With the recent cascade of disastrous news from Japan and countless reports about protests and social upheaval in North Africa, it’s worth reflecting on the thoughts expressed by computer scientist David Gelernter. Just a year ago he wrote in Germany’s Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung
, “The word ‘lifestreaming’ has become a new collective term, and streams have become the key Internet trend.”
Current events in the Arab world and the catastrophes in Japan show how the reporting of breaking news has undergone a radical shift. Classic coverage by news wires and packaged reports in small, self-contained units (news flashes, summaries, overviews, correspondent reports) are reaching their limits. “What counts in the Internet is not just the information itself, but its speed – and the direction and rate at which it flows,” according to Gelernter.
Events such as those in North Africa and Japan generate streams of “all kinds of digital documents sorted according to their time of creation or time of arrival and that change in real time; a stream that can be scanned or focused (searching through a stream according to keywords, phrases, sounds or images generates a new stream); a stream with a past, present and a future.”
People want to participate in this flow and do so using not only conventional media, but also social media channels. German journalist Christian Stöcker of SPIEGEL ONLINE
describes this in the case of the drama that unfolded in Egypt. “The events in Egypt were and continue to be a decidedly personal affair even for people far removed from the country.
What’s happening bears little resemblance to what was previously considered news consumption. Hearing on the radio the next day or after work whether the man has finally stepped down or not is by no means enough anymore. People’s desire to experience breaking news live and firsthand now outweighs the mere need to be informed.”
That poses new challenges to journalists. No longer are they purely gatekeepers; instead they are gate-watchers, who – if they still want to be perceived by their audiences – must form the untamed stream into channels, which their recipients enjoy following.
Media companies such as The New York Times, the Guardian
, Al Jazeera
and El Pais
have established permanent live blogs that combine information from various sources. They include links to other blogs and media providers, cite tweets, and integrate images and video by users. In Germany this is rarely the case. Live blogs here hardly ever contain external links, though there are of course exceptions, such as ZEIT ONLINE's News-Blog.
We spoke to two live bloggers about their experience:
Andrew Sparrow has a popular live blog on the Guardian website. On a normal day he posts every 20 minutes, on busy days sometimes every five minutes. Live blogging is primarily a desk job which can make your head spin. To avoid overload, Andrew tries to ensure that he spends at least one day a week doing something that doesn’t involve live blogging.
is the social media representative for Spain's El País
and a co-founder of Eskup
, a topic-oriented social network. “We wanted to build a community based not only on personal profiles, but also on topics.” Eskup also serves as a live blog and as a platform for debate on current issues (recent topics included Wikileaks and the future of journalism). Editors and registered users can publish messages with videos, images and links. Eskup messages can also be sent to Twitter and Facebook.
What are the advantages of a live blog?
Andrew: At the Guardian live blogging has become the preferred means of covering big breaking news stories online. Readers like live blogs because they allow the journalists to provide much more information about a breaking news story than you can include in a conventional news story. They allow reporters to report the latest developments very quickly. They allow journalists to aggregate – to include links to other stories and blogs that are relevant. And they allow journalists to combine news, analysis and humor in a way that they can’t when they are writing conventional news.
Ana: Live, collaborative coverage that combines different media and sources is the best way to react to unfolding news events that are changing minute by minute. Live blogs do that very well and are quite addictive for readers.
What’s the additional value for user?
Andrew: It's a faster and more comprehensive way of covering the news. In the past I think we sometimes assumed that there was a limit to how much anyone would read about a particular story. What the live blogs have shown is that with particular stories there is a huge appetite for information. Live blogs running to 10,000 words or more are attracting enormous interest.
Ana: For us the live blog is a very good Internet format. Whenever I look at it I can see when something was published and it cites other media too. That way I can see what kind of response an item is attracting and what’s being said about it. At Eskup, which functions like Twitter, we publish posts no longer than 280 characters with links, images and videos. It’s a clear setup for users and allows them to interact with journalists. Our readers praise our live blog. They seem to be really addicted to it. The number of clicks it gets confirms that.
What tools do you use?
I use Twitter
a great deal. I also get my information from TV, RSS feeds, email, the news wires – and talking to people. The blogging software we use is software developed by the Guardian.
I now regard Twitter as my primary news source, although most of the tweets I use come from journalists and politicians who are using Twitter to publicize comments or articles that they are also publishing in conventional forms (i.e. on a blog or on a news website.) I don't use Facebook, although other live bloggers do.
I use TweetDeck and Hootsuite for Twitter. To search social media I use Topsy
, for location searches I use Twitter's "Advanced Search"
. Right now I’m teaching all these tools to El Pais editors so that they can incorporate them into their daily work.
What are the criteria for selecting external links, tweets and blog posts – and how do you verify social media content?
Andrew: Will it be interesting to the readers? It's as simple as that, really. Mostly I use blogs and Twitter feeds that are well established and whose authors I know. If I come across a blog or a comment from someone anonymous that I want to use, I tend to make it clear to the readers that I don't know exactly who XXX is.
Ana: We do it the same way we do anything else. Information has to be verified whether it’s from Twitter or other networks. We look at who’s posting a message and where. Usually we then try to establish contact with the source.
Some people argue that live blogs are just increasing the information overload. What is your take on that?
Andrew: Two points. First, I think it is very important to give long, live blogs a structure so that readers can quickly identify the main points. I do this by posting regular summaries, using bold text and bullet points to identify the key points. I do this at least twice a day, although with breaking stories I do this more regularly. This means a reader who does not want to read 10,000 words can quickly get an overview of the main developments. Second, live blogs suit readers who want a large quantity of information. They won't suit everyone. There will always be readers who just want the headlines.
Ana: I don’t think that live blogs lead to information overload. They’re simply another way to get information. Anyone who wants to read a conventional article can still do that. But people who want a more lively, interactive and more visual format can find that on our live blog.
A discriminating, critical analysis of live blogs. Anderson says, “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?”
Written by Steffen Leidel
Translated by Deborah Friedman
This post was originally published on lab, a blog for journalism training by DW-AKADEMIE.