Inside Vox Media’s Liveblogging Machine

    by Matt Stempeck
    August 14, 2013
    The Verge team in a simulated deployment. Credit: The Verge.

    Recently, we looked at Vox Media’s strategy to build a modern media company. One big way the company has made a name for its properties (The VergePolygon, and SB Nation) is with full-team deployments to cover important live events.

    Major tech industry announcements like the product launch keynotes popularized by former Apple CEO Steve Jobs dominate headlines in the tech and gaming industries that Vox’s sites cover. But liveblogs have proven to be major traffic generators across the broader online news industry. A case study published last November found that liveblogs at The Guardian (like this Dr. Who liveblog) received 300% more views and 233% more visitors than conventional news articles covering the same topics. The liveblogs even outperformed those awful photo galleries. The study’s authors, Neil Thurman and Anna Walters, attribute the popularity of liveblogs to their simple navigation, frequent updates, and timely, “bite-sized content units [that] suit readers’ consumption of news in the workplace.”

    "We’ve invested heavily in the tools to make this stuff come to life and be an immersive all-you-can-read-see-hear-touch-feel kind of experience for readers." -Callie Schweitzer

    I previously wrote up a guide to liveblogging as a team, inspired by how my colleagues at MIT’s Center for Civic Media cover events together. Here’s our breakdown of complementary, often self-assumed roles:

    1. transcriber
    2. narrator
    3. linkhound
    4. fact checker

    This division of labor still works well for a small team of amateurs (1-5 people) to produce a decent post with a quick turnaround.

    The Vox Media version of liveblogging resides at the completely opposite end of the professional spectrum. It is Web coverage of live events on steroids. And so are their results. According to Callie Schweitzer at Vox, “On the first two days of E3 and WWDC (June 10 and 11), The Verge and Polygon saw record-setting traffic with a combined 3.2 million unique views, 9 million pageviews, and more than 500,000 video streams.” According to this liveblog index page, The Verge alone has covered 144 live events. (Note: Schweitzer has since taken a job as director of digital innovation at Time magazine.)

    Their sites not only produced in-house liveblogging software designed to handle this traffic load (Syllabus), they’ve also begun producing pre- and post-conference video shows, treating events such as Apple’s WWDC more like the Super Bowl (which, for Apple fans, it basically is).


    Here’s how Vox brings live events to the Web in real time.

    Plan before you go

    Obvious, maybe, but the Vox teams do an immense amount of planning before showing up at major events. Here’s the WWDC calendar of events they put together (and shared with their readers). According to Chris Grant, editor at videogame site Polygon, their team planned their attendance of the major gaming industry event E3 even before they had officially launched the Polygon site itself. They knew that covering the launch of two new video game consoles would be important to get themselves on the map.

    At the professional level, planning is also when you should identify the core team roles. On a big team, it’s key to have specific duties, as well as someone in charge to own the major decisions and basically quarterback the rest of the team amid the chaos. Other roles include livebloggers, photographers, news writers, product reviewers, someone to manage the front page’s layout, and of course the crew busily producing the video shows.

    Pay attention to details others might miss

    Knowing what’s going on where, and which storylines to follow, helps Vox’s teams produce the obvious headlines, but also gives them a head start in identifying emergent surprises.

    Apple's support of videogame controllers in iOS was barely a bullet on a slide at WWDC

    Apple’s announced support of video game controllers in iOS was barely a bullet on a slide at WWDC.

    The Polygon team caught a surprise announcement in Apple’s keynote event even though they were focused on the E3 video game convention. Unlike Sony, Microsoft, and the other giants of the video game industry, Apple doesn’t bother to attend E3. Yet Apple’s moves greatly impact mobile game developers. When Apple announced that iOS 7 would allow the iPhone and iPad to use video game controllers, it was major news for the video game industry, but barely even a bullet on a single slide at WWDC. Polygon writer Chris Plante caught the slide, calling it “the biggest news of E3” (a tongue-in-cheek reference to the fact that E3 was about 400 miles south of WWDC).

    Making quantity easy allows time for quality

    Grant and Nilay Patel, managing editor of The Verge, acutely understand that at live events like Apple’s WWDC, they need to get the straight news to their readers in order to compete with the other liveblogs (like TUAW‘s and Gizmodo‘s innovative liveblogs). But they’re also proud of the teams of journalists they’ve assembled, and the nearly real-time analysis and opinion pieces they produce. They’re able to balance the demand for a high quantity of content without detrimental effects to quality by removing the technical barriers standing between their writers’ words and their audiences. (See my previous post on Vox’s proprietary Chorus software.)

    “We’ve invested heavily in the tools to make this stuff come to life and be an immersive all-you-can-read-see-hear-touch-feel kind of experience for readers, which is just so different than what a) print can offer and b) other publishers are doing,” Schweitzer said.

