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August 14 2012

22:14

OpenCourt wins another legal challenge to online streaming in the courtroom

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has again ruled in favor of allowing OpenCourt to continue broadcasting online.

Since May 2011, OpenCourt — a judicial transparency project (and Knight News Challenge winner) that provides videostreams of court cases — has been broadcasting from Quincy District Court, offering online viewers a look at things like arraignments, traffic infractions, and drug cases. Last month, a local district attorney sued the court hosting OpenCourt to halt plans to begin streaming jury trials from the Quincy courthouse. In today’s ruling, the judge in that lawsuit said OpenCourt should be allowed to go forward and must be subject to the same rules that govern other news media, writing: “There is no reason to single OpenCourt out and impose on it a variety of restrictions that do not apply to other media organizations.”

This is not the first time the project faced a legal threat aimed at stopping the streaming. In March, the Supreme Judicial Court reinforced OpenCourt’s right to broadcast after the state sued to stop the project from recording and archiving court cases.

“There is a presumption that Massachusetts courts are open to media access and this ruling today clarified OpenCourt’s contention all along it should not be singled out as anything different from any other broadcast media,” said John Davidow, executive producer of OpenCourt and executive editor of new media at WBUR, the Boston public radio station where OpenCourt is a project. Davidow said he’s pleased with the ruling because it not only strengthens OpenCourt’s position but also furthers the project’s goals of transparency. “This isn’t about OpenCourt,” Davidow said. “This is really about the public’s access to what goes on in their courtrooms.”

In July, OpenCourt was scheduled to begin broadcasting jury trials in Quincy. Norfolk County DA Michael Morrissey sued the Quincy District Court justices, arguing that OpenCourt needed concrete guidelines from a special judiciary committee for broadcasting within the court that would protect victims, witnesses, and minors.

Davidow said Tuesday’s ruling would allow OpenCourt to move forward with plans to stream those cases from courtroom A at Quincy District Court. Davidow said the cameras and other preparations were set for recording in the jury room prior to the lawsuit — meaning OpenCourt will be ready to livestream once jury cases are scheduled. Davidow said streaming jury trials is important because those are the cases most of the public is familiar with. “The public, outside perspective of the court is trials,” Davidow said. “It’s the essence of what the public thinks takes place in courthouses across the commonwealth.”

In denying Morissey’s request, Justice Margot Botsford said the project can operate under preliminary guidelines that were put in place as a result of the decision in the earlier OpenCourt case. In that case, Commonwealth v. Barnes, the court said a special committee must create guidelines for OpenCourt to broadcast and archive court cases. In June, a preliminary set of guidelines for OpenCourt was released by the Quincy District Court. The final rules from the judiciary media committee are expected to be drafted by October.

In a statement, Morrissey said his office may seek to stop OpenCourt from recording on a case-by-case basis in order to protect victims and witnesses. From the statement:

The judiciary media committee is currently meeting and presumably working on the guidelines that this injunction asked the court to wait for before adding a second session to the live streaming. We hope that committee will expedite that process, and that the rules will provide appropriate protections so that violations of victim privacy, as occurred so many times in the Barnes case, do not occur.

June 16 2010

19:00

Knight News Challenge: Order in the Court 2.0 wants to welcome the judiciary branch to the digital age

The debate over cameras in the Supreme Court is longstanding these days — but what about technology in courtrooms all over the country? One Knight News Challenge winner this year, Order in the Court 2.0, wants to bring new media to the judiciary.

I spoke with the man behind the idea, John Davidow, executive editor in charge of WBUR.org, the remarkable website for one of Boston’s public radio stations. Davidow said that the idea is to get the third branch of government to travel the same path to digital transparency that the legislative and executive branches have begun to do. Davidow said the court system has, by and large, continued to operate under the same video and audio recording standards it adopted in the 1970s and 1980s.

“The courts have sort of gone further and further way from the public and public access. In the old days, they were built in the center of town,” he told me. “The community was able to walk into the courts and see what was going on. Modern life has done away with that. The bridge that was going in between the courts and the public was the media. The media has just less resources.”

