I’ve now covered almost all of the 5 roles in an investigations team I posted about earlier this year – apart from the multimedia journalist role. So here’s how to get started in that role.
Multimedia journalism is a pretty nebulous term. As a result, in my experience, when students try to adopt the role two main problems recur: 1) having a narrow assumption of what multimedia means (i.e. video) and 2) not being able to see the multimedia possibilities of your work.
Multimedia journalism is a very different beast to broadcast journalism. In broadcast journalism your role was comparatively simple: you had one medium to use, and a well-worn format to employ.
Put another way: in broadcast journalism the medium was imposed on the story; in multimedia journalism, the story imposes the medium.
I’ve been using The Guardian’s clever Second Screen webpage-slash-app during much of the Olympics. It is, frankly, a little too clever for its own good, requiring a certain learning curve to understand its full functionality.
But one particular element has really caught my eye: the Twitter activity histogram.
In the diagram below – presented to users before they use Second Screen – this histogram is highlighted in the upper left corner.
What the histogram provides is an instant visual cue to help in hunting down key events.
A few months ago I saw an early version of ITV News’ new website, and was pretty impressed. Now it’s finally live – and I’m still impressed.
Why? Because this doesn’t just fiddle around the edges like so many news website relaunches have done since 2007. This reinvents the whole thing – and the result is more like a social network or a blog than a newspaper front page. Continue reading →
In the final part of a trilogy ofarticles on liveblogging I wanted to talk about a recent experiment I conducted in teaching liveblogging, where I decided to abandon most of my planned lecture on the topic and stage a live ‘event’ instead.
I’d also like to this post to provide a space to share your own experiences of teaching liveblogging and mobile journalism.
One of the biggest problems in teaching liveblogging – and of much of online journalism in fact – is getting students to ‘unlearn’ assumptions about journalism production learned in an analogue context. You can talk about the need to operate across a network, to multitask and to look for where the need lies – but there’s nothing like experience to drill that home.
I decided to recreate one of the less interesting events to liveblog: a committee hearing. I could have chosen to recreate a demonstration or a riot, but aside from the obvious potential for things to go horribly wrong, recreating something less ‘eventful’ meant I could communicate some important lessons about those sorts of events – more on which below.
Specifically, I took the transcript from one of the committee hearings into the MPs’ expenses scandal in the UK. Specifically, I chose the evidence of a husband and wife, providing as it did a little extra colour.
Because the event was going to be tweeted live and in public, I had to make sure that there was no chance of libel. And so the names of all participants were changed to quite obviously false ones: the MP was Alan Fiction (Fiction, Al – see what I did there?) and the various committee members had names that made them sound like Mr Men characters (“Dr Fashionabletrousers”).
Normally hashtags emerge organically but I decided to specify a hashtag up front to make the nature of the event explicit, and so #FAKEevent was born.
With those precautions in place I needed to give the event some dynamics that would show the students the issues they would have to deal with in a live situation. Specifically: multiple sources of information; unexpected events; and incomplete information.
The room (over 200 students) was split into 4 main groups: over half made up a group playing the role of journalists. These were asked to move so that they were all sat in the central column of seats. To further mix things up, I gave them different editorial contexts: one quarter was working for a left-leaning broadsheet; another for a right-leaning one; a third quarter was working for a public broadcaster; and a final one for a commercial broadcaster.
20 more students each made up a pro-MP group, and an anti-MP group, who occupied the left and right columns of seats respectively. A final group of 10 or so students were ‘bystanders‘, occupying the back row.
In addition, a group of 10 or so took the roles of the committee itself, the MP and his ‘wife’.
These groups were now given the following materials:
The committee/MP/wife: an edited transcript of the hearing which they were to use as a script. Also: instructions for particular actions that individuals should do at specific times (more below)
The journalists: briefing notes: the members of the panel; background on the MP
Pro-MP group: instructions that they should try to steer coverage in a positive direction, and details of the website that they could use to do so.
Anti-MP group: instructions that they should try to steer coverage in a negative direction, and details of the website that they could use to do so.
The bystanders: instructions on who they were, and the roles they would play (more below).
I had also approached 3 students beforehand to play specific roles within those groups: one student each as the ‘editor’ of the pro- and anti-MP websites, who had already been assigned admin access to their particular blog and so could give other students publishing rights; and a third student who would act as the major ‘disruption’ to the event.
