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.