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Nov. 4, 2009, 10:04 a.m.

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.”

POSTED     Nov. 4, 2009, 10:04 a.m.
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