News photographers scramble for Rafferty pic

Great news photography is often about split-second timing. Such was the case outside a  Woodstock, Ont., courthouse yesterday as Michael Rafferty, accused of first-degree murder in the death of eight-year-old Tori Stafford, made an application for a change of venue for his upcoming trial.

With police shielding Rafferty from public view (more for his own safety than concerns about his image), it was a tough assignment for any news photographer to get a clear image of the accused. Several tried, with varying degrees of success. The Woodstock Sentinel Review‘s Elliot Ferguson captured Rafferty’s fleeting appearance between courthouse and police van. London Free Press reporter Randy Richmond got a photo that landed on the next morning’s page A1.

Perhaps the most impressive shot, however, was that of freelance shooter Dave Chidley, hired by The Canadian Press to cover the court appearance. Chidley, who planned to review the assignment and his technique today with his news photography students in both the print journalism and broadcast journalism programs at Conestoga College, said the assignment was a challenge. The resulting photo, used in newspapers and websites across the country, was captured by a combination of great anticipatory timing and a motor drive that shot 10 frames per second. Only two of those frames revealed Rafferty’s face, Chidley said.

Orchestra London offers a little transparency

Regular readers of my Saturday column in the London Free Press know that I’ve been following developments at Orchestra London closely over the past 10 months. In fact, today’s column is the fourth variation on that theme since last December. The others are here.

Canadian pianist David Jalbert is Orchestra London's guest artist for its season-opening concert Oct. 17.
Canadian pianist David Jalbert is Orchestra London's guest artist for its season-opening concert Oct. 17.

The orchestra, arguably one of most important pillars of the city’s arts scene, merits close scrutiny for several reasons. The most compelling, of course, is that it’s in severe financial straits. Despite receiving a $482,000 operating grant from the city last fiscal year, it came begging, cap in hand, to city council in December for the backing for a $500,000 line of credit. The only other option, it said, was to fold. Council, after lengthy debate, gave its approval. At June 30 of this year, Orchestra London found itself with an accumulated deficit (the accountancy term for what lay people would simply think of as debt) of $1,004,887.

One condition of city council’s approval of the line of credit was that the organization find itself a platoon of respected businesspeople who would act as a financial oversight team to try to right the ship left listing by former orchestra executive director Rob Gloor. (Gloor now executive director of the National Broadcast Orchestra Company, a “new media orchestra” based in Vancouver.)

Given the fact the taxpayers of London, Ont., now have a direct financial stake in the enterprise, it behooves the board and its executive to ensure openness and transparency — a novel and somewhat uncomfortable prospect for a board that has traditionally enjoyed a more cloistered reporting environment. January’s annual general meeting, for example, almost reached adjournment under the leadership of chairperson Brent Kelman before members demanded to know more about the fiscal crisis and the plan for moving forward. Several members strongly criticized the flow of information even to them, let alone to the larger community.

Here’s hoping the organization, under the day-to-day leadership of managing director Joe Swan, can achieve a dramatic reversal of fortune. The orchestra’s musicians are already as open and accessible as classical musicians can be — they’re out there nearly weekly, performing in concert halls, cathedrals, churches, schools, libraries, shopping malls and other venues, all for their love of the art. It’s up to their board now to follow that lead.

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.

Teaching journalism — differently

About six months after I finished my graduate journalism degree in the mid-1980s, the University of Western Ontario asked me to return as a sessional instructor. A faculty member had taken ill, and her courses in the history of Canadian print journalism and the history of Canadian broadcasting were without a teacher. Although I was already working full-time at a magazine, I agreed to fill in.

Long story short: I’ve never stopped. Through most of my tenure at The London Free Press, I continued teaching “service” courses in journalism history and communication theory to Western’s undergraduate students, as well as courses in municipal reporting, business reporting and journalism ethics to graduate students. When I left the Free Press for The Globe and Mail in Toronto, I simultaneously accepted an endowed chair at Ryerson University’s journalism school, where I taught journalism ethics. When an offer arrived last year to teach journalism full-time at rapidly expanding Conestoga College Institute of Technology and Advanced Learning in Kitchener, one of the finest community colleges in Ontario, I accepted the challenge.

Although teaching certainly wasn’t new, I’d never before taught foundational newswriting courses. And it had been a long time since I’d dealt with undergrads fresh out of high school. Despite that, my first full-time year went well. I quickly located my undergrad “legs” (though I continued to teach a journalism ethics course to grad students at UWO as well) and found teaching this type of student to be extremely rewarding.

Journalists will have to learn to write for mobile platforms.
Journalists will have to learn to write for mobile platforms.

