Last rites on the Rocky Mountain News's Twittering
Why is the media business in such terrible shape? Experts and pundits of every description have puzzled over this question for years, but I've finally learned the answer: me. Or at least, people like me — misguided, backward, stuck-in-the-dark-ages Luddites who fear new technology rather than see it as the cure for all that ails the industry.
That's one way to interpret recent comments made by Rocky Mountain News editor/publisher/president John Temple in regard to Twitter, a micro-blogging method that allows users to post brief observations or comments — maximum length: 140 characters — in real time, which newspapers and other media outlets have raced to embrace. However, the Rocky's efforts recently suffered a blow after the paper assigned staffer Berny Morson to Twitter the September 10 funeral of three-year-old Marten Kudlis, killed when Francis Hernandez, an illegal immigrant with a lengthy arrest record, crashed into a Baskin-Robbins outlet in Aurora. Here's a sampling of Morson's posts, which seemed to have been delivered by a golf commentator accustomed to whispering at greenside while players lined up putts:
9:46 AM: people again are sobbing. rabbi again asks god to give marten everlasting life.
9:48 AM: pallbearers carry out coffin followed by mourners.
10:18 AM: coffin lowered into ground.
10:20 AM: rabbi recites the main hebrew prayer of death.
10:22 AM: earth being placed on coffin.
Online commentators at such websites as SportsJournalists.com attacked these updates with special vehemence. Some even demanded that those involved in making the assignment be fired — and Temple acknowledged in a September 13 column on the topic that the staccato prose hadn't met the Rocky's standards. But he also defended the decision to Twitter the service. "To claim there is something inherently wrong with the idea is to make too sweeping a judgment," he wrote. "We must learn to use the new tools at our disposal. Yes, there are going to be times when we make mistakes, just as we do in our newspaper. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't try something. It means we need to learn to do it well."
During a subsequent interview with Temple, I took issue with this thesis, suggesting that while Twittering was a perfectly fine way to cover many stories, it might not be the most appropriate technique for reporting on an interment. To put it mildly, Temple wasn't persuaded.
"I think it's absurd to say you shouldn't Twitter a funeral, absolutely absurd," he announced. "That's like saying you shouldn't write stories about journalism. To me, it's just ignorant. It has no relationship to the reality of reporting. People hunger for information. They want information about live events, and there can be times when it's totally appropriate for some people to want information from a funeral." For example, he said, "I can imagine someone wanting to read a play-by-play of the pope's funeral." As if there were no difference between a funeral for the head of the Catholic Church and a farewell to a previously anonymous toddler.
"You're free to think what you like," Temple continued, "but your thinking is indicative of the stultified, deadly minds that are destroying American news organizations."
My reply? "That's a lot to heap on me, John, but I've got big shoulders."
The Rocky first got the Twittering bug during the lead-up to the Democratic National Convention — and a good many of the paper's scribes assigned to blanket the DNC wound up using the technique effectively. Even so, the unedited nature of the posts, and the staff's modest familiarity with texting techniques, resulted in some unintentionally amusing items. Take, for instance, these two spelling-challenged celebrity sightings submitted by correspondent Tobie Orr on August 25:
4:37 p.m.: Zooey dechanel...wearing a little blue sailor dress and black tights. At la Rumba.
4:45 p.m.: Ellen berstyn walked in has a dune linen long jacket and pants, just ate a mini crab cake.
For what it's worth, that's Zooey Deschanel and Ellen Burstyn. But these botches were minor compared to the posting of a word that was spelled correctly: "fucker." When I asked about the snafu, Temple didn't identify the reporter — insiders say he was a staffer with another E.W. Scripps paper imported to help with DNC coverage — but noted that "he thought he was text-messaging a friend, but instead, he sent it to our Twitter account." Had this happened on a blog or in a comment on the Rocky's website, it would have been a simple matter to remove the offending word. But because Twitter is a live feed, techies at the paper had to scramble to figure out what to do. They eventually settled on an effective, if time-consuming, fix: having other Twittering Rocky reporters send as many updates as possible until "fucker" was pushed off users' screens. (Word has it that when one staffer was asked to text something, he responded by texting the word "something.") In the end, Temple added, only one reader complained about the appearance of the profanity, which he likened to "a person blurting out a swear word on TV." In his view, it was "another lesson learned."
Some Rocky supervisors got a different kind of clue from the Twittering of the Kudlis funeral. Sources reveal that the paper had planned to Twitter a second memorial service on September 10 — that of Patricia Guntharp, one of two women who also died in the Baskin-Robbins accident. According to an e-mail provided to Westword, a staffer "went to the editors during and after Marten's funeral and expressed concern" about Twittering another event of this type, particularly given the cringe-worthy updates coming in from Morson. Editors subsequently "realized it wasn't a good idea, and the person assigned to the 7 p.m. Twitter...was taken off it." The Rocky had planned to Twitter the funeral of murdered Adams County prosecutor Sean May the previous week, this insider added, only to be foiled when May's family declined to let reporters inside the service.
For his part, Temple has not exempted anything from possible Twittering — least of all funerals — and shrugged off the criticism, in part because subscribers haven't led the outcry. "It's only a controversy for journalists," he said. "It's of no consequence to readers." Yet he clearly cares about reporters' opinions when they're positive, and took pride in pointing out how many of his "journalistic colleagues" were impressed by the Rocky's DNC Twittering.
Temple doesn't know for certain how many non-journalists have even discovered Rocky Twitters. Because the posts appear in an embedded window on certain pages, visitors who cursor through the updates don't register in the same way that article hits do. Still, he said he's gotten positive feedback from the general public regarding Twittering that was done during the August trial of Jon Phillips, who was found guilty of killing seven-year-old Chandler Grafner by starving the boy to death — and those readers who followed the horrific proceedings by returning frequently to the Rocky's site demonstrate why newspaper execs are so excited by Twitter. Anything that induces people to stop by more often and linger longer is a very good thing in a medium that values clicks above all else.
Temple continues to believe that Twittering can be done in ways that don't diminish journalistic quality. Some readers of his Twitter-centric column thought he threw Morson under the bus, but he insisted otherwise, putting the blame on ineffective training. "I gave the reporter the column to review before it went into the newspaper," he revealed, "and it very clearly stated that the responsibility lay with us in not preparing a reporter to do something new."
No large-scale instructional sessions are planned at present, Temple said, because he feels tips are best passed along in one-on-one settings or in small groups. "It's a bit like the discipline of poetry when you're writing it to line length," he added. "I can tell you now that I could go to a funeral and Twitter it and you'd appreciate it, because I would do it in a sensitive way."
That's a claim I'd be interested in seeing Temple prove. Because if I like it, maybe he'll stop accusing my kind of annihilating journalism as we know it.
"Your thinking is indicative of the stultified, deadly minds that are destroying American news organizations."
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