New media and the Bandidos trial coverage

There isn’t a more dramatic criminal trial underway in Canada right now than that of six former Bandidos motorcycle club members, each charged with eight counts of first-degree murder, related to the grisly discovery of eight bodies in cars along a rural road near Shedden, Ont., more than three years ago.

Today, that trial moved into high gear with the appearance of the Crown’s star witness — a man who says he was present the night of the deaths.

The Bandidos trial, as the London Free Press has come to refer to it, has provided ample evidence that you can indeed teach an old heritage news organization new tricks. It has effectively deployed new media technologies to augment its traditional print coverage and the results have been outstanding.

During the trial’s most critical phases, a reporter has been dispatched to the London courthouse’s overflow courtroom (on a floor apart from where the trial takes place, but connected via video link) to file short Twitter dispatches. (Today, it was John Miner, who tweets under the name JohnatLFPress; often it’s Kate Dubinski, who is KateatLFPress on Twitter’s servers.)

First thing this morning, however, Superior Court Justice Thomas Heeney imposed a temporary halt to the use of laptops and other devices in the overflow courtroom, as well as a publication ban on the full name of the witness, though it could be used inside the courtroom. I suspect it’s to offer an additional margin of protection for the man, who the Crown hopes will nail down their case for them.

Inside the courtroom proper, justice reporter Jane Sims, recently nominated for a National Newspaper Award for beat reporting, provides the bulk of the daily reportage for print. However, she and other reporters such as Randy Richmond have also produced videos on various aspects of the trial.

These include a video, part of trial evidence, from a gathering of Bandido club members; a video on the trial’s background and the victims of the massacre; and an orientation video to the specially equipped courtroom that is home to the trial, which became required viewing for my journalism students shortly before classes ended in April.

When Ottawa Mayor Larry O’Brien went to trial in May on charges of influence peddling, the national media were ecstatic over a ruling by Justice J. Douglas Cunningham that would permit smart-phone users to text and tweet the proceedings from the trial in real time. News organizations rightly proclaimed the importance of the breakthrough they’d achieved in justice reporting. They were oblivious to the fact, however, that the Free Press in London had been reporting in exactly that fashion from the Bandidos trial, under the watchful eye of Judge Heeney, for weeks.

Coverage of these criminal proceedings by the Free Press illustrates what can be done, even with modest means, as a 157-year-old news organization creatively deploys a range of technologies across a variety of delivery platforms to cover an important national story. The familiar problem, of course, is how to monetize it all. As is the case with nearly all news organizations with a newspaper at its centre, print subsidizes everything else. At least for now.

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