News Orgs Challenged in Covering Live Events Like Health Care Summit with Immediacy and Depth

A Flickr image of a dual-screen setup at a Superbowl party this year shows the game on the big screen and a second screen for the Twitter conversation. The headline: “This is the future.”

Now, let’s look at the present: online media coverage of President Obama’s health care summit last week. Many news sites streamed live video of the summit, and some created innovative presentations that added value and context and engaged audience via social networking. 

Here’s what I saw as I surfed around some sites covering the live event: Yes, video quality and the online social space have come a long way since the ’90s, when I cobbled together tiny RealMedia G2 streams and Java chat appliances.

Still, news orgs find it a challenge to present live events in a way that fulfills the Internet’s potential of providing the immediacy of broadcast, with the depth of print.

Many sites are trying to improve user experience for live hybrid interactive video events, but the organizations that covered the health care summit most creatively were not the ones with the biggest budgets, largest audiences and deepest technology departments. Independent new media, using embeddable tools and widgets that anyone could grab, provided context and gave voice to their audience.

Broadcast media: still talking

The big broadcasters and cable news networks all had live video streams on their sites, and most went about it as business as usual.

ABC offered the stream in its usual player, with no bells and whistles and no interactivity. It was all lean-back viewing on the lean-forward platform.

CNN.com used its standard video player. The pop-out player was linked from the left rail of the front page, next to a rotating center main story. The CNN live player page linked out to the @cnnlive Twitter account.

But on a separate page, CNN’s iReport had a health care “assignment” that gathered at least a hundred user-generated video contributions by midafternoon:

Fox News also linked to its player on the home page (which on first launch tries to get you to install a desktop app as it offers the option to stream live in the browser). Fox News’ coverage was split among several pages, including one that offered a Demand Media-embedded chatroom where the FOX community vented together. The site also offered a casual level of quick opinion interactivity with a nonscientific poll.

Msnbc.com also ran the stream in its usual rainbow curtain player, but overlaid the left rail navigation with a Twitter widget. Of the broadcast nets, msnbc.com was the only one to prominently tap into the social media zeitgeist as the live event was happening, offering users a single place to watch the event and the conversation about it.

Big media and broadcasters can’t give lip service to social media and focus on business as usual because their audiences aren’t even listening with half an ear anymore. Instead, they’re increasingly talking amongst themselves as the tools for conversation and interaction become commonplace and easier to use. (And that audience is having a conversation that may be painful for traditional news directors and producers to hear.)

Legacy media weighs in with depth, but no conversation

The New York Times, the NewsHour and NPR all live blogged the event, driving the coverage from the journalist/expert-out perspective. Topped by the video player, the NewsHour blog showcased a roster of heavy hitters weighing in with commentary, interspersed among the straight-shooting news updates.

NPR used the CoveritLive tool embedded on its Shots blog, without the video stream.

The New York Times used its Prescriptions blog to cover the event. The video player was placed at the top of the page, but readers of the excellent commentary and coverage couldn’t see it as they scrolled down to read. Clicking on the context and background took the user away from the video.

The scroll is one of the user-experience killers of presentations that blend video and text. It has vexed news sites for years — and it plagues multimedia storytelling in templated content management systems. People read faster than the video and have to scroll away from watching.

Some have argued that it is OK to keep listening as they read down, but how does that affect lower-third or interstitial advertising opportunities available to streamers? While the pop-out player has kicked around (and been kicked around for years), it does allow readers to scroll and surf while watching — even though it does not offer an integrated user experience.

With professional design staff at pro media shops, one can hope we’ll finally get a decent floating player that moves as we scroll and surf around. This is another one of those reasons why journalists should design and code and not outsource development. We must advance the user experience as an integral part of effective storytelling.

New media offers streaming, conversation and context

The Huffington Post took the vox populi approach, surrounding a video player with three Twitter List widgets: one on the left that pulled tweets about health care and two on the bottom, one for conservatives and the other for liberals. The conversation flowed around the live video of the summit in an engaging and successful presentation, fitting for the site’s socially networked audience that is very generous with comments.

But it was interesting that as I was watching their page, I was also monitoring the Media Consortium meeting hashtag on TweetDeck client, where Aron Pilhofer (@pilhofer) editor of newsroom interactive technologies for The New York Times, was being quoted as saying the primary job of journalism is filtering.

How do we filter the ocean of data that is produced in commenting and live discussion? The challenge is to create a user experiences that allow people to peel back layers of the onion instead of drinking from a firehose, to mix metaphors.

The best job of doing this with the health care summit, in my opinion, was done by the Sunlight Foundation. (I’m not alone in thinking this.) Even though Sunlight had video stream issues (eventually switching to NBC from the public White House feed), it supplied the best real-time context from its authorities and offered a window into the Twitterverse with a simple widget. Below the video, Sunlight used CoveritLive to provide running analysis of the summit, linking out and conversing with chatters.

I was impressed with the info box to the right of the video player that instantly showed the lobbying money and relationships of each lawmaker, and even the president, as they appeared onscreen.

Of course, being the transparent organization it is, Sunlight has shared a “how we did it” post describing how they built their interface. Technically, the page is nothing fancy and it didn’t require any special programming. CoveritLive, the Twitter widget and even the video feed are all simple, embedded elements that anyone with minimal Web skills could cobble together.

But the immediate depth and context provided by Sunlight’s investigative journalists should be noted by big news companies, and so should the audience reaction to it, as Sunlight noted on its blog: about 43,000 viewers, 1,300 tweets linking to the presentation, 2,800 replays of the live blog.

Maybe the gross viewership isn’t large enough to challenge a cable or broadcast news operation, but the percentage of viewers who engaged and participated — nearly a quarter — says a great deal.

The takeaway: User experience is key to this conversational viewing pattern and to keeping it productive and valuable to users. If media providers do not innovate how they present these events, upstarts will build their own media consumption and conversation platforms.

Though Sunlight needed NBC’s feed this time, direct feeds from sources will keep improving. And these distributed coverage services — created by Internet companies, not media companies — will increasingly threaten mainstream media audience share.

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