My “speech” to the Society of Editors conference

When is a speech not a speech? I was asked to do five minutes on my thoughts about real-time news as part of the “Covering It Live” session at the Society of Editors conference at Stansted Airport today. Is five minutes a speech or Just A Few Words?

Either way, here’s what I had to say today:

Two years ago, the nearest most newspaper websites came to covering news “live” was by adopting a web first approach.

Two things changed that almost overnight. The first was Twitter – and the subsequent pretenders to the 140-character microblogging crown – and the second was Coveritlive, representing the wider liveblogging culture.

From the point of view of the newspaper industry, Twitter picked up from Facebook and continued knocking away the invisible wall which had existed between journalist and user.

Its simplicity is what makes it so great. It’s so easy for us to tell people what we’re doing to talk to our audience, while it’s just as easy for the user to tell us what they think.

Yet its simplicity is also the downfall for regional newspapers. It’s very easy to just feed headlines through Twitterfeed and forget about it.

Up and down the country, newspapers and publishers are throwing away that chance to interact directly with the audience, and therefore become part of the online community which should be interestd in the content. In short, some newspapers are simply shouting their content online.

The papers which make the most out of Twitter etc are those which encourage their reporters to go on there – not just on Twitter, but on LinkedIn, Facebook and so on – and make connections.

To cover events live on social media effectively you need an audience there – and that audience only responds when it believes it is being listened to. As Morgan said earlier [Note: Morgan is Morgan Holt from Huge Entertainment] we need to get closer to our audience, and we can do this by involving in what we do. It’s not just reporters who should be doing this, but editors too. Kevin Ward of the Worcester News does it, Mark Templeton of the South Wales Argus does, as does Mark Thomas and Alison Gow in Liverpool and Marc Reeves in Birmingham. Use the respect the position to attract people to your title. And talk to them.

That’s the lesson we’ve got to learn. Describing it as broadcasting is misleading. It’s really interacting. And that interaction can bring many, many stories when we’re not doing live coverage – as Facebook deathknocks and regular Twitter tips are demonstrating.

If we get better at sharing the information we have – just tweeting, for example, that we’ve heard X is happening – and then follow it up with a link once the story is written, people are much more likely to pay attention, especially if you answer their questions as you go.

The Liverpool ECHO and Post demonstrated this 10 days ago. A business reporter, Alastair Hoghton, tweeted that Morrisey had walked off stage after being hit by a bottle. Alastair, I should point out, hadn’t thrown the bottle. He was there, and tweeted the fact to his 201 followers. They too, retweeted, and commented, and when the copy arrived on the ECHO website shortly after, Alastair retweeted that, as did the other retweeters.

It’s very unusual for a Saturday night story to be one of the ECHO’s most viewed stories of the month. I think that’s partly down to not seeing Twitter as broadcasting, but inviting the audience in to follow the live news.

This weekend, the Birmingham Mail responded to reports of the “crush” at the Christmas lights switch on by telling people what it knew via Twitter while pushing links out to stories as they arrived. People retweeted, commented – some critical of us – and discussed. Big story, lots of national interest, but the Mail and the Sunday Mercury sought to retweet information and answer questions. Even the video of the crush, which Sky kindly credited to the Mercury, was found via Twitter – deputy editor Paul Cole asked if anyone had footage, and it appeared.

By talking on a daily basis on these networks, we have an audience ready for a story, and an audience which will want to get involved.

The same applies to more large-scale live reporting by our websites, changed beyond all recognition by liveblogging services such as Coveritlive.

Coveritlive says the Echo and Post as being the first UK newspaper sites to use CIL in May 2008. The plan was just to report the election results as they came in from reporters, live.

The audience was there instantly – about 3,000 over the course of the night – and they weren’t afraid to ask questions. So is it became both live reporting and a service for readers seeking specific answers.

We even had a Tory candidate on the live blog rather than being at the count. He said he didn’t want to be told he’d lost in person. So we told him via our website.

The Echo and Post broke the result of the Rhys Jones murder trial via liveblogging had covered every cough and spit for the previous three weeks. The local paper beating the news channels to a court result of such prominence? Unheard of 2 years ago. Thousands logged on for such coverage. No-one else did in such depth. The audience again wanted to be involved, but once we explained why they couldn’t, they bottled up their thoughts until the result came in

Again, the big lesson here is involving the audience: make them feel part of what’s going on. That can be our USP. If people want passive news coverage, they can use the BBC website. That’s not intended to be a criticism of the Beeb, but an observation.  If they want to part of what is going on locally, then we need to make sure they can feel part of it on our website.

27,000 people logged to day-long coverage of the transfer window on to Trinity Mirror regional websites. Many were there for hours – placing rumours, reacting to confirmed transfers, stating who they wished would move. Such live reporting and interaction enables us to do what we’ve always done with our brands in print – make them relevent, and place them at the heart of a story.

17,000 logging on to the Manchester Evening News’s website for day-long coverage of the EDL protests, people asking questions about where was safe and not. 3,000 logging on to Chroniclelive to follow the Queen’s visit to Newcastle, as asking questions. Hundreds of people turning to the Birmingham Mail when it snowed because it promoted a live service. Several thousand piling on to discuss the sale of Xabi Alonso with the Liverpool ECHO’s sports editor. All worked because we allowed people to interact.

So what’s next? I sometimes think we get a bit carried away looking for the next big thing – so I’m going to punt that we’ll spend the next year advancing with what we’ve got. We need to listen more, and get out more to create those online contact books.

Live video streaming is something more websites should seek to embed into live reporting. The Chronicle did this to get effect with the Queen’s visit. Video, shot on N96 and fire up to CIL via Qik.com was very well received. Sure, it’s not to broadcast standards, but it’s another way of taking the audience closer to a live news event that no-one else will cover in that depth.

I think more papers will start looking towards Audioboo – the potential to stream live audio updates to a site is exciting, and there’s no reason it couldn’t be used for the important local events which people know we cover in depth.

But the biggest challenge for us to finding a way to work with the army of hyperlocal sites and citizen journalists who report via tweets, blogs, facebook posts and Flickr. We need to go them, and our reporters need to building up their networks online. If we can build relationships with them, and engage with them on equal terms, we can create a very potent force for cover local news, live in the future.

7 comments

  1. good speech/blogpost or whatever it was/is! couldn’t agree more. funnily enough I’ve been having a trawl around some regional newspaper twitter streams over the weekend and was struck by how few of them are actually interactive – in fact some don’t even follow anyone or have a single @reply. how does that enable listening and two-way ommunication? hopefully your talk will have inspired some people to question waht they do.

    1. Thanks Sarah. I think part of the problem is that is possible to automate so much online – eg Flickr galleries from Flickr groups – that it becomes the norm, when there’s actually a much bigger prize for a bit of effort!

  2. At Redbrick we work very hard to interact with the student body. This post has rung so true with me and made me think that my team is pushing in the right direction. I really believe that Student media has a large role to play in the developing local and hyperlocal arenas and can feed into a city’s / areas consciousness. We have been experimenting with CIL and Audioboo all year and are starting to see some great results – greater interactivity and it is driving interest in our other content.

    I think that it would be far more beneficial to communities – especially local newspapers if they better tapped into the student journalism community – we have far more freedom to experiment and make mistakes – we also have a technically engaged audience.

    Trying to have participators rather than readers has been a big aim this year and I am so glad that people like David are saying the same thing. I learnt a lot from a conversation I had with Nick Booth and Joanna Geary back in March at JEEcamp and I have never really looked back – spreading these concepts is vital to re-inventing journalism.

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