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Oct. 31, 2011, 1:05 p.m.

Is the Huffington Post reinventing the art of liveblogging?

How the “Internet newspaper” is building the future of context, one update at a time.

A few days ago, I clicked on a link to an Associated Press article published at the Huffington Post and reporting on a new AP poll that found widespread support for the Occupy Wall Street movement. Like hundreds of other news outlets, HuffPo subscribes to the AP and runs its articles to supplement the original content the AOL-owned company produces on its own.

A curious thing happened when I finished the article, however: I didn’t stop reading.

At the bottom of the piece, I came across a liveblog that published up-to-the minute news on the protests. The posts were a mixture of links, block quotes, reprinted tweets, and even small original news nuggets being reported by HuffPo journalists on the ground. All together, I probably spent an extra 20 minutes on the site than I would have otherwise. I began clicking around and found that HuffPo had embedded this same liveblog at the bottom of nearly every article concerning Occupy Wall Street.

Liveblogging is a longstanding tradition within the blogosphere. My first experience with the form was, I think, during the Oscars in 2004 or 2005, and I remember combing through the search results of Technorati — the most popular blog search engine at the time — to find different sites that were liveblogging the same event. In 2007, The New York Times featured Marcy Wheeler for her work liveblogging the Scooter Libby trial for Firedoglake. “With no audio or video feed permitted, the Firedoglake ‘live blog’ has offered the fullest, fastest public report available,” the Times wrote. “Many mainstream journalists use it to check on the trial.”

The benefits of liveblogging are obvious: The practice allows a journalist to provide near-instantaneous reactions to a live event in real time, whether it’s a presidential debate or a keynote speech by a Silicon Valley executive. But it certainly lacks some of the benefits that come when a journalist presses “pause” to write a traditional news article: A liveblog can allow you to give a quick response to something Obama says during a presidential debate, but there’s not enough time to fact-check him or solicit a quote from an expert on the topic of which he’s speaking. While the appeal of the liveblog lies with its speed, the greatest asset of the article is its ability to add context.

I asked Nico Pitney, the executive editor of the Huffington Post Media Group, whether HuffPo’s liveblogging tool is an attempt to marry both kinds of journalism. “We basically imagined three types of readers,” Pitney said. “One who just wanted the key facts from the story, a solid overview that’s basically a traditional news story. This person is not interested in the minute details and the liveblog coverage. Then there’s another type of user who already knows the overview and does want the key facts and liveblog coverage. And finally there’s a third kind of user — and we count this as a large percentage of our users — who wanted the overview, but then once they saw the liveblog, it got them in deeper, and it made them more engaged in the story.”

To do this, HuffPo created its liveblog tool in mid-2010 with the idea that it would be easily scalable across the site. The organization wanted a simple user interface, allowing users to sort through liveblog posts by either the oldest or most recent. After the initial launch, the tool has continued to improve its functionality. A few weeks ago, for instance, it rolled out a feature that would allow users to link to individual posts within the liveblog.

“We’ve seen some really good numbers there in terms of increased social sharing of those individual liveblog entries,” Pitney said. “I think by and large, across the site as a whole, and in particular with the liveblog, our aim has been to merge the mobile experience and the desktop experience. I think now if you use the liveblog, it feels like a mini mobile app. If you click on the liveblog and it brings up a specific entry, it’s similar to how you might experience it in various apps on an iPad or tablet.”

One of the things HuffPo is known for is its robust commenting system. But with the liveblog, that system can often be confusing, with some comments responding to the original article and others referencing individual posts within the liveblog. Pitney agreed. In fact, he said, “We are about to roll out comments on individual liveblog posts to eliminate any potential confusion for that very purpose. So a user can read a specific liveblog entry on any page where it’s living, comment on that entry right there, and the comments will stay with that specific liveblog entry wherever it appears on the site. And if a commenter wants to write about the entire story, or just that overview, they can do it in the standard comment section.”

Of course, not every topic has its own liveblog, and the allocation of resources for liveblogging depends on the story. “There are instances where the liveblog is basically the sum total of the coverage,” Pitney said. “We’re covering, say, a smaller conference and the reporter goes and does updates into the liveblog, and that’s the meat and potatoes of the coverage.

“Then with something like Occupy Wall Street or the unrest in Libya or any other topics that are much broader, for those cases we have a dedicated team that is managing the liveblog, and the reporters don’t have to choose between pressing pause and filing stories. In the course of the day, while reporting, they’ll often see some interesting information that may not belong in their longer article, send it to the team that’s managing the liveblog, and have at it that way.”

Occasionally, one of the liveblog updates will have the look and feel of a more traditional article, as I saw with a 400-word update from HuffPo’s Maxwell Strachan. It carried all the tell-tale signs of an inverted-pyramid-style article, including a New York dateline. Perhaps the line between liveblogging and traditional reporting isn’t so distinct, after all.

POSTED     Oct. 31, 2011, 1:05 p.m.
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