When big new events break many journalists will find themselves live-tweeting the latest updates, or feeding into a liveblog documenting the story minute-by-minute.
With the ability to track stories closely as they develop, via social media as well as on the ground, we have spoken to some experienced livebloggers to get their advice on practical real-time reporting best practice.
This feature offers 12 tips covering issues such as selecting a platform, structuring a liveblog, feeding in content and considering post-promotion, and hears from digital journalists including Guardian reporter Josh Halliday, head of web and data development for Trinity Mirror Merseyside Neil Macdonald, and independent consultant and journalist Adam Tinworth, who regularly liveblogs at journalism industry events. The pointers given below are taken from interviews with the three journalists for a podcast on the subject of liveblogging.
- Keep it moving
"There's nothing worse than a couple of minutes when, even though it's meant to be a liveblog, no one is saying anything."
"If you're just writing about an event, use short, sharp sentences to keep a steady flow of information onto the liveblog so it gives people constant updates to read."
He added that if the liveblog features an interview with somebody, keep their answers in bite-sized chunks to ensure a steady flow of text.
"Break up that answer into sentences rather than typing out the whole thing because again it keeps the liveblog ticking over and keeps people engaged."
- Vary content and pull in social feeds
"Mix it up and give people different ways to engage."
Adam Tinworth also spoke about the importance of offering more than text updates whenever possible.
"I genuinely think online just text itself is rarely good enough these days," he said.
He added that by paying attention to updates via social media, for example, journalists can also remain plugged into the discussions taking place around the story which could "help you shape what you're doing and make decisions about what the most important thing is that people are saying".So having a look around and thinking apart from us updating the liveblog, what other sources of information might we be able to pull in to update the liveblog, that was an important lessonNeil Macdonald, Trinity Mirror Merseyside
Macdonald explained how the Liverpool Echo and Liverpool Daily Post looked for "local, relevant, Twitter feeds" to pull into its riots liveblog last year, such as the emergency services and local council.
"So having a look around and thinking apart from us updating the liveblog, what other sources of information might we be able to pull in to update the liveblog, that was an important lesson."
- Think visual
"A lot of people won't actually be sat there for six or seven hours a day. They will go away, come back to the liveblog, see what's been happening and want to flick through the screen, scanning each update.
"If it looks like a big block of text they're not going to stay very long and the likelihood is they're not going to come back for future liveblogs, so images just help to lighten things and break things up a little bit."
- Get boots on the ground when possible
"We've sort of evolved to this bizarre thing where people sit within newsrooms and cover breaking events from afar," Tinworth said.
"Actually I think one of the things, particularly the big news organisations who have multiple people, should be thinking about is how they can get reporters with their boots on the ground, producing video, producing audio, producing pictures they can all feed back and make that liveblog a much richer, much more multimedia experience when a breaking news event happens.
"You're going to be able to bring in stuff that's been contributed by others on social media but then, particularly on big news events you've got the question of verification. So if you've got somebody on the ground doing it you know their stuff is accurate, and it actually also gives you a benchmark to compare user-generated content against ... It's a question of how you balance the external team, who has actually got boots on the ground, with your internal team aggregating and doing verification."If you've got somebody on the ground doing it you know their stuff is accurate, and it actually also gives you a benchmark to compare user generated content againstAdam Tinworth, independent consultant and journalist
Validation was also a key point made by Macdonald, who discussed how the Liverpool Echo and Liverpool Daily Post handled this during its liveblog of the riots last year when they were also having information submitted from outside.
"We felt even though it might have led to a delay in getting the information out there for a couple of minutes, as the Liverpool Echo and Liverpool Daily Post, we had a responsibility that if we said something or put information out there, especially for something like this, a real serious, serious issue, it had to be correct.
"So when we got updates like that, generally we would call to a business or a pub in that area, or to one of our reporters in the street who we knew was in that area, and just before we put anything on the site, we would find out if what people were saying was actually the truth.
"In general you have to be correct, but obviously for a situation like that there's no way you can really take a chance because we didn't want to scaremonger or spread false rumours or anything like that. We felt a responsibility to only tell people what was really happening."
- Spread the word before, during and after
Macdonald said telling your community about your liveblogs can be easy to overlook. At the Echo and Daily Post the team pre-promotes a liveblog "from a few days before with updates through our social media channels and on the website and also updates in the relevant newspaper, or section of the newspaper".
"While it's going on we would put updates out on social media but also remind people that the blog was ongoing and then when it's done, then we would look to say to people, 'the liveblog might be over but this is what it's about and if you're interested in it then by all means re-read the liveblog'."
