Reality TV: OpenCourt has begun its livestream of the judicial system

OpenCourt is about as real as reality TV can get when it doesn’t involve Kardashians, real housewives, or people trapped on an island. That’s because OpenCourt, which launched yesterday, offers a view inside the legal system — specifically, the Quincy District Court here in Massachusetts, where traffic infractions, drug cases, and arraignments of all kinds now unfold not only in the courtroom, but also Order in the Court 2.0, the winner of a 2010 Knight News Challenge grant and a project with an explicit goal of making the courts as transparent as the other branches of government. It’s something that seems simple as a premise: Put a webcam in a courtroom, and, boom, livestreamed court proceedings. But of course it’s tricker than that; otherwise, the Knight Foundation may not have awarded $250,000 to the WBUR-led project.

“The truth of the matter is when we put this out there the concept is so simple,” John Davidow, OpenCourt’s executive producer, told me. “We’re just going to stream live what takes place in public.”

A test run for transparency

The tasks OpenCourt is addressing are technical as much as they are legal, and sometimes conventional. The project operates within the boundaries of camera-use in the courts (video recording is permitted here in Massachusetts but can be limited by judges — though the current law may be broadened). But it still must confront concerns from the legal community, and ultimately try to balance the idea of transparency with the right to a fair trial.

But since there is no universal standard for new media access when it comes to the legal system in the US, OpenCourt is also a test case. Walking into any random courtroom, there’s no way of knowing whether tweeting is allowed, whether recording is an option, or even whether the use of a laptop is acceptable. That’s why Davidow says OpenCourt is an experiment, and one that will need to be watched closely if it’s to be duplicated elsewhere.

“It’s a pilot,” Davidow told me. “It’s now a reality and off the white board. More and more issues will come forward.”

And already something has come forward. On its first day of operation, the Norfolk County District Attorney’s office filed a a motion to close access to OpenCourt’s archives. An attorney from the DA’s office said the archives would present a lasting, un-editable record if inappropriate or inaccurate information — the names of crime victims, say, or of confidential informants — were to come out in a hearing. Judge Mark Coven denied the motion, saying “respectfully, I can’t address hypotheticals.”

Defining an open system

The true hurdles for OpenCourt, as Davidow described them, come in defining the parameters of how, what, and when the video feed would be active. He and his staffJoe Spurr, OpenCourt’s director, and Val Wang, its producer — decided the video stream would be live only when a judge is presiding over a case and when an OpenCourt producer is present. (In other words, this won’t be the equivalent of a traffic cam staring at the bench.) Davidow said they decided that the judge (who has a laptop monitoring the feed) will have discretion over whether the video is online or not. And that will largely depend on the case, Davidow said. (Though, after consulting with their advisory group of lawyers, judges, academics, and others, the team decided not to broadcast restraining order hearings as a rule.) The team had to be mindful, Davidow noted, of how being transparent could cause additional harm to people or prevent them from appearing in court at all.

But rather than setting out more guidelines for limiting the use of live video, the OpenCourt team has tried to find ways to make the camera and what it represents less of an issue. Beginning late last year, they held a series of meetings with the community in and around the court to familiarize others with the project, the gear, and the people who would be filming hearings every day. The camera, and the producer who operates it, have their own pocket in the courtroom and have become something of a fixture. (On the stream, you might notice, not many folks look towards the camera.)

“When you put a TV camera some place, people eventually forget about it,” Davidow said. “There’s a comfort level with it; you get used to it. That has helped the project immensely.”

Watching OpenCourt is C-SPAN-esque — or maybe Court TV-esque (or is that now truTV-esque?) — minus the call-in shows and podium-thumping speeches from politicians. Defendants shuffle in and out, charges are explained, and things follow course from there. It’s an unfiltered eye into the legal process, like staring down at an engine as it’s working.

It’s also more than a little ironic: Courts are open, but are they open open? “Courts have enjoyed what they referred to as ‘virtual obscurity,’” Davidow said. “Yes, justice is done in public, but to see it you need to go to court.”

A judicial education

Watching the video feed also makes you appreciate the simplicity of the kit OpenCourt has put together to create such a seamless product. As the team explains on their “Open Your Court” page, a DIY run-through for filming your local legal system, they use a couple of MacBook Pros, a Canon HD camcorder, and Livestream to get things up and running. One of the project’s goals, said Spurr, is to offer other courts full guidance on using cameras in court — and that guidance includes technology details and other best practices. “It’s about iterability,” Spurr said, “and being able to create an ideal environment that is forward thinking: What could a courtroom look like?”

