Since ITV News launched its atomized, live, streaming redesign a little over a year ago, they’ve adhered fairly resolutely to a single maxim: “We’ll tell you what we know, when we know it.” Julian March, ITV’s online director, argues that because of that philosophy, ITV has become widely considered the speediest outlet for breaking news in the U.K.
But March acknowledges that, especially in the digital age, there’s risk inherent in trying to become the fastest gun in the breaking news business. “That is the occupational hazard,” he says. March speaks from experience: He was working at Sky News during the 2005 London bombings. “It started off as an explosion in an electrical fault,” he says now, “and we all know what that turned into.”
The Boston Marathon bombings last month served as another reminder of how quickly misinformation can travel in a world of instant publishing. Thorough and reliable sourcing takes time, and while the papers of record focus on assembling traditional articles, less trustworthy sources take to tweeting with the slightest of substantiation.
UPDATE: Reports of at least 12 dead, dozens more injured in Boston Marathon explosions nyp.st/ZlWY9t
— New York Post (@nypost) April 15, 2013
But March believes he’s come up with a reliable newsroom solution. The ITV News homepage is a live-streaming, reverse-chronological feed (much like Twitter) in which ITV editors publish everything from stories of a few paragraphs in length, to merely a sentence or two. “While we will not compromise accuracy for the sake of speed, the beauty of our structure means you don’t have to have over-heavy mass stuff to publish,” March says. “We can publish just one line, and we will make sure that line’s right, and use all the normal journalistic conventions of sourcing, just like a 24-hour news channel would do.”
Take, for instance, today’s news that Sir Alex Ferguson was retiring as manager of Manchester United. Rather than update a single story as tidbits and comments come in, ITV posted it in 49 (at this writing) separate updates — some no more than a single photo or statistic or tweet — all grouped together in a scrollable set, but also interwoven with other stories on the news homepage.
That sort of approach is becoming more common on a huge story like Ferguson’s retirement — for instance, the BBC had an analogous liveblog today. But ITV takes the atomized-stream approach on stories with fewer moving parts: a ship crash in Italy, say, or reaction to an immigration proposal.
ITV has reporters in 10 bureaus, nine regional and one national. They give their editors access to information as they have it, and it’s the responsibility of the editors to make it live as soon as possible. That’s how ITV became the first British publication to publish the news of Margaret Thatcher’s death — with a tweet that linked to a short story on their site. Says March: “What we’ve got now is a very fast and agile machine.”
In its first year of operation, that machine has worked pretty well. The site’s unique views in January were up a whopping 518 percent year over year, with a record total of 3.9 million visits. March was promoted from head of ITV’s digital news and sport divisions to overall online director a few months after the new site’s launch.
— William Owen (@wdowen) March 19, 2013
While the unique numbers are impressive, returning views are also an important figure. Almost 60 percent of ITVs visitors are returning, which, he says, “indicates to me that we are growing our fan base.” Monetizing ITV news was never the goal — building a respected digital news brand for ITV was. (ITV has seen “double digits earnings growth” for the last three years in a row.) Those new fans are an essential part of what March calls a “reach and reputation” strategy. (Although, having accomplished that goal much faster than he expected, March says he would consider commercializing the site to some extent — perhaps with post-roll video ads.)
If March was surprised at the extent of the site’s success, then upper management was shocked, he says. Even after months of prototyping, March says the board was still not convinced that responsible journalism could be done in this format. “I do remember some very interesting board-level presentations where people didn’t necessarily understand that we could do this quite easily,” he says. Their concern was that there wouldn’t be enough support to do reporting 24 hours a day. But the way March saw it, the existing staff was already doing enough work to make his vision a reality: “All you’re doing is surfacing the news as you go along.”
March says the bosses at ITV weren’t fully convinced that a live streaming homepage could work until they saw the numbers. The original design was meant to give priority to what March calls “skimming,” or reading behavior that is more akin to scanning the headlines than reading a full length investigation. For that kind of behavior, March says, “the combination of mobile and social is dynamite.”
ITV news doesn’t expect readers to linger on its pages, but to toggle back and forth between social sites as often as they need new information. They get about 35 percent of their traffic from social media — Facebook and Twitter, but also sites like Reddit and StumbleUpon — and 40 percent from mobile. It’s the mobile traffic that most excites March and makes him feel confident that readers are using the site the way he expected them to. “The way forward for us is mobile first,” he says.
March made a good bet on the stream metaphor, but it’s been a lot of work. He spent the better part of the last year and half flying around the country helping reporters adjust to the new newsroom structure and workflow. Early on, March realized he wanted to take advantage of the existing 10-bureau structure in a way that allowed regional reporters to focus on breaking stories while editors made sure that the most interested audience, be they national or local, got the right kind of context.
“We took it one step further within those regional newsrooms in that we smashed down the silo between the digital and TV part of the operation,” March says. “That was really the biggest part of the mindset change that we had to affect to make this project successful.”
But while the national ITV news desk is acting as an aggregator, it’s a much different process than copying and pasting content, which March says “destroys” SEO power. ITV will also often include tweets from prominent figures in their stream, or links to stories from other sources.
“We see that as part of the job of modern digital journalism, which is as much original content as contextualization among others,” he says.
But the biggest part of the success was the enthusiastic adjustment of ITV’s reporters, says March. “Their competitors were doing stuff in digital media which was surpassing what they were doing, or what they could do, and they really, really wanted to do the same. Journalists are journalists at the end of the day. That’s the reason I didn’t become a spy — journalists can’t keep secrets. You’ve got a great scoop, you want to break it. You don’t want to wait until 6 p.m. It played into their natural journalistic instincts.”
Of course, journalists also instinctively want readers to have access to the most important story of the day, not just the most recent — to have bring editorial input into story ranking and presentation, something the reverse-chronological stream format deemphasizes. “Coming to the site is a bit like flicking on a 24-hour news channel,” March says, “You’re not necessarily going to be on the top story when you flick on the telly.”
To combat this, ITV has incorporated highlight windows at the top of the front page that can point the reader to the headlines — or headline — of the day or a larger news project. March says the four windows can be used to link to articles, updates, or a themed stream, making the page more dynamic. They also use a tagging system that allows readers to view “microsites” based on regions or specific stories.
March says that, while the atomized stream is gaining in popularity, he hasn’t seen as many of his competitors build similar feeds as he would have expected. There are some key examples in North America — WorldStream (The Wall Street Journal’s reverse chronological video stream), Global News’ recently relaunched homepage, and Boston.com’s “Your Town” pages, to name a few. March also points to Summly, the startup recently purchased by Yahoo that shrinks longer articles down to a more consumable, bite-sized posts. But at the same time, March says he realizes there’s a market for more than one kind of news online.
“There’s always going to be The Economist kind of depth versus the breaking news,” he says, which is how March knew over a year ago that he couldn’t compete head on with outlets like BBC, CNN, and Sky. Blogger Martin Belam wrote in 2012 that, in breaking news situations, it’s usually impossible to tell the leading competitors apart. You can look at a traditional news site during a disaster, he wrote, and then “return half-an-hour later, and it was impossible to get a view of what had changed.”
With an approach like that, says March, “we wouldn’t have made any impact.” So instead, in hopes of building a reputation, he turned the entire process on its head and gave readers direct access to updates as they come in. “I think it’s being marked,” he says. “Fortune favors the brave.”