May-June 2012

Spreading the good news

Melody McDonald

Public Information Officer in the Tarrant County ­Criminal District Attorney’s Office

A newly revamped website for the Tarrant County Criminal District Attorney’s Office offers the public a snapshot of what’s going on at the courthouse—and after more than 80,000 page views, it’s clear that the good guys are getting the word out.

If anyone would have told me that one day I would write an article for The Texas Prosecutor about the newly revamped Tarrant County Criminal District Attorney’s website, I would have thought they were crazy.
    First of all, as a career journalist, I never imagined I would work for a district attorney’s office. Secondly, until about four months ago I didn’t know a thing about HTML codes, domain names or widgets.
    But when Criminal District Attorney Joe Shannon hired me in August as the office’s first Public Information Officer, we knew that to reach the public we had to do two things: embrace social media and update the website. The website had been operating for several years but had suffered from serious neglect. It was hopelessly outmoded.
    Our vision was to create a website that was fresh, innovative, and constantly changing. We wanted the public and the press to be able to go to at any hour of the day and be able to find out what was going on at the courthouse.
    It was a challenge, but several months later we rolled out something unique and uncharted. The website features a Twitter feed, a blog, and videos, including a videotaped welcome message from Mr. Shannon. It showcases the staff, including the work they do out of court, and it prominently displays Tarrant County’s worst offenders and their mug shots. The trial board, which is refreshed several times a day, gives a snapshot of what’s happening in the 10 felony courts.
    “We wanted to make this a living website,” Mr. Shannon explained. “It’s never dormant. It’s being updated all the time. We hope that the information provided to the public and the press will enhance the operation of this office. We sincerely believe that more information will result in a better understanding of law enforcement in general and prosecution in particular.”
    To date, the website has had more than 80,000 page views—and it has been live for only two months. Talk about a whirlwind.

Switching sides
As far back as I can remember all I ever wanted to be was a reporter. And by some accounts, I was a pretty good one.
    But after 12 years at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram newspaper and watching hundreds of people get laid off, it was time to look for something outside of the newspaper business, something more stable.
    The stars apparently were aligned in my favor.
    One afternoon last summer, I arrived at the Tim Curry Criminal Justice Center to interview a prosecutor about a story I was writing about post-conviction DNA testing. I was particularly flustered that morning because the paper had given more of my co-workers their pink slips.
    As I was making my way through the metal detectors, with my shoes off and my hair windblown, I looked up and saw Mr. Shannon, who was on his way out. I had covered the Tarrant County courthouse for years so I knew Mr. Shannon well, along with many of the judges, defense attorneys, and prosecutors.
    He stopped to chat and, of course, I told him the reason for my discomposure.
    “Do you need a public information officer, by chance?” I asked, half-joking.
    “As a matter-of fact, I have been considering hiring one,” he replied. “There are so many good journalists out there who are switching sides, now would be the time to strike.” And strike he did.
    About six weeks later, I found myself vying against other members of the media for a newly created position in the Tarrant County Criminal District Attorney’s Office. Mr. Shannon was looking for someone to handle media calls, disseminate information about the office, write press releases, and redesign the website. He was keenly aware that the local news media was too short on staff, time, and money to come to the courthouse everyday or sit through long trials. He needed someone to bridge the gap between the media and the public.
    Later, when Mr. Shannon called to offer me the job, I accepted without hesitation or reservation. Although the Star-Telegram had been good to me over the years, I wasn’t about to let this opportunity slip away. I was now officially on the “other side.”
    Lucky for me, Mr. Shannon is media-friendly (his daughter, Kelley Shannon, is a longtime journalist), progressive (he is the only 71-year-old person I know with an iPad), and he’s not afraid of change.
    “We will try things and if they don’t work, that’s OK,” he told me. “We will then try something else.”