And I had told all students ahead of the event to bring either a laptop or mobile phone from which they could publish to the web.
A series of unfortunate events
The transcript formed the backdrop to a number of other events which I wanted to use as a device for demonstrating the skills they would need as livebloggers:
One member of the panel would begin to fall asleep after a minute. This was to test how many were only paying attention to the testimony.
Another member would shout ‘Snake!’ after 2 minutes, waking the first person up. Again, who would be paying attention? Would they have made a note of who he was?
A third member would stare intently at the wife throughout – a small detail; who would notice?
After 5 minutes or so, my ‘plant’ would storm into the back of the room and shout a loud accusation at the MP, then be calmly escorted out. Most journalists would not have seen what happened (because it was behind them), and so would have to reconstruct events from the bystanders in the back row, some of whom had their own agendas and some of whom had recorded it.
In all, the exercise took some time to organise (here are my notes): around 20-25 minutes to get everyone into their groups and around 7 minutes for the event itself (actually longer as my interruption held back for some time, waiting for a nod). A livestream of tweets (using Twitterfall) was put up on the projector – if you had a phone set up with Qik or Bambuser you could also stream the video.
Choosing a staged event like a committee hearing that wasn’t particularly eventful meant that the students had to do a number of things over and above reacting to events.
Firstly, they had to concentrate on what was taking place because it was easy to lose concentration when nothing interesting was happening.
Secondly, they had to make things interesting. Many resorted to opinion and wit – entertaining, but not particularly informative, although that was excusable given that the event and the actors were fictional, and there was no background knowledge (other than that in the briefing notes) to draw on.
Still, the point wasn’t what they did but rather what they learned, and the frustrations of needing that background were a useful teaching tool in themselves.
Finally, they had to be proactive: seek out information, find out what had happened.
At the end of the exercise I asked them what they had learned, and pointed out some things I’d noticed myself about how they’d dealt with the challenge:
Some noted the difficulties of taking in information from both the event itself and on Twitter. This is a skill that comes from practice – or if you have the resources, partnering up with another journalist.
Not a single student got up from their seat and moved – either to hear the proceedings more clearly (at least one tweeted that they couldn’t hear what was being said) or to speak to the bystanders
Only one found out the name of the protestor. None picked up on his hashtagged tweets. None traced his blog where his accusations were fleshed out.
Most journalists did not follow what was being said about the event, and put it into context
Few took images or other multimedia
Once again: the point wasn’t that they do things right; in many ways they were set up to fail, and the discussion at the end was about reflecting on those rather than playing a blame game.
‘Failure’ was used as a teaching tool: instead of telling them what they should do, expecting them to remember, and giving them an exercise to do that, I wanted to give them an exercise up front, to experience and internalise that desire to do better, and use that as the context for the lessons, so they could connect it to their own experience of liveblogging rather than experiences of, for example, live broadcast or print reporting. (It seemed to work – a couple of students took the time to express their thanks for the nature of the lesson.)
So although that left me much less time to pass on a lesson, it did, I hope, leave the students learning more and with a higher motivation to continue learning (the full presentation, by the way, was available for those who wanted to go through it).
On the motivation side, the hashtag for the event also trended not only in the UK but in the US too, which I think the students rather enjoyed.
Following my previous post about the rise of liveblogging, I wanted to provide a simple list of ideas for student journalists wanting to get some liveblogging experience. Some people assume that you need to wait for a big news event to start a liveblog, but the format has proved particularly flexible in serving a whole range of editorial demands. Here are just a few:
1. A protest or demonstration
Let’s start with the obvious one. Protests and demonstrations are normally planned and announced in advance, so use a tool like Google Alerts to receive emails when the terms are mentioned, as well as following local campaigning groups and local branches of national campaigns. Issues to consider:
There will be conflicting versions of events so seek to verify as much as possible – from both demonstrators and police, and any other parties, such as counter-demonstrations.
Make contacts ahead of the event to find out who will be recording it and how those records will be published (e.g. livestream, YouTube, Flickr, Google Maps etc). Make sure you have mobile phone numbers in your contacts book and are following those people on the relevant social network. Try to anticipate where you will be needed most – where will the gaps in coverage be?
