Mark Jones

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Running web commentary on Iran

June 21, 2009

How should news websites cater for the appetite of news-hungry audiences for running commentary during major breaking stories like Iran’s post-election turmoil? The challenge here is to match what TV stations can do when they switch between news bulletins to rolling 24 hour coverage. Only the web ought to be able to do so much more given its scope for interactivity.

In an ideal world you’d want to provide the fastest, most thoroughly verified reports around the clock whether they or not they are from conventional journalists.  And as a user I think you’d also want to be pointed in the direction of where you can find out more. If all this was easy then it would have been done by now. But it’s a lot of work. And all news organisations have had to strike compromises on one or more of those counts.

So what’s the state of the art?

The live blog

The Guardian (live news blog), the NYT (the Lede Blog), the Atlantic (Andrew Sullivan) and the Huffington Post (Nico Pitney) are among those media organisations using this approach to sample the best material across the Web. This method allows blog anchors to annotate content and to point out whether there are doubts or not about its accuracy. It also allows them to point to the originating sources to help participants make up their own minds.

But running these live blogs around the clock is a heavy commitment. And all four had sizable breaks in their coverage.

The Guardian’s live blog was most popular story on several days in the week after the election. But perhaps that’s not comparing like with like — a live blog being in essence one constantly updated story rather than a series of self-contained ones.

The Huffington Post’s live blog was distinctive for the large number of private email messages it published. I’m unclear as to why it and not the Guardian or NYT should get such material.

Reporters logs

This is the same idea but restricted to the output of the news organisation’s own staff. The BBC, perhaps reflecting its comparatively large staffing in the region, did this particularly well. The obvious shortcoming of this approach is that, even without the progressively more onerous reporting restrictions put in place by the Iranian authorities, even the BBC can’t be everywhere and it leaves no space for material provided by citizens.

CNN via its iReport, and the BBC via its Have Your Say service, all had rich seams of user-submitted pictures and videos. But they didn’t appear to be able to weave such material into their running commentary on the Web — perhaps a case of being overwhelmed with material and being forced to keep it in silos.

Aggregating validated citizen journalists

Perhaps the most interesting approach is to remove the middle man completely and to concentrate on channeling to your audience what you believe to be reliable sources.

Sky News‘s use of the coveritlive service to feed the live ‘tweets’ of a handful of the most widely followed Iranian tweeters is possibly the most radical experiment so far during this story.

And the fact that Sky displayed this material prominently on its homepage at the height of tensions made it doubly so.

The very great advantage is that you can leave the feeds on and go home. The disadvantage is that it does not allow for any kind of editorial narrative to help readers set tweets in context.

And then there are the pure Twtter feeds. At Reuters we pretty much stuck to feeding our reuters_iran feed with our validated Iran news stream with the occasional reference to other sources. But others took a different tack and created a live two-way channel. And two journalists with U.S. broadcasters struck me as doing interesting things.Lara Setakrian for ABC News is curating the best tweets and other news from mainstream, official and citizen sources in a compelling feed. Meanwhile, Ann Curry at NBC has built up notably strong and open relationships with Iranian citizen journalists. However, neither organisation as far as I can tell has gone as far as Sky has with homepage placement of such streams.

None of these approaches has entirely nailed it. But they all have something going for them. So is there a hybrid that could give you the best of all worlds? In my book this would have:

  • Direct publishing by sources validated by the news organisation
  • The ability for live blog anchors to republish and annotate external contributions
  • A means by which participants could add to or critique particular elements of the commentary

I suppose in theory you could achieve this by turning a live blog into something more participatory by using the comments functionality and find a way of wiring in Twitter feeds. That feels like it could be messy and might have the kind of presentational issues that bulletin boards suffer from.

Or perhaps, with its notions of invited participants, nested comment threads, ingest of web feeds and easy display of multimedia content, this is one of those situations that the much-vaunted Google Wave has been designed for?

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