Formats Unpacked: The Live Blog

How a format became the perfect marriage of journalism, community and technology

Hi all,

I’ve been trying to kick my Twitter habit recently. It’s not going well. I can manage a few weeks without it, at most, but then something drags me back in. Mostly football, followed by world events or the need to see dogs being dogs. I mention this because today’s format serves as a great single-subject substitute for that dopamine rush. Feel free to leave your own Twitter-quitting tips in the comments.

Doing this week’s unpacking is Rob Mansfield, a regular here. Rob has previously unpacked Big Brother, Just a Minute, Cracking the Cryptic and more. He also has a damn fine newsletter you all should subscribe to.

Over to Rob…

What’s it called? 

The Live Blog

What’s the format? 

First developed in the mid-2000s, the liveblog is now a commonly-used way for news websites to deliver the most up-to-date, rolling developments about a particular story.

 

What’s the magic that makes it special? 

Twenty years ago, if there was a particular fast-changing news story or current event taking place, and you wanted to know what the latest was, you had two options. 

  1. You switched on your radio and waited for the next news bulletin – usually half-hourly. 

  2. If you were near a TV (and had a subscription), you could turn on a rolling news channel.

While both would give you some sort of update, they never quite hit the mark, partly because they generally had other programming to fit in, and also because what they delivered was always a moment in time and they were limited to the linear format.

Fast forward to 2022, and it’s almost unthinkable you’d do the same. The chances are you head for a news website and whichever ‘liveblog’ that is covering that event. 

In fact, for most news and sport junkies, it would be difficult to imagine life without them. Even for those of us who aren’t that obsessed, the liveblog is a huge draw.

And the reason the liveblog is so compelling and reigns supreme for rolling news is its ability to incorporate so many different elements at remarkable pace.

At time of writing, we’ve just witnessed a remarkable 24 hours in which more than 40 members of the UK government resigned, in an attempt to force Boris Johnson to step down as Prime Minister. 

The Guardian’s Politics liveblog kept me transfixed throughout the day. It integrated social media updates, video clips, images, plus incisive analysis and commentary with almost every update. 

And these updates were happening, in some cases, every 5 minutes. As a ‘reader’ you never feel as if you’ve missed anything – you can scroll back to pick up on particular things that might have taken place before you came along (a feature unavailable to rolling news channels), plus, you know that there will almost inevitably be another new revelation along any minute

But it’s not just about analysis and media, it’s also the fact that you feel as if you’re a part of (sometimes secret) club when you read and participate in a liveblog. 

The best liveblogs are the perfect marriage of journalism, community and technology, delivered so seamlessly that most of us overlook their brilliance.

It’s easy to forget that the term ‘weblog’ was only coined in 1997 (since shortened to the more common ‘blog’), and was used to refer to a number of websites that regularly added new dated posts – essentially a sort of public diary. 

By the end of the millennium, the blog had moved from being the domain of technical geeks to something anyone could do, with the arrival of platforms such as Blogger and LiveJournal. But it was a rare blog that was updated more often than once a day. 

What changed the game was the arrival of social networks, heralding the arrival of Web 2.0. The likes of MySpace, Facebook and Bebo (remember that?) allowed people to update their ‘status’ at any given moment, multiple times a day, thus micro-blogging and user-generated content was born. This development is a crucial element of the magic behind liveblogs.

Around this time, the likes of the BBC and The Guardian started experimenting with how to cover live events online. This was as a direct result of companies such as Sky acquiring broadcast rights to the likes of Premier League football, England test matches or even the Oscar ceremony, making it more difficult for the average person to keep up to date.

Although, liveblogs effectively started by just relating the events as they happened, eg Liverpool scored in the 15th minute from a free kick, they soon found their feet by asking for audience participation.

The Guardian has, famously, built up large communities around some of its liveblogs. The Strictly Come Dancing weekly liveblog has a dedicated following, with thousands of comments being left throughout the duration of a show. 

Meanwhile their live cricket reports would often include long-running user-focussed threads, such as giving “Mike from Coventry” dating advice, all while still keeping people updated on the actual action in the Test Match.

Without this particular ingredient (now often filled by embedded tweets), a liveblog simple wouldn’t be the force that it is today.

Favourite liveblog

Liveblogs – by their very nature – are ephemeral. They document a period of time and a story or event that can feel – at times – quite frenetic, so to pick a particular one is hard. 

However, the BBC’s Transfer Deadline Day blog has always been entertaining, combining the jeopardy of an 11pm hard stop, with fans texting in details about which footballers have just arrived at a particular ground.

In 2013, this became comical in the extreme, when striker Peter Odemwingie arrived at QPR’s ground, thinking that his transfer from West Brom was taking place. 

Sadly, no-one had told him the transfer was off. He was locked out of the ground and then had to turn around and head back up the M1 to his original club. 

All of this was documented in excruciating detail on the liveblog, with fans even texting in sightings of Odemwingie on the motorway in his 4x4. It made for hilarious and riveting reading.

Similar formats

Particularly in terms of sports broadcasting, BBC Radio’s Sports Report is the model that best reflects a rolling roster of different inputs. 

You could also, arguably, say that Twitter is almost a liveblog at times of heightened events, however it requires a level of curation that most can’t manage.

Rolling news channels are also a forerunner of the liveblog, but have been pretty much replaced in terms of where people go to get the fastest, most relevant updates.

Thanks Rob.

And thank you all for reading, sharing, and sending me your messages of support for this newsletter. We’re obsessed with formats at Storythings, so it’s a real joy to spend time discussing them with all the contributors. If you’d like to unpack a favourite format or just want to nerd out on one, get in touch.

In other Storythings news, we’re currently deep into a research project about how we find, use, and share stories in the new world of hybrid work. As part of this, we’re speaking to people that work with young audiences (up to the age of 24). Let me know if you’d be interested in chatting.

That’s all for this week. See you next time,

Hugh

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