Nick Sutton, head of digital output at Sky News, told Press Gazette’s Future of Media Technology Conference that the broadcaster still sees “massive audience interest” for its live blogs, despite growing competition from other publishers and newer social media platforms like Tiktok.
Sky’s live blog about the air traffic control chaos on 28 August was fired up “very quickly”, beginning at 12:11 pm. It ended up being the “most-read article by some way on the website that day,” Sutton said.
“We find that the audience like being able to just dip in and see the updates they want.”
But breaking news is not their only use: Sky News is one of a number of publishers that continues to live blog updates from the Ukraine war every day.
Sutton said: “Even now, 18 months on, it’s often the most-read article on our website and drives a lot of search traffic as well.”
In August, he said, around 1.5 million clicks came from Google to the Ukraine blog – often through major search terms like “Ukraine news” and “Ukraine war”.
The Guardian has also live-blogged updates from Ukraine every day. The title’s head of digital (live) Claire Phipps told the conference: “We haven’t seen audiences dipping overall in terms of our live coverage. You do see peaks and troughs obviously with something like Ukraine… The extraordinary peaks of readership in those initial days of the invasion are not what we’re seeing right now. But then you get an event like Prigozhin marching on Moscow and those figures take off again.
“So, as with all sorts of news articles of whatever format, there’s a certain element of being a slave to the news cycle.”
But Phipps added the key question is “what works for the story – if the best way to tell a story is a live blog, then a live blog is the only thing that’s going to do that”.
BBC News executive news editor Nathalie Malinarich said the live blog format “works better than ever” for the corporation, as the audience has come to expect them immediately after an event breaks. “We’ve worked quite hard to get the newsroom to feel that way.”
They are continuing to see a “big growth in audiences coming to our live pages,” she said, including among younger audiences.
Similarly, The Guardian’s Phipps referenced the title’s successful Strictly Come Dancing and Bake Off blogs that coincide with the programmes airing on TV, resulting in an engaged community of users chatting in the comments.
Sky News frequently runs a cost-of-living blog, even on days without a specific news peg. Sutton said, instead, it can feature consumer news and money-saving advice – but the trickiest thing can be letting people know about it.
Each of the three panellists spoke about the developments in tech that have allowed their live blogs to stay fresh. For example, Sky News now allows users to toggle into a view that shows the oldest updates first, which can be useful for stories like court cases or awards ceremonies. The Guardian similarly has pinned posts and a carousel of key events.
Phipps said The Guardian first started live blogging sports 25 years ago (as “minute by minutes” in the late 1990s) before using them for news (from 2008 – with Andrew Sparrow later providing live updates on the 2010 election).
Phipps said: “I think that’s part of the reason why they haven’t lost their relevance – because they’ve diversified so much in terms of the things we can cover, but also the way we cover them.”
Meanwhile, BBC News sees ever-growing success with live streams as well as its live blog pages, with the live stream video also being frequently used on Tiktok.
Malinarich said that on the BBC News site, there has been 40% growth quarter-on-quarter in people watching live streams so far this year.
“We are seeing more and more of that behaviour, again, of people thinking something’s happened, [so] there will be a live stream, and so we work very closely with the news channel to make sure there is a dedicated live stream for events.”
For example, BBC News ran a live stream and live page during the rescue of eight people from a stranded cable car in Pakistan last month, using footage of the events alongside experts found by journalists at BBC Urdu. Malinarich said this live stream was one of the BBC’s best-performing in August.
Eirik Næsje, chief executive of panel sponsor Norkon, told the audience that live blogs are also useful for reaching new audiences from the young Gen Z age bracket, citing their preference for shorter bitesize pieces of information.
He said that although live coverage has been prominent for about a decade, “it’s constantly evolving and what we see now is it constantly picking up the patterns of social media and so on and reaching out to talk with new audiences especially for traditional media”.
Live blogs draw on personalities and expertise
All three publishers are finding continued success with live pages. But how do they differentiate themselves?
Malinarich said all of them are “excellent at live blogs” and offer “slightly different things”. She went on to suggest that users may use BBC News to benefit from the knowledge and newsgathering of its bureaux around the world but may go to The Guardian’s daily Politics Live Blog for Andrew Sparrow or elsewhere for other particular personalities.
Sky News’ Sutton said: “That’s something that live blogs have enabled us to do – to break away from a sort of traditionally written news lead, which is what a large amount of our content is, and let the bloggers – whether it’s in politics, Ukraine, cost of living, whatever – to be able to just show a bit more personality and also try and be honest with the audiences about how much we know and we don’t know.”
The Guardian’s Phipps added: “I think the key thing is just to have a clear sense of why you are doing a live blog, and what the purpose of that live blog is and that’s how you’re distinctive, because you know why you’re doing it. You know you’re not reacting to [what other publishers are doing].
“Having a really strong sense of purpose about why you start a live blog, what that live blog is, how that live blog speaks to an audience. And then I think we’ve each got quite distinctive brands without setting out to be different to each other.”
Back in 2020, Press Gazette highlighted some top examples of publishers live blogging the Covid-19 pandemic, including BBC News, The Guardian, the Financial Times, The Independent, The Sun and The Telegraph.
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