A longtime organized crime reporter takes a buyout from the Philadelphia Inquirer and tries his hand at blogging for a new Web site that provides gavel-to-gavel coverage of big trials. A couple of big differences: no editing, and he doesn’t have to resort to ‘expletive deleted.’ ”
Originally published December 14, 2012.
By Allison Goldstein
What’s an attorney to do when the Philadelphia crime family boss goes on trial, but there are seemingly no news outlets with the time and resources to cover it thoroughly? For big-league Philly attorney Jim Beasley, Jr., head of The Beasley Firm, the answer was easy: Turn the city’s 38-year mob expert and organized crime reporter into a blogger for the firm’s new site, BigTrial.net.
George Anastasia, longtime organized crime reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer, retired from the paper after taking a buyout in October. But Anastasia wasn’t out of work for long before Beasley convinced the 65-year-old to redirect his efforts to Big Trial.
Both personal interest–Beasley admits to reading the blog with beer in hand–and public interest motivated Beasley’s decision to put Big Trial into action. “I think that if something’s going on in court, it should be covered,” he says. “People should have the opportunity to listen and see what goes on…We’re just trying to have fun, let the average person know what’s really happening in their court system.”
Keeping the average person up-to-date on noteworthy trials traditionally may have been part of the Inquirer’s repertoire, but in his last years there, Anastasia sensed a reworking of editorial priorities. As newspapers reduce staff and lose resources, a designated mob or crime reporter can become a frill, Anastasia says.
Beasley also noticed a change in traditional courtroom coverage. “There just seems to be a big shift in the way that the press is covering things, and it may be because of funding. It may be that the cost-benefit for them just doesn’t get them into the court like they may otherwise want to,” he says.
For Anastasia, the cost-benefit of working for Big Trial played a role in his decision to sign on. “I retired to get a little bit of freedom and do some magazine pieces and take a step back. On the other hand, [blogging for Big Trial] is good, interesting work, and there’s a good paycheck in it,” he says. “And you’ve got to weigh that, given what’s going on in our business,”
So far, Anastasia says, writing for Beasley’s Big Trial, which launched in November, hasn’t been all that different from his newspaper days.
“I’m doing what I did for the Inquirer, except I’m doing it on a blog. I had never blogged before, so I don’t see much difference,” he says. “This particular opportunity was to cover a trial for a Web site. They call it a blog, I call it a story.”
For now, that story is that of mob boss Joseph “Uncle Joe” Ligambi, who is on trial for charges related to an alleged gambling operation. Although covering the Ligambi trial is Anastasia’s first task for Big Trial, Ralph Cipriano, friend of Anastasia and a colleague in their Inquirer days, had been working with Beasley’s initiative before Anastasia signed on. Much of Cipriano’s efforts on the blog have centered on the trial of former Philadelphia Police Officer Frank Tepper, who was convicted of first-degree murder earlier this year. Tepper is now being sued for damages in a civil case by parents of the 21-year-old murder victim.
“Ralph is awesome at what he does, and you just can’t get anyone who knows the mob better than George,” Beasley says of the Big Trial team. With so much faith in his writers, Beasley limits his influence on content. “I don’t tell these guys to do anything. I don’t edit. I don’t do any of that stuff. They are highly experienced, and I think that they give insight into the courtroom that most people might not be able to get.”
It’s that absence of editing that Anastasia sees the clearest difference between traditional newspaper and lawyerly blog. “I have a little more freedom in being opinionated,” Anastasia says. “I feel fewer restrictions in terms of interjecting what I think is happening in a news story…The biggest difference is if someone curses on the witness stand, I can write what they said, and I don’t have to write ‘expletive deleted.’ ”
In some settings, though, a lack of oversight can be perilous. “There are risks [in self-editing], and I’m trying to be cognizant of that as I’m writing. I think the difference is I’ve been a reporter for over 40 years, so I always have a sense of what you should and should not do. I don’t know that someone who is 22 years old and just starting out has that same sense,” Anastasia says. “We’re losing all our filters. That’s the real problem I see with this explosion of multimedia.”
The site’s attracted plenty of visitors with a few thousand hits per day, according to Beasley’s team. That feedback may dictate bigger plans for the future.
“Where it goes, I don’t know. I guess it depends on what interesting trials are going on,” Beasley says. “I would love to keep feeding the inside scoop of what happens inside the courtroom to everybody, but the site is still in its infancy. We are going to keep building and expanding it to have audio and more pictures. We’re already getting there, but this is still a work in progress.”
That progress may mean profiting from the venture–a prospect that’s on Beasley’s radar.”There’s definitely an opportunity here, and I’m certainly looking into the best way to monetize this,” he says. “I think the more we get good content on there…the closer we move to be in a position to start advertising.”
Anastasia, who is not a staffer of the site but rather an expert blogger for the trial of the moment, hopes to play a part in the site’s future. He’ll likely help cover the trial of drug kingpin Kaboni Savage starting in January. While he might not be able to commit the time to go to court every day, he plans to play some role in the coverage–likely by bringing the same knack for storytelling that he brought to the Inquirer for so many years.
“It’s still trying to tell a good story that someone wants to read.” Anastasia says. “At the end of the day, this is what it all comes down to.”
AJR editorial assistant Allison Goldstein is a graduate student at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.