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UM’s Grace Case blog fills the media vacuum

Seattle Post-Intelligencer reporter Andrew Schneider traveled to Libby in 1999 to start work on a story that would evolve into the largest environmental trial in United States’ history. Nearly 10 years later, as five W.R. Grace executives stand trial in a Missoula courtroom accused of knowingly poisoning the town with asbestos, Schneider hoped to continue covering the story for the P-I. But on March 10, the 146-year-old daily newspaper published its last print edition and shifted its operation entirely to the Internet. The day before the P-I’s curtain call, Schneider left this post on his blog:

“The Seattle Post-Intelligencer broke the story of the asbestos poisoning of Libby, Mont., 10 years ago. But with the final edition of the newspaper rolling off the presses tonight, we won’t be here to report on the outcome of the W.R. Grace criminal trial that resulted from revelations about what happened to Libby and its people.”

The P-I isn’t alone in abandoning its boots-on-the-ground coverage of the historic trial. Although the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, London Observer and Bloomberg news have all covered the proceedings, only one dedicated staff reporter, Tristan Scott of the Missoulian, has attended the trial daily since it began Feb. 19. That’s a notable change from the media frenzy most expected if the trial started on schedule five years ago. It’s also a signal of today’s struggling newspaper industry.

“I think this trial would have attracted more enduring coverage from other outlets had they had the people to put on it, or the news holes to run it in,” says Nadia White, an assistant professor at the University of Montana Journalism School.

To help fill the news vacuum, as well as create a teaching tool for students, UM’s journalism and law schools teamed up to create a new blog that extensively covers the case. Grace Case (http://blog.umt.edu/gracecase) provides timely reports and analysis from inside the Russell Smith Federal Courthouse. In an interesting twist, the same traditional media outlets expected to cover the case have recognized the blog as the most in-depth reporting available. 

“I looked at the news landscape and thought that newspapers just don’t have the resources to send a reporter out to Missoula for a five-month trial, which means that there isn’t enough information about it,” says Andrew King-Reis, the UM law professor who thought the project up.

A stable of 30 students—larger than most daily newsrooms and 10 times the size of the Indy’s news staff—covers the trial continuously in two-hour shifts. One law student and one journalism student tag-team during the proceedings, with each filing a separate story at the end of their shift. The law student analyzes the legal complexities and the journalism student provides play-by-play or a general overview, as well as Twitter updates every 10 minutes. Tweets, as they’re called, are short text-based messages limited to 140 bytes in length.

The real-time coverage constitutes just one advantage for Grace Case over an average news reporter. Four years of pretrial motions generated some 900 documents before the trial even began. UM’s law students spent the first few weeks of the spring semester wading through the paperwork, analyzing it and writing about it in a way that’s accessible to the average reader.

“Because our students spent those first few weeks of the semester learning about the underlying pretrial motions, they walked into the courtroom understanding things quickly,” says Beth Brennan, another UM law professor who helps with the project. “In other words, if somebody objected to something on grounds other than foundation or hearsay—something that goes to the heart of the defense—our students understood that. You normally don’t get that unless you’re a lawyer for one of the parties.”

White says the blog has generated 6,000 unique visitors and 80,000 page visits to date. She reports the average user stays on the site for 6 minutes and views four pages per visit. Among those logging on most frequently are Libby residents, including members of the media.

“It’s the primary coverage for us,” says Brad Fuqua, managing editor of The Western News, a twice-weekly paper based in Libby. “On production day, I look at the stories they’ve done, and I write a round up.”

Fuqua had hoped to hire a freelancer to cover the trial for his publication, but budget constraints squelched the possibility.

“It’s a sad thing when there’s a big story like this and the budget squeezes it out,” he says.

The Grace Case project has not been without its glitches. A few weeks ago a journalism student contacted a juror, which earned him a sharp rebuke from Judge Donald Molloy.

“Believe me, I was horrified when I heard that,” King-Reis says. “But you learn best by screwing up and I assume that’s a lesson he’ll never forget. I hope it gives [the students] a deeper understanding of the jury system and why you don’t call a juror.”

Other than the occasional rookie mistake, the students’ biggest trouble involves condensing so much information into a single Tweet. The most dynamic portion of the Grace Case project has proven to be the most popular of the site. 

“I have to tell you,” says King-Reis, “I thought Twittering was the stupidest thing in the world. But it has, in this context, allowed people to feel the trial. It’s a much more intimate way to experience this trial than simply reading the blog post.”

In fact, White heard that Libby residents huddled around library computers at the start of the trial to watch the blog update with Tweets. That sort of attention is exactly what makes the project so valuable.

“I would have loved to have seen that,” says White. “That was very important to me. To me, that’s a powerful description.”
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