What OpenCourt is encouraging is more interaction with, if not more information about, the court system. Aside from the livestream, the project is also providing free WiFi at the courthouse for anyone who wants to come in to cover a case. In that, Davidow said, the project could be a boon to local bloggers and citizen journalists, giving them an additional resource for covering the community. It’s also clear that OpenCourt could be useful to understaffed newsrooms as a way of keeping track of cases as they move through the system. “I’d argue that nothing compares to actually being there and seeing with your own eyes,” he said. “At the same time, maybe some news organizations would find efficiency in that setup.” (The Quincy Patriot-Ledger has already embedded the OpenCourt stream in a story.)

While the goal is to throw open the doors of the court, it is also to educate the public about the court’s workings. Though one of the benefits of operating in a district court is that it’s the most accessible step in the judiciary (traffic/moving violations, fines, the types of misdemeanors you don’t want others to know about — all go through district court), there’s still an element of the unknown about how courts work. This is why, in addition to the stream on opencourt.us, you’ll also find a schedule of the day’s cases, a glossary of legal terms, and a rundown of the people who make the court work.

“One of the reasons the courts really embraced this idea is because people don’t understand some basic concepts,” Davidow said. “The courts felt this was a way for people to start learning about how justice is done in this country.”

Reality TV: OpenCourt has begun its livestream of the judicial system

OpenCourt is about as real as reality TV can get when it doesn’t involve Kardashians, real housewives, or people trapped on an island. That’s because OpenCourt, which launched yesterday, offers a view inside the legal system — specifically, the Quincy District Court here in Massachusetts, where traffic infractions, drug cases, and arraignments of all kinds now unfold not only in the courtroom, but also Order in the Court 2.0, the winner of a 2010 Knight News Challenge grant and a project with an explicit goal of making the courts as transparent as the other branches of government. It’s something that seems simple as a premise: Put a webcam in a courtroom, and, boom, livestreamed court proceedings. But of course it’s tricker than that; otherwise, the Knight Foundation may not have awarded $250,000 to the WBUR-led project.

“The truth of the matter is when we put this out there the concept is so simple,” John Davidow, OpenCourt’s executive producer, told me. “We’re just going to stream live what takes place in public.”

A test run for transparency

The tasks OpenCourt is addressing are technical as much as they are legal, and sometimes conventional. The project operates within the boundaries of camera-use in the courts (video recording is permitted here in Massachusetts but can be limited by judges — though the current law may be broadened). But it still must confront concerns from the legal community, and ultimately try to balance the idea of transparency with the right to a fair trial.

But since there is no universal standard for new media access when it comes to the legal system in the US, OpenCourt is also a test case. Walking into any random courtroom, there’s no way of knowing whether tweeting is allowed, whether recording is an option, or even whether the use of a laptop is acceptable. That’s why Davidow says OpenCourt is an experiment, and one that will need to be watched closely if it’s to be duplicated elsewhere.

“It’s a pilot,” Davidow told me. “It’s now a reality and off the white board. More and more issues will come forward.”

And already something has come forward. On its first day of operation, the Norfolk County District Attorney’s office filed a a motion to close access to OpenCourt’s archives. An attorney from the DA’s office said the archives would present a lasting, un-editable record if inappropriate or inaccurate information — the names of crime victims, say, or of confidential informants — were to come out in a hearing. Judge Mark Coven denied the motion, saying “respectfully, I can’t address hypotheticals.”

Defining an open system

The true hurdles for OpenCourt, as Davidow described them, come in defining the parameters of how, what, and when the video feed would be active. He and his staffJoe Spurr, OpenCourt’s director, and Val Wang, its producer — decided the video stream would be live only when a judge is presiding over a case and when an OpenCourt producer is present. (In other words, this won’t be the equivalent of a traffic cam staring at the bench.) Davidow said they decided that the judge (who has a laptop monitoring the feed) will have discretion over whether the video is online or not. And that will largely depend on the case, Davidow said. (Though, after consulting with their advisory group of lawyers, judges, academics, and others, the team decided not to broadcast restraining order hearings as a rule.) The team had to be mindful, Davidow noted, of how being transparent could cause additional harm to people or prevent them from appearing in court at all.

But rather than setting out more guidelines for limiting the use of live video, the OpenCourt team has tried to find ways to make the camera and what it represents less of an issue. Beginning late last year, they held a series of meetings with the community in and around the court to familiarize others with the project, the gear, and the people who would be filming hearings every day. The camera, and the producer who operates it, have their own pocket in the courtroom and have become something of a fixture. (On the stream, you might notice, not many folks look towards the camera.)

