Summer 2012

The Story That Rocked the Clock

‘With so much news breaking, just posting updates to the paper’s website suddenly felt inadequate. We needed to meet readers where they were …’

By Phil Brinkman

Demonstrators inside the Capitol in Madison, Wisconsin, cheer in February 2011 as the deadline drew near to vacate the premises or face arrest. Photo by Craig Schreiner/Wisconsin State Journal.

Join the conversation on twitter using the hashtag #NRTruth After a string of breaking news that stretched over weeks, an uneasy calm had finally settled over Madison, Wisconsin, by early March 2011.

A month earlier Governor Scott Walker had dropped "the bomb," as he would later call his controversial decision to effectively wipe out collective bargaining for public employees. Tens of thousands of protesters swamped the state Capitol, and the reporters, photographers and editors at the Madison-based Wisconsin State Journal strained to cover every development that ensued: The Senate's minority Democrats fled to Illinois to deny the Republicans a quorum. Schools closed when thousands of teachers joined the protests. Demonstrators occupied the state's ornate Capitol building 24 hours a day, turning it into a protest village.

Each day brought a number of developments that taxed the newspaper's two Statehouse reporters and forced us to abandon beat coverage elsewhere to throw more bodies at the story. With so much news breaking, just posting updates to the paper's website suddenly felt inadequate. We needed to meet readers where they were experiencing the story: on their cell phones, on Facebook, and especially on Twitter. Several of us already had Twitter and Facebook accounts, but these were mostly ornaments. The events of February and March 2011 forced us to integrate social media into everything we do.

We acted in part out of self-preservation. If the Internet is the equivalent of giving every citizen a printing press, Twitter is like giving every person his or her own talk radio show: loud and highly charged interpretations of the news, broadcast to hundreds or thousands of followers. As Madison burned, the cacophony of voices was deafening. The paper risked being crowded out, the hard work of its independent and well-sourced reporters eclipsed by partisans.

We began by capturing an audience of our own. Equipped with smartphones, our Capitol reporters tweeted updates several times a day, often breaking news on Twitter even before informing their editors. When the protests started, reporter Mary Spicuzza had perhaps 500 followers on Twitter. Today, some 3,600 people hang on her every tweet.

Others needed to be brought up to speed in a hurry. We improvised, providing some reporters with iPod touches and mobile hotspots, and setting them up with Twitter accounts before sending them out the door. By the first weekend of protests, we had nine reporters in the field, all of them tweeting and contributing to a live blog, which drew 24,000 readers over two days. (By comparison, the State Journal's circulation is around 83,000 daily and 118,000 Sunday.)

As a source of tips, Twitter was indispensable, opening up listening posts across the state and across the political spectrum that could quickly influence coverage plans for the day. Of course, the downside of so much feedback is that it can quickly become overwhelming. I began reacting to the merest development like a jumpy day trader, sending Spicuzza and fellow reporter Clay Barbour down endless rabbit holes to check out every rumor: No, police were not massing in riot gear on the edge of the city. No, the administration was not sealing the windows of the Capitol shut.

Over time, we got better at sifting out the chatter. We also knew we couldn't risk the newspaper's credibility by tweeting unverified information. What emerged was a common-sense policy akin to the paper's ban on writing off the police scanner: Don't forward tweets from unknown or unreliable sources. Don't retweet claims that haven't been independently verified. Stick to the facts.

Of course, those outside the paper weren't bound by any such constraints. With anger on both sides at a fever pitch, the media could not escape becoming part of the story. There were daily Twitter and Facebook campaigns taking issue with our coverage; knowing, conspiratorial treatises that only someone ignorant of the much more banal inner workings of a newspaper could conjure. Responding to those charges was tempting but often created more trouble than it was worth.

Going Viral

By early March, everyone was exhausted, beat up, and badly nourished. The stalemate in the Senate at least allowed us to catch our breath. "Normalcy is returning," read one headline on March 8.

At 4 p.m. the next day, the Senate came back in a surprise session. Spicuzza learned that a conference committee had been hastily called for that day to approve the collective bargaining bill and send it back to both houses for a final up-or-down vote. She immediately tweeted that, but none of us knew what it meant. The bill hadn't passed the Senate due to the Democrats' boycott. How could it suddenly show up in a conference committee, which typically irons out differences between competing versions of legislation passed by both houses?

