Glued to liveblogging

The death of Mohammar Qadaffi. The G20 Summit in Cannes. Soccer matches. Political debates. How to keep on top of the latest information? Today, these breaking news stories are all being reported instantaneously via liveblogging. This cutting-edge digital publication format enables real-time reporting of an event, by mixing text, photos, videos, social media content, and audience interaction. And it is an incredible lure for readers.

According to estimates, it accounts for at least 30% of the traffic to a general news web site, a percentage which is increasing rapidly. Moreover, since web-users remain significantly longer on news sites using this format, liveblogging has also become an important factor in audience engagement.

>> Read this article in French >>

UPDATE. On Monday, November 14, France Televisions launched its continuous news platform, available on the Web and on mobile devices. (1) This project advances the concept of liveblogging to the extreme – for now. Effectively, it is based on a continuous live blog which disseminates, from 6 am to midnight (stories such as the strike at the Employment Department, the nomination of Mario Monti, the latest on DSK, the hostages liberated in Yemen, etc.), via video, photos, and written content. All this is created by livebloggers, a new breed of journalists who have become specialists in digital blogging, and who answer the audience’s questions and comments about the news in real time.

In terms of the editorial slots for importance of news, liveblogging follows this structure: if the news is of lesser importance, three written lines will suffice. If it’s a major news story, it will be the object of several entries, with various angles of development of the story, either included in that day’s live blog on the topic or covered in a different thread.

For Nico Pitney, executive editor of the Huffington Post, in an interview by the Nieman Lab, two out of three web users are attracted to liveblogging.  “We basically imagined three types of readers,” Pitney said. “One who just wanted the key facts from the story, a solid overview that’s basically a traditional news story. This person is not interested in the minute details and the live-blog coverage. Then there’s another type of user who already knows the overview and does want the key facts and live-blog coverage. And finally there’s a third kind of user — and we count this as a large percentage of our users — who wanted the overview, but then once they saw the live blog, it got them in deeper, and it made them more engaged in the story.”

And, of course, readers remain glued to their screens, caught in the spell of the live blog, a and the promise of instant updates on a big story as it unfolds.

Liveblogging: the new TV

Why are live blogs so endlessly appealing? This was the key question at a workshop organized last week at a Journalism Conference in Poitiers, France. (2)

“Readers feel as though they are creating the news,” explained Karine Broyer, Editor-in-Chief for Internet and New Medias at France 24. “During the events in Egypt, some people were asking questions on the live blog for our special correspondent, who was on location at Place Tahir in Cairo. They addressed him by his first name, Karim. And if the question was relevant, Karim Hakiki answered on the spot, perhaps giving readers the impression that their comments had played a part in the creation of the news.”

“During the televised debates of for the French Socialist Party Primary, we chose not to have a live blog on the site – too France-centric for an international media source like France 24. Perhaps we made a mistake; I don’t know. Our viewers ranted on Twitter, ‘Are you asleep or what? You have to liveblog this…’”

Types of comments on live blogs

“Internet users are participants,” notes Jonathan Parienté, a journalist covering the presidential elections at He cites three basic forms of comments on live blogs:

1. Basic comments such as “I like, I don’t like/ It’s good, it’s not good”
2. Comments that are questions
3. Comments that add information to the story.

Whereas by default on, no comment is published in a live blog until screened and approved by the editorial team, in general the rules are simple: a type 1 comment is kept if the reader expands a bit on his or her opinion; but to be honest, it doesn’t have much journalistic interest. Type 2 forms the bulk of the comments that are published in live blogs and are useful in articulating the editorial position, giving a visual sense of a dialogue between readers and editors, the latter remaining in an ultimate position of arbiters. Type 3, quite rare, is very useful from a journalistic point of view, and naturally requires verification and fact-checking before it can be published. But it can sometimes change the course of the story, since the information is coming from outside of the editorial department.

What are the successful elements of a great live blog?

It is first and foremost a question of the interest level of the story, according to Karine Broyer. “98% of the live blogs that we launch are based on breaking news.”

In addition to the compelling aspect of the news item, there are several factors key to the success of a live blog:

  • if the live blog is happening during the work day, which is considered prime time for readers on a news web site
  • if the news item of the live blog is an unfolding story, with if possible, new developments (the DSK affair, the Arab revolutions, and Fukushima are all textbook examples)
  • if the format contains several URLs: one URL to represent the entire live blog, and separate URLs for each live blog entry.

On a tool like “Cover It Live“, used by the majority of news sites in France (La Nouvelle République, Le Monde, Libération, France 24, etc.), the live blog has only one unique URL. Other sites developed internally, such as the Huffington Post, attribute one URL per blog post and thus increases the rate of sharing on social networks, allowing any user to cite the content of the live blog, a photo, an explanation or a quotation, as opposed to linking to a general title such at “live coverage of such-and-such event.”

At the Sciences Po Journalism School, learning to build liveblogging format has been a part of the curriculum since September 2010, on the same level as training for television reporting or a radio news flash. The ability to report happenings instantaneously, to give context to the news, put events into perspective, respond to readers’ questions, and to fact check, requires professional acumen and ability. And stamina, especially when the liveblogging on a particular topic goes on for days or weeks, as witnessed by Reuters sur Fukushima, from March 11 -26, which lasted 15 days and covered 298 pages.

