Thoughts on running a live blog on a national news website

I have been lucky enough to be involved in many interesting projects since arriving at The Times, but I think the G20 Live Blog is the one that gave me the biggest adrenelin rush.

Running over the two days of the G20, it was like no other live blog I have been involved with. Four journalists were filing pictures and texts to the CoverItLive blog through Twitter and we had comments from tens of thousands of readers.

It was primarily run by web development editor Lucia Adams, my counterpart on news (I’m on business).

That meant that as well as being a contact point for reporters and responsible for answering readers’ questions, she was also moderating comments.

It was a pretty full-on task.  I tried to help out by offering up a few helpful links when and where I could and, if Lucia needed to step away from the computer, I would take over moderation.

Moderating a Times Online live blog is a task verging on insane. Comments are pouring in – at some points in their hundreds in a minute – and one person is responsible for allowing them on to the site.

You have to check that the comment is legally ok and that it is not offensive and inciting violence – that’s standard. But, in addition, we had a large number of comments that looked like protestors sending coded messages to each other. If anyone knows who the “Rofchester Crew” are, please let me know. Those had to be moderated too.

Yet, even after removing all these comments there were still too many coming through to get them all up on the blog. We did explain to those commenters convinced Rupert Murdoch was blocking their comments that there was a moderation process and that we weren’t able to publish everything because of the volume.

But what was the decision process behind the ones that did get on screen?

At the time, I didn’t really think about it. It wasn’t until Lucia and I started planning a talk on the subject for last week’s Social Media Camp, London, did we realise we had been applying our own unique criteria for what would get published.

This was what we were both doing:

Me: if it’s longer than a sentence, it goes in.

My justification: If someone has posted a few words, it’s unlikely to be adding anything particularly well considered and, very often, it was more likely to be abusive. Therefore, with very little time to dedicate to reading and approving comments I chose to spend my time on the ones that came in sentences.

Lucia: if the comment is adding something new, it goes in.

Her justification: Lucia decided to put the reader before the contributor. Very often different commenters would repeat the same point (“why don’t these protesters help the economy by getting jobs”, “I bet the taxpayers are going to have to pay to repair the RBS bank’s windows now, why didn’t they board them up?”). If a reader came to a live blog that was just a stream of comments all repeating the same point, it was unlikely to encourage them that the live blog had any value.

In Lucia’s mind, the role of live blog as a public service – answering questions on traffic disruption, providing latest information from the police, reporting on G20 developments, etc – was paramount. Therefore, she chose to publish those comments that best fitted that.

Who was right? I’m not sure there is a definitive answer. Certainly when we talked it though with others at SMC London, there was understanding for both points of view.

I guess part of it is about how you see the live blog. Is it primarily an editorial tool (live updates and information of the G20 as it happens), or is it a forum (where commenters are free to say whatever they like about a subject, within the law)?

One thing I found particularly fascinating was that, in the 48 hours of running the blog, we built up what we named a “flash community”.

People that enjoyed the live blog stayed and started to help us answer questions from other commenters. As this community solidified, the quality of comments improved and moderation became easier. At one point one commenter was helping Lucia to transcribe the G20 Summit speeches.

Perhaps community is too strong a word for what happened, but I like the idea that such blogs can encourage collaboration. It’s something I would like to build up with live blogs I do in the future.

8 thoughts on “Thoughts on running a live blog on a national news website

  1. Pingback: One Man and His Blog

  2. As you note, both points of view are understandable. Without commenting your approach, I think with live things repetition is essential. Nobody should be expected to follow the live blog from start to finish. If a point gets made by many users, it may be capturing the essence of what the majority is thinking and that should be considered useful information for the people who are just joining. It’s like game broadcasts: people are constantly reminded of the score, in case they’ve just tuned in.

  3. Inconsistency in moderating is something that we professional moderators work hard to avoid, as it rightly upsets audiences. That’s why we produce a codified ‘Moderation Policy’, to avoid the situations described above, whereby Lucia might deny space to a contribution that Joanna would publish.

  4. Dilyan, Rob – thanks for the comments.

    Dilyan – you’re right, of course. I think Lucia did allow comments that repeated points to get through, as long as they were well spaced – editorialising much like game broadcasts do. I will, however, have to check that with her and get back to you!

    RobM – In the most part I agree with what you’ve said. (although I’m always a little narked when people use my blog’s comment section to advertise their services).

    I think there are always ground rules that need to be established from the start. There are things that we know we will not publish – the highly offensive comments and those with legal issues as I mentioned in my post.

    It might also be worth noting that we have a separate moderation team for comments that appear on Times Online articles.

    However, in certain circumstances I think there is also a value in the moderator responding and reacting to the community as it evolves. Does your moderation policy contain a section for what to do when protesters start to send, seemingly polite, messages in code to each other in your blog?

    In addition, some people at Social Media Camp London told us that they had run into problems by making their moderation policy too rigid. When it becomes a strict code, people tend to start using it as a debating tool.

    My feeling is that you sometimes have to make a judgment call, especially in an environment as fast-moving as a liveblog.

    In my experience so far, as long as you are open and transparent about why you have done that, readers generally respect that.

    At every step of the way we were explaining why some of the comments were not being published.

    On occasion both Lucia and I chatted directly to individuals who had submitted an unpublished comment to explain why it had not been approved (a function you can do on CoverItLive).

  5. Moderation is a hard topic. I’ve never had to deal with such a volume of comments/posts that need pre-approval, but I regularly have to watch out for comments that ‘pimp’ or ‘slate’ products.

    Even with moderation policy and guidelines, people will just try to push the boundaries. When you don’t let comments through, or remove them then apparently you can be seen as ‘abusing power’.

    People often go back to the ‘freedom of speech’ view, but unless it is their domain you can run it how you want.

  6. I don’t buy the freedom of speech argument about comments. People do have freedom of speech – on their own site. But they’re guests on any site you run, so you get to set the rules.

    But it’s better to set the rules in co-operation with your community, if you can.

  7. Adam, Neil,

    I totally agree with you on the freedom of speech argument, although I’d argue that it is in a national newspaper’s interests to be as transparent and fair with moderation as possible.

    I think it is a default position for people to believe that if their comment does not appear then it has been censored for some reason. In our case that leads to allegations that Rupert Murdoch is somehow influencing what content is put through.

  8. You should see what people think is behind their comments not getting published on New Scientist’s blogs…

    It makes “Murdoch is censoring me” seem very mild. :)

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