While Spicuzza and Barbour chased down legislators and their attorneys, they continued tweeting and phoning in updates to a story developing online. The story went viral. Within an hour, Spicuzza could see people running toward the Capitol, and the rotunda once again beganfilling with singing, chanting protesters. After a brief and emotionally charged meeting, the committee chairman hammered the bill through. Half an hour later, the bill passed the Senate; in the morning it would pass the Assembly. The trick, it turned out, had been to remove fiscal elements from the bill so that the quorum required was smaller and it could be passed without the Democrats.

Another spasm of stories followed, and the events of that winter reverberated over the next year as recall campaigns were launched against the governor and other elected officials.

Not everything we tried worked. Sometimes we tweeted important developments but neglected to reprise those in print, forgetting that the two platforms served largely different audiences. I wish that some days we had held back more reporters to develop meatier enterprise stories (we carved out time for several of these, but not enough).

And we continue to struggle with the balance between immediacy and credibility. Like newsrooms across America, the State Journal has had to make considerable cutbacks in staff in recent years. At the same time, we've severely flattened the time reporters have to formulate questions, evaluate the answers, and present information in a comprehensible way. Our challenge is to keep these new tools from hijacking our main purpose, which remains the time-consuming work of cultivating sources, digging through records, analyzing data, and holding public officials accountable.

Phil Brinkman is the city editor of the Wisconsin State Journal, which was a 2012 Pulitzer finalist for its breaking news coverage of 27 days of around-the-clock protests at the state Capitol in Madison.

4 Comments on The Story That Rocked the Clock
Joseph Skulan says:
July 24, 2012 at 6:55am
Mr. Brinkman's response does not actually address Mr. Kuharski's criticism. Official statements by government agencies and evaluations by other members of the "professional" press should not, and do not, trump direct observation. The windows WERE screwed shut. This is not a debatable point. I saw the screws being installed.

Treating questions of fact as "he said, she said" stories is typical of the lazy and incurious reporting of the Wisconsin State Journal, and professional reporters generally, and is part of the reason why no one with a serious interest in recent events in Wisconsin pays much attention to the professional press. I suspect that the Pulitzer Prize nomination has more to do with propping up the flagging circulation of the Wisconsin State Journal than with intellectual merit. In any case, the past few years have shown that the Wisconsin State Journal probably should stick to its primary function of selling used cars; covering events of national importance is altogether beyond its ability.
Phil Brinkman says:
July 23, 2012 at 4:18pm
In response to Mr. Kuharski: The rumors were that the governor had ordered windows at the Capitol sealed or welded shut. Here are two further responses to that:

Madison Fire Department press release states work was done to replace pins previously in place:

PolitiFact gives the claim a "Pants on Fire" rating:
Edward Kuharski says:
July 23, 2012 at 12:12pm

I am a citizen journalist here in Madison, Wisconsin and will share with you a communication I have sent to Wisconsin State Journal City Editor Phil Brinkman, who authored this article.

I realize that it would be difficult for Nieman Reports to check the accuracy or veracity of all your contributors' articles. Still I assume you would want to know when one of these strays off that path as embarrassingly as this one has. Specifically, it is most unfortunate that one of the two examples offered of the WSJ's more careful fact-checking than citizen journalists (labelled "partisan") was clearly NOT fact checked, when it could have so easily been. I refer to the claim that "the administration was not sealing the windows of the Capitol shut."

A bit of shoe leather, and I would say, a deeper interest in accurately telling a truly disturbing story of our state being overtaken by forces hostile to our tradition of open government, not new technology, is what has often distinguished our citizen reporting from the traditional, fully credentialed media. And a bit of shoe leather is all it would have taken for Mr. Brinkman to avoid further misreporting a fact we find emblematic of the closing of our proudly open government and the sealing out of thousands of deeply committed and engaged citizens of Wisconsin.

While we're on the subject of accurate reporting, I let me assure concerned readers that at no point was Madison burning, in case anyone took that hyperbolic metaphor literally. But it is also entirely true that many windows in our Capitol Building were sealed in response to citizens’ asserting their right to open government and in fact remain so to this day, over 16 months later. My message to Mr. Brinkman (below) provides additional detail about what was done and the events leading up to this episode.