“When you put a TV camera some place, people eventually forget about it,” Davidow said. “There’s a comfort level with it; you get used to it. That has helped the project immensely.”

Watching OpenCourt is C-SPAN-esque — or maybe Court TV-esque (or is that now truTV-esque?) — minus the call-in shows and podium-thumping speeches from politicians. Defendants shuffle in and out, charges are explained, and things follow course from there. It’s an unfiltered eye into the legal process, like staring down at an engine as it’s working.

It’s also more than a little ironic: Courts are open, but are they open open? “Courts have enjoyed what they referred to as ‘virtual obscurity,’” Davidow said. “Yes, justice is done in public, but to see it you need to go to court.”

A judicial education

Watching the video feed also makes you appreciate the simplicity of the kit OpenCourt has put together to create such a seamless product. As the team explains on their “Open Your Court” page, a DIY run-through for filming your local legal system, they use a couple of MacBook Pros, a Canon HD camcorder, and Livestream to get things up and running. One of the project’s goals, said Joe Spurr, OpenCourt’s director, is to offer other courts full guidance on using cameras in court — and that guidance includes technology details and other best practices. “It’s about iterability,” Spurr said, “and being able to create an ideal environment that is forward thinking: What could a courtroom look like?”

What OpenCourt is encouraging is more interaction with, if not more information about, the court system. Aside from the livestream, the project is also providing free WiFi at the courthouse for anyone who wants to come in to cover a case. In that, Davidow said, the project could be a boon to local bloggers and citizen journalists, giving them an additional resource for covering the community. It’s also clear that OpenCourt could be useful to understaffed newsrooms as a way of keeping track of cases as they move through the system. “I’d argue that nothing compares to actually being there and seeing with your own eyes,” he said. “At the same time, maybe some news organizations would find efficiency in that setup.” (The Quincy Patriot-Ledger has already embedded the OpenCourt stream in a story.)

While the goal is to throw open the doors of the court, it is also to educate the public about the court’s workings. Though one of the benefits of operating in a district court is that it’s the most accessible step in the judiciary (traffic/moving violations, fines, the types of misdemeanors you don’t want others to know about — all go through district court), there’s still an element of the unknown about how courts work. This is why, in addition to the stream on opencourt.us, you’ll also find a schedule of the day’s cases, a glossary of legal terms, and a rundown of the people who make the court work.

“One of the reasons the courts really embraced this idea is because people don’t understand some basic concepts,” Davidow said. “The courts felt this was a way for people to start learning about how justice is done in this country.”

PBS plays Google’s word game, transcribing thousands of hours of video into crawler-friendly text

PBS' new video search engine

Blogs and newspaper sites enjoy a built-in advantage when it comes to search-engine optimization. They deal in words. But a whole universe of audio and video content is practically invisible to Google.

Say I want to do research on Osama bin Laden. A web search would return news articles about his assassination, a flurry of tweets, the Wikipedia pageMichael Scheuer’s biography, and an old Frontline documentary, “Hunting Bin Laden.” I might then take my search to Lexis Nexis and academic journals. But I would never find, for example, Frontline’s recent reporting on the Egyptian revolution, where bin Laden makes an appearance, or any number of other video stories in which the name is mentioned.

While video and audio transcripts are rich for Google mining, they’re also time-consuming and expensive. PBS is out to fix that by building a better search engine. The network has transcribed and tagged, automatically, more than 2,000 hours of video using software called MediaCloud.

“Video is now more Google-friendly,” said Jon Brendsel, the network’s vice president of product development. Normally, automatic transcription is laughably bad — Google Voice users know this — but Brendsel is satisfied with the results of PBS’ transcription efforts. He said the accuracy rate is about 80 to 90 percent. That’s “much better than the quality that I normally attribute to closed captioning,” he said. The software can get away with mistakes because the transcripts are being read by computers, not people. (For a hefty fee, the content-optimization platform RAMP will put its humans to work to review and refine the auto-generated transcripts.)

Query “Osama bin Laden” at PBS’ video portal, and the new search engine returns videos in which the phrase appears, including time codes. ”Osama bin Laden found at 33:32,” reads one result. (So that’s where he was?) Mouse over the text to see the keyword in context; click it to be deposited at the precise moment the keyword is spoken. (Notice the text “Osama bin Laden” appears nowhere on the resulting page.)

PBS’ radio cousin, NPR, still relies on humans for transcription, paying a third-party service to capture 51 hours of audio a week. In-house editors do a final sweep to ensure accuracy of proper names and unusual words. It’s expensive, though NPR does not disclose how much, and time-consuming, with a turnaround time of four to six hours.