Classes begin in a month and, once again, I’ll be teaching basic newswriting to both the first-year print and broadcast sections. But I plan to tweak my course content and teaching style slightly to better equip students for a rapidly changing job market and the expanding toolbox with which they’ll do and deliver journalism. (I always resented profs who trotted out the same course outlines and presentations year after year, distributing handouts that were a decade old, and promised myself I’d never become one.) So here are a few of the changes:

1. Encouraging “high performance”: Even more than last year, I’ll emphasize the importance of a fast start as the first step toward a “high-performance” career. It’s language borrowed from education consultant Don Fraser, whose seminar I attended in the spring. My students will have to compete — and compete hard — for journalism jobs. The best way to boost their chances of success will be to encourage them to develop a track record of excellence, beginning in their first year as journalist-trainees. They should aim not just to be capable journalists but high-performance journalists, fully competent in the many skills and tools they’ll need by the time they graduate. And it begins on orientation day.

2. Making corrections tangible: Last year, as I graded student assignments, I marked errors, omissions, style mistakes, etc., and handed them back next class, accompanied by a PowerPoint presentation on the most common errors. I provided examples of the right way and wrong way to present information. Then I hoped they’d incorporate what I’d said into future stories. This year — though it may sound “old-school” — I’ll ask them to make the necessary corrections in their stories and resubmit them. Sounds archaic, I know, but I’m beginning to think there’s no better way for them to learn from their mistakes than by seeing corrected versions on their screens and feeling them through their fingers.

3. Platform agnosticism: I’ve bought into the notion that our print and broadcast “streams” or programs are quickly becoming anachronistic. While college administrators work on revamping programs to produce more fully flexible journalists for integrated newsrooms, I hope to get ahead of that curve by placing greater emphasis on story, then expecting wide-ranging discussion on how best to gather information, what tools and media to use, and what platforms might be best suited for final delivery. Conestoga’s curriculum in the first year is common to both the print and broadcast streams anyway. And in addition to writing traditional hard-news ledes for print and broadcast, they’ll practise writing news for blogs, screen crawls, mobile devices and Twitter posts.

4. Adding a little low-tech: As in most journalism programs, our students learn to use modern tools in their newsgathering, writing and presentation. Most have laptops. Wi-fi is readily available across campus for free. They use Zoom H2 recorders and edit audio with Audacity or Audition. They shoot digital photos and edit them in Photoshop. They learn pagination software such as Quark or InDesign. We have plenty of high-def cameras to lend out, and they edit their video using Final Cut. But late last year, I began to worry about . . . well, whether they could effectively use a reporter’s notepad and a pen. I noticed they were using their laptops and smart phones for note-taking in many classroom and newsgathering situations. But could they cover a story with nothing but a pencil and paper? At crash sites, demonstrations and the like, they may not have access to their precious digital technology. So I’ll look for ways to incorporate manual notetaking. And if it’s raining, snowing, cold or windy outside, so much the better.

5. Getting off campus: To improve their grasp of how journalists function in the real world, I’ll look for opportunities to get them out — already in the first semester — into newsgathering situations and functioning newsrooms off campus. Faculty have sometimes arranged for class trips to news organizations in Toronto, for example, some time in the second semester. I’ll push for that kind of thing to happen early on, in order to give students an early peek at the realities of the vocation and to beef up their sense of being journalists in training. This is more difficult than it sounds, because of the part-time jobs students hold down, their life situations, and their general lack of transportation aside from mass transit. But with some creativity, we should be able to provide a more robust real-life experience.

One month to go; time to put some meat on these bones.

From the moon to the Earth

A screen shot from the Globe and Mail's excellent interactive graphic
A screen shot from the Globe and Mail's interactive graphic

It’s nearly impossible to escape mention today of the 40th anniversary of Neil Armstrong’s historic first step onto the lunar surface. Television, radio, newspapers and online portals are overflowing with anniversary stories and tributes to the men and women with the “right stuff” who made it possible — on Earth and in the skies. (By the way, one of the most magnificent media postings today on the anniversary is on the Globe and Mail website, assembled by the talented Tonia Cowan (she of the recent Emmy Award nomination; see adjacent partial screen shot).

As a boy and well into my teens, I was an unapologetic space geek. My own thoughts on America’s push to land a human being on the moon appeared in a column in the London Free Press last Saturday. The Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions were noble efforts and demonstrated what could be done when a critical mass of human knowledge and invention is applied to a specific problem.

Accompanying today’s anniversary fanfare in many media is a lot of talk about what’s next for space exploration. More moon missions? A multi-year voyage to the surface of Mars?

Despite my continuing fascination with human endeavour in space, I’m not a big fan of either of the aforementioned projects. Given the reality of climate change and the fact that Earth is already in a state of warmth that scientists, only a few years ago, predicted would take a decade, we’ve got a substantial project much closer to home.

The lunar landing reminds me that it is possible — when knowledge, ingenuity, invention and determination are combined into a potent mix — to solve problems that might otherwise be considered unsolvable. The moon and Mars aren’t going anywhere. They can wait. Ensuring our earthly home is in good condition is the next “giant leap for mankind.”

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.