Do too many live blogs kill the live blog?

Let’s think about it: in the end, if all media liveblog the same topics at the same time, will it lose interest? “I’m not going to stop liveblogging simply because everyone else is doing it,” says Karine Broyer. Especially since — depending on the subject at hand, the sources, the links that are included, the tone and the tempo — no two live blogs are the same, according to Jonathan Parienté. So, not to worry: there’s room for all in this growing new medium. It is, after all, is still in the experimental phase. Florence Panoussian, who oversees Web and Mobile Editorial for AFP, looks at it this way: “Having multiple live blogs is like having multiple traditional media.”

(1) Bruno Patino, Director of Digital Strategy at France Télévisions, is also the Director of the School of Journalism at Sciences Po, where I work.
(2) Workshop which in which I was a presenter. Thanks to Bérénice Dubuc, Jean-Christophe Solon, Karine Broyer, Jonathan Parienté, and Florence Panoussian, for these pour ces échanges.

Alice Antheaume (translated by Polly Lyman)

lire le billet

Journalists, welcome to Robotland!

Crédit: Flickr/CC/Brett Jordan

>> Read this article in French >>

Algorithms, smart robots which sort loads of information and arrange it according to users’ requests, are entering the newsroom. This automated-manual coexistence already occurs when journalists try to make content “facebookable” or Google-friendly. To do so, they rely on algorithms roughly based on the same principle as those used for displaying “most sent/commented/blogged articles”. Robots took over human for such tasks.

What is the next step? Will such robots become standalone content creators working like online news Trojans? A piece from The Week wonders: “Are computers the cheap, new journalists?” Behind these questions, a software program designed by Narrative Science, a Chicago-based startup, can write articles made up of … comprehensible sentences.

How does it work? An algorithm agreggates data and converts it into articles. Until now, this technology has been effective only for sports pieces. But Narrative Science says that this technology can apply for finance (by scanning companies’ financial accounts) and politics (through opinion polls and election results).

Beware, Journalists… Artificial intelligence researcher Kris Hammond, who has been quoted by The New York Times, predicted that “within five years, a computer will win a Pulitzer Prize”. “For very simple, brief information, automated writing can do the trick”, says Frédéric Filloux, editor or the Monday Note and a professor at Sciences Po School of Journalism. “But for everything else, you have to look at the pole vaulting theory: Everyone can jump 5.9 feet (Editor’s note: with at least a bit of practice), but not many can jump 7.5 feet. That’s the difference between very good and great.”

Not human, no journalistic soul

Alexandre Malsch, a 26-year-old engineer who heads Melty Network, agrees with this view. “A robot will never be able to make a play on words, unless you record all existing wordplays in a huge database… In any case, a robot will never be able to write an article with soul.” And Malsch knows a lot about robots. About thirty algorithms permanently scan his website aimed at teenagers (four million unique visitors). Its goal is to “help” writers produce content in the right format, on the right subject, and at the right time. (Needless to say, there is no point in posting a story about Lady Gaga when the target audience is at school.)

Heading towards all-automated journalism?

In order to be highly visible on internet search engines, the young developer designed a publishing tool called CMS (Content Management System) that has been providing journalists since 2008 with a “practically all-automated” system. What length does the headline have to be to appear among Google’s top hits? “No writer can calculate the optimal length; only a robot can”, says Malsch.

Indeed, in CMS, the robot turns a title to green when it has the right length and to red when it is too long or too short. Same goes for key words used in a title. The writer can suggest three different titles for each content, and the robot gives each one a success rating, so the writer just has to select the title which gets 90 or 95%. In Melty’s CMS, another parameter outsourced to robots is the number of links that a specific article should contain. Robots go further than that: they also say at what time the article should appear online by analyzing a huge amount of data to figure out when the article will be the most visible on Google – something that is totally impossible for a journalist.

This hit-boosting tool is just one example of the automation being applied to publishing systems. It does not touch or change the text (except for the links and titles). “It’s just like a new Word—a tool that helps journalists but doesn’t replace their jobs, interviews, or analysis.”

Putting a human touch into the work of machines

Is this all impressive? Absolutely. Is there any cause for concern? Maybe, but all-automated journalism is certainly not around the corner. “When you see how difficult it is for translation tools to produce relevant results in real time, you realize that it is not going to happen tomorrow,” explains Filloux. All the more so since before a journalist actually starts to write a piece, he or she must collect source material that is far more important than what he or she finally uses… The original volume should be 5-10 times greater than the actual published content.”

As a (paradoxical) result, Malsch and his development team are injecting manual work back into the machines, especially for editing and selecting content, and for forcing the publication of content in real time rather than waiting for the robot to get it out. “As the world is moving forward, human choice becomes increasingly important,” concludes Malsch. “Manual work is regaining currency.”

Note: This article was written by a human being.

>> Read this article in French >>

Alice Antheaume (translated by Micha Cziffra)

lire le billet