Great idea for editors wanting innovative journalism

Here’s a great idea from Michelle Rogers. A box in the newsroom with coloured strips naming technology tools. Each Friday journalists draw a strip from the box and have to use one of the tools in their work.

This includes ideas like crowd sourcing stories on Twitter or using Storify.

If I was still editing, I’d have my reporters doing this.

Reporters using technology for journalism « ideaLab Heritage’s Blog.

When live blogging works

New Zealand’s news outlets were late to the live blogging party.

British news sites had been using live blogging successfully for around 18 months before it blossomed here during the election. Most UK newspapers and the BBC use it to great effect on their web sites.

Live blogging is, without doubt, the single most important development in journalism of the past few years. It is the first uniquely digital format. Until live blogs, almost every piece of online journalism used formats re-purposed from print, TV or radio news reporting.

You might argue that tweeting news predates live blogging. I’d say tweets are a truncated, maybe even crippled, version of the live blog.

New Zealand live blogging

Live blogging took off in New Zealand during the 2011 election. It was used before then, but it took the sustained political campaign to really hit its stride. There were live blogs at the NZ Herald and on the Stuff website.

Special mention should go to Toby Manhire at the Listener, who gave his election live-blog a highly personal flavour – for my money he is New Zealand’s first successful live-blog by-line. I also enjoyed Alex Tarrant’s election diary at interest.co.nz.

Where NZ Herald and Stuff went wrong

One criticism I have of the NZ Herald and Stuff live blogs during the election was they would close mid-afternoon, at around 4PM – long before the day’s news cycle finished.

I guess that was a function of the shift systems at the papers, but it would have been best to have journalists pass the baton rather than shut down. An election live blog needs to run almost 24 hours.

Before the election

A few New Zealand reporters were early to use the live blogging format, most notably my erstwhile colleague Chris Keall who live-blogs press conferences and important meeting for the National Business Review. It didn’t always work, but hat’s off for pioneering the format.

Live-blogging works brilliantly when a story or event unravels at a steady pace. It is perfect for Cricket, other sports coverage tends to be good too. This is why it was a success during the election.

Fast moving news

With fast moving news stories it gives reporters a way of keeping up with developments. Live blogging is better than constantly updating a static news story. It allows links to other coverage and, this is important, it encourages people with news to contribute. Reader comments can be worked into a live blog.

Live blogging doesn’t work well when the story is too long and rambling, it can get confusing. It often tends to be weak on providing background because live bloggers get caught up in unfolding events. Likewise it doesn’t lend itself to analysis.

Where it really didn’t work

One story that a number of outlets tried to live blog — and in opinion failed badly — was when Steve Jobs died. Effectively this was one main piece of news, his death, which could have been dealt with in a more conventional news story. The live blogs struggled to find interesting things to say and varied between mawkish and ghoulish.

When live-blogging works, when it doesn’t

 

Live-blogging shines when skilled writers cover complex, unfolding news stories. It tends to be less useful dealing with scripted or structured events. There are times when it stinks.

Rarely a day goes by without a live-blog on one of the top UK newspapers or at the BBC website.

Recent months have seen The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph and the BBC successfully live-blog events as diverse as riots, cricket matches and the European economic melt-down.

Live-blogging strengths:

  • It’s a quick and inexpensive way of staying on top of a rapidly developing story.
  • Live bloggers are able to add and verify incoming items from journalists in the field, social media services like Twitter and from other news media.
  • It’s easier for live-bloggers to get away with including links to rival media than it is for journalists writing conventional news.
  • Likewise, the informal nature of a live-blog gives journalists freedom to depart from strict news structures.
  • Readers are able to get involved and can pass journalists extra information and make comments.
  • Live blogging has built-in feedback mechanisms.

Live-blog the election

The ultimate live-blog opportunity would be an election count. Combined with good graphics and live data it is potentially the best way to follow developments. Likewise live-blogging sports events is also a great alternative to radio or TV, especially on a smartphone. It works especially well with cricket which has just the right structure for the format.

There are problems with live-blogging. It is sometimes hard to make sense of what’s in front of you if you join part-way through the unfolding story. Scrolling back through the story can be confusing at times. Live-blogs can get out of control and the person in the driving seat may be distracted. It’s easy to lose sight of the big picture.

Facts missing in action

Most of all, the important facts can be buried in a live-blog. Writers sometimes assume readers joining the live-blog are up to speed and so they don’t repeat key facts.

Live-blogs rarely compete with a well-written, structured analysis when you look back in retrospect. There are times when the classic inverted pyramid approach is still king.

Live-blogging gets story out fast

I’ve seen live blogs of important product announcements. It’s a great way of getting the story out fast, but there’s not always enough time for the research and information gathering needed to put things in context. Live-blogs of announcements generally follow the public relations script.

Similar criticism applies to events like company annual general meetings – or anything that is stage-managed. A little distance helps journalists get past manipulation.

When it doesn’t work

Live-blogging doesn’t always work. One of my jobs involves monitoring and commenting on Australia’s technology press. I found the live blog coverage of Steve Jobs’ death disjointed and confusing. Others found it disrespectful and I know of a few who objected to the semantics of live-blogging a death.

At the moment journalists are constrained by their tools. Newspaper content management systems don’t take kindly to live-blogging, they tend to have strict, inflexible formats. No doubt this problems will solved soon and some of the problems will go away.

That’s more than can be said for live-blogging itself. It’s here to stay. Now we need to get better at it.

 

Reporting share price movements is pointless

Reporting share price movements in general news bulletins on television and radio is pointless.

Most viewers and listeners don’t give a toss about individual share prices.

But the information is of no use to those who do care. Nobody in their right mind is going to run out and buy or sell shares if the reporter says “Telecom is down two cents at $2.12″.

At the very least a share owner will want to check this information before acting.

Share trading professionals will have immediate access to better and fuller information. Even keen amateur traders will want more than a raw price.

So why do news bulletins broadcast this information?

It could be filler. Some TV bulletins flick up the numbers on the way into or out of commercial breaks. Lord knows New Zealand broadcaster struggle to fill their long news bulletins with worthwhile material.

Reporting share price movements also sends an important signal to audiences that the broadcasters are aware of business news and determined to take it seriously.

Can you think of any other reasons?

When news goes molecular

I’m excited by South China Morning Post editor-in-chief Reg Chua’s efforts to find the new basic building blocks of journalism.

In the print era, the news story was the basic block. Chua points out stories are less valuable in a digital age and daily news stories have even less worth when readers come back to them at a later date. Returning to old stories is now easier thanks to online newspaper archives and search engines.

Chua describes how software tools cleverly pull atoms of news (facts) from various sources then knits them back together to form Molecules of News. In effect this means mining raw data for useful information.

In some ways this isn’t too different from the way journalists research sources when writing news.

As every journalist knows, much of the raw data collected in daily news gathering never makes it into news stories.

Chua says the news industry misses the value locked in that data. He thinks the challenge is for news organisations to find ways to turn this into money.

Clearly one approach is to chain atoms and molecules of news together in ways that make it easier to extract information. This means thinking about data structures, not news stories. This could involve writing reports (or atoms, or molecules) directly in to a pre-built data structure.

Chua’s last idea – suggested in a reply to my comment on his post – is the part I find really exciting. I’m going to make developing a working news data structure my background project for the year.

I’d be interested to hear any thoughts on how this can work for a freelance journalist.