Thinking outside the box
My first day on the job was August 29 and it was a memorable one. Less than two hours after I got there, while in a meeting with Mr. Shannon, I got a call on my cell phone from a local news station wanting to do a story about a juror who had “friended” a defendant on Facebook. That day I helped arrange three on-camera interviews with an assistant district attorney who spoke about the issue. It has been non-stop ever since.
    “It was like I threw chum into the water,” Mr. Shannon said about hiring me to deal with the media.
    Two weeks later Mr. Shannon hired Victor Neil and Gorland Mar, of Modish Creative, to build the new website. We looked at other district attorney’s websites for ideas and came to two definite conclusions: We wanted the ability to communicate directly with the public and the press, but we did not want the website to look or sound political.
    Over the next several months, technology specialist Rhona Wedderien and I were in almost daily contact with the web designers. Although they could put our ideas into action, we had to give them the content.
    Every existing page on the website, some of which had statistics that were 10 years old, had to be rewritten, edited, and redesigned. The new pages—including Newsroom, Jury Duty, and How Justice Works—had to be conceptualized and created from scratch.
    Then we started thinking outside the box. We decided to post on the website the mug shots and a description of Tarrant’s Worst Offenders, including death row inmates, gang members, and predators. We chose to put up a new list each week of Tarrant County’s Ten Most Wanted. We asked the staff to come up with names for a blog and then they voted on which one they liked best: Open Court.
    We tapped into the talents of the district attorney’s forensic video analysts and their resources and began producing our own videos to educate and inform the public. Currently we have posted videos about the Crimes Against Children Unit, the Gang Unit, and the Misdemeanor Unit, and we are working on one for the Economic Crimes Unit. Eventually all of the special units will have videos on their respective pages.
    And while all of this was happening very fast, sometimes it didn’t feel fast enough. There were plenty of hiccups and learning curves along the way.

Unveiling the website
On Dec. 19, with great anticipation, the new and improved website went live, complete with our first blog post which explained our mission:
The courthouse is a fascinating place, overflowing with information the public should know.
    It’s a place filled with con men, crooks and killers. Here, emotions are high and victims run deep.
    It’s a place where passionate prosecutors put in long hours, with little fanfare, standing up for those who have been beat down, broken, and abused.
    This blog—named “Open Court” by the Criminal District Attorney’s staff—will highlight the work of those prosecutors. It will also be a place to post informative, interesting, heart-wrenching, wild, or wacky happenings around the courthouse.
    The courthouse is an intriguing place. It’s filled with saviors, saints and heroes. Here, people find justice, redemption and, sometimes, forgiveness. It’s a place where good battles evil.
    And on most days, the good guys win.
    Since that first post, the blog has been used to inform, educate, and even entertain the public. It has featured stories about a DA investigator becoming the one-millionth visitor to Cowboys Stadium, how ADAs are required to ride out once a year with police, and why the show Unusual Suspects was in town filming.
     The blog has also been used to post victim impact statements, offer tips on how to avoid being scammed, and explain complex legal topics. One blog features a video of Mr. Shannon explaining adverse possession, a complicated topic that has been the subject of numerous news reports—some of which were inaccurate.
    In addition to blogging, we also tweet daily about interesting happenings and trials. Those tweets have their own special box on the home page so those who don’t follow @TarrantDAOffice or understand Twitter can see what is happening by going to the website.
    The website also has special sections devoted to the staff’s activities in and out of court. “ADAs in Action” highlights those who have received notable awards or appointments. “Community Outreach” showcases the various things staff members do outside the office to better the community.
    We are also using the website to try and deter crime. During New Year’s weekend the District Attorney’s Office publicly announced plans to post the names and ages of those charged with driving while intoxicated in a blog on our website.
    Boy, that got people’s attention. That single blog post—which lists the name of 81 people—has had more than 20,000 page views.
    “The thought process behind posting the names of those charged was the hope that the average, law-abiding citizen would take pride in their good name and would not want the fact that they were charged known by the general public,” said Assistant Criminal District Attorney Richard Alpert, who came up with the idea. “It was my hope that this would generate a great deal of public discussion, which would have a deterrent effect.”

Positive reaction
For the most part, the reaction to the website has been overwhelmingly positive. Some representatives of the defense bar spoke out against publicizing the names of those charged with DWI but quickly quieted down.
    To be sure, the creation and upkeep of the website has been a lot of work. It was very time-consuming when it was being revamped and, now that the new one is up and running, it can be even more demanding at times—especially because there is only one PIO and more than 300 attorneys and support staff who work for the District Attorney’s Office.
    But we are definitely getting back everything we have put into it. The website has enabled our office to be more open and transparent. We don’t have to rely solely on the news media to tell the public when we put away a killer or work to change a law. We can deliver information to the public quickly and accurately.
    We hope that www.tarrantda .com will eventually become the public’s go-to-place for courthouse news.
    After all, it’s free, you don’t have to log in, and there are no pop-up ads—at least not yet.