Live blogging evolved: Context and curation not just collection

When I was the blogs editor at The Guardian, I was a big booster of live blogging. We now think of Twitter and Facebook as “real-time”, but in terms of news, we’ve been living in a real-time environment now for decades. With the advent of radio, we stopped waiting for the news to arrive when we got the newspaper. Sometimes rolling news can descend into self-parordy, but after working for the BBC for eight years, I know that live and continuous news can be done well. For me live blogging and real-time curation allow newspapers via their websites and via mobile to compete against broadcasters in rolling news.

Seeing this post via Martin Belam that the Guardian Newsblog might somehow be “the Death of Journalism” by John at The Louse & the Flea* gives me a chuckle but it also raises some valid points. Martin responds to some of those points, and I know that he and others at The Guardian are actively working to address some of the deficiencies in the format. Martin says:

Nevertheless, John does identify some of the issues that concern me from an information structure point of view of the way we do live blogging now – notably it is very difficult within our templates to display a summary prominently enough, and the strict reverse chronology of entries whilst a live blog is “active” can lead to the more important chunks of the content getting buried. We could also probably do an improved job of permanently sign-posting packages of more conventionally formatted stories from within the live blog itself.

As anyone who works in online news knows, some of this is just down to the limits of technology, as Martin admits, but they are limits that can be addressed both technically and editorially. Live blogging began with sports coverage at The Guardian and moved on to media and tech conference coverage and also live blogging TV shows. The length of a post was limited by the event – 90 minutes of football or an hour episode of Big Brother, but I’m not sure that this format is really well suited for events that carry on all day for several days.

Drowning in a ‘River of News’

However, John does raise some issues that I think are worth addressing. John says that The Guardian’s live blog is:

a mish-mash of baffling tweets, irrelevant musings from the Guardian’s comments, contact details for those who want to find out about loved ones or make donations (including one from the New Zealand Red Cross, who actually says it doesn’t want donations just yet, and another from the Auckland University Students’ Union, the relevance of which escapes me), musings from a boffin at that world renowned centre of earthquake research, Bristol University, and speculation on how the tragedy might affect the Rugby World Cup, due to kick-off in NZ in seven months’ time. Scattered meagrely throughout, like sixpences in a Christmas pudding, are bits of what you and I might call “hard news”.

I really do worry that some of the aggregation that we’re doing is really difficult to navigate unless you’re a news junkie. We have to make sure that a stream of news aggregation doesn’t feel like a maddening stream of consciousness. I have the utmost respect for Guardian live blog masters (and friends) Matthew Weaver and Andrew Sparrow, but I can’t help but think there has to be a better way to package their prodigious and highly professional output. Andy said that some days during the election last year he was sometimes producing CORRECTION: 14,000 40,000 words a day. (Andy corrected me on Twitter. I thought 40k words in a day was ambitious, but he is prolific!) How does the average reader easily navigate this? The Guardian did a lot of work during the election to improve the format. They added better formatting for different elements such as blockquotes and contributions from other members of Guardian staff, but the reader still has to rely too much on searching within a page.

I know that Martin and Co will come evolve the format, but I still can’t help but wondering if simply breaking up the posts at major inflection points might be a good interim solution. I agree with Martin that there is a lot that can be done with better packaging.

Martin flags up the prodigious output of The Guardian yesterday, much of it in more traditional formats. However, looking at the headlines, I have to admit that I’m overwhelmed. With some of the headlines, I’m not entirely clear how the stories are different. In saying that, I don’t want to pick on The Guardian. Frankly, I’m really think that over-commissioning is part of a problem that newspapers are suffering from right now. They can publish continuously, but I know there is a better way to mix slow and flow news coverage.

Curation and context not just collection

I also think that John has hit on an issue that has become a real problem in real-time news coverage in the last couple of years. I’m a journalist. I’m a news junkie. I keep tabs on a wide range of stories in some considerable depth, but even with the background knowledge that I have, I’m sometimes lost. If I’m lost and overwhelmed in stories that I know really well I know that our audiences don’t even know where to start.

Whether it’s live blogging or new tools like Storify, I worry that sometimes we’re training a fire hose of news on our audiences. We’re not curating. We’re not making editorial choices and adding context. Instead I do fear that we’re causing information overload rather than helping people make sense of the world. Storify and live blogging are great tools and techniques, but they work when a journalist makes editorial choices and adds value through context. Who is this person on Twitter? What is their role in the story?

On Twitter, I occasionally hear the claim that to edit out information is some form of censorship. If people want the fire hose, they can use Google Realtime. People have a choice to swim in the waterfall, and our editorial choices don’t preclude people from digging deeper and in different ways than we have. Journalists report and choose what they think are the most important bits of information. That’s one of the services that we provide, and in the deluge of real-time news, that service is actually more important than before.

I guess to do that, to be trusted guides, we have to win rather than assume trust. That’s another change in terms of people’s relationship to journalism, but we can do that because we don’t have the walls that separate us from audiences.

Real-time in motion

Some of these super-long live blogs are also is a terrible experience on mobile even on light-weight mobile templates. The downloads are huge, and they don’t work well on small screens. As we increasingly move to mobile consumption, we’re going to have to rethink this format or more likely than not think of a new format entirely.

I hope that my friends and former colleagues at The Guardian don’t think I’m picking on them. These are more general observations than The Guardian’s live blogging, and I know that Martin and the great live bloggers on staff there don’t rest on their much deserved laurels. It’s a big challenge. We can relay so much more information than in the past when we had a few sources and the wires, but that means that we have to find new ways to help audiences make sense of that information.

