Live-blogging a big trial: Journalism’s equivalent of long-haul trucking?

By Jake Batsell

When a high-profile trial hits town, today’s Web readers expect real-time coverage. But what does that mean for the courts reporter who also has to absorb, interpret and report the fine points of the case?

Last week in my Digital Journalism class, I led a Columbia University case study examining the Bakersfield Californian’s Web coverage of a quintuple-murder trial in 2007. The young reporter was under pressure from her editors to blog from the courtroom as often as every 10 minutes. Errors sneaked into the copy, and the blog updates mostly amounted to a blow-by-blow transcript.

In their written reactions to the case, many of my students were alarmed that the Californian allowed the reporter to directly publish her blog posts with no editing. And the students were skeptical that any reporter could file so many real-time updates without hurting the quality of the main stories for the newspaper and Web.

“As a journalist, and frequent news reader, I would rather have accurate and thoughtful information every few hours, rather than irrelevant, thoughtless information every ten minutes,” one student wrote.

Another student observed: “It seems brash to require such short publication in such an important case. No matter how good a journalist [the reporter] is, mistakes will always be made especially without the oversight of an editor.”

“Balancing the blog and daily posts to the blog as well as the news column on the trial is a lot to focus on all at once,” another student added.

So, is it possible for one human being to accurately cover a big trial in real time on the Web, while simultaneously crafting a front-page story?

dmn crime blog“It is possible,” said Jason Trahan, federal courts reporter for The Dallas Morning News, who on Friday wrapped up his award-winning print and Web coverage of a Dallas City Hall corruption trial. (Full disclosure: the writer is a former staff writer and video journalist at the Dallas Morning News.)

Trahan was a fixture on page 1A last summer during three months of arguments, evidence and testimony. But he also continuously filed Web dispatches, either by live blogging or by posting individual updates every hour or so, a form Trahan calls “live blogging lite.”

He describes the experience as invigorating but mentally exhausting.

“It takes a toll,” Trahan said. “It’s like driving 1,000 miles without getting a break.”

His success, though, is reflected in the numbers: As many as 3,000 people tuned in for the daily live-blog sessions, and his individual posts drew hundreds of reader comments.

Trahan used his laptop and iPhone to cover the trial via a closed-circuit feed in an overflow room at the courthouse. The Dallas Bar Association specifically praised his trial blog coverage when handing him an award for legal reporting, and he also was named the paper’s 2009 Beat Reporter of the Year.

He said blogging throughout the day forced him to be more mentally focused during testimony, which then allowed him to “mine” from his blog entries at the end of the day while writing his newspaper stories.

“It is more work, but you are engaged way more in the process than if you were just sitting there with a notebook and a pen and filing one finished product at the end of the day,” he said. “It’s almost like working for your own miniature wire service.”

And Trahan adds, “In this day and age, when they’re cutting newsroom staff rather than adding to it, it’s just a matter of reality.”

His advice for rookie trial bloggers: Don’t try to include everything. You’ll drive yourself crazy.

“You have to have the confidence to say, ‘Enough is enough. I’m leaving that out,’ ” he said.

Trahan, who is married with four children, said he enjoyed developing his voice as a beat blogger during the city hall trial. But yes, he’s relieved that it’s over.

“It’s hard as hell, and you go home just spent,” he said. “But it’s possible.”

Jake Batsell is an assistant professor in journalism at Southern Methodist University and faculty adviser to the Daily Mustang. You can read more from Jake on his blog and follow him on Twitter at @jbatsell.

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