The group that I am a member of, the Wisconsin Citizens Media Cooperative, was chartered in January, in large part out of a profound concern around the embedded media that are granted special access to our state Capitol and its occupants as well as space in a well-positioned Press Room. Our concerns spring in part from the fact that these reporters, as members of the Wisconsin Capitol Correspondents Association, enjoy this access as a matter of permission under an agreement to limit their coverage in ways defined by self-serving legislative leadership. We believe the media should not agree to such embedded status; rather we should be covering the public's business by right and without prior restraint.

Below is a copy of the message I sent Mr. Brinkman detailing this unfortunate lapse in journalistic accuracy.

Edward Kuharski, Architect and Citizen Reporter, Madison WI 608-469-5963


To: Phil Brinkman, City Editor, Wisconsin State Journal

Fm: Edward Kuharski, Madison, WI

Mr. Brinkman, Someone shared your Nieman Reports piece on WSJ coverage of the Wisconsin Uprising. I can forgive the generally disparaging comments you make on citizen journalists such as myself. However, I have also been a nearly daily visitor to our Capitol building since Feb. 15, 2011 and, as an architect who does a lot of work on historic and vintage buildings, I have taken a particular interest in the use and misuse of our most beautiful Peoples' House during this historic period.

A project of which I am most proud is the work I did to report and achieve grudging correction of the horrible scheme of segregation of access for the disabled that was put in place when the Capitol was locked down in contempt of the people's rights of free access. I will simply note that I have seen nothing in your paper then or since acknowledging the civil rights violations and this shameful state of affairs despite the overtly hostile treatment of people with mobility challenges.

Perhaps your reporters initially didn't understand the nature of the violations, but I spoke myself to Mary Spicuzza on this topic and urged her to cover it. I cite this because it is a good example of the power to both inform and foster change that so-called "activist-reporters" have as a result of pursuing both roles in an integrated fashion, and which your paper, with its more traditional editorial policies, failed to understand or report.

Because of my familiarity with conditions at the Capitol over the past 18 months, it really caught my attention when in your article for Nieman Reports you give as an example of your paper's more deliberate and "well-sourced" reporting: "No, the administration was not sealing the windows of the Capitol shut."

The windows in question are particularly those in the public rest rooms, which had allowed citizens to regain entrance to the locked-down building on the night that Act 10 was improperly passed out of committee. Capitol Police and DOA staff initially simply locked all of the rest room doors, leaving thousands of people without access to toilet facilities. This was supplanted by hastily installed set screws used to prevent the sash locks from being opened, and later hard rubber blocks were installed to prevent the lower sashes from being raised.

I want to inform you that those measures are all still in place 16 months later - in every window in every public rest room in the entire Capitol Building!

Fact Check: After attending the Solidarity Sing Along today, Thursday, July 19th, I personally visited all the public Men's rooms on floors G through 4 and can confirm that EVERY window in EVERY Men's room is still fixed shut by set screws, heads sawn off, through the sash locks and/or hard rubber blocks screwed into the guide tracks above the bottom sash.

On the Fourth Floor, some of the windows have the blocks set about 4" above the top of the sash, allowing for some ventilation, but preventing entry/exit.

My colleague, Ms. Genie Ogden, has confirmed the same is true for the Women's rest rooms. (I checked a few myself on 4th floor. Sometimes they get pretty oak blocks instead of the more prosaic black rubber blocks.)

These measures continue to increase hazard to the building and its occupants, as these bathrooms are well situated to be accessed and used as safe staging areas for fighting a fire in most any part of the building. And a number of them offer emergency egress to occupants in the event of a fire or other event, such as a hostage situation. The issue of fire safety is no small matter in a precious historic building which has alarms but no fire sprinkler system. I remind you that this building was built as a result of a fire that destroyed about 50% of the previous Capitol building.

I invite you to come verify these facts your self and then to submit a correction or retraction of the above quoted statement in the Nieman Reports article, as it is clearly not supported by fact or observation. Also, you might want to further reconsider your judgements about citizen reporting.

Regards, Edward Kuharski, Madison, WI 608-469-5963
Joe Skulan says:
July 20, 2012 at 2:30pm
For another perspective on the same topic, see Slow Times at Capitol High:
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