04 January 2012

Live-blogging and its value to the greater society

Steve Buttry and I engaged in an interesting back-and-forth on his website about the value of liveblogging. You can check out the full story and conversation on Steve's website. Here's some highlights of our exchange:

Oftentimes breaking news or live blogging has more value for media and news people/junkies than it does for the overall society. If a story must be broken because a storm is pending, or there is an accident or fire or emergency situation, or if timeliness is paramount, then speed is important to society, and not just other news outlets. Otherwise, scooping news or breaking it first has more to do with professional egotism than anything else.
Traditional journalism provides summarized accounts of news events. Liveblogs provide detailed extended accounts... I’m not saying that every aspect of digital journalism is an improvement. I think we have a lot to improve still. But I have more confidence than you [do] in journalism and in the public to continue improving.

 You probably would know better than me who is reading liveblogs. I’m not a sociologist or psychologist or data analyst, so I have no special insight. I do study people’s behavior, if only because I deal with people so much. 

In “Politics at the Margin,” the author Susan Herbst discusses the readership of “The Masses,” which was a fairly radical magazine during its time in the early 20th Century. Herbst notes that it was widely agreed that, aside from a few business and political elites, the only people who read the magazine were people who agreed with its editorial slant. Such is the case, I believe, with many news outlets today — conservatives watch FOX news, liberals watch MSNBC, whatever.

In a study by professors Azi Lev-On and Bernard Manin called “Happy Accidents,” the pair describes online interactions this way: “It is fairly well established by now that intentionality drives segmentation and generates few, if any, contacts with dissimilar people. When users efficiently choose their communicative environment, they tend to build echo chambers as drivers of homogeneity become then dominant.”

They’re talking about the “communicative environment” and not content necessarily. So it appears that both content and its packaging affect how people interact online. That said, it seems feasible to me that the only people reading liveblogs are either lovebloggers or news junkies.
Does this population represent a majority of society? I don’t think so, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have value. It absolutely has value, but for a small number of people. How these people transfer that value to the broader society is perhaps a more important question.

I work in a newsroom that uses modern and traditional tools. We were lucky to have two reporters cover a local political debate — one of us live-tweeted the debate while the other took detailed notes. The effect was superb. Certainly one person can do both tasks, but the value of each is stifled because attention is split in two. When it comes down to it, the long-form story is infinitely more valuable because it’s the document of record. It should not suffer because of tweeting or liveblogging.
I’m not necessarily talking about accuracy here, but quality of information. You can tweet and write a story later and be 100% accurate, but what if there are holes in your story that are there solely because your attention was split?

My point is this: Nothing should distract a reporter from doing her primary job — accurately informing the public with as much important information as possible. Not tweeting, not texting, not liveblogging, not phone calls, not daydreams, nothing.

The value to the greater community trumps value to a niche group of people, at least when it comes to news stories. There may be exceptions, but they are rare, in my opinion.
Perhaps a good topic for discussion would be to ask people, who is reading and interacting on liveblogs, and what is its value to the broader society? Or, how is value transferred from the liveblogging community to the broader society?
I will add here that I am as hopeful about the future of journalism as anyone. To stifle criticism of where we could go if we are not cautious only creates a more unstable environment. If people were more cautious when oil was discovered so useful, you think we'd be in the mess we're in now?

I am eager to hear anyone's thoughts on this subject. Please comment below or shoot me an email.


  1. Idea: If you use your live-blogging platform as your notepad, you are working and fully focused on the bigger narrative while you provide live insights to people, who in turn might help you with further insight.

    I'm not speechifying. This has been done in our tiny newsroom in Kingston, N.Y. during a murder trial. http://bit.ly/fLOoka

    To explore the issue further, I had my intern at the time do an independent ethical assessment of the effort. http://bit.ly/hXPhXP

    I'm of the persuasion, based on personal experience, that the news value provided by the community during such efforts improves the quality of the final story.

    Full disclosure: I work in the same company as Steve Buttry and I'm a very nosy person when it comes to journalistic issues.

  2. Thanks for taking the time to comment, Ivan. I think you're right, there are tools that enable reporters to use their notes as the live-blog, which can enhance the quality of the final story.

    But is the act of live-blogging enhancing the final story, or is it just making the journalist take better notes because she knows the notes are simultaneously her reported product? Is it the act or the awareness of the act that makes the final product better?

    I also agree that interaction from live blogs can be very useful by offering suggestions or insight. I've never argued against these tools, but my curmudgeonly concern is still about the bigger picture.

    I don't know about you, but my note-taking and typing technique is far from flawless. I abbreviate to be fast, I misspell constantly, I make marks for things I want to explore later, etc. Certainly I am open to improving my technical typing and note-taking abilities to adapt to new tools, but to what extent should I be so focused on clarity of writing that I do actually miss the larger narrative?

    Bottom line, for me, I think some events would warrant live blogging, and some simply would not. Determining that is an editorial decision for each organization to make.

  3. As David's counterpart for the live blogging/note taking experience, I'd say my note taking is vastly different than my live tweeting an event. I'm listening differently for small snapshots of info to deliver to the reader vs. capturing the whole picture. Like David, I also write my notes in a way that only I would be likely to read afterward vs. live tweeting something.

    I think live tweeting enhances the final product but trying to do both at the same time, which I have done, makes each a more inferior final product. They are very different to me and provide a separate and important service to the reader.