The Telegraph’s Laurence Dodds has an unusual claim to fame: he has liveblogged not just one, but four, historical anniversaries: the fall of the Berlin Wall; the funeral of Winston Churchill; the anniversary of Waterloo; and the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain.
Anniversary liveblogging is a particularly under-recognised sub-genre which can be enormously successful, and yet there’s very little written about it.
So I asked Laurence what it involved, and what he’s learned from his experiences.
Laurence is keen to make it clear that the idea of a historical live blog wasn’t his. Richard Preston, now the Telegraph’s head of world news, had already done a liveblog on the anniversary of D-Day and a series on the outbreak of World War 1 before Dodds took up the idea – “And I have kind of developed my own spin on it.”
Laurence prepares for the liveblog by sitting down with “huge stacks” of sources, not depending too much on any one book:
“[My sources] were a mix – which varied depending on the event – of books, interviews with historians, old Telegraph newspapers, and interviews with living witnesses.”
But it can involve original reporting and production too:
“For Berlin especially I did a lot of original research and interviews, including phoning up the historian of a German football club.
“Lots of work also went into the multimedia stuff, like graphics and pictures, which I commissioned from the relevant Telegraph teams. I also had a lot of conversations with museums who own the rights to images and old documents.”
He recommends thanking all those sources profusely.
Despite all this Dodds still underestimated the time preparation would take for the Battle of Britain liveblog.
“It took a real blitz to get it done before the start time. And actually I was still writing the end of the battle while I was pasting the middle. It was manic. In future I will always, ALWAYS leave myself more time.”
The key to a good liveblog, says Dodds, is to “pick out a few different threads which represent all the sides of the story that you want to tell,” and follow those throughout.
“In part this is determined by which eyewitnesses wrote most copiously. You have to be very selective and ruthless, because there is so much stuff.
“My strategy wherever possible was to pick one person who best represented each participating group, and stick with them. Notice how I use Fred Ponsonby in the Waterloo blog or Winston Churchill in the Battle of Britain as recurring characters to anchor the action.”
With everything pre-written and pre-loaded it was just a matter of copying and pasting that material onto the live page. And there was a “huge positive reaction” to the Waterloo liveblog, he says.
“As it went on, people were tweeting corrections at me, new facts, new information; some of it even made it into the blog.
“Frankly, by the end of it, I felt almost like a participant in some weird performance art project designed to replicate the experience of Waterloo itself. I was tired, sore, hungry, thirsty, and pretty much shell-shocked. But there was a decent adrenaline rush, especially at the high points of the battle. I felt kind of in tune with these enormous historical events, following them in real time. It was weird and gave me a bit of a shiver.”
Not all anniversaries are equal
But while Waterloo may have been a success, Dodds feels that “not all historical events are equal.”:
“Firstly, not all of them can be liveblogged at all. You basically you need 3-12 hours of continuous action which is documented to within an hour’s tolerance. Many events don’t fit that profile.
“But beyond that, these live blogs take a huge amount of work. If they don’t do good traffic, you’re wasting a lot of your time. So you have to be sure the event is one which people will actually click on.”
See also: the Birmingham Mail liveblog the 30th anniversary of the pub bombings.
On that note, Laurence feels that, on reflection, Churchill’s funeral and the fall of the Berlin Wall may not have merited liveblogs.
“The latter did fall on a Sunday evening, so maybe that didn’t help. My hunch is that only a tiny fraction of historical events are big enough and well-known enough for people to see it and, within the five seconds they spend drifting past your front page online, think ‘Ooh! I always wanted to know how that actually went!'”
As a result, the main piece of advice Laurence would give to others who are considering doing a liveblog is:
“Consider not doing it. It won’t always be worth your time, and while you clearly find it interesting, others may not. Pick your battles.
“Once you’re sure you want to do one, don’t skimp on planning! Estimate how long your research will take, and then double that estimate.”
Have you seen a good historical liveblog? Let me know in the comments or on Twitter @paulbradshaw
[UPDATE: September 19 2018]: On the 130th anniversary of the first weekend of the Football League the BBC liveblogged the day as it happened, just like a typical matchday liveblog.