26 Nov 2012
A report published this week by researchers Neil Thurman and Anna Walters from City University (London) has shed some much needed light on the increasing prevalence of live blogs as a publishing format for leading news outlets, answering important questions on why outlets use the format, why readers prefer to consume news via live blog, and how readers interact with live blogs.
Based on a case study of live blogs at The Guardian — an outlet that seems to have mastered the art of live blogging and who have used their Middle East Live page to provide some of the most compelling reporting on events in the Middle East over the past 20 months — the findings show some remarkable and encouraging quantitative data:
Blogs at Guardian.co.uk are getting 300% more views and 233% more visitors than conventional online news articles on the same subject. They are also outperforming online picture galleries, getting 219% more visitors.
Readers are twice as likely to participate with Live Blogs than other article types
There's lots of compelling findings to be commented on vis-a-vis sources, reader perception, content analysis and the way the Guardian structures their live blog team, but for this blog post - and with Meedan's Checkdesk project firmly in mind - this post seeks to consider a challenge that the report raises for live blogs, and ponder a possible solution.
The Verification Challenge
The reports findings on verification are extremely interesting and timely. Initially, there is the suggestion that due to the quick-to-publish nature of live blogging, the rigorous verification standards usually involved in reporting are allowed to slip, and more "cursory" strategies are employed. These can involve trusting a certain source deemed reliable based on a live blogger's personal experience, providing "this cannot be verified" caveats, and clearly attributing primary sources where second-hand testimony is used.1
For sure, these strategies are important and, to a certain extent, effective. Continuing in the report, though, we might consider if there an opportunity for an alternative, complementary, strategy. The Thurman & Walters report shows that aside from generating more traffic, live blogs also attract more engagement from users, with users around twice as likely to participate on a live blog as they are on a regular article. This is encouraging news for us as we develop Checkdesk, which helps newsrooms engage their reader communities to help check primary sources emerging from social media.
There is no doubt that the Guardian is already doing some of this work: Matthew Weaver notes that readers get in touch to say "that's wrong" etc on an ad hoc basis, and Matt Wells affirms that the live blog's conversational style allows for a more open environment about to whether a piece of content can be verified or not. What Checkdesk looks to achieve - as both a tool and a training project - is to encourage these practices in other newsrooms and promote an open culture of questioning of social media, while allowing a loosely structured framework (the conversational style is important) for readers to answer those questions, and work on those important but time consuming verification issues that reporters staffing the live blogs simply do not have time to carry out.
We'd encourage everyone to take a look at the report, and also to commend the Guardian on their pioneering work in developing the live blog format. As the writers of the report note, "the production, consumption and material form of live blogs has been under-researched" (Thurman & Walters, 2012) and it would certainly be interesting and useful to see similar research carried out across a wider range of samples, including non-English language live blogs.
Read the full report here: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/21670811.2012.714935 and a summary post by the authors here http://onlinejournalismblog.com/2012/11/20/live-blogs-outperform-other-online-news-formats-by-up-to-300/
1 There is also an interesting suggestion that because information is coming from a primary source (eg. a Twitter account) a clear attribution strategy goes some way to mitigating the burden of verification, at least in the eyes of readers — this certainly merits further thought and research, particularly given issues raised in the recent BBC Trust report on reporting on the Arab Spring.