A Case Study From Texas
By Sarah Maben and Dan Malone
Editor’s Note: Today’s college students probably expect immediacy more than any generation before them. Live-blogging by college media can help meet such expectations. It can also be a means for attracting readers, who enjoy feeling as if they are part of an unfolding story, according to Sarah Maben and Dan Malone, assistant professors in the Department of Communication Studies at Tarleton State University in Stephenville, Texas. Malone is the adviser for Texas News Service, Texan TV News and Cross Timbers Trails magazine. Maben mentors student journalists and serves with Malone on the student publication board. Here, they describe Tarleton State student journalists’ forays into live-blogging, what occurred, and what might be next for live-blogging by student journalists at Tarleton State.
Once the Texas News Service began using a live-blogging system, more student journalists volunteered to cover events.
Would someone cover the student government meeting where a university-wide printing fee will be discussed? Done. Could someone cover Fidel Castro’s daughter’s speech? Done.
Yahoo! reporter Jason Sickles shared a tool that we implemented in the classroom and newsroom to positive reviews from students. Sickles has used CoverItLive for about four years to live-blog news, weather and sports. He and a Yahoo team led a continuous live-blog for 36 hours during Hurricane Irene last August; 680,000 people participated.
“I’ve not done one chat or live event where readers don’t thank us,” Sickles said. “It allows personal interaction, immediacy and engagement. People love it.”
After a quick test drive, we asked students in a media writing course at Tarleton State to use their smart phones for a live-blog lesson. After a very brief introduction to the tool and a few samples highlighted, students devised a single person-on-the-street question and hit the campus. In a matter of minutes, the responses they secured began to litter the feed. Some attempted photos while others tinkered with video streams. When the reporters returned to the class, we looked at the live feed and they shared thoughts on the process. Most were enthusiastic and wanted similar reporting exercises woven into the rest of the semester. The experiment was even mentioned as a positive in class evaluations.
Live-blogging apps, said student Michael L. Daniels, gives news junkies real-time access to events as they unfold – no more waiting for stories or videos to be edited.
“They can actually get the information immediately,” he said.
In a paper for a technical writing class, Daniels’ classmate, Aida Delgado, said CoverItLive gives competitive student journalists the tool they need to “be the first to get a story out.”
Delgado, who uploaded videos, still photographs and audio, said live-blogging is “a convenient way to be first on what is going on around campus and the community.”
Sickles said storytelling through a live-blog system is ideal for breaking news and stories where the public can provide narrative or help break news. Some potential stories on a college campus: student government meetings, local elections, news conferences, presidential addresses, and away games for sporting events. For example, Sickles had students at the University of Dallas capture live campus reactions when the Texas Rangers advanced to the 2012 World Series.
Some students found it difficult to balance note-taking for a traditional inverted pyramid story with snapping photos for a live-blog feed, moderating comments and incorporating video within a short time frame. Our students preferred to work in pairs, so one could take pictures while another was blogging about the occurrences.
Instead of viewing live-blogging and traditional note-taking as two separate functions, Sickles suggested:
- Using the posts you make in the live-blog as your reporting notes
- Cutting, copying and pasting the notes into word-processing software to organize into a news story.
Sports reporter Azia Branson, a sophomore broadcast journalism student from Keller, Texas, used this technique to cover a basketball game and quickly produce content for multiple news platforms.
Working with the students this past spring and fall semesters, we found that live-blogging is about immediacy and engagement. Journalists can break a story and stream facts as they happen. And they can work with readers to build the story.
For audience members, they are able to participate in real-time, not just post a comment at the end of a finished story on the web. Today’s students expect immediacy in texts and social media. Live-blogging news is especially attractive because it is so immediate.
The students were so excited the first semester, and have continued their live-blogging efforts. It is up to the Texan News Service editors for future semesters on how they would like to proceed for the news organization. One idea was to have incoming students live-blog from their orientation week activities as a way to cover them from the inside, and get our new students involved with our news organization early in their college careers.
As advisers, we hoped the student journalists would live-blog election coverage. Two-by-two our reporters worked one-hour shifts at the courthouse on Election Day to capture voter reactions, and even scooped the local daily newspaper with local race results by four minutes.
Live-blogging has been incorporated into our media writing courses and the Texan News Service team is on the market for free live-blogging options.
Tips for Live-Blogging
- Be search engine friendly. Include a lead in the paragraph on the web page where the feed will be seen, so search engines pick up the content from the intro. Search engines will not “see” the comments from the feed. Yahoo was using CoverItLive for a press conference where Microsoft was going to make an announcement. Sickles updated the page’s headline, intro and time stamp with more details moments after Microsoft made its announcement, so the page would rank higher on search engines. As soon as the announcement was made, he went back to the article’s headline and lead to update it based on what’s going on. He also updated the time stamp, all of which helped the searchability.
- Don’t over think it. Sickles said, “We are in such a time of experimentation in media. Perhaps you fail one time…see what works.”
- Watch other outlets for ideas. Yahoo, ESPN and the New York Times are using live-blogging for a variety of stories. FoxSports Southwest has found a way to monetize the feed, by selling sponsorships for the live-blog events.
- Have a strong wi-fi connection and multiple reporters logged in as backup for downed signals or power outages.
- Control the narrative. This is part of the editorial duties as a journalist-producer. Not every comment submitted will add to the narrative, and it is your job to vet which comments and questions are used. “You want to have a semblance of order to the narrative. It’s all about pacing,” said Sickles, who has seen 100,000 participants in his live-blog all at one time. CoverItLive has a function where you can opt to approve comments before they appear on the feed.
- Be transparent. Sickles said even veteran journalists sometimes struggle with this point. With 100,000 people in a chat, not all comments are going to make the cut. Tell your readers this. Sickles shares the number of participants in chats with them, taking as many comments as he can.
- Promote your live-blog. Use Facebook, Twitter, a news story about the upcoming feed, the news organization’s blog and email alerts days ahead of the event. Set up a spot for your feed on your news organization’s Facebook page.
- Select hardware wisely. Our mo-jos thought operating on just the phone screen was difficult. A tablet device or laptop might be more comfortable for reporters live-blogging. Students with Android and iPhone systems were able to find the CoverItLive app. Those with Windows had to use their phone’s web browser to access the site.
- Universal ID or reporter ID. For our in-class exercise, students used the main log in, so all posts were from the news organization’s name. In the system, you can grant access to producers and panelists, which gives student reporters a way to begin to build a brand on their names.
- Monetize live-blog news. “The beauty of live-blogging — it’s the time spent on the page for the user that could be 10 minutes to 1.5 hours. That’s the sell you can make to advertisers,” Sickles explained. After the event, show advertisers metrics for the number of users and time spent on the blog. CoverItLive has a function where you can drop in display ads when relevant during the feed or it can be automated.
CoverItLive is not the only system out there, but the one we chose to use. Their site has case studies where students can see how publications across the globe are implementing the technology into their news products. In July 2012, CoverItLive began charging for the formerly-free package, but will work with student media outlets at a discounted rate. ScribbleLive and Twitter chats are other ways student media outlets could accomplish similar live-blogging goals. For other live-blogging systems, check out http://zombiejournalism.com/2012/05/free-alternatives-to-coveritlive/ or the browse the Knight Foundation-funded apps at http://www.knightfoundation.org/grants/.