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Cohen at Twitter Speed

April 25, 2018
Bill Girdner

By Bill Girdner

Editor of Courthouse News Service.

We at Courthouse News were faced with a dilemma during our coverage of a Michael Cohen hearing in New York.

One of our reporters was tweeting about events in the hearing as they took place, based on an audio feed in the press room in the Southern District. Those events included the revelation that Fox TV talk show host Sean Hannity was Cohen’s third client.

While we had two reporters covering the hearing, one inside the courtroom and one in the pressroom, our website editor was not updated with the information about Hannity until a half-hour after it was disclosed.

That would be unacceptable to any news organization in this modern age of publishing.

Our reporter inside the courtroom, like all reporters inside, was not allowed to use an electronic device during the hearing, a common measure in federal courts. And the second reporter in the press room, who could use an electronic device, was tweeting to an audience that was ballooning.

Asked why he had delayed, the tweeting reporter argued that further developments were imminent, with Trump’s attorneys arguing for a restraining order against the government. The editor conceded.

The next morning during a discussion about those events with the bureau chief and the story editor, I had concluded that stern measures were called for. But as we finished up our discussion, the editor noted that the tweeting reporter had picked up 10,000 new followers over the course of the hearing, many of them editors and journalists at major newspapers.

I paused. That was a big number and it had happened in a few hours.

This was a form of publishing that I still did not quite grasp. In our earlier days of internet publishing, some articles on the Courthouse News website were read by 200,000 people. But those numbers had largely disappeared.

Here, suddenly, was a road back to the readers. I also realized that quite a few of our reporters were tweeting, not only their own coverage but also stories by other Courthouse News reporters and from other publishers. They were providing links in the stories, often back our news site.

But why was it that the Facebook site for Courthouse News yielded relatively small numbers of readers while the reporter’s Twitter numbers were blasting off?

Those more familiar with social media explained that Twitter had started as a quick comment forum while Facebook was more about groups sharing longer comments and photos among friends.

Each social medium has tried to adapt to the strengths of the other, but Twitter had become the preferred avenue of comment and expression by journalists and politicians.

There was something new in this but something old as well.

The L.A. Times and The New York Times are still delivered as newspapers to my apartment door. I enjoy reading them with breakfast. That medium provides a better overview of the news, allowing me to turn the pages and see at a glance what stories to zero in on.

The broadsheet version that you get on international flights is even better. But the print newspaper is delayed – by the imperatives of printing and delivery. And when I read the newspapers in the morning, I realize that I have already read some of the stories the night before on their websites.

And even that electronic medium carries some delay, forced by the need to write and edit a story. In addition, the reader must go to the newspaper’s website rather than having the newspaper come to the reader.

Faster than both of them, tweeting is almost instantaneous, as shown by the reporter’s urgency to tweet developments in the Cohen hearing – as they happened. And the tweets are delivered to the reader’s electronic doorstep through email and cell phone notices, from where they can be pushed back into the channels of ether and sent on to others through retweets.

Because of those qualities, a writer can build an audience at extraordinary speed.

So we will staff Thursday’s hearing in the Cohen matter with three reporters, one in the courtroom and two in the pressroom, one updating the lonely webpage editor and one tweeting like mad.

Categories / Op-Ed

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