A High Multiplatform Dive
A Washington Post reporter recounts his adventures covering the Enron trial for the Web, radio, TVand, yes, the newspaper.
By Frank Ahrens
A snapshot of newspapering, 21st-century style:
Frank Ahrens (email@example.com) covers the media and entertainment industries for the Business section of the Washington Post.
It's May 25, and the verdicts are being read in the government's fraud case against former Enron Corp. executives Kenneth L. Lay and Jeffrey K. Skilling.
They're in a courtroom in Houston, and I'm in Washington, sitting in front of a computer on the Continuous News Desk in the newsroom of the Washington Post. The CND is the Post's intermediary between the newspaper and our Web site, as well as the television networks that feature our reporters and Washington Post Radio, a venture the paper started in March. To my left is a desktop television. To the right, a live microphone to Washington Post Radio. Pressed against my right ear is a set of headphones.
I am listening to the verdicts being read on CNBC with my left ear and hearing the radio host's questions in my right ear. As the verdicts are reported on TV, I repeat them on the radio. Once we reported CNBC's news on our radio station, I would begin blogging. Moments later, I would appear live on CNN Headline News in the small TV studio in the Post's newsroom just behind the CND.
At some point, hours later in this day, I would write an actual newspaper story.
This hectic day in late May marked the end of a remarkable experiment in multiplatform journalism that the Post and I tried. It is one that will be repeated here and, I'm guessing, eventually at most other papers as we all attempt to follow our readers from the printed page to the Internet, radio, television and whatever other platform they choose. (See "Adapt or Die,"June/July.)
First, the backstory that led me to this chaotic moment.
By April 1, the federal case against Lay and Skilling had been going on for nine weeks, with a parade of former underlings taking the stand. Everyone following the trial was waiting for the testimony of the two defendants. (Lay died of a heart attack July 5 while awaiting sentencing.)
At the time, I was wrapping up a four-month stint as an editor on the Post's Business section assignment desk and preparing to head back to my beat covering the media and entertainment industries. But my boss, Jill Dutt, the Post's assistant managing editor for financial news, had a different idea.
How would you like to go down to Houston, she asked, and cover the Lay and Skilling testimony for our Web site?
The offer was intriguing.
My Business section colleague Carrie Johnson had been in Houston since the start of the trial; in fact, she had been tirelessly covering the Enron story for four years. But she was hamstrung by the conditions in Houston: She was monitoring the prosecutors, witnesses and jurors in the courtroom, where computers were not allowed.
Carrie spent her lunch break talking to her editor and crafting the story she would file for the next day's paper. She did a weekly Q-and-A with our Web readers and an audio feed for the site, but there was no way she could file to the Web throughout the day. Consequently, Post readers would miss much of what was sure to be compelling testimony from the two men whom prosecutors had dubbed the top corporate criminals of the era. Conversely, the Houston Chronicle was doing three blogs from the trial.
I had been our first business reporter in Houston in 2002 as the details of Enron's collapse into bankruptcy the previous December began to spool out. I had spent five weeks there, so I was familiar with the players. Returning to Houston to cover the trial would be a satisfying bookend to my Enron experience.
It would be my job to go to the federal courthouse in downtown Houston and sit in something called the Overflow Press Room a converted courtroom five floors below the actual courtroom where Lay and Skilling got their grilling. I would watch the trial on TV and write about it for our Web site in as close to real time as possible. I would not file stories for the newspaper; I had been detailed entirely to our Web site, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Washington Post Co., for the duration. My salary would remain unchanged throughout.
The assignment had two simultaneous requirements: I had to keep a blog and write a daily news story for the Web site that I would update several times throughout the day, in the style of wire service writethroughs. When Carrie's daily newspaper story hit our Web site after our first edition closed, around 11 p.m., it would replace my Web story.
A projection-TV system had been set up in the OPR. I joined a number of reporters and civilians lawyers, regular folks, tour groups watching the trial on a home-movie pull-down screen. More specifically, watching the defendants. The courtroom camera was trained on the witness box, so you could closely examine the witnesses and their reactions, but you could not see the jury, the judge or the evidence. As for the prosecution and defense lawyers, I came to recognize them by their voices and the backs of their heads.