He said that returns to liveblogs after the relevant event are "surprisingly popular", such as by football fans who revisit the liveblog to read up again and re-live the games they may have already watched live themselves.
- Try out different platforms
There is also the possibility that a news outlet might like to produce its own platform, in which case Macdonald advises the "weighing up the ease of use for your staff against the user experience".
When it comes to the decision over using an external platform or building your own, Tinworth adds that news outlets should consider "legacy content", and whether they would want to ensure continued access to the liveblog in the long-term. If so, it is worth checking if that is possible with the third-party service being considered.
On the other hand, if news outlets are thinking about building their own, they should consider if they could "develop something which is as robust, as fast and as scalable as those outside services".
"So if you hit something that's massive attention and you get absolutely shed-loads of traffic can your CMS actually handle that?"
- Links and timestamps
He added that this "a really, really important thing when you're doing the summary at the end of the day and you're talking about events that have happened throughout the day and you can actually link to that timestamp, when it actually happened, so the readers can see a story in fluidity".
"They can see what happened when, what you knew when, and get the full low-down of what was known at that time. That's one thing we can't do at the minute, but that's going to be coming shortly."
- Measure engagement
"I think traffic is a much more ephemeral way of quantifying success these days because it seems to be quite easy to get traffic; if you're a big newspaper website you have to have the right keywords in your headline, and have the story optimised in the right ways at the right times of the day and that's half the battle.I think traffic is a much more ephemeral way of quantifying success these days because it seems to be quite easy to get trafficJosh Halliday, the Guardian
"But I think if you are producing really engaging stories and you've kept that going for six, seven, eight hours and still kept a healthy amount of readers engaged and commenting below the line, or commenting on Twitter or sharing it on Twitter, and coming back to it from other places online throughout the day. That's a huge compliment for the newspaper because it's not easy to keep people engaged online these days."
- Offer regular summaries
"It's one of the things that I didn't really realise at first, when I first started doing the liveblogs, is that a summary at 12 o'clock in the afternoon, and a summary at 5 o'clock at least, two summaries a day, are absolutely essential.
"... Unless you're distilling the entire day's news events into a few bullet points of the top lines, as we say in the industry, it's not as much reporting as you would like to think it is, because a big part of reporting is saying and deciding what's important."
He said part of the importance in this is offering the reader the choice, of either diving into the liveblog, or getting a quick update via a summary.
"So when you have a set of bullet points that is you saying these are the most important things throughout this day, even though I've got 7,000 other words in this liveblog these are the key aspects of today's developments that you really need to know.
"And if you just want to come for the bullet points that's fine, but if you want to read the other 7,000 words that's also fine, you can do that."
- Be conversational
One thing to remember as a journalist running a liveblog, is that there is a "sense of dialogue" between the reporter and their audience, Tinworth added. The writing style should be "conversational, but punchy", and with speed – an important element of any liveblog – it is likely to be chatty in its nature.Any long-term, day-long liveblogging works best when there is this sense of dialogue between the audience and the person doing the liveblogAdam Tinworth, independent consultant and journalist
"What you're actually creating is this sense that these people are watching the event and you are there finding stuff out for them and any long-term, day-long liveblogging works best when there is this sense of dialogue between the audience and the person doing the liveblog".
- Practice, practice and practice
"Don't be afraid of it, it's just another tool to help you tell a story. I'm sure everyone who's done a liveblog will have made mistakes – but that's how you learn and that's part of the experience."Working intensely in real-time is hard work, and it's not an easy skill and before you do it live and in public it's worth trying a few trial runs for yourself firstAdam Tinworth, independent consultant and journalist
Tinworth also cited the importance of "practice, practice and practice again".
"Working intensely in real-time is hard work, and it's not an easy skill and before you do it live and in public it's worth trying a few trial runs for yourself first."
- And stay refreshed!
"I always get horribly dehydrated when I do a lot of liveblogging, so drink lots of water!"
- You can listen to a podcast featuring Halliday, Macdonald and Tinworth, which also discusses the topic of liveblogging, at this link
- Journalism.co.uk also has more tips on adopting live digital reporting in areas of news output including and beyond the liveblog format in this feature
- There are also more practical pointers on how to liveblog in this Journalism.co.uk guide from 2011
Liveblogging will be the topic of a workshop at the next news:rewired digital journalism conference, which takes place on 6 December. For more information and tickets follow this link.
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