When Castro Valley Patch Readers Are the Journalists and There Are No CRTs

A news reporter waxes nostalgic about how Facebook today is The Associated Press of yesterday.

TV helicopters aside, Castro Valley Patch readers on Facebook were among the best reporters on Monday when a .

I got the news from the Patch editor in Newark, who caught a live KTVU broadcast. I posted it on Facebook and Twitter, and sent a breaking-news alert to people who have signed up with Patch to receive those.

My news alert had only a headline and a sentence saying Patch would update the story as more information became available. Then, over the next three hours, I updated the story, in the end completely changing it to reflect the most recent information.

I called authorities, viewed TV footage and checked Facebook, Twitter and Google. An early version of the story quoted the spokeswoman for the Alameda County Fire Department, but she was just then heading out to the scene herself, so she wasn't able to contribute any detail.

I continued Tweeting and Facebooking.

If you had read the story over and over again, refreshing the page every few minutes, you would have seen more than a dozen versions, each more detailed than the next.

Eyewitnesses who live in Castro Valley turned out to be the fastest reporters and proved pretty accurate. Facebook was the place to be if you wanted the most information the fastest, so my early updates of the story quoted Facebook posts that were responses to my original post.

Yay, you! Castro Valley, you rock! After a while, when I checked the Internet for what other news organizations may have posted, I kept seeing Patch.com stories at the top of the search returns, and they mostly featured your firsthand observations, Castro Valley.

The final version of the story reflects an interview with a police lieutenant at the regional park district, who was able to answer questions that residents couldn't. But until I spoke with him, nearly three hours after the fire broke out, you readers were the journalists.

Why tell you this? Because I want you to know that you are powerful and influential in "Journalism Today," which is my preferred name for this new era that we're in, thanks to free and easy-to-use distribution platforms. No longer do you have to wait 24 hours and get information filtered by a reporter constrained by space limitations.

Know that your voice matters and use it well, Castro Valley.

When I was a general assignment reporter for The Associated Press wire service in the 1990s, we were an electronic organization in a print world. That is, our stories moved electronically to newspaper editors sitting at terminals in newspaper offices, much the way your Facebook posts move electronically to your friends' Facebook pages today.

At the AP in those days, we produced stories the way I did on Monday. With breaking news, the first story to move was often a single line long. Then we sent updates as fast as we could, building on that one line with a second paragraph, then a third, then a fourth, perhaps each in a separate transmission. Toward the end, we would finesse the language a bit, but not much. We called these multiple transmissions "write-throughs."

Our internal jargon for this was "1st lede write-through," "2nd lede write-through," and so on. They were numbered to avoid confusion.

One reason for the write-through approach was that different newspapers had different deadlines. Some would take the 9 p.m. version of the story, and a few would take the 11 p.m. version. Most would take an 11 a.m. through 3 p.m. version, unless it was going to be on Page One.

What? No cell phones?

On the other hand, a lot of other things about being a news reporter have changed. I remember driving my car through Central California farmland, looking skyward, trying to spot a high-tech hot air balloon that was supposed to go around the world but instead crash-landed in my AP territory.

This was in the day when only doctors and farmers (yes, farmers) carried cell phones, and there were phone booths everywhere, even in remote locales. So I pulled over every so often to call the Federal Aviation Administration and local sheriff's office, plunking coins into the slot for each new call.

If I had been headed in the wrong direction and needed to turn around, I likely would have been too late to report the story because there weren't a lot of roads among the acreage.

I lucked out and caught a glimpse of an unusual shape in the sky, kept it in sight and kept on driving. The high-tech balloon was still soaring with the wind while gradually losing altitude.

It had just landed when I put on my brakes and got out of the car. Inflated fabric was still settling in on itself in large, soft folds.

Strangers in the house

There were houses nearby, so I knocked on a door, introduced myself as an AP reporter and asked if I could use the family's home phone to make a 1-800 call to my headquarters in New York City. The woman who answered the door immediately nodded and wordlessly led me to her phone, the analog kind you rarely see anymore, with a rotary dial, a large handset with round bulges on either end, and a curly cord. That was all anybody had in those days.

By today's standards, it might be shocking to let a stranger into your house. But I was let into a lot of houses, sans prior introduction.

I held the big, clunky phone and leaned out a window while describing what I saw. I spoke to a person whose name I don't remember, a person whom I would have referred to as "the national desk."

In The AP, people weren't people, they were "desks," and the people who manned those desks rotated around the clock.

At that point, my byline appeared on the story, even though I didn't write a word of it. In journalism, the byline goes to the person who is reporting what they see, hear or otherwise find out. It's a form of accountability, as in "I stand by what I'm telling you." It's not intended as a way to "give credit to an author," as most people assume.

Cussing was part of the process

In one case, it wasn't a home phone that I borrowed but that of a retail shoe store next to a courthouse. I was reporting the Ellie Nesler manslaughter trial (she shot and killed her son's accused molester in a Jamestown, Calif., courtroom), and left the courtroom periodically to attach a modem to the shoe store's business phone and transmit stories to the San Francisco bureau. The rubbery cup that I had to place on the handset's bulbous mouthpiece rarely sealed well, and the noisy transmissions often dropped mid-way. Several attempts and cuss words later, I would get a transmission all the way through.

That was before broadband Wi-Fi. And the computer I was using could do nothing but typeset. I doubt it even had a calculator.

When the Ellie Nesler trial ended in a guilty verdict, I talked on the phone directly to New York City, rather than using a modem to transmit a story, just as I did for the high-tech hot-air balloon story, and editors nationwide were re-doing their front pages to make room for the story I was then dictating live.

The national desk was sending write-throughs to editors sitting in offices in front of CRTs—heavy vacuum tubes, not slim laptops.

Fast-forward to a burning house

In my first week at Patch, in March of this year, I experienced firsthand what would have been considered science fiction when I was at The AP.

I plugged a portable Wi-Fi stick into the USB port of a MacBook Pro and sat on the sidewalk in front of a , not only writing my story but publishing it. I sat next to the victim, who was wrapped in a blanket the Red Cross had given her, talking and typing.

I took photos with my iPhone, emailed them to myself, and uploaded them to Patch's CMS, as we call it—the content management system. The CMS automatically generates a map to go with the story, once we enter an address.

And that story was immediately live to all the world, sans intervention by a qualified professional staffing a "news desk" with a giant phone.

The barriers to entry are gone, Castro Valley. You are the journalists. You can publish under your own byline—that is, your Facebook link, Twitter handle, or your log-in name when you post a comment on a Patch.com story.

May you use your power wisely.

Thomas Lee Coates September 21, 2011 at 06:43 AM
Excellent article! Fun to see the old modem.


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