The gavel dropped at 8:30 a.m. Monday through Thursday, and the furious typing commenced.
By that time each day, I had already been in the OPR for at least 20 minutes and had set up my Dell laptop. The courthouse provided a Wi-Fi network for reporters, but it frequently failed. I was glad to have an aircard for my laptop, providing uninterrupted high-speed Internet access.
I opened two Word documents each day one for notes and one for the news story I would file for our Web site. I opened my blog. The Post uses a blogging software called Movable Type. Though the type is small, the software is pretty responsive and allows bloggers to set up different categories. I called one category Dispatches, which included the latest news from the courtroom. I called another Houstoniana, which consisted of vignettes I picked up around Houston not necessarily related to the trial. That way, if someone wanted to know what Lay and Skilling said in their testimony but gave not a whit for my take on Texas, they could easily bypass Houstoniana and not have to wade through my meanderings to get to the meat of the day.
The software also lets bloggers link to Web sites and even photos, some of which I used to comic effect. For instance, at one point I wrote that Lay had turned on the prosecutor like an "overbred Doberman." So of course, I linked to a photo of a snarling Doberman, doubtlessly enraging proud Doberman owners everywhere.
Which brings us to the question of tone.
My daily stories for the Web site would not move through the Business section assignment desk, but would be edited by the CND.
The editors and writers on the CND had all come from the Post newsroom and were seasoned journalists; they would prevent libel and humiliation (mine) in my news stories. Also, I asked Martha Hamilton, who was Carrie's editor, to read my files. Finally, the sheer speed with which I had to write, file and update the story kept the flourishes and attitude to a minimum.
The blog was another thing.
My blog posts would bypass the newsroom and the CND and proceed directly to washingtonpost.com, where they would be read by editors and posted. I had never blogged before, but I had spent five years as a feature writer in the Post's Style section, where writers are encouraged to write with voice. My boss, Jill, gave me a gentle warning about the blog before I departed for Houston, essentially telling me not to embarrass myself or the newspaper. I mean, any more than I usually do.
At the same time, the blog had to supplement the news coverage. I assiduously kept away from opinion, as in, "I think Skilling is lying," partly because it was not my job, but mostly because there was no value added. Who cares if I thought he was lying? People did, however, seem to care about my takes. When Skilling's first wife took the stand, I wrote that "she was ghostlike in her mien and manner, tremulous but somehow firm in her quiet and terse answers. She was, frankly, mesmerizing to watch." That entry prompted the liveliest discussion among readers who commented on the blog.
I know one of the tenets of our business has always been, "We're not the story." Well, sometimes we are. I wanted to create a narrative of my time in Houston, and I thought part of that narrative was me and what I did to try to tell that narrative. Nobody cared what I had for breakfast, but I thought readers would find the following post interesting, or at least amusing:
"So there I was in the lobby of the federal courthouse, sitting on the marble floor, with my computer to my left (refusing to turn on) and my colleague Carrie Johnson's computer to my right (refusing to log on to the network). Smashing start to the day, which began a half-hour early, anyway, as Judge Simeon T. Lake III has decided to speed up this trial a bit, which just finished its 13th week.
"Why was I in the lobby? Because telephone use is not allowed in the Overflow Press Room (OPR) because it's a converted courtroom and phones are not allowed in federal courtrooms. Is it being used as a courtroom now? No. But just try arguing that with the guards at the door. Rather, don't try arguing that. You won't be allowed to bring in your Diet Coke anymore, either, because the guards will have had enough of you.
"But I digress from my digression.
"That's how the day began. It is ending as I'm typing this, around midnight CT Friday, standing up in the lobby of my hotel, using the house computer. A new laptop is on its way from D.C. but won't arrive until the morning. I'm quite aware, thank you, that my day in the field does not compare to the travails of my colleagues who have had to file from Bosnia, Tanzania, Afghanistan and Iraq. After all, no one's shooting at me. So things are good, but the Internet file is not what it should have been today. So, apologies."
Some writers from other papers in the OPR struggled with fact/opinion distinctions. On some days, they wrote a news story for their publication. On others, they contributed to a blog. One told me, "They want me to be opinionated in the blog, but then I have to write a news story the next day and can't be."
