Mastering the Art of Live Blogging [VIDEO]

Mar 29, 2013

A screen grab from KUNC's live blog coverage of a large wildfire that knocked the station's transmitters offline.

When we see "Live Blogging" on a page we're conditioned as news consumers to automatically think "breaking news" or "big story." (We've become Pavlov's news dogs.) Live blogging is a technique that has proven to be effective at delivering content the way our audience wants it--quickly and with multiple dimensions. As a newsroom, though, the prospect of live online coverage of an event can seem daunting. Fear not, we'll walk through how, when and why to live blog so that it can become a part of your coverage arsenal.

But first, let's define it.

The City University London conducted a study on the impact of live blogging and produced a great definition. A live blog, according to the report, is:

A single blog post on a specific topic to which time-stamped content is progressively added for a finite period––anywhere from 30 minutes to several days.

And the art of live blogging?  

[IT] combines conventional reporting with curation, where journalists sift and prioritize information from secondary sources and present it to the audience in close to real time, often incorporating said audience’s feedback.

 Marshall McLuhan said, “The medium is the message." And with live blogging it proves true. We see a live blog and we know we need to pay attention. So how do you do it? Five Qualities of a Live BlogFirst up, let's look at the five qualities of a live blog. (I've included examples for each one.)

  1. Timeliness--A live blog gives a sense of immediacy. (Here is NPR's breaking news coverage of the Supreme Court decision on healthcare reform.)
  2. Participation--Utilize comments and contact from your audience (Notice the number of comments on this blog from the WSJ.)
  3. Tone--Add a more human touch to an event. (This is a live blog that covered the broadcast of a TV show. It was written as if you were watching the show with a friend.)
  4. Curation--Use a combination of text reporting, multimedia and social feeds to give a comprehensive picture. (Here is an aggregation of live blogs from member stations on Election Night.)
  5. Convenience--Provide frequent updates with small bits of information. (Engadget did rapid-fire coverage of Apple's iPhone 5 announcement.)

That's what makes a live blog unique from conventional reporting. Now, when should you live blog? Here are four broader categories where a live blog is often the most effective means for telling the story.

  • Breaking News—Crime, public figure resignation, traffic mess, etc.
  • Scheduled News Event—Political Debate, Election results, Supreme Court ruling etc.
  • Topical Series/Lifestyle Event—Super Bowl, hockey tournament, awards shows etc.
  • Ongoing Analysis and Coverage—Wildfire, Snowstorm, Earthquake, plague of locusts, etc.

Still with us? Great. We know what makes up a good live blog and when to do it. Now, let's look at the elements that make a great live blog. Another list ensues! 

The Eight Elements of Highly Successful Live Blog

1. Dynamic Headlines--It starts at the top. Tell your audience something is happening. Use “Live Blogging” or “Breaking” or “Updating” and then follow those with the newsy part. For instance, “Updating: Governor’s Resignation Over Embezzlement” or “Live Blogging: New Hampshire Hockey Tournament.”

2. Informal Tone--Your audience expects the personal connection—they’re experiencing this with you. Let your audience know what’s coming. Keep the process transparent and ask them questions. Speed is your friend—polishing and editing copy or trying to perfect a pun is not.

3. Timestamps--When you update a post, it needs to be clear to your audience. There’s no set style in the live blogging universe (i.e. Updated: 7:24 p.m.) just be sure you do it. And don't forget, live blogs are presented in reverse chronological order

4. Transparent Corrections/Updates--You’re learning at almost the same rate as your audience—mistakes are okay! When they happen make a fix. But don’t do invisible corrections! Make the fix in the original update and then make mention of it in a separate update. And about those updates, do it often. For breaking news ~3-5 minutes; for event analysis ~5-7 minutes.

5. Multimedia Components--Video, audio and images add a little sparkle to text updates. Embed videos from YouTube. Use audio clips from your station. Pull in photos from your team or, when possible, from Creative Commons sites.

6. Incorporate Social Media--Remember, participation from your audience is important on a live blog. Monitoring hashtags will help build a picture of a developing situation. Build a Twitter list of reporters and local experts (embedding is very easy). Check Facebook walls, Twitter and comments  for audience material.

7. Link it up--One advantage of a live blog is to provide context and narrative. If your site doesn’t have it, point readers to those that do—they'll come back (and appreciate that you're helping them understand what's happening.) Speaking of context, help your readers by giving them backstory with your station’s earlier reporting.

8. Web clip external content--With limited resources it’s hard to update every few minutes. Don’t shy away from clipping relevant content and giving it context.

The Challenges If only it was that simple. There are challenges to live blogging. Namely, how do you manage your newsroom's resources and when do you stop? Like all good coverage, have a general plan for starting a live blog, keeping it fed and then winding down. Each newsroom will have its own way of doing things, but use these guidelines as your formulate your battle plans. Live Blogs need regular updates, but what if there is nothing newsworthy or reliable happening for long spells?

  • Have an exit strategy and convey that to your reporters AND readers. Let your readers know that there is a lull or if the event is over, tell them clearly. ("Thanks for following, check back for full reports later today.")
  • Shift from news coverage to news analysis
  • Look for the supplementals—video, Twitter, audio, etc.

Still looking for more? Check out the video below, which is a recording of the full webinar on Mastering the Art of Live Blogging. 


Mastering the Live Blog from NPR Digital Services on Vimeo.

Highlights (based on the video timestamp)

  • 6:10 Why live blogs serve the consumption habits of our audience
  • 9:55 The qualities of a live blog
  • 20:35 When you should use a live blog
  • 23:00 live blogging breaking news - it can be as simple as a well-curated twitter list
  • 25:15 live blogging a scheduled news event
  • 27:50 live blogging topical series and lifestyle events
  • 28:50 live blogging ongoing analysis of news events (wildfires, etc)
  • 30:15 the eight elements of a live blog
  • 37:10 You need to update regularly and rapidly or don’t do a live blog
  • 43:05 How to make the transition from a live blog back to a story post
  • 46:30 How to deal with reporter and editor fatigue during live blogging and other aspects of planning coverage
  • 47:55 Verifying information sources
  • 50:15 Developing a story for when the story comes to an end