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First rough draft of history

The Guardian’s Martin Belam live blogged the recent momentous US election. It was exhausting and exhilarating…

By Martin Belam

First rough draft of history
Covering the biggest story in the world… from one of the kids’ bedrooms.

The morning it had been announced that US president Donald Trump had tested positive for Covid, I rolled out of bed at around 7am, looked at my phone, saw that was the main news of the day, and was at my desk – cup of coffee in hand, naturally – ready to take over the Guardian’s live blogging within minutes. At one point that morning, I was running both the Guardian’s global coronavirus live blog and the dedicated US politics live blog. Covering the biggest story in the world, for one of the biggest news websites in the world, all from a home office that used to be one of the kids’ bedrooms in Walthamstow. How did it all end up here, and what was it like?

For much of 2020, the London office of the Guardian had been launching the first stint of our US office’s politics live blog, which is helmed during the day in Washington by Joan E Greve. The driver to do this was not just the impending election, but also the summer of Black Lives Matter. As a smaller newsroom in the US, the Guardian has chosen to focus on a number of issues, including social justice, the fight for voting rights, and racial inequality. The nationwide eruption of protest following the death of George Floyd was something we wanted to cover in-depth, and the live blog format allows you to present various different strands of a news story in a way that can often be more all-encompassing than an 800 word news write-off.

I’ve always thought of the role of the live blogger as being a little like that of a radio DJ on a news-driven morning or drive-time show. You need to be lively and entertaining, you need to convey things quickly and simply, you need to keep reiterating the main themes as people are going to be dipping in and out, and you need to get everything right.

And you always need to think about your readers. The audience for the US politics live blog during the hours I was running it is a curious mix. I would generally take a shift sometime between 7am and 2pm on UK time. That meant that I was running a catch-up service of overnight news for our UK and European audiences, while also trying to tee up the day and move stories along for our American audience over their breakfast.

Preparation is one of the keys to successful live blogging.

Prep time

Preparation is one of the keys to successful live blogging. I made a virtue of having to do home-schooling with the kids by making us all repeatedly label blank maps of the US with the names of all the states. On the wall at my desk, I had not just a map, but crib sheets on who was who in the senate races deemed to be competitive. I made a spreadsheet of the 2016 election results state-by-state, with the margin of victories and number of electoral college votes at stake.

I made two important Twitter lists that I would rely on. One was very small – the Trumps, the Bidens, Mike Pence, Kamala Harris, Mike Pompeo, the Obamas, Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar. People likely to make news every single time they tweeted.

Then I had a second list with a much broader selection of over 500 US news sources and political figures. The big networks, specialist websites like Politico or Roll Call, senators, congressmen and women, journalists, city mayors, state governors, police departments, local newspapers and local journalists. That gave me a constantly moving feed of what was going on, inspiration for different angles to take, and was pretty great at helping me judge how big a deal a story was. If four or five journalists from different papers or networks suddenly tweeted the same New York Times exclusive, you could be pretty sure it was a big deal.

During the pandemic, the Guardian had nearly everybody working remotely, with just a small core of senior editors and those required for print production in King’s Cross. Just as the organisation was on the verge of tentatively making arrangements for more people to come back into the office, the second wave began in the UK, and a message came out that we were not likely to be back in Kings Place til the start of the new year.

At that point, I decided I ought to treat my spare room office as more of a permanent working space, so actually tidied my desk, and moved a secondary TV in to act as a large second monitor, somewhat to the dismay of my kids.

I would be writing on my laptop, and then using the additional monitor to display TweetDeck and tickers of the Associated Press and Reuters newswire. A TARDIS and a lava lamp completed what I dubbed my ‘live blogging command centre’, although they didn’t really practically contribute much beyond a 1970s aesthetic.

Not being in the office, you would think you would miss the adrenaline rush of a newsroom during elections and major news events. Live blogging can sometimes be quite an isolating experience. Essentially, if it is chugging along fine on a slowish news day, it is just you and the audience.

On a busy day, however, you’d be surprised how many different ways colleagues have to get in touch with you (email, GChat, Slack, SMS, Twitter DM) to check you haven’t missed some major new development. In fact, as the election got closer, I added a second laptop to my home setup, open with the New York office’s Slack channel and my email, so that they were constantly on hand.

