The Bandidos trial and Twitter

Like some other readers, I’d wondered why The London Free Press had recently allowed its groundbreaking coverage of the Bandidos trial via Twitter (see my earlier post) to dissolve into a hit-and-miss affair that, increasingly, is absent altogether. Stories and updates by justice reporter Jane Sims have been reliably constant, but as for tweets, well, the birdie seems to have fallen out of the tree.

Kate Dubinski
Kate Dubinski

Reporter Kate Dubinski, the journalist most often assigned to Twitter duty at the Dundas Street courthouse, provided some answers in a post on her blog late yesterday. The trial, already into its sixth month, is cutting into the summer vacation season — a period when the paper is trying to accommodate holiday requests while still getting some semblance of a news report out onto the streets and up online. Language in the newsroom employees’ CEP contract with Sun Media’s London division stipulates that each staff member has the right to take two weeks of his/her annual vacation allotment during the summer months. The result is a managerial scramble to fill reporting, copy editing, photo and other duties in a vigorous attempt to keep the machine running. During the high vacation period, it can feel like the entire operation is being held together by duct tape and baling twine.

Dubinski also explains the additional difficulties posed by an order from the judge regarding media coverage during the appearance of the Crown’s star witness, who may only be referred to as “M.H.” Tweets from the overflow courtroom — the place from which earlier Twitter dispatches originated — were forbidden. Reporters were permitted to send tweets only from outside the main courtroom. This poses an additional challenge for journalists, but is not really an issue in terms of the decision on whether to double-team the trial coverage with a Twitterer.

The credibility of M.H. could have an important bearing on the outcome of the trial. Having broken important journalistic ground through the use of Twitter in the courtroom setting, it’s unfortunate that the Free Press couldn’t follow through with consistent Twitter coverage during the latter part of this particular witness’s testimony.

I’m guessing there are at least two additional issues here.

First: Dubinski’s “followers” on Twitter number about 850. Pinch-hitting reporter John Miner has about 350. Sims, not generally concerned with Twitter updates as much as she is about the newspaper’s main trial stories, has fewer than that. The bottom line is that, regardless of the novelty of the tool and complaints by some far-flung Twitter users that the paper is letting them down, the potential readership of courtroom tweets tops out in the hundreds. With stories on city-worker absenteeism, traffic fatalities, storm damage and a string of downtown arsons (or any other such set of calamities on any given day) to be doled out to a mere handful of reporters, any assigning editor at a regional newspaper will redeploy staff to yarns that will appeal to readers in the thousands or tens of thousands instead.

Second: While I was a page editor at The Globe and Mail, the newspaper made an interesting discovery during the case of Robert Pickton. Like other national media, it had planned for a year’s worth of wall-to-wall, witness-to-witness coverage of the trial of the Vancouver-area man accused in the homicides of six women and the suspected in deaths of 20 more. The Globe provided saturation coverage during the first week of proceedings, then surveyed its readership. The results were somewhat surprising and illuminating. To simplify, they showed that readers were intensely interested in the start of the trial and the Crown’s opening account of what exactly had happened. Readers wanted to know that someone was on trial for the horrors that had become evident, and they wanted to be kept abreast of developments. They certainly wanted to know the end result of the trial. But they said a clear no-thank-you to daily detailed accounts of a gruesome case that was expected to run for many months. The Globe, as well as other national media, revised their plans accordingly — and somewhat drastically. Public curiosity and tolerance, even in sensational cases, appears to have its limits.

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.