“Live blogging the Hillsborough Independent Panel for a city” - Neil Macdonald at news:rewired

Martin Belam by Martin Belam, 12 December 2012

Billed as a workshop in live blogging, Neil Macdonald’s talk at news:rewired was an emotional look at how the Liverpool Echo had covered the publication of the Hillsborough Independent Panel report.

I think the thing that shone through this talk was respect. Respect for the 96 dead at Hillsborough. Respect for the families who had fought so long to see some glimmer of justice. And respect for the role of being the newspaper of record for a city that had endured over two decades of torment caused by the evens of 15 April 1989. Neil Macdonald said “We felt a tremendous sense of responsibility to make sure we got our coverage right.”

Neil was explaining to the news:rewired audience how to prepare and manage a live blogging situation when you know that the content is going to be emotional and widely read.

Planning was key, he said. The logistics were that the day was going to take place in several locations. He acted as the hub in the newsroom, making sure that the live blog was kept structured and regularly updated, and that contributors weren’t competing with each other to post.

Another part of planning was making use of their extensive archive. They had twenty-three years worth of previous coverage of the tragedy. Neil said they went through it all and made it accessible, so they could feed it easily into the live blog. I must say that when ever I have been in a live blogging situation myself, I have found it incredibly useful to pre-plan precise content. When live blogging Guardian Hack Days — which seems a somewhat frivolous thing to do in this context — I used to write a lot of material pointing back to previous hacks or Developer blog posts in advance.

Despite the serious nature of much of the topic, Neil’s talk wasn’t without some humour. He’d started it with a video pastiche of Bob Dylan, and observed that one of his top tips was that if you were going to hold a press conference with international interest, doing it in Liverpool Cathedral which is effectively an underground bunker isn’t exactly the best location for 3G signal.

On the day that the Hillsborough Independent Panel published their findings, the Liverpool Echo had started the live blog early, with the hope that the community would get engaged and share some of their hopes and fears about the report. This almost instantly turned into speculation about the contents. They opted not to publish these types of comments. Neil explained that on a day of such importance to the city they wanted everything that came from them to be 100% accurate. “We’d waited 23 years for the truth” he said, arguing that waiting another couple of hours to ensure they only published verified information wasn’t much to ask.

Neil finished by reading out a message from one reader on the day, who explained that for them, the live blog coverage had “gone a long way towards restoring the tarnished reputation of your profession.”

On a personal note, my own perceptions of what had happened that day in 1989 was altered for ever when I read this incredibly moving piece by my then boss at the Guardian, Mike Bracken &mdash “This is my Hillsborough”. It is worth ten minutes of your time.

Next…

Also in the news:rewired session on live blogging was a discussion on how the Manchester Evening News runs a daily news live blog. I’ll have my notes on that talk next.

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