Don’t just cover the event on the day – build up to it and plan for the aftermath. Walk round the route to plan for the event – and post a photoblog while you’re at it. Interview key participants for profiles while you make contact. Join online forums and Facebook groups and engage with discussions on key issues.
Industries have jargon. Try to familiarise yourself with that ahead of time (follow the specialist press and key figures on social media) or you’ll mis-hear key words and phrases.
There are often different events happening at the same time. Plan your schedule so you know where your priorities are.
Don’t follow the crowd. Often you will add more value by missing a session in order to conduct an interview or post some deeper analysis. This will also require preparation: organise to meet key individuals ahead of time; read up on the key issues.
As above, you’ll also need to know what’s going to be covered well and who’s going to be publishing online at the event. Build-ups will also be useful.
Council or board meetings, hearings, committees and other public and semi-public meetings often have significant implications for local communities, sections of society or particular industries. They are also often poorly covered. This provides a real opportunity for enterprising individuals to add value to their readership.
In addition, there are more informal meetings of small groups which you can find on sites such as Upcoming and Eventbrite.
Issues to consider:
These meetings can easily pass under the radar so make sure you know when they’re taking place. For council meetings, Openly Local’s listings are particularly useful.
Many meetings have to publish their minutes – keep up to date with these (ask for them if you have to – use the Freedom of Information Act if you cannot get them any other way) so you know the background.
Know who’s who – and make sure you know which is which. Write down their names and where they’re sitting so you can attribute quotes correctly.
Prepare for nothing much to happen, most of the time. Concentration is key: newsworthy nuggets will be hidden in dull proceedings – and they won’t be clearly signposted. One advantage of liveblogging is that others can bring your attention to issues you might miss in the flow of reporting.
Have prompts ready to get things started and inject new momentum when conversation dries up – prepare as you would for an interview, only with 100 possible interviewees.
Anticipate the main questions and have key facts and links to hand.
Get the tone right: can you have a bit of banter? It might be worth preparing a joke or two, or looking for opportunities to make them.
5. Breaking news
While you cannot plan for the exact timing of breaking news, you can prepare for some news events. At the most basic level, you should know how to quickly launch a liveblog once you know you need to do so. Other issues to consider:
There will be particular events – the deaths of celebrities, for example – that you can prepare for. How much effort you spend on this depends on how likely you think the event is, and how important it is to your audience.
Breaking news is an adrenaline rush of anticipation fed by an unhealthy diet of reaction, rumour and conjecture – only punctuated occasionally by bursts of actual news. Be aware of the dangers of conjecture and the value in debunking rumours, and try to avoid making things worse.
You don’t need someone else to organise something for you to start a liveblog: you can do something yourself, and liveblog your progress. Considerations:
Ideally it should be something with a beginning, a middle and an end over a limited period of time: running a marathon, for example (if you can hold the mobile phone), or collecting 1,000 signatures for a campaign.
It should also involve others: the liveblog format lends itself to outside contributions.
You’ll have to work harder to make it interesting, so don’t update unless something has changed, and prepare material so you have interesting things to fill the gaps with.
7. A press conference
A familiar sight on 24 hour news channels, press conferences are an obvious candidate for liveblog treatment. You can also add to this similar political events such as the Budget, debates, or Prime Minister’s Questions. The main consideration is that you will be covering the conference alongside other journalists, so your coverage needs to be distinctive. Here are some things to consider:
Controlled as they are, press conferences don’t often generate a constant supply of newsworthy quotes, so when a spokesperson is trotting out platitudes or steering questions back to the particular angle she wants to sell, tell us about other things going on in the room: how is the journalist reacting? What is the PR rep doing?
If the situation is likely to be tightly controlled, you have a better chance of predicting what will be said, and to prepare for that. In particular, if a person is going to try to ‘spin’ facts in a particular direction, have the facts and evidence ready to ‘unspin’ them – as always, including links.
If you want to use one of your question opportunities to give your audience a voice, do so.
Likewise, tap into the wit and intelligence of users to liveblog their reactions outside the room to the questions and answers being exchanged inside.
8. A staged event
A liveblog is an obvious choice for a live event, and there are plenty of sporting and cultural events to cover. The obvious candidates – football matches, popular Olympic events – should be avoided, as existing and live coverage will be more than sufficient, so look to less well-covered sports, concerts, performances, fashion shows, exhibitions and other events. Think about:
Be aware of rights deals and other restrictions. Live coverages of certain popular sports, such as Premiership football, may be limited. There may be restrictions on taking photographs of cultural events, or recording audio or video at a music event.
