"How live blogging has transformed journalism" piece in Media Guardian

Martin Belam by Martin Belam, 28 March 2011

A rare foray into print for me today, where I’m quoted in a Media Guardian article looking at “How live blogging has transformed journalism”. Guardian Blogs Editor Matt Wells wrote the piece, and he asked me a few questions about my views on live blogging to get the quote:

Matt Wells: What’s your broad view about live blogs. Are you an enthusiast or a sceptic?

Martin Belam: I’m enthusiastic about them because they feel like a type of news reporting that is emerging as being native to the web. Most video news on the internet is essentially the same kind of package that you’d produce for TV, most audio the same as you’d produce for radio, and most text based news could be printed out. The emerging live blog style isn’t any of those things.

Matt Wells: What are the advantages of the format?

Martin Belam: It very much lends itself to the aggregation and curation model of the internet. You can have someone sitting and pulling the best material emerging around a story in real-time so that you, as an audience member don’t have to. It means that as a user you can dip into the development of a story throughout the day, and as a news organisation it means you can get information out faster without having to wait for a 350 word write-through to be subbed and turned around. I also think the pace can vary depending on the way a story breaks and evolves - you aren’t obliged to fill screen time with someone outside a building where something happened a few hours ago, marking time with “breaking speculation”.

Matt Wells: What are the drawbacks? Are there any stories it shouldn’t be used for?

Martin Belam: I think it can be hard for people to grasp a quick overview of what has been going on if they land on a live blog expecting something in a more traditional news format. I also think it can be quite hard for live bloggers to remember to supply the kind of explainers and background context that would generally get inserted into a print story. I think it works very well for things like politics where you have a committed audience who have expertise in the area but maybe not so well for more slow burning issues. I don’t think you would continually live blog a topic like climate change for example, and coverage of things where actually the story is inaction - “we are live blogging an airline strike, and the latest is that no planes have flown"” - seems tricky to pull off. I also think there is a risk sometimes that it can look a bit crass and sensationalising when the story might be an unfolding man-made tragedy like a shooting spree.

Matt Wells: Who does it well?

Martin Belam: Apart from us? I think because of the sheer breadth of their coverage across numerous outlets, the BBC are well positioned to have live blogs that can pull in a range of experts and correspondents from radio, television and their online operations, in a way that other news organisations would struggle to compete with. L’Équipe in France did some interesting work around the Winter Olympics last year, which tried to bring everything that was going on in the Games together on one live blog page.

Matt Wells: How does it need to develop?

Martin Belam: Firstly I think news organisations need to have the courage to keep experimenting with the format. It seems to have evolved out of the minute-by-minute text commentary of sports events into something of a new format for news story-telling, and I’d like to see that evolution continue. Secondly I just don’t think the design is right at the moment. Nearly every single news organisation that does live blogging does it in a web page that looks like a slight variation on their usual article layout, and I don’t think that does the format justice. Finally, I think we are seeing a huge shift at the moment from consumption of the web on desktop machines to consumption of content on tablet and mobile devices. We need to think how the live blog format needs to develop for people quickly “snacking” on the biggest breaking news stories of the day on those kinds of interfaces.

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