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“Practice, pray, and have redundancies”: On the imperfect science of liveblogging

What kind of technology, planning, and editorial imagination go into cover events like Apple announcements through liveblogs?

When, a few months from now, someone asks the question — Where were you when the iPad HD was announced? — how many of us would answer: “Staring at my computer, manically switching between tabs, hitting refresh”?

Sure, for most people, an Apple announcement isn’t worth a moment’s attention, much less 90 minutes’ worth. But for a lot of us, a new shiny gadget finds us glued not to a TV, but a liveblog. Born out of the need to cover events that don’t allow streaming video but beg to be broadcast, tech sites liveblogging an event put a premium on text, speed, and stills. And it works — it’s almost hard to find a significant event in the space that doesn’t get liveblogged these days.

And as liveblogging has ascended, news sites and individual journalists have developed their craft, combining technical prowess, advance planning, the spirit of improv, and yes, some tried and true reporting techniques.

“Liveblogging itself is a content tool,” Gizmodo editor-in-chief Joe Brown told me. “And it’s a lot of fun. It’s not just fun for readers but fun for writers cause it’s just old school blogging.” It’s uptempo, high energy, intensely focused and somehow extremely loose all at the same time. When a Gizmodo liveblog rolls out it’s a neatly packaged machine, text flowing inline with photos with stories posted throughout the duration of an event. Gizmodo, like many tech blogs, has this down to a routine — or, actually, a drill. “We had a practice run on Monday,” Brown told me. “Yes, we do practice.”

In this case, using video from a previous iPad launch, the team, including a handful of reporters, editors, and tech staff, went through the motions of covering the event. One reason for that is to make sure there are no kinks in their system (Gizmodo uses a custom liveblogging tool built by Gawker Media’s developers.)

The mechanics

For an event like the (assumed) third-gen iPad launch today, Gizmodo will try to get as many of their people in the event as possible. (Gizmodo and Apple haven’t always had the best relationship.) In a typical liveblog scenario they’ll have staff writers who act as hosts, in this case reporter Mat Honan and managing editor Brian Barrett, as well as other reporters to follow up stories or threads coming out of the announcement and generate posts for the main Gizmodo stream. For photos, their cameras are tethered to laptops running a program that uploads, resizes, and watermarks images within seconds of being shot.

“They are looking for this stream of information that they have become accustomed to.”

Thanks to the many rumors about what to expect, many of the actual lead stories that’ll come out of the event are around 95 percent pre-written, Brown said. “That’s how you see these extremely detailed, extremely well edited and ready posts popping up five minutes after the announcement has happened,” Brown said.

But technical prowess and preparation can only go so far, and what can make the difference in liveblogging is the pace, knowledge, and voice of the people behind it. Brown said Honan and Barrett are both knowledgable reporters, but together they make a tandem that balances humor, skepticism, and quick analysis. Brown said personality, coupled with solid behind-the-scenes production, is what continues to draw in readers. “People want to watch it like the local news,” Brown said. “They are looking for this stream of information that they have become accustomed to.”

As liveblogs has become more ubiquitous, their writing styles have grown more varied. Some favor a just-the-facts-ma’am near-transcript; others mix in more commentary and reaction or humor. Over email, Reuters social media editor Anthony De Rosa said the tone should be dictated by the occasion. For televised events, no one wants a play-by-play of what they can see. That’s different for events like product launches: “Things like the Apple event they absolutely want constant updates with as much transcription as possible because of a lack of live stream,” he said.

The background tech

For companies that don’t have a team of engineers in Eastern Europe working on blogging software, it’s common to use off-the-shelf tools, the largest being ScribbleLive and CoveritLive, which is owned by Demand Media. The market’s largely split between the two, with People, Sports Illustrated, Entertainment Weekly, and Le Monde on Team CoveritLive, and Reuters, the AP, The Verge, ESPN, CNET, The Globe and Mail, and others using ScribbleLive. With so many organizations relying on just two companies for their liveblogging needs, the responsibility falls on ScribbleLive and CoveritLive to make sure there’s no coverage-killing technical problems — something that’s proven a problem during previous Apple keynotes, which for liveblogging tools are the Super Bowl and Oscar night wrapped up into one.

“If there wasn’t any risk of screwing up, it wouldn’t be so much fun.”

Jonathan Keebler, CTO and founder of ScribbleLive, told me over email that Apple events typically generate large amounts of traffic and he expects to set new records today. As liveblogging has been put to use in more events, that means the product has to be ready at any time for unexpected amounts of users, whether it’s earthquakes in Japan or Super Tuesday. Steve Semelsberger, senior vice president and general manager for social solutions at Demand Media, told me they prepare for increased volume by redirecting staff to work on the engineering and operations of their platform on expected big traffic days. In some cases they coordinate with media companies directly in anticipation of big events. Semelsberger told me more than 300 media outlets used CoveritLive during the Academy Awards, with a peak audience just over 400,000 active users.

Despite the ease-of-use tools can bring, it makes sense for media companies to have a backup plan in mind should the thought of a double-resolution iPad screen excite tech enthusiasts to a server-melting degree. That might mean switching to regular blogging or Twitter (another platform that’s had troubles with Apple keynote traffic). Brown has a mantra that most editors would recognize: “Practice, pray, and have redundancies.” Still, the uncertainty that comes with covering any event live, knowing a multitude of things could go awry either on the technical or human end, may be part of what gives liveblogging its particular energy. Said Brown: “If there wasn’t any risk of screwing up, it wouldn’t be so much fun.”

Steve Jobs photo, from the 2010 iPad announcement, by Jon Snyder/Wired.com used under a Creative Commons license.

                                   
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