Context: One thing that liveblogs can’t do at the moment

Liveblogging is still a nascent writing style. There have been several discussions about its value. You can debate for days about whether or not it’s appropriate for everything, or whether covering something through process journalism is always the right decision, but liveblogging is a form of storytelling that’s here to stay.

To me the humdinger that almost every single liveblog that I’ve come across has failed to address is the issue of context.

When talking to people about Ocqur, one of the most common pieces of feedback was not being able to properly understand what had been going on in a liveblog if joining the story or event part of the way through.

This is a problem for two reasons.

First, viewers are likely to spend several minutes trying to work out what happened and when before getting back to the latest updates, which is a poor reading experience.

The second reason is a byproduct of the first, in that as long as this problem keeps occuring and readers still view it as an issue, it’s going to put people off the liveblog experience.

There’s a reason why things like Longform and Readability have done so well – because they enshrine and bring out the simplicity that long form reading used to be before we were assailed by a horde of feeds, links and social networks. Right now it doesn’t seem like the frontend of many liveblogs seem to treat their readers in the same way.

So how can it be done better?

News organisations like the Guardian, the Times and the New York Times have it easier than most in this respect, simply because they have access to thousands of articles, hundreds of tags and topic pages, video content, photo archives, commentary and analysis. This alone should make the task of contextualising liveblogs a lot simpler for them than a standalone service like Cover It Live or Scribble Live.

In fact, the New York Times already seem to be halfway there. Take a look at this screenshot of their Facebook IPO liveblog.

The right column displays a graph tracking the stock price, with major shareholders listed below and a pane offering videos, interactives and documents. The NYT come closer than any other organisation to offering a full contextual experience alongside their liveblog.

So for us at Ocqur, this is potentially the toughest nut to crack. Feature requests are small fry – we can build multiple authors, we can give you more options for embedding, and we can add permalinks for individual entries.

But when it comes to context, how do we interpret that? It’s potentially a very abstract and subjective concept. One man’s article is another man’s YouTube video, and it’s very difficult to tell how everyone reads stories when they’re being played out live.

I think the solution lies in, ironically, looking at how ‘old’ media cover things like elections. Take the BBC’s 2010 general election coverage. The main coverage consisted of rolling news in the vein that we’re used to seeing from the BBC news channel and Sky News, with reporters from various counting halls around the country occasionally doing a piece to camera and reporting the local result. This is the broadcast equivalent of the liveblog, with the liveblog author taking the place of the program producer.

Between these results, the BBC would come back to the studio, which featured Jeremy Paxman, David Dimbleby, Emily Maitlis et al filling in viewers on the bigger picture. “Here’s the result” said the journalist in the counting hall, “and this is what it means” said the presenter in the studio.

The problem with this analogy is that we don’t seem to have found our presenters yet in liveblogging. There isn’t much contextualisation of the river of information that’s flowing through a liveblog, and it’s one of our main challenges in the ongoing development of Ocqur. @socialtechno has pointed out some excellent processes on how to address this in the comments.

As mentioned in my last post, we’ll be working with our testers in the next couple of months in order to really draw out and establish what it means to have a liveblog that truly allows the reader to stay up to date as well as understand the key issues quickly.