Tips from the 'Guardian' on live-blogging and covering breaking news on Ukraine
In March 2010, the Guardian launched a politics live blog led by journalist Andrew Sparrow as part of its coverage of the UK election. Twelve years later, Sparrow's live blog has amassed more than one billion page views, has inspired other news organisations, and has pushed the Guardian to launch live blogs for other developing stories like the US presidential election or COVID-19. As Vladimir Putin launched an attack on Ukraine, I reached out to Chris Moran, Head of Editorial Innovation at the newspaper, and asked him a few questions about how he and his team have fine-tuned its live blog and about how audiences get their news in high-stakes situations like the one we are going through right now.
Q. Vladimir Putin’s attack on Ukraine is an important and fast-developing story. You and your team at the Guardian have studied for years how audiences consume news in these situations. What have you learnt about the way readers consume news at a moment like this?
A. The levels of audience that a news site deals with in this situation is a responsibility above anything else, and a signal of the importance of the event to readers and their need for clarity, detail and context.
For global websites like the Guardian it’s also important to remember how many different needs you’re serving. Typically live blogs are the focal point of article readership, but that simple fact contains layers of complexity. They’re clicked on a lot for multiple reasons. Partly because they should contain the most recent event, but also because they are favoured (for the same reason) in search engines, which provide the vast bulk of external referral. But it’s essential not to miss the fact that live blogs aren’t what everyone is looking for. They can be overwhelming, and many of the page views generated come from individuals refreshing pages again and again.
So while other pieces may have lower page views, their importance remains at the front of our mind, not least because they serve such different needs compared to a granular live experience. It’s also important to remember that discrete pieces of content are not the only thing serving readers. In almost every situation home pages will be drawing the biggest audiences – and they serve a purpose beyond simply showing links to content.
Q. What kind of users' needs have you identified in a breaking news situation and how are you trying to serve each of them with different pieces and formats?
A. Unlike other organisations, the Guardian does not have a formal taxonomy of user needs in the newsroom. But the natural aims of editors and journalists, along with long-term work from our product and engineering teams across multiple products and features, give us a clear sense of the fundamental requirements. The most obvious are:
- Keep me up to date
- Give me context for developments
- Explain the fundamental concepts
- Give me a broad view of events
All of these are also split in terms of the time someone might have at a given moment and their desire for granularity. So a live blog is the most extreme answer to the first need. Explainers, visual journalism and opinion pieces are most obviously crucial for the second and the third. And a more traditional news article is an obvious place for the final need. But it’s important to remember that digital fronts play a huge part in all of these areas. At their best they act as the primary way for a reader to quickly get to grips with the broad situation when a story of this kind is breaking.
The final thing to say is that it’s very easy to identify multiple user needs but impossible for most newsrooms to answer them all directly. So a big part of it is making sensible and pragmatic calls about how much you really need and how much you can meaningfully show to people.
Q. My sense is that we journalists tend to focus on products conceived for news junkies and perhaps not so much on the average reader, who visits our website once or twice a day. Is this something you’ve kept in mind during your work?
A. I’m not necessarily convinced on this point. After all, for many legacy print organisations, we all have a level of investment in producing clear articles produced once a day that serve exactly the need you’re talking about here.
That’s not to say that all news organisations don’t have a lot to learn about concision and accessibility (and not just for younger audiences but for everyone). The rise of edition apps and websites and products with a more finishable scope and longer cadences speaks explicitly to this need too.
The other important aspect here is the information we can get about what people are searching for, which is often linked to evergreen content and explainers that have a more general use and answer questions that news junkies may not need so much. Finally, podcasts and newsletters really speak to the need for reporting that takes a step back and doesn’t overwhelm the reader or listener.
The Guardian thinks very carefully about how we update our fronts. We’re data-informed not data-led, so we have a strong core of paying attention to metrics but not slavishly optimising them just to increase engagement. A home page needs to be a balance between the very up-to-date and supporting information that stays relevant and useful for longer.
Sometimes the sense that news sites are too focused on speed is rooted in a narrow view of how readers come to us, specifically by looking at home pages. As I’ve said, the home page is core to everything we do and the best place we can show readers our values and interests concisely and immediately. But it’s important to remember that even loyal readers don’t only access our journalism through that portal. In fact, the more loyal they are, the wider their range of access points. Well optimised journalism and search are a significant tool for helping people find what they specifically want when they specifically need it.
Q. Is there anything that surprised you about how Guardian readers are approaching the war in Ukraine, in terms of the stories they are reading the most or the way they are engaging with them?