“We continue to keep an eye on automated solutions, which have gradually improved over time, but are not of sufficiently high quality yet to be suitable for licensing and other public distribution,” said Kinsey Wilson, NPR’s head of digital media.

Despite the expense, NPR decided to make all transcripts available for free when relaunching its website in July 2009. ”Transcripts were once largely the province of librarians and other specialists whose job was to find archival content, often for professional purposes,” Wilson said at the time. “As Web content becomes easier to share and distribute, and search and social media have become important drivers of audience engagement, archival content — whether in the form of stories or transcripts — has an entirely different value than it did in the past.”

Put another way: Readers today (kids today!) are accustomed to search as a shortcut to obtaining information. If Google doesn’t index your content, it might as well not exist. (And there are other emerging platforms in the layering-text-on-video game — Universal Subtitles, for example, which essentially crowdsources captioning efforts.) Brendsel said mass indexing is a much more complicated project for PBS, because PBS does not own its content, unlike NPR. The network has to work out rights with multiple producers. And the transcription software is also expensive, he said. PBS is still working out a financial model for extending this service to local stations.

Brendsel plans to offer human-readable transcripts on story pages soon, when the video portal gets a design refresh. That will be the final step in making PBS video truly Google-friendly, allowing search engines to to crawl its text.

Links on Twitter: Stanford announces its Knight Fellows, Time Inc. teams up with Apple, the NYT expands its print run

Last night’s Twitter activity, visualized http://nie.mn/me4txL »

Big congrats to Stanford’s newest @KnightFellows! http://nie.mn/kagh9D »

The Strib is launching a tablet newspaper http://nie.mn/ktg93B »

Al Jazeera journalist (and Nieman Fellow ’09) Dorothy Parvaz missing in Syria; please share #FreeDorothy http://nie.mn/jUowZB »

OnSwipe wants to help publishers mimic the UI of apps…on the open web http://nie.mn/mngXHS »

Facebook’s sales chief is charged with working with "the largest brands and largest agencies" http://nie.mn/jwlIRB »

RT @NYTimesComm: An additional 165K copies of today’s historic @nytimes have been printed: 125K in NY market, 2.5x the normal order. /KM »

Watch @ericnewton1 talking about the global future of press freedom at World Press Freedom Day http://nie.mn/kGF7U9 »

Meet Sohaib Athar, the man who tweeted the attack on Osama bin Laden—without knowing it http://nie.mn/inkEX1 »

Time Inc. has reached a deal with Apple to make all its iPad editions free for print subscribers http://nie.mn/ikTnqi »

Was last night Twitter’s "CNN moment"? http://nie.mn/iO00cB »

At the NYT, no paywall exemption for Bin Laden

When The New York Times announced its pay meter back in March, publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. also announced that — along with the many, many other pores and passages the paper had built into its gate — the Times had built into its new system the ability to open the gate for breaking-news stories that were, essentially, must-reads. “Mr. Sulzberger wanted a flexible system,” the paper reported at the time, “one that would allow the company to adjust the limit on the number of free articles as needed — in the case of a big breaking news event, for example.”

Or, as Sulzberger told Times reporter Jeremy W. Peters:

“Let’s imagine there’s a horrifying story like 9/11 again,” [Sulzberger] said in an interview. “We can — with one hit of a button — turn that meter to zero to allow everyone to read everything they want,” he said. “We’re going to learn. We built a system that is flexible.”

Last night’s news about the death of Osama bin Laden would seem to qualify as one of those big must-read stories. So it’s interesting to note that the Times’ coverage of the news — all of its articles and blog posts — remained behind the paper’s gate last night. And they’ll remain there. “There are no current plans to open up the news and features about Bin Laden for free on NYTimes.com,” a Times spokesperson told me. “As you know, readers get 20 articles free each month, and they can access Times content through other means, such as blogs, social media and search.”

The Bin Laden story broke on May 1, just a few hours after all non-subscribing Times readers had seen their monthly 20-article count reset to zero. Barring a big Sunday-morning reading binge, most were probably still at the very beginnings of their monthly allotments. And while “any decision to make any content free on NYTimes.com will be made on a case by case basis,” the spokesperson notes, “in this case in particular, the fact that the story broke on May 1 was certainly a factor.”

The Times’ pay meter is probably the most analyzed edifice in the news industry at the moment. And it’s not as if there were nowhere else online (or on television, or in print) to learn about the bin Laden raid.