    A specialized unit spans individual brands

    Vox Studios is the company’s video team, a “virtual organization” that produces video content for each of Vox’s brands. This team also helps with all things video for major live events. In the case of E3, Vox Studios brought the “studio” part of their name to life by constructing a physical video studio right on the E3 floor. This team’s specialization frees Vox’s writers to focus on their subjects, rather than fiddle with cameras and Final Cut Pro. Their work also brings a professional caliber of live coverage to events that, until recently, received only cursory coverage in mainstream newspapers and TV channels.

    During WWDC, The Verge’s front page featured a video player that combined Apple’s official livestream (rehosted with permission from Apple) as well as their own pre-show and post-show features. Vox Studios interviewed their reporters and others at the conference, and provided a level of commentary we’re used to seeing in ESPN coverage. All of this programming was embedded within the pages of the liveblog, which stayed online despite peaks of 500,000 simultaneous unique viewers.

    Polygon and The Verge teamed up to preview the E3 video gaming conference

    The Vox teams try to get optimal mileage from the material they produce. Their video team will recut and repurpose footage from interviews, live shows, and presentations, with varying levels of production polish. A written piece might include a video interview with its source, making it feel more like a feature than it would otherwise.

    Competition has bred professionalization

    Chris Grant from his Twitter profile pic.

    Chris Grant from his Twitter profile pic.

    Vox’s tradeshow communications war room is a far cry from the connectivity Grant experienced his first year covering the show, when he was one of seven editors on the floor trying to get WiFi, sharing a single Sprint MiFi. At the Playstation 3 launch event in 2006, he published with Starbucks WiFi from a location hidden within a creepy laundromat in Los Angeles.

    Grant says that live coverage of these events was also “uncontested land” at the time, as no one had the technology necessary to cover them well. Today, live event coverage is the norm. The ability to keep their sites up under huge amounts of traffic is one of the motivating forces behind Syllabus, and something the Vox team sees as a differentiator from their competition. Of course, their competition includes not only other tech and gaming sites, but also mainstream media coverage of the increasingly popular events.

    Comparing televised and web-native event coverage

    “TV wants to care about these topics [gaming, tech], but doesn’t know how to do it,” is how Grant put it. The Web is a medium, and with it comes certain storytelling tools and affordances. A modern news organization must understand how to use the medium to tell the stories to its audience. One of the tools available is video, but that doesn’t make the Web synonymous with TV.

    “If you look at how TV covers gaming, or how local news covers consumer tech, it’s always dumbed down,” Grant said. Vox is able to produce intense multichannel coverage that sometimes looks like traditional TV coverage, and merge it with newer genres like liveblogging and multimedia storytelling.

    Grant said their goal is to capture “the excitement of being there live, the “WTF just happened?” aspect of live TV, but also deeper-dive reporting.”

    Debrief Immediately Afterwards

    The teams push past their post-event exhaustion to hold immediate debriefs on how to improve for the next year (e.g. double the amount of coverage they produce). They’re planning better processes to react quickly to surprise announcements, and to maintain a focus on the less amplified news, like smaller videogame launches, while still covering the major headline news.

    How do you pay for it?

    Sending your entire team to a conference for a week isn’t cheap, no matter how thrifty they are. In addition to the $23.5 million they’ve received in VC funding, the company also recruits advertisers, like other publications. For many years, magazines have published special editions made possible by certain advertising arrangements. Vox does the same: Ford sponsored Vox’s Consumer Electronics Show coverage, for example. Said Schweitzer, “We seek sponsorship and event partners for these kinds of big events. These major events tend to attract new audiences, and we have a great record of retaining them. It’s sort of a ‘come for the big events, stay for the amazing day in, day out coverage.'”

    Live events as crucibles

    Nilay Patel

    Nilay Patel

    As companies like Nintendo attempt to emulate Apple keynotes and host their own product launch events, there will be no shortage of live event coverage for the Vox team to deploy and cover. “Facebook will hold an event just for a new version of Newsfeed,” Grant said. But the media will still show up. Other, less relevant companies sometimes host their own events to try to deliver more attention to their product launches, but ultimately, it’s the market that decides whether a product will gain traction and succeed.

    I asked Patel to name his energy source of choice for these long, busy days. “I used to do it all on an empty stomach: get there at 8 a.m., drink coffee, before a 10 a.m. Apple event. Now I get by with some protein in the morning, and by guzzling coffee.”

    Patel sees Vox’s live event coverage as “a big toe in the water.” These chaotic environments act as labs, where the teams must deal with new problems that come up, but can also experiment with new formats and ideas. It crystallizes “great big focal points to figure out what works, how teams work together.”

    Matt Stempeck just graduated with his Master’s from the MIT Media Lab’s Center for Civic Media. He has spent his career designing civic and media technology, mostly in Washington, D.C. He has advised numerous non-profits, startups, and socially responsible businesses on online strategy. He’s @mstem.

    Tagged: live coverage liveblogging polygon The Verge vox

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