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.

Finding the signal in the flow

Suw and I had been noticing a bit of an economic uptick on our local high street here in London last autumn and into the winter. Shop fronts that had been empty were getting new tenants, and just in our corner of the Big Smoke, we could see green shoots of recovery.

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This morning Jonathan Lloyd who has a hyper-local content and commerce platform, Media Street Apps (story about the platform here on, tweeted this observation that he was seeing gutted shop units. It’s not the first rather grim economic observation that I’ve seen on Twitter as the UK economy seems to be softening again.

As a journalist, I immediately started to think of how we might find the signal in this flow of updates. Jonathan is very close to local retailers, and he might be flagging up an indicator of the direction of the economy. Google is already mining its own online shopping data to map local inflation trends in the US to create its own price index, and while I was writing this, Techmeme editor Mahendra Palsule says that financial market analysts are already doing this and flagged up the Stocktwits service.

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I wonder what other signals we could find in the flow of social media and how this might be used for journalism.

Digital journalists and the battle over newsroom integration

I’ve been meaning to write about newsroom integration for quite a while and so I’ve written about it for The article is based on conversations that I’ve had with journalists in newsrooms around the world and also from some of the well known examples in the industry, including the experience at the Washington Post. A lot of the quotes are unattributed, but I can say that there is a remarkable consistency to the comments I’ve heard.

Last summer, I was speaking to an award-winning digital journalist, and in terms of the fight for integration at his organisation, he asked: “Was there a battle that we lost?”

I want to say up front that I’m not opposed to newsroom integration. In many ways, I am a big booster of bringing digital newsrooms and traditional print or broadcast newsrooms together. I have worked at organisations where the newsrooms have been physically and organisationally separate, and it’s never been productive. I started working in an integrated newsroom in 1998 when I joined the BBC working in their Washington bureau. Not only did I work closely with radio and television correspondents and producers, but I also covered stories for radio and television. Working together was really positive for me and the broadcast staff. My esteemed former colleague Paul Reynolds used to tell me on a regular basis that I was the future of journalism, and I had all the support that I needed and more from bureau chiefs Andrew Roy and Martin Turner. It was a collaboration of mutual respect.

I think that Jim Brady has it spot on when he said that digital editors still need the autonomy to push news organisations in directions that they might not naturally head. Digital innovations are still often counter-intuitive to leaders in legacy media. We still need people who think different at the table.

However, based on conversations with fellow digital journalists and editors, newsroom integration has been very difficult for them, especially for those organisations that have tried to integrate organisationally as well as at the platform level. Many digital editors and sadly far too many digital journalists have been pushed aside or in some cases completely pushed out. From a business standpoint, especially for those news groups suffering financially, the motivation has been efficiency. As Francois Nel said in the piece, integration has to be about efficiency and effectiveness. Francois is the director of the Journalism Leaders Programme at the University of Central Lancashire, and he’s worked with WAN-IFRA to help newspapers groups including the Johnston Press in the UK with their integration efforts.

I’m surprised that news groups continue to pursue the ‘pure’ integration model because for those organisations that moved early in that direction, such as the FT, many have since pulled back. There is a realisation that print and digital often serve difference audiences, and I think this is especially true as digital has continued to develop. Editors now understand (what I’ve known for years) digital journalism is a practice with its own skills and proficiencies just as print reporting or broadcasting. The dream of the super journalist equally proficient at everything was always more myth rather than reality. Few journalists excel at all roles, and even if they did, the demands of any one role, especially in the age of shrinking staffs, would cause sacrifices to be made, corners to be cut.

One area I only touched on briefly in the piece for was the role of middle managers. Francois said, in a quote that didn’t make it in the final piece:

The most critical person in the any individual’s daily work life is his or her line manager. And, as such, the best examples of change management are those where courageous and visionary leaders empower and equip middle management to handle the fallout.

Right now, middle management is one of the key issues in terms of integration. The subject comes up again and again in the conversations that I have with digital staffs. Even at organisations with strong digital leaders at the top and willing staff, middle management can still stop change dead in tracks, and often this where the energy comes in terms of marginalising digital leaders. They have the most invested in the status quo and least motivation to change. Middle management can and should lead the charge ahead and create a constructive environment for collaboration. However, in a lot of organisations, this is where change lives or too often dies.

Comments as a premium service?

I’m often asked what are the metrics for success when it comes to blogging or community engagement on a website, and I always respond that it isn’t simply the number of comments. Chasing high comment counts can be a race to the bottom in terms of content as the most provocative content easily gets the most comments creating more of a bare-fisted brawl than a conversation. As time has gone on, more sophisticated community engagement systems and strategies have developed, although these have developed mostly outside of news organisations rather than by them.

One strategy that has started to develop is to view comments as a premium service. Everyone can read comments, but only those who pay can post comments. It’s not a new strategy. Metafilter has been asking people for $5 to comment since late 2004, and it’s actually quite successful. In terms of news sites, Civil Beat in Hawaii requires subscribers to pay to read most content and also to comment.

The BBC College of Journalism has a very interesting post by Tomáš Bella about different strategies in Slovakia and the Czech Republic to reduce the number of comments but improve other metrics such as quality and page views. Tomáš runs a start-up called Piano, a paid content system. Several of the most popular sites in Slovakia have started using Piano to charge €2.90 to comment and access “other premium services on the sites”. It is interesting to view comments as a premium service.

Something else caught my eye in the post though. To comment on the popular Czech site,, they have instituted a process where you have to apply for a code using your real name and postal address before you can comment. Your real name and home town appear alongside your comment. The result?

This radical approach has worked. Readers’ comments have dropped from 50,000 to 4,000 a day. But the number of page views has risen by a third because the quality of the content has shot up.

Long ago (2005) when I was writing a blogging strategy for BBC News, I realised that the large audiences that major news sites can create for blogs or other participatory efforts might not scale. Open comments are fine on niche blogs such as here at Strange Attractor. People come here looking for specific content and wanting to take part in a specialist, professional conversation. The conversation is manageable because quite honestly, we rarely have that many comments, usually just a few if any and never more than 25. On major news sites, it’s easy to receive hundreds and sometimes thousands of comments. Depending on the content, they can become unmanageable for staff and commenters alike. Making people register or pay is one way to create a speed bump to commenting. That might not be a bad thing.

I know that participatory purists might cry foul saying that this is censorship by credit card, but I think that asking people for a little commitment before they participate might make participation better for everyone. Discuss.