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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 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 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 didn’t work

One story that a number of outlets tried to live blog — and failed — was when Steve Jobs died. 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.

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. 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.

Live blogging has been slower to take off in New Zealand.

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

Bnet.com discusses businesses dropping websites to concentrate on social media sites like Facebook.

What about journalists and news media?

It makes sense for some businesses to move: Companies like Starbucks and Coca-Cola get up to 80 times as many Facebook page visits as website visits.

These are mass-market companies running one-size-fits-all campaigns. Although Facebook has begun wooing journalists, it isn’t the best place to be.

This may change.

Publishers won’t move media properties to social media sites in a hurry because it would destroy their advertising-led business model. And those publishers using paywalls will be even less interested.

Bnet runs through the pros and cons of businesses switching to social media. Here’s one reason to move:

Easy to acquire. Clicking a “like” button on Facebook or “follow” button on Twitter is a lot easier than filling in the sign up form on a web page. So it is no surprise that many companies find it easier to build a large following on social media platforms.

And here’s a good reason to stick with a website:

Reach all your audience. Unlike Facebook, Twitter, or other services which might reach large segments of your customers, your own website is available to 100 percent of them. That is, as long as your website has been optimized to work on a mobile phone.

I’d like to add another vote in favour of websites. Companies like Facebook are constantly changing their rules of engagement. It is a movable feast. On the other hand, websites are as stable and unchanging as you want them to be.

Is It Time to Shut Down Your Website? | BNET.

The American Society of News Editors lists the 1o best social media practices. The main document is a 50 page PDF with samples and short, case studies.

You probably don’t have time to read all that so here are the top ten points with comments.

  1. Traditional ethics rules still apply online.
    – This separates real journalists from bloggers and other citizen journalists. Ethics are part of your personal brand as a journalist. Forget them at your peril.
  2. Assume everything you write online will become public.
    – there are private channels on most social media tools, use them if you need to, but remember people may still broadcast them later.
  3. Use social media to engage with readers, but professionally.
    – Just because other people are chatty, use bad language and behave badly doesn’t mean you have to. Bad language may only diminish your brand at the edges, but you never did have much margin for error.
  4. Break news on your website, not on Twitter.
    – Apart from anything else, there’s no simple way to turn a tweet into money. At least web traffic may attract advertising revenue.
  5. Beware of perceptions.
    – They are not reality. Remember some of the tweets you see are from professional spinners who are masters of the realm of perceptions.
  6. Independently authenticate anything found on a social networking site.
    Just because someone says something, it ain’t necessarily so.
  7. Always identify yourself as a journalist.
    – I’m not sure how practical this is. My profile says I’m a journalist.  Most people who know me understand I’m a journalist.
  8. Social networks are tools not toys.
    – That doesn’t mean they can’t be fun.
  9. Be transparent and admit when you’re wrong online.
    – I’ve become better at this lately. I thought it was to do with getting older and wiser, but maybe it’s a function of the technology and more accountable news channels. For me it’s one of the best social media practices I’ve learnt to adopt.
  10. Keep internal deliberations confidential.
    – doh!

Good riddance to Google Wave.

I never understood what the fuss was about.

Wave may have been clever programming, but it didn’t do anything other applications already did better. Google has better tools for most Wave tasks.

It did instant messaging although Google already had tools that do the same job.

Wave did communications. Why bother when Gmail is so much better?

Wave was a collaboration tool. Who needs that when collaborating on Google Docs is so easy?

There was a social media twist to Wave, but Twitter, Facebook and Linkedin are all simpler to use and way more polished. Although they each come with problems.

Wave had a bad user interface and was difficult to use.

More importantly, it was difficult to understand what was going on and what one was supposed to do.

That said, Google Wave had some success.