How to Cover Live Events: Create an Experience

Whenever I’m trying to figure out a new way to tell a story, there’s a quote from one of the inventors of virtual reality that always pops into my brain: “Information is alienated experience.” Or, like my middle school English teacher used to say, “Show, don’t tell.”

So when you go out to cover an event, don’t bring back a product, a widget, a good, a 10-inch inverted-pyramid story. Use multimedia and interactivity to bring your audience along for the ride. Make them feel like they’re in the room with you. Cover the event live, and then repackage your live coverage to attract the search engine audience.

For these types of stories you should consider:

  • Live tweeting.
  • Streaming video via UStream.
  • Capturing/publishing audio via SoundCloud.
  • Publishing full or editing video on YouTube.
  • Re-using in a regularly scheduled weekly podcast.
  • Posting to the website using Storify.

Live Tweeting Tips

Before the event:

  • Do background research so you have some idea of what you can expect to happen. Because news is when the world doesn’t behave as you’d expect. So first you have to know what to expect. Know the players and the rules. Look at old stories, get a copy of the meeting agenda or the speech text if possible. Check out the group’s website and social media accounts. Check out national press, too, if warranted.
  • Make a Twitter list of everyone you expect to be in attendance at the event — that includes “official” event participants as well as observers.
  • Make another list of anyone you think might be interested in the topic. You might find these are folks who already follow you on Twitter, or folks that have re-tweeted similar stories, or just people who’ve been talking about similar topics.
  • Make sure you know any hashtags related to the event. If there isn’t one, make one up and tell your followers to use it during the event. For the most important hashtags you expect to be used during the event, create a saved search on Twitter.
  • Prepare a few tweets in advance of the event. For example, if you know that someone is going to reference a particular news article or book, have a link to that article ready to send out when the person mentions it. If you use HootSuite, you can save drafts of your tweets. Twitter just added native pre-scheduling of tweets to its clients.

During the Event

  • Get there early. You never know what might go wrong — you can’t find parking, there’s no WiFi, no place to put your camera, room is full, flock of rabid seagulls attacks…
  • Tell people that you’re getting ready to start live tweeting an event. Tell them where you are. Tell them about how long you’ll be at it. You’ll be using your personal account for credibility and intimacy.
  • Listen for key quotes, and either paraphrase them or attribute them: – “Obama: ‘My role here is done.'” or “Obama says he is resigning from office.”
  • Listen for key facts that provide context: -“27% of new students hail from Antarctica.” or “Construction on Gryffindor began in 2011 and was scheduled to cost $3.1B.”
  • Listen for news: “Board voting now on whether to oppose Amendment One.” or “Board’s vote on Amendment One unanimous. Everyone’s opposed.”
  • Provide both “play-by-play” coverage as well as analysis: – “Somewhat unexpected to hear all sides agree on that issue. Where was the opposition?”
  • Use hashtags. Hashtags can be used to help your audience find other tweets on the topic, but they can also help your tweets find an audience that cares about the topic but doesn’t yet know you’re covering it. Finally, you can use hastags for commentary (but be careful with that.)
  • Ask questions of your audience during the event. Questions can either seek information: “Dept. of Labor says it’s still interviewing witnesses. I’d like to interview you, too. Did you see the Vortex collapse?” … or they can seek opinion. “Rides inspected 3x/day. Fairgoers- Is the Dept. of Labor doing enough to keep you safe?”
  • When you receive responses, re-tweet the interesting ones. Think of yourself as the host of a call-in talk show. Re-tweeting adds interesting voices to the live event and puts yourself in the position to mediate a conversation between your followers. That’s creating an experience rather than just a story.
  • Invite your readers to ask you questions: -“Petraeus taking questions now. What do y’all want me to ask him?”
  • If you make a mistake, correct it. If it’s an egregious fact error — “Thornburg found guilty of murder!” — delete the original tweet and send out a correction: “CORRECTION: Thornburg found NOT guilty of murder!” Correct anything that alters your audience’s clear understanding of the event. Misspellings and things like that probably don’t merit corrections. If someone has re-tweeted a fact error that you made, be sure to @mention them in your correction so they’ll be more likely to see it and pass it along, too.
  • Tweet photos and (brief) video. Give people a sense that they are going “behind the scenes” with you — that you’re taking them to a place they can’t go.
  • Interview participants and observers. Tweet a photo and a quote of the person. Be sure to @mention them.
  • When you end your live coverage, tell your audience that you’re wrapping up… and they they can go to your website or print publication soon to see your full wrap-up of the event.

After the Event

  • Use Storify to pull together your quotes. Embed the Storify on your site.
  • Follow-up the next day with a moderated live online discussion with one of the event’s participants. Or just allow your readers to ask you questions. Two good tools to use for live discussions on your site are CoverItLive and ScribbleLive.

Live Audio & Video

With UStream, you can turn your iPhone into a broadcast truck. It doesn’t matter whether the event has a huge following or not, imagine that suddenly you don’t just work for the newspaper of record for in your community but also the CSPAN.