As with meetings (above) it’s crucial to know who’s who and have a crib sheet of related facts.
Be descriptive and engage the senses. Tell us about the atmosphere, smells, sounds, and other elements that make people feel like they’re there.
9. A launch or opening
Product launches and store opening can be very dull affairs, but occasionally generate significant interest – particularly among technology and fashion fans. The interest doesn’t generally make for a sustained news event, so your liveblog is likely to be use that interest as the basis for some broader editorial angles. The tips on a ‘build up to an event’ above, apply again here, as that is essentially what this is, with the following differences:
Launches and openings are social gatherings, so try focusing on the people there: interview them, paint a picture of how diverse or similar they are. Tap into their expertise or enthusiasm; work with them.
Think about what people might want to know after the launch/opening: tips and tricks on using new technology? The items that are flying off the shelves? Have experts and inside sources on call.
Today sees the UK’s biggest strike in decades as public sector workers protest against pension reforms. Most news organisations are covering the day’s events through liveblogs: that web-native format which has so quickly become the automatic choice for covering rolling news.
The format has become so dominant so quickly because it satisfies both editorial and commercial demands: liveblogs are sticky – people stick around on them much longer than on traditional articles, in the same way that they tend to leave the streams of information from Twitter or Facebook on in the background of their phone, tablet or PC – or indeed, the way that they leave on 24 hour television when there are big events.
It also allows print outlets to compete in the 24-hour environment of rolling news. The updates of the liveblog are equivalent to the ‘time-filling’ of 24-hour television, with this key difference: that updates no longer come from a handful of strategically-placed reporters, but rather (when done well) hundreds of eyewitnesses, stakeholders, experts, campaigners, reporters from other news outlets, and other participants.
The results (when done badly) can be more noise than signal – incoherent, disconnected, fragmented. When done well, however, a good liveblog can draw clarity out of confusion, chase rumours down to facts, and draw multiple threads into something resembling a canvas.
At this early stage liveblogging is still a form finding its feet. More static than broadcast, it does not require the same cycle of repetition; more dynamic than print, it does, however, demand regular summarising.
Most importantly, it takes place within a network. The audience are not sat on their couches watching a single piece of coverage; they may be clicking between a dozen different sources; they may be present at the event itself; they may have friends or family there, sending them updates from their phone. If they are hearing about something important that you’re not addressing, you have a problem.
The list of liveblogs above demonstrates this particularly well, and it doesn’t include the biggest liveblog of all: the #n30 thread on Twitter (and as Facebook users we might also be consuming a liveblog of sorts of our friends’ updates).
More than documenting
In this situation the journalist is needed less to document what is taking place, and more to build on the documentation that is already being done: by witnesses, and by other journalists. That might mean aggregating the most important updates, or providing analysis of what they mean. It might mean enriching content by adding audio, video, maps or photography. Most importantly, it may mean verifying accounts that hold particular significance.
These were the lessons that I sought to teach my class last week when I reconstructed an event in the class and asked them to liveblog it (more in a future blog post). Without any briefing, they made predictable (and planned) mistakes: they thought they were there purely to document the event.
But now, more than ever, journalists are not there solely to document.
On a day like today you do not need to be journalist to take part in the ‘liveblog’ of #n20. If you are passionate about current events, if you are curious about news, you can be out there getting experience in dealing with those events – not just reporting them, but speaking to the people involved, recording images and audio to enrich what is in front of you, creating maps and galleries and Storify threads to aggregate the most illuminating accounts. Seeking reaction and verification to the most challenging ones.
The story is already being told by hundreds of people, some better than others. It’s a chance to create good journalism, and be better at it. I hope every aspiring journalist takes it, and the next chance, and the next one.
When people start out blogging they often ask what blogging platform they should use – WordPress or Blogger? Tumblr or Posterous? It’s impossible to give an answer, because the first questions should be: who is going to use it, how, and what and who for?
To illustrate how the answers to those questions can help in choosing the best platform, I decided to go through the 35 or so blogs I have created, and why I chose the platforms that they use. As more and more publishing platforms have launched, and new features added, some blogs have changed platforms, while new ones have made different choices to older ones. Continue reading →