Davidow’s idea, which Knight awarded $250,000, is to use one courthouse as a laboratory, out of which will come a set of best practices and case studies for courtrooms across the country to reference. The test kitchen is the Quincy District Court here in Massachusetts, a courthouse Davidow described as ideal: Its chief judge is open to the idea, and the courthouse has a tradition of dabbling in new technologies. It’s also one of the busiest courthouses in the state, so it should also serve as a good model for even large courthouses.

I asked Davidow about how his idea differs from existing efforts to use new media in courthouses across the county. He explained that the problem is consistency: Decisions about new media decisions are made on a case-by-case basis, not systematically. Some judges make decisions based on space, others on whether a particular technology will disturb the court. The outcome is mixed: Yes, bloggers, you may cover the Scooter Libby trial, but, no Rod Blagojevich, you may not tweet during your trial. Davidow is also concerned about how many courthouses do not use new media themselves, not even making the daily docket available online.

Davidow hopes that a set of standards could help make new media and technologies that foster transparency and openness become just another normal part of the courthouse. One of the most interesting ways he thinks he’ll be able to achieve systematic success is through a broad network of stakeholders, already pieced together. “When I started formulating this, I made an awful lot of calls,” he told me. “I was fortunate enough to to find a conference of chief court information officers. They’re working on this same exact issue. They’re all trying to figure it out nationally.” The Conference of Court Public Information Officers has agreed to release a report at the end of the project, providing a framework for courts to handle new media questions. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Judiciary-Media Committee, composed of both journalists and judges, voted unanimously to support this project. Boston University’s School of Communication has volunteered to train “civic journalists” and court personnel. Our friends at Harvard’s Citizen Media Law Project, just down the street from the Lab, have also agreed to help.

Courts move slowly, and Davidow is prepared to face that challenge: “The term deliberation means something,” he joked. But with his test kitchen going, and many stakeholders supporting his effort, he hopes to get courthouses moving in a new media direction.

November 04 2009

15:04

How a blog, a camera, and a court are feeding journalism’s long tail

When people talk about the long tail, they often focus on consumer goods, where the infinite shelf space at a company like Amazon or Netflix allows a huge variety of products to be sold. But the same concept can apply to news, where cheap servers make it possible for hyper-targeted coverage — the stuff that only appeals to a few hundred people — to live online with few concerns about space or scarcity. Toss in search engines and dead-simple publishing tools and you’ve got a bounty of easy-to-find, niche-friendly content.

Whether intended or not, Ron Sylvester is stocking the long tail. The veteran crime and courts reporter for The Wichita Eagle uses his blog What the Judge Ate for Breakfast to publish two-minute videos that dive into the intricacies of a courthouse. They’re fascinating clips, touching on everything from the role of prosecutors, to odd defendant behavior, to the less glamorous responsibilities judges assume. These glimpses into the life of a court are classic examples of long tail content: the type of stuff that would never see the light of day on traditional platforms.

It makes sense that something like this would come from Sylvester. He was one of the first beat reporters to jump on the Twitter bandwagon, tweeting updates from the courtroom. The positive response to the Twitter coverage encouraged him, and he started looking at different techniques for covering his beat. “There’s so much human drama in the courthouse,” he said. “I’m trying to find ways to expand the coverage and use multimedia to do that.”

What the Judge Ate for Breakfast (the name comes from a quote attributed to Jerome Frank) launched in early 2008 as an ancillary outlet to Sylvester’s court coverage. It initially featured interesting asides and courtroom miscellany, all delivered as regular text-based blog posts. Sylvester started mulling bigger ideas about a year into the site, and his growing interest in video dovetailed serendipitously. “I was kind of jealous of TV,” Sylvester said. “I wished people could actually hear some of this testimony and see the expressions instead of me describing it to them.”

With the help of colleagues in the Eagle’s photography and web departments, Sylvester cobbled together equipment and started learning. The first video in the series — which runs under the title “Common Law” — appeared in July, and he’s now posting a minimum of one new clip per week.