*Note to John
This isn’t a snarky comment but honest advice. If you’re an unemployed journalist, I’d really suggest adding some links on your blog to your past work and an up-to-date CV. Suw and I use LinkedIn and have a link to our work histories there. Hopefully your blogging won’t just keep you sane while you look for another job but actually help you land it. It’s working really well for me, and I hope it helps you find a job soon.

6 thoughts on “Live blogging evolved: Context and curation not just collection

  1. Hi Kevin,

    I totally agree with you — and Storify is definitely designed to help people add context. The best stories there are not just throwing in dozens of Tweets and photos in random order, but where people take time to carefully select what goes in and add lots of text to give context and explain. That’s also why we designed the text added by users to be more prominent than the social media elements: it’s the context that’s added that deserves the most prominent placement.

    We’re still early and I don’t want to say that one way is good or bad, but definitely the best stories on Storify and anywhere take real time and effort to trim out the fat and get to the essence of what’s going on. We can’t give up on that even as the tools get better or change, there is still value in carefully crafted content.

    Burt

  2. Burt,

    Thanks for the comment. I like Storify a lot, and the added text tool is something I use. One thing I like about it is how easy it is to instantly reassess the prominence of things, not just by recency but by importance. I love technology and how it allows me as a journalist to tell stories in the best way, but I always try to keep the focus on the journalism, the story and the audience, not on the technology.

    I’m looking forward to how you evolve Storify and also how you bring your journalism experience to help other journalists use it to best effect.

  3. I’m a big fan of the Guardian’s liveblogs, and Andrew Sparrow in particular.

    I wonder if the problem is that there hasn’t been enough research into how users make use of the blogs. I tend to have it running happily in a tab in the background – to the left of this tab I’ve got the Libya story running now – and dip in and out when I have a chance. I see it for what it is – a blog of what’s happening now, with the newest stuff at the top. If I’ve a couple of seconds, I can see what’s just happened; if I have a few minutes, I can roll down more deeply into the page. If there’s been a big breaking development, there’s going to be a separate page for that and a link.

    For me, it’s not firehose – it’s more a stream, and I can choose to just dip into the stream, or wade a bit back towards the source if I’m able.

  4. Simon,

    Yes, point well made, and I really do agree (as I often do) with Adam Tinworth who said that live blogging is focused on process rather than a finished, packaged product like a traditional story. As Martin says, the format is popular, for the points that you make.

    I’m just wondering if once the “live” part of live blogging is finished if there isn’t a better way to package the results. Andrew Sparrow, Matt Weaver, Jemima Kiss and Charles Arthur are all so good at it, I just want a way to make sure we get all of the value possible. I think they are good because they include context to help make sense of it all. Not everyone has the skill to do this, and from my own experience, it really is a skill.

    As for the firehose versus stream, I worry about this in a larger sense, not just in terms of live blogging but in the entire package of news. I like your suggestion about more research. I really do believe that one of the things that is missing is solid understanding of how our audiences are using these new formats. Beyond raw page views, I’m curious about dwell time and other metrics. I have a hunch that your behaviour is pretty common, but having been involved in user testing, users are constantly surprising. Sometimes they surprise you with their sophistication, and sometimes they surprise you by not seeing what is infuriatingly obvious to the site creators.

  5. Thanks for your comments, Kevin.
    I’m not against live blogging by any means, since it’s a mighty handy tool when you have a developing news event occurring – a sports game or a conference, as you mention, or something like the terrorist attack on Mumbai or the Chilean miners rescue. It would have been just the thing for dramatic unfolding events when Margaret Thatcher resigned (unfortunately Al Gore hadn’t developed the internet enough for it to be much use at the time).
    But it’s just that: one tool in the journalist’s tool kit among many, and it’s part of the online journo’s craft to decide how and especially when to wield it.
    To my mind, the Guardian made the wrong call relying on live blogging to cover the Christchurch earthquake, since because of the time difference, the “news curve” was already on the decline by the time most UK readers were even aware there had been an earthquake.
    But once the live blogging juggernaut is set in motion, it follows Newton’s first law and keeps on going, devouring everything in its path like a Tasty Planet and spewing it uncooked, unchewed and undigested back at the reader, just to maintain its momentum.
    @ Simon: yes, I can see how that strategy works for you, because I guess you’re at a computer most of the time. But it assumes you already have the gist of the story before you start dipping in and out of the stream. If you knew nothing about that particular story and were suddenly dumped into the newsblog stream, you’ll have a sense of what I felt when I clicked on the lead Guardian headline about the earthquake. Kevin’s firehose analogy is apt.

  6. John,

    Thanks for the comment, and I second your view about live blogging being one tool. One of the things that I do to support my journalism habit is training, and I walk journalists and, just as importantly, editors, through not only digital tools but thinking about what tool is best for the job so that we don’t look at all kinds of stories and just see opportunities for live blogging. (It’s the old if you’ve only got a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail cliché.)

    I do know from the stats that a lot of Guardian readers of the live blog are people like Simon who sit there with a tab open, waiting for the next update. That’s great, but I also think not just about those readers but also people who come back to the live blog after the event is over. In a conversation with Charlie Beckett, he made a comment along the lines of once you post it, it’s archive. (He was more eloquent, but I’ve been travelling for two days and am a bit fuzzy on the time zones.) I think about Charlie’s comment a lot. Is there a way to make the live blog format more durable than simply being useful for the rather transient now?

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