What makes a live blog?

Is live blogging a skill in its own right, or is it something anyone can just turn their hand to? It’s a conversation I’ve had more than once and I’m firmly of the belief that it is a skill and should be treated as one. Reporting on events as they happen is fundamentally different from putting together coverage once its finished and the reporter and participants alike have a chance to dwell on what occurred.

On the surface liveblogging looks easy, you just sit and write about what is going on. But it’s one of those things which looks far easier than it actually is. As journalists we’re almost always one step removed from proceedings, both by time and medium, but for the audience of a live blog, the journalist is their direct link to what’s happening, as it happens.

This change means a different writing style is needed and also a different emphasis on what you report and when. There’s no inverted pyramid to guide how you write the article and the main angle of your subsequent report of the event may not appear until the end. But, with a live blog, you can’t just sit and wait for an angle to come, you have to keep your coverage interesting from the word go, and this is where the real skill lies.

It can also be something of an endurance test, while on placement with Journalism.co.uk, I liveblogged the Murdoch’s testimony to Leveson and over the course of 3 days, wrote something along the lines of 27,000 words. And that’s before the news editor had added comment and links to other articles about what was going on

What makes up a good live blog?

1. There should be a clear separation between reporting and commenting.

Too often when reading coverage of events, it’s easy to confuse what has been said by a speaker, questioner or panelist with opinion or comment injected by the blogger. A mix of both is essential, but accurately reporting what has happened has to come first.

2. Adding value is essential.

Placing what people have said in context is what makes a live blog worth reading and will also encourage other attendees of the event to keep an eye on what you’re doing. Whether it’s providing background information or facts about the event, or a link to an article or video that’s been cited, providing reader’s with additional context is what’s going to encourage them to stick around. Regular summaries of what’s happened also provide an easy way into the event for people who are trying to catch up and few do this better than Andrew Sparrow’s live blog of the day in politics.

3. Preparation.

This follows on from the previous point. Sometimes the best coverage is on the hoof, with no preparation, but this tends to be done through Twitter and people reacting to unexpected events/ rather than pre-planned coverage. Knowing what you’re seeing/who you’re listening to allows you to give your audience more information and avoids you looking stupid by reporting the wrong thing. Having this background information prepared also allows you to fill the inevitable downtime.

4. Interaction.

One of the most interesting bits about running a live blog is how you can engage directly with your audience, while the story is ongoing. Blog comments, polls, twitter hashtags, whatever you can think of can be used to engage the audience and add value to your coverage.

BBC’s sports live coverage of matches is a masterclass in audience interaction, with polls and Twitter discussion used to fill time when little of interest in the actual event is happening. They also serve as an example of how interaction can work both ways, the blogger answers audience questions, while pitching more of his own. It also provides the chance to bring in outside analysis, when covering Cricket, the BBC will often embed tweets from people like Michael Vaughan to provide an expert opinion on the state of the game.

And finally, like any other skill, practise really does make perfect. Although it’s not the most exciting thing to do in the world, if you have an interest in covering events live, it’s well worth signing up for an account on a live blogging platform, sitting down and actually covering an event yourself. Even if you don’t show anyone what you’re doing, it’ll help you get a feel for the flow of events and how surprisingly quickly things happen.

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