Covering a murder trial in Kansas

Someone shot a county sheriff to death on a January morning in 2005 while he was serving a warrant. Almost three years later, a capital murder trial is under way in Eureka, Kansas, a town about an hour’s drive from Wichita. Wichita Eagle court reporter Ron Sylvester sits in the courtroom daily, recording the details provided by witnesses on the stand and uploading them “live” to the newspaper’s Web site.

A methamphetamine lab in a ramshackle country house. A town with about 2,600 residents. Gunshots. A 23-year-old suspect. The scourge of meth addiction in the heartland of America.

The Wichita Eagle is hampered by the inflexible online templates inherited from Real Cities, a misguided Web strategy foisted upon the Knight Ridder newspapers. Making the best of what they’ve got, Web diva Katie Lohrenz senior Web producer Jeff Butts set up an index page for all the trial coverage, with a nice short URL: (the defendant is Scott Cheever). There’s an RSS feed for trial coverage, good clear audio of key testimony, and some dramatic courtroom photographs. Headlines are informative and to the point. The organization is simple, straightforward. And there are 49 pages of tributes to the sheriff who died.

In an e-mail, Ron told me some folks in the newsroom are saying his live reports are “not like a real story.” But Nick Jungman, the Eagle’s senior interactive editor, is standing up for innovation. Bravo! It may seem like a small step, compared with flashy efforts from larger newspapers — but by publishing straight to the Web, the Eagle is walking confidently toward the future.

I just hope they are promoting the online updates (and the exact URL) on Page One every morning.

8 Comments on “Covering a murder trial in Kansas

  1. Correction! I haven’t had anything to do with the Cheever coverage. The special online section was built by our senior producer, Jeff Butts. He gets all the credit.

  2. We’re covering a big trial of our own and I love this idea of having the courts reporter upload short updates frequently; however, I would like to know if Ron’s stuff is being edited. Legal and court stories is one area where we don’t take any chances, which makes it hard for our guy to post directly from the courtroom. It has to go through the desk first. Any thoughts on whether this is worth the risk?

  3. To answer Erik’s question: We almost never post things to unedited. We’ve got a pretty efficient system in which we’ve always got a copy editor on call whose first priority is to move breaking news. Typically, we can move a short piece within 10 minutes of receiving it. So, not quite “live,” but close enough for us. We’d share Erik’s concern about posting things like this unedited.

  4. PS: I should also note that, in this case, Ron’s editor, Assistant Metro Editor Kelly Anderson, is also keeping a close eye on Ron’s posts.

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