On Monday I was involved in a fascinating experiment in civic engagement: 10 hyperlocal blogs all agreed to embed a liveblog of a hustings which would give inhabitants of the largest local authority in Europe an insight into the next council leader.
The liveblog itself was to be maintained by student contributors to the Birmingham Eastside news site. The decision to offer it out to hyperlocal sites across the city seemed obvious – so why aren’t publishers doing this regularly?
Technically simple, culturally hard
Technically it was simple: share a piece of embed code generated by free liveblogging service CoveritLive, and basic details about the event.
All the sites had to do was copy and paste the code into their own content management system.
Sutton Coldfield Local, Moseley B13 Magazine, Bournville News, B31 Voices, Birmingham Updates, Tyburn Mail, and Jewellery Quarter Neighbourhood Forum joined hustings organiser NewsinBrum in agreeing to use the embed code on their site.
Of course the technical element wasn’t the biggest issue: the experiment required all participants putting any ego to one side and handing over a small part of their site to a group of outsiders.
But it was in the service of a greater good: this was an important debate, with the future of the city at stake (there are concerns the Government could intervene in the city if one candidate is elected). The sites did not have the resources to cover the hustings themselves.
And hyperlocal sites are often built on a tradition of working with contributors for the benefit of the community.
The embed opportunity
I asked David Higgerson, who has been involved in many of the incentives to work with hyperlocals at Trinity Mirror – one of the more proactive publishers in this field – whether he was aware of any news organisations sharing embed codes in a similar way. Off the top of his head, he couldn’t. But, he addded:
“That’s not to say we won’t – indeed I think we would!”
Other newspaper groups were also unable to come up with similar examples.
As it happened, though, when Trinity Mirror first began working more closely with hyperlocals they shared their photos – a form of embedding, however basic (I’ll take it anyway).
Moving from embedding images to embedding liveblogs may be hampered by the fact that many liveblogs now use custom CMSs rather than embeds, but other opportunities still exist.
Live video streams for example: not just through dedicated services like Ustream and Bambuser, but also simpler ones like Google Hangouts On Air (which streams on your YouTube channel), Meerkat (since June) and Periscope (you can embed a Periscope live stream by pasting the ‘user profile’ embed code – or use a site like Embed Periscope)
And it doesn’t stop there.
Embed codes are used for many forms of data visualisation, from maps and charts to infographics and dashboards.
Once you create one of these – using services like Infogr.am, Tableau, Piktochart, CartoDB, and Google Fusion Tables – an update to the original will also update all of the embedded versions of that.
Indeed, Google Sheets’ built-in charts include a dynamic embed option which updates whenever the data on the spreadsheet changes.
Embedding social media discussions and curation
Individual social media updates are now regularly embedded in stories – but the associated discussions can be as well.
Storify, of course, is designed to curate coverage or commentary on an event, or any sort of discussion – and these stories come with their own embed code so they can be embedded anywhere.
Cultural not technical
Ultimately the hurdle to all of this is not technical, but cultural: having that desire to work with hyperlocals and the relationships to make it happen.
In Birmingham this does happen. Trinity Mirror Midlands editor-in-chief Marc Reeves notes of one local site:
“Paradise Circus was the first to call out the lack of transparency and engagement in the leadership election process, and we started talking to them about collaborating on a hustings.”
And it’s happened elsewhere too: Pits n Pots has shared liveblog embed code with local paper The Stoke Sentinel and fellow hyperlocals My Tunstall and 6 Towns Radio.
Michael Rawlins, who ran the site, says the most successful was the English Defence League demonstration:
“I think that was one of the first rolling live news feeds. We got in early with the hashtags and everyone started using them, the local press, BBC and the police. Our YouTube channel was the second most viewed ‘news channel’ for a couple of days after this.”
Should this be happening more often? As I told Journalism.co.uk, there are three main reasons why publishers should explore such arrangements:
- Brand-building: it demonstrates the news organisation’s commitment to its role within the city, not only providing a platform for civic engagement but working with other sites to make that platform as wide as possible. In other words, let’s say it is
- Relationship-building: with other sites which may lead to tip-offs, editorial collaborations and…
- Commercial opportunities: not just for advertising included in any embedded content (which may involve discussions about how any revenue might be shared fairly between partners) but also events, training and other partnerships.
*Footnote: Notably, the fact that the hustings happened at all came from a combination of bottom-up pressure from Paradise Circus’s petition, bottom-up organisation by Newsinbrum (which persuaded leadership candidates to take part in a hustings even while their party was prohibiting it) and top-down work by the Birmingham Post and Mail in persuading the Labour Party to reverse that ban on candidates taking part in public hustings. There’s something else there in the benefits of working with niche local sites.