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We fell into Twitter somewhat accidentally in our newsroom at the London Free Press in Ontario, Canada.

The Bandidos biker gang trial was going to be a big one for the Free Press. We’d extensively covered the crime when it first happened: eight bikers from Toronto found dead on a rural road near London, and six men charged with eight counts of first-degree murder. None of us was likely to see a trial of this caliber again anytime soon, and it turned out we also got to be groundbreaking in the live-tweeting arena as well.

When I first signed up for Twitter, about a month before the Bandidos trial started, I was riveted by the Winnipeg Free Press’ in-courtroom tweeting of the trial of Vince Weiguang Li, the accused in the case of the Greyhound bus beheading. Call me morbid, but I thought the Bandidos trial would be just as perfect to tweet. It had a compelling cast of characters, a judge who was willing to let media use the Internet in one of the courtrooms, plenty of visual evidence, and all kinds of drama built right in — the biker gang lifestyle is a big draw.

Planning Coverage

We decided our regular court reporter, Jane Sims, would cover the trial from the main, high-security courtroom. Members of the media had already asked and been approved to use electronics in the overflow courtroom. This room wasn’t quite as secure, and the proceedings were available for viewing on two television screens. One showed the jury and witness box, and the second showed the six accused bikers and the lawyers. A third screen was hooked up to the computers that were used to display evidence, such as photos and videos.

The only time journalists weren’t allowed to tweet from the overflow courtroom itself was during the testimony of M.H., the [prosecution] witness who is in the witness protection program. Electronics weren’t allowed at all during his testimony. During his week on the stand, I’d listen to the evidence and then run out of the courtroom with my BlackBerry to type a tweet. It was exhausting, and my coverage wasn’t as in-depth as it could have been.

At first, I tweeted the opening arguments on my BlackBerry. The tiny keyboard made for lots of typos and mistakes, though, so the newsroom invested in a Rogers Rocket Stick, which enabled me to use a laptop for the rest of the trial. As the trial progressed, more people started paying attention, and more and more followers started interacting with me and John Miner, another Free Press reporter, who tweeted in my absence. Sims, our court reporter, also occasionally tweeted, but she was usually in the main courtroom, and working on the daily stories.

Response to Tweets

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Twitter users responded to the tweets, especially those that put them right inside the courtroom. I couldn’t tweet actual pictures of evidence, but I could get people as close as possible. If the [prosecution] was talking about a particular caliber of gun, for example, I’d Google the gun, find an image, and tweet a link to it. Being limited to 140 characters, tweeting links was often a good way to let people know what was going on in the courtroom. We also used links to direct people to the Free Press’ website, where we had videos and picture galleries that showed things we couldn’t put in the print product.

Eventually, I started corresponding with bikers from New Zealand, British Columbia, Australia and Texas. (The latter is the Bandidos’ North American headquarters, and a lot of the evidence related to Texas.) A lot these followers knew the accused and the dead, and others were just curious observers.

Sims has since done interviews with some of the bikers who were mentioned during the trial but were never arrested. It was really interesting to be speaking to guys who knew the ins and outs of the organization that was being exposed on the stand.

Consistency a Challenge, Lessons Learned

The biggest problem we encountered was consistency. I went from a couple dozen followers at the beginning of the trial to more than 1,000 by the end. (Of course, I’m not sure how many people were following the day-to-day of the trial.) Sometimes, I just couldn’t be in court. I had other assignments or I had days off. It was a lot for the Free Press newsroom to lose two reporters from the daily rotation. But if the editors and reporters decided we wouldn’t tweet a certain part of the trial, the followers would get very angry that we weren’t there.

I felt bad that we couldn’t always be there to cover the proceedings. Telling them to “go follow John for the day” didn’t really work and, in retrospect, next time we’ll create a trial-dedicated Twitter account, even though the personal aspect of interacting with a reporter with a name would be lost.

Having one reporter covering a trial and another sending the tweets is essential, though. I thought of myself as the play-by-play announcer and Sims as the analyst after the game. Thinking of how to write something quickly, coherently and engagingly in 140 characters is enough of a challenge without having to analyze the overall picture for the next day’s paper, too.

At first I took notes, then typed them into the BlackBerry. But as I got a feeling for what 140 characters looked like, and learned which words I could cut out and what I could abbreviate, I just typed the tweets directly into Twitter. (I used TweetDeck on the laptop.)

Eventually, I knew what would make a good tweet — a lot of information, written succinctly. Followers would often ask for specific information: what the accused were wearing, their facial expressions, etc. I couldn’t really see their faces, so I got Sims to fill me in on breaks, and then I’d tweet the info.

Having someone tweet an entire trial is certainly an investment — you have a body that is producing for the web, but not for the next day’s paper. It challenges the traditional way of thinking about court reporting.

Huge Potential

In my view, the potential for Twitter is huge. By using it, we were first to report the verdicts, for example. It offers a way to get people into the courtroom (or City Council chambers) in a way that you can’t with print. We interacted with people we never would have tracked down if it hadn’t been for tweeting the trial, and we interviewed them for more in-depth stories after the court case.

A final note: anyone from London could have come into the courtroom and tweeted their hearts out. Not a soul did. It takes time, it takes effort, it takes knowledge of the law (knowing not to tweet developments that occur when the jury isn’t there, for example).

In my opinion, it’s another way that journalists and media outlets can differentiate themselves from the pack.

Kate Dubinski is a reporter and occasional columnist for the London Free Press in Ontario, Canada. She is @KateatLFPress on Twitter.

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This article was originally published on J-Source. J-Source and MediaShift have a content-sharing arrangement to broaden the audience of both sites.

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