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April 30, 2009, 8:55 a.m.

The benefits of a live-blog: news, discussion and “crowd-sourcing”

Like a lot of newspapers and media outlets, the paper I work for in Canada — the Globe and Mail — has been experimenting a lot with a great live-blogging and live-discussion tool called Cover It Live. The software comes from a company located in Toronto, but is being used by everyone from Newsweek and Yahoo to Vanity Fair and the Austin Statesman-Review. We’ve hosted live discussion/news stories involving the Obama inauguration, the NHL hockey trade deadline, federal communication hearings and even a shooting in a Toronto subway station.

One of the big benefits of the software is that it allows you to do so much within the app itself, which is embedded in a story page as a widget via javascript. You can post photos right in the stream, embed video clips and do instant polls — and integrated into all that are comments from readers. You can also pull comments from Twitter, either by approving individual users or by pulling in tweets that use a specific hashtag or keyword related to the topic. The editor or “producer” can see all the comments and moderate them, and the live blog can be archived and replayed.

For large public events such as the Obama inauguration (or the Oscars), there is a very powerful desire to interact with other people who are watching the same event, and Cover It Live makes that very easy and appealing. News updates are interspersed with user comments in a very natural way, and reporters and editors can respond easily. For events such as the NHL trade deadline, several readers asked specific questions of the reporters and columnists who took part, and got answers within minutes — something that simply doesn’t happen with traditional newspaper stories, even online.

Our latest live-blog took place on Tuesday and Wednesday and was designed not so much for discussion, but simply as a place for us to put all of the breaking news that was coming in about swine flu, almost like a news-wire feed. But what happened was quite amazing: it became a discussion about the flu, and not just about whether it was appropriate to be afraid or not, but about its effect on people’s lives (wedding trips cancelled, etc.). Questions were asked about the flu and then answered almost as quickly, and knowledgeably — in many cases, before we could find the answers ourselves. And all through the live-blog, readers thanked us for doing it.

But my favourite part came a couple of hours into the blog, when someone commented that they didn’t think much of the swine flu map we were linking to in our news story, which was this map — a mashup created by infectious disease expert Henry Niman. So the editor moderating the blog asked if anyone knew of a better one. Within a minute or two, someone had posted a link to this map, which after a little bit of investigation turned out to be substantially better — with more recent updates, links to sources of the info, etc. And in a nice bit of symmetry, that map was also “crowd-sourced,” in that it was composed of data from multiple contributors.

So here we had a great news-driven package with photos and video (of news conferences), which got more than 5,000 unique readers in about five hours — and then on top of that we got hundreds of comments from readers, both asking questions and answering each other’s questions, and contributing links of value to both our readers and to us. And then to top it all off, several readers thanked us for doing it. How much better could it get?

POSTED     April 30, 2009, 8:55 a.m.
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