Even though I received no such mixed directions, it was clear that I had more writing liberty in the blog than in the news story. I think, really, this was more a function of the Post and Post Web site editors (and me) understanding the different missions of the two reports. Some people would want the day's Enron news from a straight news story, and that would be enough, so we would give them that. Folks who wanted more likely would not care to read just another straight story about the trial. Instead, they might like some analysis, some observation, some humor, some personality all the things that blogs can offer that news stories typically do not. I also took digital photos for my blog.
I didn't write anything in the blog that I would not have felt comfortable putting in the Post newspaper though perhaps not in the Post's Business section. Many posts would have been right at home in the Style section. One Post editor e-mailed me during the trial to say he liked the blog but wanted me to stretch more, simply because I had not written anything that could not have appeared in the Post. (It should be noted that this was an editor who bore no responsibility for my ravings.)
It was painful to watch the news reporters in the OPR consider it a day-making victory to squeeze one colorful word or phrase (or quote!) past editors seemingly intent on running all copy through the Dullness Machine. God forbid we give readers lively copy.
I took down as much of the court testimony as I could, pausing to write the daily Web story and hang blog posts. I liked to have a short post up as testimony started, hang a few more short-to-medium posts throughout the day, then do a lengthy overnight post that focused on one or two issues of the day's testimony, attempting not to mimic Carrie's newspaper story but to riff and analyze. Carrie and I would touch base either at lunch or after each day's testimony and on weekends to make sure our files didn't overlap. I'd usually file the overnight by midnight and the guys at washingtonpost.com would have it up by 7 a.m. the next day.
Over the course of 30 days, I filed 134 blog entries, averaging a little more than four per day. Just for fun, I estimated the number of words I had written in the blog by doing a text dump into a Word document and deleting reader comments and other material I had not written. It clocked in at about 60,000 words, the size of a novel of a little more than 200 pages. Many of the words were actually spelled correctly.
Which brings us to accuracy. I felt that transparency was the key to this thing's success. The implicit message I had for readers was: Listen, I'm going 100 miles per hour here. I'm trying to keep the mistakes to a minimum, but I won't catch them all. If you see something, let me know in the comments and I'll fix it.
For example, I posted one blog entry in which I had Lay saying his son was trying to buy Enron stock in a certain situation. Almost as soon as I posted it, there was a comment saying the strategy made no sense. (Turned out, I had a number of brokers and energy industry folk following along.) I asked the other reporters in the OPR and double-checked my notes and it turned out he'd said his son was actually trying to sell the stock.
So I went back into the post and fixed it (one of the best things about writing on the Web), then posted a comment saying I'd made a mistake and corrected it. Right away, I got a couple of comments saying: Ah, that makes more sense. On the Web, there is little patience for the Olympian obscurity and voice of authority that for years have characterized newspapering. And that's a good thing.
Thanks to the two-way exchange of the Web, I got news tips via the comments section as well as ideas for future posts. I got one comment from the wonderfully named Harry Trueblood Jr., who made the very salient point that most journalists and prosecutors have never run a business. I tracked him down, found an irascible 81-year-old wildcatter oilman, and interviewed him for another blog item.
Word came around 11 a.m. Eastern time on May 25 that the Enron verdicts would hit by noon. I left my desk in the Business section and moved to one on the Continuous News Desk.
When CNBC began reporting the verdicts, we broke into our regular radio programming and I relayed them to our midday host. It was sloppy at first. We were getting conflicting reports from TV and by phone from Houston on Skilling, who had been charged with 28 counts. Some reports had him being acquitted on some counts, others had him being convicted on all. We quickly settled on telling radio listeners he'd been convicted on "multiple counts."
Tina Gulland, who runs the Post's radio and TV operation, wrote notes to me as I was on the radio, which was the most fun part. I actually got to say, live on-air, "I've just been handed..." In the next hour-and-a-half, I did two hits on CNN Headline News and one on MSNBC. (I hadn't shaved that morning, so, after the first appearance on CNN, I retrieved the razor and shaving cream I keep in my desk for just such occasions so I wouldn't look so much like Richard Nixon the next time I was on TV.) CNN's "Nancy Grace" show called and asked me to appear that night, but I declined because I didn't have anything trenchant to say about young blond women missing in Aruba.
