Liveblog: Al Jazeera on Liveblogging

I liveblogged a session on liveblogging, and the universe didn’t implode! Giant disclaimer that the audio in the room wasn’t great, so some of these thoughts and many of the words are my own, trying to capture Bilal’s talk. I wouldn’t quote him on any of this.

Thanks to Bilal Randeree for sharing with us. You can find him on Twitter @bilalr.

It’s been a big year for liveblog-worthy news, which you can quickly see in a run-down of Al Jazeera’s Live Blogs:

Begin semi-quotations:


“We didn’t have a specific liveblogging system set up – we’re just using the regular blog content management system. We’re talking now about how to use the righthand column blocks in a better way to support liveblogging.

Liveblogging’s useful because on TV, you keep cutting back to what’s unfolding, but with less context than blogging can provide.

We often throw the liveblog in because it’s the most up to date for breaking stories, but it’s difficult to stay on top of the story rapidly developing while also trying to provide deeper context.

While liveblogging, you become more attuned to what the audience wants as you’re updating – you can see how many people are viewing the page, adding comments to a page, sharing and tweeting and it can actually affect your coverage in the moment. It’s a very, very interactive experience. We work in ten-hour shifts, with our eyes off the screen only when we grab a bite or go to the toilet.

But it’s more than just information. In Libya there was a citizen journalist using Skype and running an information hub. I was personally in touch with him adding his information to the liveblog. He got killed. It hit me that I KNEW this guy, we had been talking for weeks, and it really hit home that this isn’t just information. This is real lives. And that helps you value so much more the position you’re in and the job you’re doing.

At times there were up to ten people liveblogging Egypt, while at other (quieter) times there’s one person doing two or three liveblogs. Our team has grown as our audience has grown. If you look at the numbers, it’s off the charts. It’s been an interesting, rewarding learning experience.

Q: Finding sources?
You’re not simply sending journalists out there to find information and turn it into news. You need to know the story. You need to know your sources and verify your sources. If there’s a video that helps the story, great, but the story should never be that there’s a YouTube video. In that case you’re not doing journalism, you’re just pointing to someone’s video.

When Tunisia started, people at Global Voices and some academics shared contacts to help us get to know people and sources. It’s not just a job – you need to be plugged into it all the time. You don’t just go out into the field and start writing – it’s hard work growing your network [of sources].

Q: How do you contact sources? Twitter, Facebook, privately?
A: We’ll tweet out that we’re looking for sources on the ground and follow up privately, often via phone. We got in touch with lawyers groups doing protests in Tunisia, and we knew other lawyers elsewhere. We get a bunch of phone numbers from key contacts to work from. At the end of the day, it’s old fashioned Journalism 101 that you learn in Journalism school.

Q: There is the argument that social media has made journalists lazy, because it’s so easy to find sources.
A: There’s that argument. There are also older journalists who avoid social media because it makes things more difficult – they forget their password, don’t know how to use it. From my position, it’s been useful, it’s a tool in the bag of tools. Social media isn’t your job and shouldn’t be your job if you’re a journalist.

The former Director General of Al Jazeera was on Twitter, and that provided cover and changed the environment to make social media use more allowable, a more open environment for sharing. Mohamed Nanabhay started the New Media Department at Al Jazeera before many other news organizations had one, and now heads up online operations. But there were people who weren’t as comfortable sharing information so quickly. They doubted social media reports if they weren’t also coming in off one of the newswires. Now you have to say, “Well, it’s two people who I found on Twitter, one of whom I’ve spoken to on the phone, and it’s reliable information [even though it’s not coming from a newswire].”

The job of the editor is still to verify the information. You can’t just say, OK, I don’t get social media, do whatever you want, or, I don’t get social media, let’s not use it.

The Occupy Wall Street Storify page has all the different elements – videos, features, blogs, interactive map.

Q: Sports journalists have essentially had to liveblog for years, with live data.

A: That’s actually the exact analogy we used. You’re covering a sports game and you’ve got ten cameras pointing at the field, but maybe only 5 are working. There’s something happening in the stands, and may or may not be important to the game. Then there’s outside the stadium, maybe riots, and that may or may not be important to cover, too.

Q: The Disqus platform for comments
Originally, everything was moderated before it goes out. Now nothing’s moderated, unless it’s pointed out. The mechanism’s done by users in Disqus with flagging and upvoting and downvoting. Our strategy is to leave it – it’s often coming in from third parties of people talking about a story and it gets embedded on Al Jazeera. Sometimes we’ll get a note that a bad comment gets through and we’ll go in and delete it.

There’s also interaction with the commenters. You might get a report that a hospital’s been hit in Tripoli from the government, and a commenter will chime in and say, “I’m down the street and can see that nothing’s been hit.”

Explaining Storify and collection of elements. It’s similar to liveblog but not the same [ED: Storify’s great for telling the story after the fact]

Me: A surprising amount of concern and questions about moderating comments. Come on folks, there’s more interesting stuff happening here.

Disqus is good about catching users who continuously get flagged and is abusing the comments section. Al Jazeera can step in and see that they’re only being flagged for having an unpopular opinion [not hate speech], so they can un-block them.

Q from Me: Tension between fresh unfolding story and long term context. Is the liveblogging informing the overall news coverage?
A: There were 1 or 2 Syrian livebloggers and if there was a need for a fresh story they’d go to the liveblogger because they’ve been on it for 3 days straight.

We’re working on a new design team for a future website and a new content management system, new design.

I’d like to see as a journalist that all of our resources go into our team updating information in a liveblog as it happens, and the editor would have a way, like in Minority Report, to wear a pair of gloves, surrounded by screens, and see the incoming information and pick and point and within seconds construct a story with the different elements, and when something changes in the story they can just pull it out and pull in the updated information. I’d want to work itn he newsroom doing that.

Q: Is online reshaping TV coverage?
A: Broadcast was forced to have a new slot in the hour called the web desk – we sit together in the newsroom, there’s convergence. But now there’s a bigger move to making the news experience more interactive.

Q from me: You mentioned that the quality of a video matters in terms of getting it on TV.
A: The story needs to be the story first, regardless of video, and if the footage is good it’s a nice add on to a story. You need high production values for the video to strengthen the point you’ve made in the story.

Bilal’s background is in London in finance, and he had been blogging before university. During the financial crisis people asked him to explain what was happening, so he started blogging it, and as he dug he found that no one in the financial sector knew what was happening AND that no one there cared what was happening. You’re running the system that everyone’s panicking about and you don’t care as long as you’re getting paid more each year… so he quit and went back to school, got a post-graduate in economic journalism, which was his ‘in’ to Al Jazeera. Media in general was being critiqued for not covering the economic crisis in a way that the man on the street could understand at the time. Later he joined the online team.

On Al Jazeera’s growth:
Egypt was big. YouTube had a banner on the homepage to watch the livestream on Al Jazeera, driving in lots of new viewers. The same in Japan. It’s an important moment for Al Jazeera – people aren’t coming to us just because we’re the Middle East experts. Japan. We threw ourselves at Japan the way we were operating in Egypt with great results.

After Tunisia, I said, that was the story of my life! I’m going on holiday, I need a break. I had just landed in India and checked Twitter, and: Egypt. I got a call by the third day of my holiday. I got back to Doha, and from that day until Mubarak stepped down we were eating, sleeping, living in the newsroom. Being part of the story was an incredible experience.