If you want to host your own video talk show, try Google Hangouts On Air like Investigative Reporters & Editors has done.

You know you can use your phone as a camera, but you can also use it to record audio interviews and use SoundCloud to publish the audio on The Chronicle or to a podcast. If you want to dramatically improve the quality of your audio, try one of these little microphones that plug into your iPhone. You can also use this free iPhone app to do some pretty nice audio editing right on the phone.

None of these audio and video tools are going to win you an Oscar. They’re the tools you use when the story doesn’t merit a trained videographer.


General Tutorials

Tips for Speeches

Tips for Meetings

Tips for Festivals/Celebrations

Tips for Live Q&A Events on Twitter

Storify Tips for Journalists

Students in my “Social Media for Reporters” class have been working with Storify this semester, most recently on an assignment to cover University Day — UNC’s birthday. This year, the usually low-attention affair was interrupted by the news of the death of one of UNC and higher education’s most influential people of the last half century — Bill Friday.
Here’s what we learned about using Storify as a reaction piece:

  • Students agreed they would be inclined to use it primarily as a tool for summarizing reaction or public sentiment, rather than a tool for replaying the tick-tock of a breaking news event. That may have been because of the nature of the assignment.
  • Don’t write a placeholder headline for your Storify. Once you save it, it permanently becomes the URL of your Storify.
  • If possible, lead with a photo. Perhaps this is a visual convention that comes over from news article Web pages. But images often set the scene for reaction pieces. Images can quickly show the reader the “what” in what might otherwise be called the lead of the piece, allowing tweets and other content to focus on the “so what”. The images that work best are also images with some text on top of them.
  • Transitions are critically important, making the difference between a narrative and what otherwise is merely a spreadsheet of quotes. The transitions you write between Storify elements must introduce the immediate next item. If you describe a state of shock at the news of Friday’s death, the next piece of content can’t be a photo of students standing in line for waffles, which is then followed by a tweet reacting to Friday’s death.
  • Transitions are the paragraph that sets up the quote. Be sure not to repeat in your transition all the information in the quote. Your writing is the “what” and the following tweet is the “so what”.
  • Tweets work better than Facebook posts as content components of Storify, perhaps because of the visual nature of Storify and the brevity of the tweets.
  • Also, we found the interaction between Storify and Facebook to be both unwieldy and unreliable. For example, Storify links would disappear from Facebook pages as we navigated through the site, increasing significantly the amount of time it took us to add content from Facebook. We also experienced unpredictable reliability of Storify links on Facebook — sometimes they would work and sometimes they wouldn’t. We tested across browsers, platforms, privacy settings of content and types of content. But we couldn’t discern a clear pattern.
  • We had two reports of students who said they had to essentially do the assignment twice because of technical difficulties curating and editing the pieces of content in Storify. One had to do with inability to arrange a YouTube video within Storify once it had been added. Solution was to close the browser and re-open Storify.
  • Note that there’s an important ethical issue to consider when using Storify on Facebook content — you can Storify any content that you can see and then make it public — not “Friend” public, or even Facebook-only public. But Everyone public. You cannot do this with tweets.
  • The ending of your Storify is critical. Good endings seemed to be a tweet that either spun the story forward, summarized public sentiment or drove the reader to further interactivity and engagement — a place where the reader could react to the story.
  • As in any reaction piece, you have to be aware of the diversity of your sources. First, consider which kinds of diversity might contribute to different viewpoints. Sometimes it’s racial diversity and sometimes geographic and sometimes political, depending on the story. When journalists mix personal and professional uses on their social networks, they are more likely going to see content that looks like them. Compounding that social and cultural bias is the algorithmic bias — Facebook and Twitter are going to try to give you content its algorithms think you will like. This will be based, presumably, on your previous interactions with content as well as your demographics and the demographics of the people you follow. When using Storify to create a reaction piece, journalists have to go out of their ways to look for different viewpoints. Using custom lists on Twitter and Facebook, geo-targeted searching in HootSuite, and following partisan hashtags or accounts can help mitigate against algorithmic and personal tendencies toward homogeneity.
  • It’s an old conversation, but one worth bringing up again in this context — understand that reaction pieces on Storify are inherently anecdotal and not a valid survey of public opinion. That said, consider whether you should give an equal amount of space to competing points of view regardless of how frequently you see each perspective. Or, whether you should instead try to weight the balance of space in your piece to reflect the frequency of each point of view you found in your search for content.
  • Finally, the mix between “inside” and “outside” sources can dramatically change the tone of your Storify piece. In our case, we had reactions to Friday’s death from both University officials as well as students and alumni. Reaction from officials adds the news value of prominence to your piece, but broad public reaction can increase the news values of magnitude and impact.

We didn’t discuss these in class, but here are a few use cases for Storify I’d like to see:

  • Virtual debate between two or more people on opposing sides of an issue. Take unprompted content from a community and splice it together to create the kind of conversations that seem to be less common in our disaggregated media world.
  • Fact checking of what people say on social media. Use tools to determine assertions that are both common on social media and appear to be based on fact. Even better would be to find assertions made by different sides on an issue, but based on the same set of facts. It might be interesting to note whether we spin each other just as much as our candidates do.