In the midst of all the excitement, I turned to blogging. It was satisfying to see instant comments from readers, because the blog had been dark for 22 days.
By 3 p.m., the buzz had subsided enough that I could start writing the story I had been assigned for the next day's paper, a reaction piece quoting former Enron employees. I had a list of e-mail addresses of ex-staffers and, as soon as the verdicts came out, I pinged them for reaction. That way, I could get their thoughts while I was doing other things, without having to spend time on the phone. It's hard to do anything else while you're conducting a phone interview and, in a fast-moving situation like this, I couldn't afford to do only one thing at a time.
I found the blog the best way to break news. Thanks to the quick turnaround, I could get a blog item up on the Web site in fewer than five minutes. Because stories had to be edited at the CND, then shipped to the Web site, then read and run through the publishing software there, it could take 10, 15, 20 minutes to get a piece up.
The first version of each day's Web story, usually filed around 10 a.m., was about eight inches long. By the end of the day, the piece had grown to 40 to 50 inches. I would judge my daily Web stories to be acceptable, wire-level content, but lacking the oomph and staying power of Carrie's newspaper accounts. (At the same time, I should say that many wire service reporters covering the Enron trial filed daily stories superior to mine.)
There was an instant echo-chamber effect among bloggers. An excerpt of one of my posts was printed in the Houston Chronicle and another showed up in the Wall Street Journal's Law Blog. I linked to Chronicle blogs that had material I did not. I figured Enron junkies were going to find what they wanted anyway, so if they were going to go to a rival paper's Web site, they at least could pass through ours first.
As for readers, the blog went from zero to about 48,000 page views per week in four weeks, according to internal numbers. That's significantly less traffic than on washingtonpost.com's most popular blog, a daily dish on celebrities, which averages 200,000 page views per week.
I asked Russ Walker, national editor at washingtonpost.com, what worked and didn't during my time in Houston.
He said the "two-front approach" my blog and Carrie's longer stories was a success. (It would be "three fronts," even, if you count my news stories for the Web. We had readers bottled up like Bonaparte's fleet in the Nile.) On the other hand, though Russ said he liked my Houstoniana posts, he added, "I'm wondering if we confused readers by saying 'Here's an Enron trial blog' and then giving them the trial and funny observations about wacky Texas."
Russ had another improvement in mind: "I think story-specific blogs would work even better if we let reporters build audience for all their work, not just one off [major] news events. Maybe each reporter has his [or] her own blog. And when a reporter gets assigned to a big trial or other event, then the reporter's blog becomes 'the Enron blog' and later it's the 'new big story on my beat' blog."
Rajiv Chandrasekaran, assistant managing editor for the CND, called my time in Houston "a good model of print and Web collaboration." But one thing we didn't figure out, he said, was how to let readers of the Web stories (not the blog) know about afternoon developments in the trial that merited inclusion in the story but weren't important enough to change the lead or the headline on the Web site. There should be some way to billboard those on the Web site, something we'll work on for next time.
The gig is not for everyone. I think news bloggers in such situations need a few years' experience both in the business and at their publications, so they can determine just how far they can push the voice and attitude tolerances of their papers and audiences. But bloggers cannot be wed to the Bad Old Ways that are sinking newspapers, such as: We've always done it this way. Or: That's not serious journalism. Or: You're either a reporter or a columnist. Smart stylists can have voice without rendering opinions on the material they cover.
It seems to me this middle ground between straight news and straight opinion is a natural way to write the news of the future. Far too many news stories still cling to the strict, formal English that almost no one uses anymore and that often leaves readers scratching their heads at the end of the story, assuming they get that far. Too much "on the one hand, on the other hand" and not enough "here's a fair and balanced take on what it means," allowing writers to take full advantage of their experience.
It should be clear by now that personality is key to building a news audience, be it via print, Web, radio or video. I compare a news blogger to the character of the stage manager in "Our Town": not a player in the drama, but indispensable to its telling. The casting of the role is critical; a boring stage manager will ruin the play.
Only a few topics (the White House, celebrity, sports) can build audiences on their own, regardless of who's writing about them. For the rest of the news we cover, we need stage managers who won't put our audiences to sleep.