A. There’s not necessarily too much that’s surprising, but it’s always interesting to see where deep engagement happens naturally. Explainers are always crucial here and the Guardian tries to remain really focused on giving people really curated and clear information that can help their understanding of the wider storytelling and events.
The ‘What we know so far’ format is of particular use in a story that moves this quickly and which can become overwhelming very fast. Opinion’s role here is also critical. It’s really telling that opinion in this context shows deep engagement and this speaks to the value it has in explaining and contextualising in interesting ways. Finally, human stories that capture the voices and experiences of those affected almost inevitably hold attention in ways that simple updates can’t.
Q. The Guardian has been fine-tuning its live-blogs in the last few years. Can you guide us through your thinking and through anything you’ve learnt along the process?
A. Live blogs are at the heart of the Guardian’s digital character. We’ve always innovated in this area. But we also had a real sense that not much has moved forward in the industry in the last few years. The initial focus of our brilliant new journalism product team is on helping readers to more easily orient themselves in a fast-moving story. As you mentioned, live blogs super-serve a highly engaged audience who want to know every detail. But their natural dominance in search also means this can be the first point of access for many people. And an intimidating one.
So we want to ask ourselves whether there are tools and features that we can deliver which make them more immediately useful to a wider group without losing the incredible value that their granularity brings.
The first fruits of this approach involve giving our live bloggers the ability to pin the most significant recent event to the top of the chronological feed and also to allow readers to flip a switch to filter the blog to only the most important events, as defined by the journalists working on it. These are just the first steps to try to widen the appeal of the live blogs and help readers understand where they are in a rapidly developing situation. On their own, neither of these things may seem earth-shattering, but we’re not aiming to come up with innovations for their own sake. Our aim is to build a suite of features and tools that supercharge our ability to help readers make sense of the world.
It’s also important to say that our focus is on the wider concept of live coverage and that goes beyond just the blog itself. It’s a good moment to highlight work we did a couple of years ago that’s been crucial to covering recent huge news stories.
Our digital editors now have a far more flexible set of tools for defining the layout of our home pages. That doesn’t sound exciting or radical in the abstract. But in the current moment the impact is evident in the way that we can show more detail from the live blog at the top of our site and build containers quickly and easily that provide supporting context by foregrounding our explainers.
Q. Have you learnt something about how to craft each of the posts for the live blog? I mean in terms of length, tone or visuals.
A. This is hard to do in terms of analytics and to a certain extent we trust the longer term view of how we’ve been able to build loyal audiences across the Guardian’s live blogs. The journalists and editors who run them have unprecedented expertise. Many of them have developed really specific voices and approaches (like Andrew Sparrow) which then go on to influence other live bloggers.
A great live blog should feel like you’re being guided through a story by an expert as it happens. A bad one feels like a barrage of barely connected developments being thrown at you relentlessly. That sense of shepherding people through an event is at the heart of all our best work and the things you mention above are tools to be deployed in that effort when they’re most relevant and essential.
Q. Breaking news stories like the one that’s happening right now are stressful moments for newsrooms. How does the Guardian allocate resources to make sure that reporters on the ground are not bombarded by requests from the live blog team and from the print desk and others?
A. I’m not responsible for coordinating this kind of work. Thankfully that’s down to the expertise of the Guardian’s desk editors and digital editors. But we think carefully about when we open a live blog and we’ve got better and better at building efficiencies back and forth between live blogs and articles.
Live blogs can be exhausting and it’s a huge team effort to ensure they run efficiently and smoothly. We’re also deeply lucky to have offices in the US and Australia who work in the same way and ensure our coverage works globally around the clock.
It’s also important to say that it works typically the other way round in terms of reporters and the live bloggers. We tell the correspondents who’s running the blog and they then offer lines or send over posts. We might ask for a specific line, but often the reporters are ahead of editors' requests. We're really proud of that natural loop and the fact that reporters all round the world understand and embrace the importance of feeding into the live experience.
Q. Not every news organisation has as many resources as the Guardian has in terms of product and development. So what would be your advice to editors from smaller news organisations who don’t have access to the same templates or analytics that you have? How can they improve their breaking news coverage without all those things?
A. Not every development has to be rooted in measurable short term outcomes. Some of the changes we’ve made, for example, could conceivably reduce time spent on a page or even reduce click-through rates. Making things more relevant or more accessible can reduce friction for a reader and make the experience better. So most importantly consider the fundamental aim, the need and experience of the user and harness the editorial expertise you have in telling a story efficiently. Sometimes the frustrations of live bloggers or journalists can tell you a lot about a problem space. All these things can take you a long way.