What are your tips for Storify? Share them in the comments below or on Twitter, to @rtburg.

The Guardian and Social Reader

One of the more interesting trends to which I’m trying to better understand is the trend away from search-driven referrals to news sites and an simultaneous increase in social-driven referrals.

This morning I had a chance to read the speech that Tanya Cordrey, director of digital development, Guardian News & Media, gave recently at the Guardian Changing Media Summit in London.

She was speaking about the positive effect that The Guardian’s Facebook app launch in September 2011 has had on its audience numbers.

At the time of the launch, Cordrey said, “search represented 40% of the Guardian’s traffic and social represented just 2%.”

  • 4 million people installed the app during the first two months.
  • Another 4 million installed the app over the subsequent four months, for a total of 8 million installs.
  • Of those 8 million installs, an average of 1 million people use the app each week.
  • At least during the first two months, the app was generating 7 million page views per week. (It’s not clear how those page views are counted. We don’t know whether that’s 7-million single-page visits or 1 million seven-page visits. Overall, gets 1.5 page views per visitor each week. The Facebook post also calls the page views from the app “extra” page views, but to prove that we’d need to look at the overall site traffic for The Guardian to see if its bottom-line traffic numbers were up by at least a million. Some might argue that Facebook “cannibalizes” other readership, similar to arguments that online cannibalized print audience. Frankly, to me that distinction matters little as I’d rather eat myself than have someone else eat me. )

Cordrey noted that it was not just the app that was driving social traffic. She said that during the previous six months there were 1.3M average weekly visits to The Guardian that started with a click from Facebook.

See also said that “Facebook drove more traffic to than Google for a number of days, accounting for more than 30% of our referrer traffic,” but be sure to look at the helpful graphic for details of this opaque statement. Note that the claim is backed by a spike in Facebook referrals for a short period of time, as well as a general upward trend of FB referals and downtrend of SEO that is years long. It looks to me like Facebook accounts for about 15 percent of visits to the site.

That’s 15 percent from Facebook alone. Six months ago, traffic from all social media was just 2 percent.

Cordrey also said that “the largest group of users for the Guardian Facebook app are between 18-24”. During the first two months, “over half” of the app users were under 24.

Two other comments that caught my eye:

  • “Content is much more likely to go viral on Facebook when users actively comment on and recommend content rather than just passively reading an article.”
  • “Only a small percentage of people have chosen to [remove a read item from their newsfeed] since we launched.”

Should I Use Twitter Before My Story Is Posted?

Rebecca Putterman, reporter at The Clayton News Star, asked me yesterday whether tweeting bits of reporting as you go along might take away from a story’s potential readership or whet appetites?

The flat answer is that while I’ve heard anecdotes I do not know, but I’m looking for an excuse to conduct some rigorous research into that question. In the meanwhile, here’s how I would think about whether to tweet or not. As in all things, professional judgment is required:

  1. Is the information of immediate use to the audience, especially their safety? (Being useful is not the same as being immediately interesting, although that can also be something to consider.)
  2. Is the tweet a discrete and complete piece of information? Tweets don’t have to tell both sides of the story, but they must be able to stand on their own without further context or explanation. They must have the relevant “who, what, when, where,” but probably not all of those. They almost never have “how” or “why”. (Although that’s just a guess. Another topic that is worthy of research.) Completed actions are probably the most likely pieces of information to be discrete and complete. And assertions by prominent people — “Newt Gingrich just said…” , for example — can certainly be tweeted in some cases, but they require more careful consideration:
    • Avoid tweeting anonymous assertions.
    • Is the assertion from the source about himself or herself? Or is about another person, or something the source purports to have seen?
    • Is the assertion opinion or is it asserted as fact? Assertions of fact require special care.
    • If a fact, how quickly are you likely to be able to confirm to the information with another independent source? Or, if an assertion, how quickly do you expect the other side to respond?
    • How well do you know and trust the source? Have they been truthful in the past? Are they in a position to know?
    • If the assertion turns out to be false, how much damage will be done to the audience? (Your reputation is always damaged if you report incorrect information.)
  3. What is the competitive environment? If you don’t tweet it, is your audience likely to hear the news from a friend or another professional reporter or from the source directly? If you do tweet it, will it tip off competitors or sources and give them the chance to tell the story in an way that may be incomplete or inaccurate before you can get around to writing your own comprehensive article?

When journalists do tweet discrete facts before a full story is fleshed out, they can sometimes do it in ways that add context and whet appetites:

  • Add context — and raise readers’ awareness of missing context — by describing why the fact caught your eye, and what else you plan to report.
  • Invite questions about “tidbits.” Twitter is better if it is a conversation and not a lecture. Questions from readers via Twitter before an article is complete can help make your story more relevant.
  • If a topic has a particularly high level of reader engagement, post that you’ll be offline to write, edit and fact-check your complete story.
  • Tell your followers when and where they can get the complete story: “Film at 11.” (And, of course, deliver on every promise you make.)