Still, it’s remarkable how little we know about how the paywall’s breaking-news caveat works. The notion of stories that are so big that they shouldn’t be paid for — or, more accurately, so big that the Times shouldn’t require people to pay for them — is a complicated, but also crucial, one, particularly considering the careful balance the Times has struck between business interest and public interest in its rhetoric about its pay scheme.

If and when a story is taken from outside the wall, who makes the decision about the exemption? Is it someone on the business side or the editorial side— or a collaboration between both? Is the exemption something that the Times will announce publicly, or something it will simply enact, without comment? And if the day of the month on which a story breaks is a factor, as it was in this case…on what day would a big story become exemption-worthy?

The biggest question, though: If Osama’s demise didn’t make the cut, what story would?

Coming soon to a theater near you: The New York Times

The New York Times just announced a new initiative: The paper is teaming up with the theater network Emerging Pictures to produce “Times in Cinema,” a branded preshow tailored for independent theatrical venues. Times in Cinema — a ten- to twelve-minute-long affair that will run prior to the trailers at movie showings — will screen original, high-definition videos produced by the Times. (The paper, overall, currently creates more than 100 original videos per month.)

The show will also, yep, be used as a platform for selling advertising.

It’s a smart move: captive audience + art house audience + audience sick of being served up trivia questions about George Clooney as it waits for movie trailers to start = an audience that may be more receptive to brand messaging than a print or digital audience alone. When it comes to news consumption on traditional news platforms — the print product, the web, even the smartphone and iPad — we users have gotten pretty good at ignoring commercial content. When the screen you’re looking at is several hundred times the size of a PC, though, ads become several hundred times harder to ignore. Engagement is almost implicit.

And art houses house precisely the kind of audiences the Times wants to serve ads to. As Yasmin Namini, the Times’ senior VP for marketing and circulation, put it in a press release: “The New York Times attracts an educated, discerning audience that overlaps strongly with the art house audience. Times in Cinema allows us to leverage The Times’s incredible wealth of high-quality videos and create a unique, engaging brand experience to reach theatergoers in a relevant environment.”

Theatergoers, importantly, who might not also be Times readers. As consumers, they’ve opted in to a cultural experience; the news experience — and the branded Times experience — is layered on top of that, separate but also integrated. Though Pathé News 2.0 this is not — Times in Cinema’s videos will focus primarily on entertainment, travel, and lifestyles stories — the move has a definite back-to-the-future sensibility to it, reminiscent of those pre-movie newsreels so popular in the ’30s and ’40s. And, most importantly, it could be yet another ad platform — and, thus, revenue stream — for the Times, one that looks beyond traditional methods of distribution to deliver branded content — even to people who haven’t actually sought that content. In a world (er, IN A WORLD…) where news organizations need to think creatively about new ways to surprise and intrigue and otherwise engage us, the cinema screen could be just the ticket.

Image by David Gallagher used under a Creative Commons license.

Links on Twitter: Print reporter punished for shooting video, a big offer for the Boston Globe, a royal shush button

Update to a story we tweeted this morning. MT @Poynter: WH press secretary: “No reporters have been banned.” http://nie.mn/lIDj8c »

Overlooked this: Stuff Journalists Like, including #35 Name Dropping (what?) and #3 Free Food (never!) http://nie.mn/mqrfBH via @10000Words »

#FutureOfNews Innovation of the Day: The Guardian makes a certain wedding disappear with one click http://nie.mn/jtHLmU »

What’s Patch doing right? Transparency over objectivity, says @laurenmichell. (Agree?) http://nie.mn/mEFCXb »

PSA: Applications are open for the U. of King’s “Summer School in Data Journalism” in Nova Scotia http://nie.mn/jEnObY »

Twitter appears to have introduced text ads http://yfrog.com/h070fgp http://nie.mn/kTiig4 »

Congrats to @katchesmark on becoming @CIRonline‘s editorial director and @chasedavis its tech director! http://nie.mn/luQeRc »

RT @mallarytenore: NPR names Miami Herald’s Edward Schumacher-Matos as its new ombudsman. »

Twitter executive says the service has 200+ million users; 70% of traffic is from outside the U.S. http://nie.mn/mE8fEu »

Interesting: Might Netflix kill Internet movie piracy? It’s cheap, and so much easier http://nie.mn/l7ylGm »

A businessman is prepared to offer $200+ million for the Boston Globe — much more than two summers ago http://nie.mn/kWgKhJ »

No. 1 on Reddit? A thank-you note from PBS that encouraged hundreds more to give http://nie.mn/iPnKFN »

The White House banished a “print pool” reporter for pulling out a phone to record video http://nie.mn/ltKKxe »