Digital media / Journalism

Detroit Free Press Reporter Has Online Conversations With Readers From Kwame Kilpatrick Trial

Jim Schaefer has worn diverse career hats: copy editor, police beat, video game reviewer, feature writer, TV news producer and – most notably – investigative reporter. Now he adds multimedia juggler.

His Kwame Kilpatrick corruption trial role for the Detroit Free Press is a model of what’s called multi-platform journalism. In addition to contributing to web reports and print coverage written by colleague Tresa Baldas, Schaefer sends real-time tweets and records unscripted video recaps outside federal court. And in an experiment that has proved phenomenally popular, he posts minute-by-minute blog entries that are the next best thing to a courtroom camera, still barred at federal trials. 

During testimony breaks, the Energizer writer keeps going and going by answering readers’ questions at the live blog — an idea he came up with after seeing sportswriters do that during games.

Schaefer does his pioneering version of trial play-by-play from a media room on the downtown courthouse’s second floor, where he taps on a Dell . He sits six stories below where the trial runs from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays. (Baldas reports from the courtroom.)

Jim Schaefer at U.S. District Court in Detroit

Schaefer’s breakthrough form of interactive court coverage elevates a popular newsroom phrase – “conversations with readers” – to a level beyond responding to emails, online forum questions or and comments under articles. His trial blog audience has swelled to 18,000 unique visitors at its peak, he says.

Split-screen windows let him moderate questions while blogging about testimony as it happens — the juggler role. During breaks, he answers dozens of inquiries from registered users about unclear testimony, legal minutia and witnesses’ relationships with the mayor. (Registration isn’t needed just to read.)

The affable writer uses humor and personality to enliven exchanges about trial strategies, witness credibility and even wardrobe choices (defendants’, not his).

Online ‘Water Cooler’

Throughout, a breeze-shooting looseness creates a water cooler or coffee break feel.

“Sorry I didn’t get to more questions. Hey, man, even bloggers need to take a ‘comfort break’,” he posted one day. “With these early-morning court dates and these late-night Tigers games coming, it’s gonna be a long week, folks,” the 47-year-old reporter typed Oct. 16.

He and readers also chat about fishing, TV shows and the ban on phones, cameras and computers in federal courts, which forces Baldas to come down six floors to brief Schaefer. “She works much harder than me,” he commented in one aside.

In a less cordial exchange, a reader tossed this pointed question: “Jim, is it possible for you to be completely objective given your history with all of this? . . . I find it impossible.”

His reply came in a minute: “I’m a human being, so of course I have opinions on many matters. It’s my job to present a fair accounting of what happened, not opine on what I think. I hope I’m doing that satisfactorily.”

Schaefer regularly reminds participants about the presumption of innocence and that prosecution witnesses are the only ones testifying so far. “No one — including any of the lawyers in court — knows how this jury is processing all this stuff,” notes one reply to a ready-to-convict reader.

“I think they’re starting to understand how trials work and to keep an open mind,” Schaefer says in a phone interview. “They’re learning a lot about the court process.”

Reader-Generated Contest

The casual, frank dialogue and daily comments by several dozen people nurture a sense of community.

More than five dozen regulars are trying to predict the verdict date in hopes that Schaefer will have lunch with the winner. His own guess is next March 13, though he stayed mum about agreeing to the lunch prize — until now. “Yeah, I could see having lunch with the person who wins the pool,” he acknowledges.

The trial, which began with opening statements Sept. 21, is the latest chapter in a decade-long saga. Schaefer and M.L. Elrick, now an investigative reporter at Fox2 News, began looking into Kilpatrick’s administration in 2002. Their pivotal disclosures of nearly 14,000 of his text messages earned the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for local reporting and six other national awards.

Schaefer had time during the court recess to talk about his daily schmoozing with readers:

Deadline Detroit: Who came up with the live blogging idea?

Schaefer: Our web people. We have some very smart young people who set up a more versatile way for mobile users and others to monitor the trial. This whole thing has been a work in progress. Sports has been doing this for a while. I was going to blog the trial anyway and then Stephanie Murray [assistant managing editor/digital media] asked if I wanted to turn on comments.
I’ve never been a big fan of our online forums – they’re just a big time-waster. But if they’re going to pay me to sit through the trial, I might as well interact with readers. We were only going to do this for a week and it took off. Now the traffic numbers are higher than for our sports blogs. They’ve been happy with it, though I’m not sure anyone has figured out yet how to make money from this.

Deadline Detroit: Is there an impact on coverage from what readers say and ask?

Schaefer: Definitely. It’s surprising how much they help. Their interaction keeps me on the straight and narrow, and I learn things all the time – like the time I typed “tow the line” and a reader explained that it’s “toe the line” and where that expression comes from. It’s useful to get such get such quick feedback.

Deadline Detroit: What’s been the biggest surprise?

Schaefer: How it’s grown organically and been developed because of the community. The first day was really chaotic and confusing because I answered questions in between posting testimony. Some people just wanted to know what witnesses were saying and couldn’t tell what was going on, and they told us. So I just answer questions at the beginning, during breaks and at the end.
I also realized that some people check in just for a while, so periodically I tell who’s on the stand, summarize what was said earlier and add each day’s headlines. That’s the journalism function.
It’s also surprising how many people listen from work, keeping the blog on an alternate screen in case the boss comes by. We even have people commenting from outside the country.

Deadline Detroit: Do you feel a sense of community and a curiosity about the regulars?

Schaefer: Yes. Some readers greet me every day and we do get hints about each other’s interests, though I don’t know what they look like or sound like. That’s why I like to start with good morning greetings and comments about what else is going on just to show that there’s a real person behind the blog, not just a robot like it sometimes seems on the internet.

Deadline Detroit: Do you savor the irony of text messaging about the trial, in effect?

Schaefer: (Chuckling) Oh yes, I think about that all the time. It is ironic, definitely. I also think about it when I’m texting personally – careful what you say.

The Tech Tools

  • Schaefer’s laptop: Dell Vostro 
  • Blog platform: ScribbleLive, developed by Scribble Technologies of Toronto.
  • Live blog viewing: Go to on trial days. (Recess due to end Nov. 13.)
  • Blog archives: This coverage index includes “Trial blog replay” listings.

[This post first appeared at the Deadline Detroit daily news site.]


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