At 800m views and counting, the NYT Covid live blog battles on 

Future News 89

There should always be some trepidation within a newsroom when a live blog is whirled into life. They’re likely to draw more traffic, especially when it comes to the pandemic (ChartBeat has the data), but with the additional potential views comes the endurance testing prospect of fuelling a content hungry format indefinitely. 

There is also the fact that live blogs, by their very nature, are perennially surrounded by confusion and uncertainty, with journalists left dealing with the raw materials of news stories (claims, counter-claims and user-generated media) in real-time. 

The Guardian should arguably be credited with popularising live blogs by first providing blow-by-blow accounts of sports events on its website in the late 1990s

The speedy format has since proved its worth when it has come to covering breaking news and developing political and business events, often complimenting and providing a hub for news outlets’ standalone videos, articles and features on a given subject. 

The New York Times has provided its own take on the live blog with the live briefing, offering up “meatier items” to show the most important items in the most prominent spots. “We also run blogs, which are reverse chronological, with the most recent filings showing at the top,” Marc Lacey, assistant managing editor at the publication, explained to FN. 

The flagship briefing for the Gray Lady has been its Covid-19 one, which launched more than a year ago on Saturday 23 January 2020.

As a reminder, this is near when the novel coronavirus first properly came to the public’s wider attention, with interest in the virus not peaking worldwide until the end of March (see Google Trends). In other words, it was only just becoming the biggest story in town. 

With the pandemic dominating our daily lives, the briefing continued to cover the worldwide outbreak, attracting more than 800m page views to date and drawing on hundreds of contributors filing from the likes of China, South Korea and the UK (where The New York Times has expanded its breaking news team). 

The outlet claims that the project is believed to be the longest continuous reporting of the pandemic across the globe and the success of the briefing catalysed the creation of a new dedicated team inside the outlet, a Live division led by Lacey, a veteran news innovator. 

“Readers are voraciously seeking out as much information as they can on this pandemic. They want to know what's happening in other countries,” he said.

“They realise that on a story like this one every last person on Earth is vulnerable and good information is the best defence. The briefing is highly scannable and provides readers with the most important information they need to know.” 

It’s a great journalist feat to run a live briefing for more than a year. But burnout must have been a concern for editors and reporters alike, especially alongside a daily exposure to relentlessly grim facts, figures and images being generated by the pandemic. 

“This has been a story that we have not just been covering but also living through ourselves,” Lacey said. “We realise that people are working from home, that many have children who are at home too, and that they've had loved ones who have suffered as a result of the pandemic. 

“All this means that we have to treat our employees with compassion even as we cover a story that requires incredible focus. For those correspondents who have reported from the field, our message has been very clear: safety first.” 

And on the old question of speed versus accuracy, the assistant managing editor stressed that the live briefing team has “multiple sets of eyes” on the content being published, while sensitive items are flagged for even more review.

“Those writing the briefing items are told again and again that speed is important but only after making certain that the item is accurate,” Lacey added. 

So, as we head into Super Bowl weekend, when there’s no doubt that hundreds, perhaps thousands, of live blogs will be born, are there any stories or events that don’t suit this particular format? “If it's fast moving, a briefing might make sense,” Lacey advised.

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