blog again.

The verdict

We’d tested out the very elaborate Flash graphic (at the top of this page), which would update as the verdict came in. We’d assumed that would take up to two hours for the foreman to work his or her way through all 137 counts, and timed the Flash accordingly. (Post initially reported incorrect number of counts.)

Instead, less than 30 minutes later, the jury convicted Fumo on all counts.

Our live blog provided us with an edge in posting this type of news that other local media could not match. While nearly every TV station broadcast news of the verdict shortly after we did, Moran’s rolling updates were far superior to every other report available.

Indeed, the Fox owned-and-operated station showed a reporter outside the newsroom reading our live blog on camera, with the anchor occasionally noting that the reporting was coming from a philly.com live blog.

(Local independent journalist Amy Z. Quinn chided them on Twitter and on her blog, Citizen Mom.)

The results

Our users were hooked. Twitter users re-posted news of the verdict and our coverage; viewership of the story and blog announcing the verdict were among the top 5 items viewed on philly.com through the day.

More importantly, The Inquirer’s newsroom was involved in breaking a story using Twitter, which will pay exponential dividends in our coverage over the next few months.

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