A song to read by: "Leah," by Roy Orbison
What I’m reading: "Autobiography of Red," by Anne Carson
For The New York Times, what began as a tool for covering the developing story of a mysterious virus from China has evolved, over time, into a near fixture of its homepage.
Iterations of the “live briefing,” as The Times calls it, have lived at the top of its website more or less constantly since Jan. 23, 2020, according to an internal memo. By January 2021, The Times had published more than 1,000 of the briefings, over 700 of which dealt with the pandemic alone. In its first year, the product generated more than 800 million page views.
In February, in an acknowledgment of the growing importance of the format, the publisher announced it was expanding its live team, adding six new journalists from across the world to help manage the tireless stream of information.
And The Times is not the only publisher to embrace the format of late.
This Press Gazette article details how BBC News and The Guardian have made use of what they call “live blogs” to provide up-to-the-minute coverage on critical events. Both publishers have been experimenting with the concept for almost a decade, though the current iterations are far more advanced than the rudimentary updates of the early days.
In 2021, the product generated over 1 billion page views for BBC News, and The Guardian has seen 10 of its live blogs each net more than 1 million views so far this year, according to reporter Andrew Kersley. Executive online news editor at BBC News Stuart Millar told Kersley that live blogs have gained “rocket boosters” thanks to the pandemic.
Beyond The Times, the Guardian and BBC News, according to my very informal research, it appears only NBC News and The Washington Post have rolled out similar versions of the technology. The small number reflects the high level of technical sophistication and coordination required for the format.
While resource-intensive to construct, these live blogging features represent a valuable new tool for publishers, and they serve as the perfect instrument for cataloging the round-the-clock news cycle of the last three years.
The format, when more mature, could also become catnip for marketers, as the engaging style of the social media-type format, with its chronological feed separated by imagery, data visualizations, headlines and timeline markers, makes it far more engaging than standard news articles.
But these advantages come with a distinct set of tradeoffs: They risk sacrificing accuracy for expediency, and their ephemeral nature means they serve less as the first rough draft of history and more as a stream of news consciousness.
Live feed and let live
After adopting the format to cover the pandemic, The Times has expanded its live briefs to report on other ongoing news events. I have turned to it often as a valuable tool for following the war in Ukraine, as it offers a simple means of reading the most timely new update on the massive, multi-month, multi-theater story.
And on Tuesday and Wednesday, following the shooting in a Brooklyn subway station, I monitored the live briefings as a means of following along as police hunted for the shooter and reporters searched for details, motives and updates.
In its design, the format inspires monitoring, rather than traditional reading. Its bright red light flashing a timestamp gives the text an air of urgency, and the language used in the posts — "new," "latest" and "need to know" — enforce that sense of timeliness.
Many of these design choices intentionally reflect the language and style of social media. Rather than direct readers to another article when new information publishes, the live feeds simply post the most recent material at the top of the page. NBC specifically uses the word “posts” to alert readers when new information surfaces.
As a result, while the traffic these formats generate is certainly impressive, the real benefit of the blogs comes from the level of engagement they inspire.
The up-to-the-minute information, constantly changing, supplemented with visuals, charts, multiple headlines, line breaks, social media embeds, videos and all other manner of media, make them incredibly compelling. The short bursts of text make the blurbs more accessible, avoiding the inverted pyramid structure of traditional articles in exchange for nuggets of dense information, contextualized only as the reader scrolls further down.
This kind of structure, as the tycoons of Silicon Valley well know, incentivizes readers to stay for longer, return more often and go deeper.
And you know who loves deeply engaged readers in a brand safe environment? Marketers. While I imagine many of these publishers are still working out the kinks, the kind of engagement these live blogs are garnering must make marketers salivate.
Imagine if a platform could offer the engagement of social media, but absent the vitriol and conspiracy theories? Live feeds offer a glimpse of a future in which publishers take the elements that make social media so engaging — a scrolling, ever-updating feed filled with enticing media — while eliminating its unsavory parts.
Publishers are engaged in a constant tug of war with the platforms, and live blogs might be their latest trick for wrenching back attention share.
Live blog emptor
Of course, these live briefings are rare for a reason: They are not only resource intensive, but they push reporters to work even more quickly than standard breaking-news teams. This raises the likelihood of mistakes, ranging from the grammatical to the factual.
Two reporters took to Twitter on Wednesday to lambast this very phenomenon. Although I disagree with some of their criticisms, the general shape of their points ring true.
When reporters are pressed for time, they will be more willing to rely on unverified information, such as police accounts. As we know from decades of research, police reports are biased sources and cannot simply be parroted as fact. Live feeds, by nature, will lean more heavily on whatever information is available at hand, even if dubious.
The format and its ephemeral form also pose other risks. Due to the constantly updating nature of the digital feed, publishers can fix errors as they go, but they risk sending readers off into the world with faulty information, posting corrections long after readers have closed their phones.
I have found myself following a Twitter bot, called Editing the Gray Lady, that tracks changes The Times staff make to headlines. Like Spoonbill, the service catalogs editing updates and thus renders the invisible editing process visible. EGL underscores how often and rapidly The Times updates its information, and the service shines a light on just how fluid the real-time reporting process is.
What are the ethical implications of this kind of capability? Does it create a new kind of splinternet, where the information you receive depends on the time of day you view the page?
Twitter has for years held off from adding an edit button for fear that changing a tweet hours after publication could inadvertently turn the 280-character messages into vectors for disinformation. Is permanence of text a right for news consumers?
Plus, as with any new format, publishers will need to ensure that the novel structure makes sense to readers. Will every reader be able to understand the various headlines, time stamps, on-page hyperlinks, amendments and glossary structure?
While perusing The Times’ live feed, I took a volunteer survey about the format, whose questions largely revolved around how intelligible I found the feature. Clearly, publishers understand the challenges involved.
These risks do not outweigh the potential of the format, but they must be considered and solved as it evolves. Whatever publisher is best able to capture this lightning in a bottle might very well crack an entirely new genre of digital journalism.
Some good readin'
— In a highly unconventional move, Quartz is removing the paywall from its website. (Adweek)
— An all-time great profile, which won an ASME last week. The New Yorker is at its best when writing about psychologists, I have found. (The New Yorker)
— A nuanced look from The Ethicist at the politics of "mentioning," as opposed to "using," taboo words. (New York Magazine)
— The New York Times Magazine Money issue was banger after banger after banger. This one, about "rags to riches" stories, was my favorite. (NYT Magazine)
— This one, about the proliferation of billionaires, also great. (NYT Magazine)
— And this interview with Thomas Piketty, the French economist who wrote "Capital in the Twenty-First Century," about wealth redistribution, is smart and encouraging, if you share his patience. (NYT Magazine)
— And this whole series from CityLab, which I have fallen in LOVE with. It evokes nostalgia for a time when where you lived actually shaped your life. (Bloomberg)
Cover image: "Christina's World," by Andrew Wyeth