Score one for independent digital media: When Texas state senator Wendy Davis (D) stood for a 13-hour filibuster on a controversial abortion bill last night, Twitter and a nonprofit online publication’s livestream were the main sources for the news.
Major cable news outlets, however, were oddly missing from this story.
Yesterday, Davis stood on the Texas State Senate floor for 13 hours, 11 of which were spent filibustering a Senate Bill 5, bill that would have banned abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy and had major implications for abortion clinics around the state. According to the senate’s rules for a filibuster, she could not sit, lean on anything, take any bathroom breaks, or talk about anything but the bill at hand. By yesterday evening, it was clear that it was shaping up to be a dramatic news event, but it seemed only Texas newspapers and social media recognized it as such.
The news spread widely through Twitter and Facebook. If you were interested in following along in real time, you could watch the livestream on the Texas Tribune’s website (which was also on YouTube), a nonprofit online news publication, or you could follow the “StandWithWendy” trending hashtag on Twitter. But, you couldn’t watch it on a major cable news channel: CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News all seemed to be mute on the subject.
“I think this is largely representative of the fact that the mainstream national media doesn’t pay that much attention to state government,” said Emily Ramshaw, an editor at the Texas Tribune, in an interview with VentureBeat. “I think in a lot of ways, there was no way for the national news to know that this was going on.”
(It should be noted that Ramshaw had been up for 36 hours without sleep at the time of our interview. I hope she’s gone to bed by now.)
The Tribune offered the only livestream available outside of the State Senate’s own last night, which attracted at its peak over 183,000 viewers — record traffic for the online publication. It captured moments like this one, when state senator Leticia Van de Putte (D) demanded to know when women had to raise their hands or voices to be heard over their male colleagues — a pivotal moment in the filibuster.
Ramshaw explained that this was the first time a livestream was allowed in the Texas State Senate — and it took the Tribune three years of lobbying to get that privilege. The effort payed off: In addition to the record traffic, celebrities such as documentary director Michael Moore, Girls creator/star Lena Dunham, and even President Barack Obama tweeted a link to the Tribune’s livestream.
You’d expect, however, that major cable news providers would have the skills and connections over a nascent local online publication to get cameras inside a state senate building, especially after more than 10 hours of filibustering on a hot news topic that was blowing up on social media.
Anderson Cooper was criticized on Twitter for covering blueberries as the filibuster was coming to a high point. One person tweeted, “@AndersonCooper cover the calories in a blueberry muffin as TX filibuster was building to a close? #muffinsmoreimportantthanwomensrights.”
Anderson Cooper’s television show announced that it would have Wendy Davis on its show as a follow up today.
MSNBC pointed out to VentureBeat that it ran a segement on The Rachel Maddow Show, and the MaddowBlog liveblogged the filibuster. Significant live video coverage, however, was not supplied.
We’ve asked for comment from CNN and Fox News but have not received any comments from the three. Texas governor Rick Perry announced today that he would open another special session to disucss the bill, so perhaps cable news outlets will have another opportunity to take the lead on coverage.
Twitter, as has increasingly been the case, proved to be a good place to get up-to-the-minute, if not always accurate, information. People monitored hashtags such as #Sb5, #TXlege, or #StandWithWendy. They also followed on-the-ground newspaper journalists such as Mike Ward (@mikestatesman), who writes from the Austin American-Statesman and updated frequently with up-to-the-minute information.
There were 730,000 total tweets regarding the filibuster today, according to stats Twitter provided VentureBeat. At its peak, 11:58 p.m. Central Time, Twitter was seeing 5,776 tweets per minute. Overall 400,000 tweets mentioned “#StandWithWendy,” and Twitter followers on her @WendyDavisTexas account grew eight times. Texas led with the most tweets, followed by California and New York.
It was good for the Texas Tribune, too. The publication got a total of $23,000 in donations as a result of its coverage.
“So much of what happens in state legislatures happens behind closed doors,” said Ramshaw. “The only reason the entire world knew about this was because a gritty nonprofit news organization pushed and pushed for legislators to let us stream live video.”