Has Coveritlive changed online journalism for good?

(Updated Oct 15 to correct link to Manchester Evening News)

On Saturday, I was at Manchester Piccadilly. Lots of police were around, asking questions of anyone under the age of 25. The English Defence League were in town, and with the EDL – there to “fight extreme Islam” – was Unite Against Facism, which was there to protest against the EDL.

My day job at the moment involves spending quite a lot of time working with the web team at the Birmingham Mail, Birmingham Post, Sunday Mercury and Coventry Telegraph so I know quite a bit about the EDL thanks to their two demos in Birmingham recently.  So I went home quite quickly.

The reason I bore you with this story is because I want to join in with the praise being lavished on the Manchester Evening News for its use of Coveritlive on Saturday to cover the protests. And to put forward a rather grand statement: That Coveritlive has changed journalism for good.

Throughout the day, it had up to four reporters on the ground around Manchester firing short Tweets via personal accounts, which in turn were picked up by Coveritlive and published live on to the MEN website. Coveritlive figures on the day reported 17,000 people logged on. According to Keith McSpurren, Coveritlive’s founder, the average liveblog is replayed is watched by an audience 2/3rds of the size of the live audience – which would take the number to nearer 29,000.

As it turned out, the protests in Manchester weren’t as violent as those in Birmingham, but they were frightening enough for those nearby. And certainly they were a big talking point. I’d recommend the MEN’s coverage to anyone who wants see what impact coveritlive can have on websites, journalists and users.

Like many other news websites around the country which have picked up the software and run with it, a combination of local knowledge and instant communication provided a service which was second to none. And plugging Greater Manchester Police’s Twitter feed into the live blog also gave users information from source.

While the communication from reporter to website was one way – by virtue of the fact they were Twittering as they darted around the city centre – the presence of staff in the newsroom to moderate the comments and add in other media – pictures and video for example – enabled users to ask questions and get answers.

Isn’t that what regional media was always meant to be about? Providing information which people want. Often it’s news, but it can also be the information we may not even think is newsworthy. And I’ll bet a pound to a penny that those people who did get their questions answered will remember to use the MEN the next time a big story breaks.

I say that because I’ve seen it happen on websites I’m involved with. At the Birmingham Mail, there was a sharper increase than anticipated in traffic to its sports sections after the title began hosting web chats with the football club writers. For the paper, it’s a chance to assert its position as the primary independent authority on a football club. For the writer, it’s the chance to talk to the fans who read his/her copy every day which may, or may not tell them something new about what fans are feeling. For the fans, it’s a chance to put questions – and get answers – on an issue they’ll happily talk about in the pub.

When it snowed back in February, the Birmingham Mail ran a live blog feeding up instant information on school closures, blocked roads and so on (which I enjoyed reading while on holiday in Egypt!). Thousands logged on for a service which the paper had never been able to provide in so much detail before. Yes, there was spike in traffic, but the “downhill” side of the spike wasn’t as steep, nor did it drop, as far the “uphill” spike had had to climb.

Prior to the arrival of Coveritlive, newspaper websites did do breaking news, but it wasn’t instant. It was a lot quicker than waiting for the print copy to arrive, but it wasn’t instant. I always felt, as a reporter, that the website was quite removed from what I did. I might write some copy for the website, but it wouldn’t be there straight away. It’d go via a newsdesk or get held in queue. And once it was online, a reader would see it, then move on.

coveritlive changed that for reporters, but the bigger change was the instant feedback. Alison Gow blogged recently about the dangers of trying to second guess an online audience, which is something journalists do as part of the job already: We take a punt at want the reader/viewer/listener wants and serve it up to them. Liveblogging changes that, because we can tell the story as we get the facts, and then get the input from the reader online too.

In short, liveblogging gives journalists, who often complain about being detached from their readers, the chance to interact with them directly. It’s a scary experience at first, but one which, without fail, every journalist I’ve seen take part in a live blog has enjoyed – or, at the very least, seen the benefits of.

For those brands which have traditionally been part of the community, it’s a chance to reconnect online in a way never previously popular. Thousands of people enjoyed a community experience of the Paul McCartney concert in Anfield via the Liverpool ECHO site in 2008, several thousand discussed the results of elections in Tyne and Wear via the Journal website over the summer. Up and down the country, if you’re not at your match on a Saturday you can follow it via your local newspaper website, reading updates from the writers whose names carry so much weight in print.

To me, that instant communication has changed the way we do news online – and as the MEN, Liverpool Daily Post and ECHO, Birmingham Mail, Newcastle Chronicle et al have shown – it’s a change which readers love.

Twitter gets credited, rightly, for changing the way we communicate, while Facebook is praised for altering the way we socialise online. Coveritlive, by my reckoning should be up there for changing – hopefully for good – the way we can involve the user in breaking news and events. The simple changes always seem to have the greatest impact, and Coveritlive is proof of that to me.

7 comments

  1. Multiple Twitter feeds sent by mobile phone powering a CiL event or breaking news story, with the public able to interact from the comfort of their own home is a major leap in news coverage.

    Desperate to use this method at work.

    These are at once worrying and exciting times for journalism.

    1. We have had small successes with simple Q and A’s with local sporting names and an environmental subject. Choosing the right person/subject is key, and the fact that they can log in externally helps logistically.

      Set it up, promote it heavily asking for questions giving control to the user, then the guest sits there and answers them for an hour or so, they are in control of what they answer and what they say, giving control to the guest. We have quality content for web and print. Everyone wins.

  2. I am the Editor of Redbrick – the University of Birmingham student newspaper and this evening we will be making our first foray into coveritlive, we have launched a new website this year (www.redbrickonline.co.uk) and we are experimenting with podcasting, audiobooing, live blogging, (including getting photos up during a sports fixture) and generally just trying to engage the student body as much as we can.

    Although this is the first time we will be using coveritlive (of many i hope) i have used it as an end user a few times now and i am always impressed. As student journalists i feel the pressure is on sightly less – so we have more freedom to experiment and make mistakes compared with major regional or national newspapers.

    We have little to loose, but huge amounts to gain.

  3. Great blog post. Coveritlive has certainly changed the newsroom here in the North East. Football has been our biggest success story – and it’s great that we can now promote a genuinely on-the-whistle match reporting service. We’re attracting a regular audience of thousands for Lee Ryder’s NUFC reports on ChronicleLive, and it’s the banter and chat our increasingly loyal users respond to as much as the service we’re providing.

    Over at JournalLive our coverage of the North Tyneside mayoral election surpassed our expectations with the thousands of live viewers and replays it attracted – it goes to show, I think, that there’s an appetite for this minute-by-minute level coverage for events people deem important locally. Yes, the election would have been covered in a nicely gift-wrapped five-minute piece on that evening’s local TV news – but several thousand people wanted to watch it unfold live, and did via our website.

    Recent forays we’ve made into ice hockey live blogging show it’s not just football coverage that can attract an impressive audience on coveritlive. And we’re finding we’ve got a captive audience for the duration of the game – which must present a compelling opportunity for local advertisers…

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