Juggling platforms and coverage

What the Judge Ate for Breakfast is part of The Wichita Eagle’s website, Kansas.com, but it isn’t Sylvester’s full-time gig. He juggles platforms, producing coverage for print, web, Twitter and the Common Law series. When journalism schools teach “multimedia journalism,” Sylvester is the kind of reporter they’ve got in mind.

The essential skill of multimedia reporting, Sylvester told me, is knowing how to match content, medium, and audience. Twitter requires brevity. Long-form print and web demand context. Blog posts, particularly those driven by video, need to be short and engaging.

That’s why you won’t find Common Law videos in Sylvester’s traditional coverage. The point is to offer something different for the audience and appropriate for the medium. Take a look at one of Sylvester’s favorite clips as an example: it’s a piece that follows sheriff’s deputy Dioane Gates as he unexpectedly arrests someone he knows. This is one of those slice-of-life tangents that typically gets cut when space is limited and a deadline looms. Recognizing that this is a story and then finding a place for it is where a skilled multimedia reporter shines. Otherwise, you’d never see this stuff.

A look inside the tool box

The role Sylvester plays varies with the subject matter. Big cases require a team, so for something like the upcoming trial of Scott Roeder, Sylvester tweets from the courtroom and provides print and web copy, while one photographer manages pool photos and a second grabs video from the TV feed and sends it to the website.

Sylvester handles all the coverage for smaller trials and hearings. His equipment needs can shift from case to case, so he rolls around a briefcase that holds a Canon HV20 camcorder, a Sennheiser EW100 wireless microphone, a MacBook Pro with Final Cut Express, and a collection of wires and A/V accessories. The jumble of gear occasionally raises eyebrows at the courthouse’s x-ray machine. (It also summons memories of a certain senator’s previous career.)

Posting new Common Law videos is a simple process: Sylvester uploads clips to VMIX, a video encoding service used by McClatchy papers, and then he adds video embed code to a new blog entry. The hardest part is the editing, which can take up to two hours. “It’s like writing a story,” Sylvester said. “You’ve got to try to get it down to two minutes, but capture the essence of what’s going on.”

Watch a few videos and you’ll see that Sylvester weaves in B-roll shots (e.g. a judge listening to an attorney). Sylvester only has one camera, so a “listening judge” clip may come from earlier or later in the hearing. That’s not a huge issue since most Common Law clips revolve around a concept rather than strict coverage, but Sylvester does limit B-roll footage to shots from the same hearing.

How Sylvester gets in

Kansas allows cameras in the courtroom at the judge’s discretion, so Sylvester coordinates his weekly coverage needs in advance. Whipping out a video rig isn’t a surprise most judges would welcome.

Access is made easier because Common Law clips almost always revolve around a de facto “cast”: public defender Lacy Gilmour, prosecutor Marc Bennett, sheriff’s deputies David Rank and the previously-mentioned Dioane Gates, and Judge David Kaufman, whom Sylvester has known since before he wore a robe.

Sylvester credits his 30-plus years in journalism and nearly 10 years on the court beat as keys to greasing the skids. “They’re letting me into places and through doors that normally we wouldn’t go [through],” he said. “You have to have trust in order to do that.”

Forget the numbers

Sylvester declined to share website stats, citing corporate policy. You can get a rough sense of traffic to Kansas.com’s blog section here, and Sylvester did note a gap between his regular coverage, which is often among the most popular stories on Kansas.com, and the limited gravitational pull of What the Judge Ate for Breakfast. That’s the big problem with the long tail of content: small audiences lead to tiny metrics, and those are tough to swallow even when you can rationalize the results.

Sylvester, who knows the humbling sting of web traffic, has a solution: when it comes to beat reporting, forget the numbers. “I’m like everybody else, I like to look at the numbers every once in a while,” he said. “But on this one I’ve stopped. I want to concentrate on producing good content, because I really do believe that as more people get their information on the Internet, I think that good content is going to win out.”

That’s not to say Sylvester disregards all forms of measurement. He just places more importance on the feedback he gets from readers and courthouse staff. “This blog is an extension of the beat,” he said. “This may not get huge numbers, but the people I deal with everyday like it, and it’s building credibility.”

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