An assessment of the live blog for the Peterborough consultation

The Peterborough consultation session for the Citizens’ Assembly was a great opportunity for the e-journalism students to get some practical experience, along with providing a chance to test our technology.

The results of the journalism are currently being edited, but the live coverage was most interesting. Barb MacEachern was chosen to live blog the event using Blackberry technology. Her task was to send coverage via email about every 10 minutes to the Online Pioneer Plus website (http://pioneerplus.ejournalism.ca). A module called mailhandler within the website would translate the email into a blog entry. However, mere hours before the event, mailhandler developed some problems. The first time it was configured, we had problems, but were able to resolve them. It was tested several times and worked fine. I believe the problem migrated to the Zeus server, the Apple OSX system we use to configure our email accounts for the websites. There was insufficient time to explore the error thoroughly. We will do this prior to the Belleville consultations and resolve the issue.

However, this may be a blessing in disguise. Barb was unable to write in complete sentences, a barrier discovered during past live blogging events. Often, without sufficient experience, both as a writer and a journalist, it is very difficult to write coherently on the fly. Like broadcast journalists who provide commentary and coverage live from a scene, it takes a certain amount of practice. There is also a physical challenge learning to type with one’s thumbs, a skill many gamers obtain, but not as familiar to the rest of us. Barb was not given much time to practice, only the weekend.

Despite this, her copy came in fairly clean and reasonably coherent. As an alternative, we used basic email direct from the Blackberry to my college account. The copy was edited and then transferred to the web site. The cryptic notes she sent were excellent with enough detail and material to shape into briefs. These were then put into the website using the Drupal interface.

The strength of this was the ability to shape the copy rather than give direct posting capability to the e-journalist. One of the most important procedural steps in journalism is the ability to review material for both line edits and content edits. There were moments when I used the Internet to check some facts. I did not try to contact Barb to confirm any information, although we did exchange one question. Because she was writing almost constantly, it was impossible for her to break away and respond to my questions. She would wait until she finished writing her posting, then respond. Hence, I felt this was far too disruptive to try to engage her in anything beyond accepting her material for posting.

With advanced training in both journalistic techniques and technical skill of writing with a handheld wireless unit, mailhandler will be a useful tool. The configuration will need to be set for moderation only and never direct posting.

The posts were useful on two levels. Live coverage of this nature cannot compete with a radio or television broadcast; however, it does represent a form of coverage that is valid and can be seen as useful in a broader content. First, the journalism is called reportage – a form where the individual records event as they happen, bearing witness to them and then communicating it in a timely fashion to a broader audience. John Carey, in the Faber Book of Reportage, said an eyewitness must write it. The advantage this criterion is it lends itself to authenticity, he said. All knowledge can then be believed to be accurate, even though a single perspective may limit it. The other advantage Carey sees in reportage is the style of reporting. Eyewitness accounts have a feel of truth because they are subjective, quick and incomplete, unlike journalism, which aims for objectivity and thus involves higher amounts of editing and other filters, which may contribute to certain amounts of distortion, creating a final piece that acts as a record for historians to interpret. But with the heat of the moment, reportage can capture a feeling of an event in no other way. The compression of time and the immediacy of events unfolding raw before the eyewitness, along with the sheer ignorance of what is possibly going to take place next lend power to this form of journalism. The unrehearsed nature of this form provides a significant perspective that cannot be lost. And, while audio and broadcast can achieve the same goal, written text can be reviewed almost immediately and the audience can take its time in mulling over rather than the more transient forms of audio and video streaming where it is impossible to instantly go over materials, as in the case of text. A sentence can be read and re-read several times waiting for the next post. While brief, it is a reflexive moment, where the audience can begin to interpret events, however quickly.

The Peterborough consultation did achieve this goal. Barb instinctively knew to focus on the various presenters, as well as record some of the colour due to her journalistic training. And, while some might argue any person would have done the same would be on shaky ground. A citizen journalist could use the same technology and gathering techniques, but the e-journalist clearly did not have any agenda or stake in the event and focused on the overall coverage.

There is another advantage to this kind of coverage. It presents excellent fodder for interactive exchanges on the website. Presenters can comment on their own presentations to provide additional materials and clarifications. Others can use the entries as discussion points for possible discourse of the overall issue on detailed points, as compared to having to deal with longer, more complex stories that contain multiple facts and types of information.

For this reason, we must not abandon the role of text when doing live coverage. Certainly, audio and video live streaming find a place in the toolbox of e-journalism, but with the wireless technology, there is a place for text. It is thinner because it does not take up the large amounts of bandwidth as audio/video, thereby making it more accessible for those who have lower grades of hardware or software, as well as those who do not have broadband access.

First posted: December 6, 2006