Al Jazeera was providing live coverage of the uprising in Egypt last year when their news office was stormed by authorities, cutting out internet and cellphone connectivity in the hopes of pulling the plug on their coverage. But that didn’t stop them. ScribbleLive provided Al Jazeera reporters with a phone number to call in their reports, which were posted on their website in real-time. By marrying a new and old technology, Al Jazeera was able to continue to provide live coverage of what was happening in Egypt to the rest of the world, in a way that would never have been possible before but in a format that is becoming increasingly familiar.
Liveblogging – because that’s what it was – is often thought of as short-term reporting. In a recent study on liveblogs conducted by City University London, it’s defined as taking place within a finite period of between half an hour and 24 hours, though some of the best liveblogging I’ve seen has lasted days or even weeks, echoing the statement in the recent report by the Tow Center that “news is never a finished product”.
This constantly evolving nature of news is facilitated online by changing forms of storytelling, informed by and benefitting from from new delivery mechanisms and platforms. And though any neatly-packaged narrative becomes a quick casualty, the publication of content in real time can make for compelling storytelling, with the first fragments of information arriving quickly and the context building around it.
Take a look at how New York Daily News tracked Hurricane Sandy. This organization had experience tracking storms: A year earlier when New York was hit with Hurricane Irene, the NY Daily News reporters published footage taken with their phones directly to the live blog on their site while editors in the newsroom watched over the process. During Hurricane Sandy, the office got flooded, leaving staff stranded and without power, but that didn’t stop them posting content to their live blog as the story developed, using staff outside the affected area and makeshift offices. The blog was live for over a week, with hundreds of amazing photos, videos and daily updates posted.
This process of creating and publishing content in real-time can certainly be disruptive, as former NY Daily News editor Anjali Mullany noted at ONA 2012, especially to traditional newsrooms. It needs a nimble and agile newsroom willing to collaborate, but it can result in the kind of coverage today’s audience demands: timely and informative. Those browsing the internet have different temporal and spatial preferences for consuming information than their print-consuming predecessors, and live content meets those changing expectations. With liveblogging, the audience gets to watch a story as it develops, and becomes thereby invested in it and can even help build it.
Which is where social media comes in. Social media has changed the way journalism operates: Marketers and news agencies are no longer the only ones talking, as now their audiences can talk back. And in talking back, they can be part of shaping the final product too, which many see as a positive development. Journalism plays an important role in democracies and the live coverage provided by live blogging platforms “delivers levels of participation and transparency better suited to contemporary democratic demands”, as this study by Neil Thurman and Anna Walters of liveblogging at the Guardian makes clear.
Liveblogging can come in many forms. During each of the presidential debates, CNN had two liveblogs running side-by-side on their website. One featured commentary and analysis by their panel of experts and the other featured reader comments, coming in every minute by the hundreds. Watchdog.org fact-checked the debates in real-time with their group of experts, examining the candidates’ statements and holding them accountable. The NY Daily News chose the best reader comments and asked their panel of experts to answer them and explain the issues discussed. Reuters had a 153-page liveblog containing over 7,600 individual updates, which dated back to September 3rd, 2012 when president Barack Obama spoke at the DNC, giving their readers a concise view of the entire campaign election.
These organizations promoted accountability, informed their audiences, explained key concepts and issues, and provided analysis – serving all the roles set out traditionally for journalists, using today’s innovative, real-time tools.
Journalists are not the only ones who can take advantage of these tools. Individuals and brands from around the web, whether they are a tech blogger in Italy or a nation-wide financial services firm in Canada, can engage their audience in a real-time narrative. They can then place that content into our syndication network and interested newsrooms and brands can pick it up and publish it on their own websites.
Watching such things unfold makes it clear that rumours of the death of storytelling have been greatly exaggerated. In fact, it’s in a healthier shape than many of the news organizations originally tasked with its keep, given its inherent adaptability as a form. Sure, the way audiences consume content online has changed, but the need for authoritative content, narratives that make sense out of the mass of noise out there, and just good stories however they’re presented, will always be in demand.