There’s something about the tone of a live blog that allows you to be more playful and mischievous.

Seat-of-the-pants stuff

There are some things guaranteed to make a writer nervous. The Guardian’s live blogging software rightly prioritises getting what you’ve written out to the reader as soon as possible. After all, we developed the format initially in the late 1990s for covering football and cricket online, and you don’t want a status update about a wicket or a goal having to go through three pairs of production eyes before you can press publish.

The flipside of that is some two decades later, you end up with me announcing major breaking news in a crucial US election without anybody reading what I’ve written before it gets published, which can be pretty nerve-wracking. Worse than that, at key moments, the website uses a template where snippets of what you have just published go directly onto the homepage. That’s a hell of a place to drop a clanger.

And there were considerable specific pitfalls with dealing with this particular election and this particular outgoing president. To say that the Trump administration produced a whirlwind of news and disinformation would be an understatement. I remember the absolute speed that we switched from covering him supposedly denigrating America’s war dead, to his tax returns, to the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the Republicans ugly hypocrisy in seeking to replace her in haste, all in the space of a few days. Each story becoming all-consuming for a couple of days, before being replaced by some fresh outrage.

Donald Trump would appear on Fox & Friends and spew untruths for 45 minutes; how on earth do you cover that in a responsible way, when he can make false claims faster than any human can fact-check?

In the few days immediately after the election, little sentences from our coverage were repeatedly going viral on social media. At one point, Joan E Greve linked to the Wikipedia definition of ‘democracy’ as she suggested that Donald Trump wasn’t grasping it. I wrote something that the president of the United States was complaining, again, about votes being counted. There’s something about the tone of a live blog that allows you to be more playful and mischievous in coverage that you can’t do in a straight-for-print news story.

But the role of the live blog, apart from delivering the odd wry laugh along the way, for me, is to keep the reader informed, pick out what is interesting and tell them what is interesting about it, and why it is important. I didn’t need to fact check US electoral law myself every time Trump tweeted an untruth. Somewhere with a bigger US politics newsroom like CNN or the Wall Street Journal would be sure to do it, and I could summarise that and help our readers understand.

I still don’t feel like an expert on US politics – it is amazing how other media outlets start inviting you on to the radio or telly once you’ve had your byline on a few articles about something – but I made it my role to be in a position to have read all the US politics news and picked out the best bits so that you, as a reader, don’t have to.

Of course, the live blogger is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to presenting coverage of an election like this. I was constantly assisted by our audience team and the foreign desk making sure headlines were optimised to be informative, punchy and searchable. Sub-editors faithfully jumped into the copy once it had been published to sweep up after my mistakes. Video producers were always on hand to clip up dramatic developments or to offer live feeds to enhance our coverage. And the live blog itself featured not just myself but a regular cast in the US including Joan E Greve, Maanvi Singh, Tom McCarthy, Lauren Aratani and Joanna Walters.

To say that the Trump administration produced a whirlwind of news and disinformation would be an understatement.

A gruelling schedule

It did take a toll personally, and in a way that was perhaps different to working on an election not carried out during a pandemic. I ended up volunteering for extra shifts at weekends at the peak of the election and worked seventeen days on the trot. Partly a journalistic ego thing, of course. If you’ve been covering a story nearly every day since March, you don’t want it to be assigned to someone else during the gripping bit. I probably did too much. In one sense, it was easier than ever to work, because my office was in the house. I don’t think I could have carried that off with a commute involved. But I suspect that if somebody had spotted me working that many days consecutively on a high pressure high profile live blog while in the office, I’d have been told I needed to take a break.

I’m not entirely convinced, when the pandemic is over, how keen I will be to return to the office on a permanent basis. I was already covering Washington DC from 3,600 miles away. I’m somewhat unconvinced how much difference it makes now whether I’m at home in Walthamstow or in the office in King’s Cross.

Being out of the office certainly didn’t seem to impact on our performance. I’ve been working for media companies on the internet for two decades now, and one of my first bosses at the BBC, Tom Loosemore, drilled into me that ‘you are what you measure’. So I carefully measured the numbers on the live blog. Not just the total pageviews, but the pageviews that were being contributed when it was being run from London, and crucially, how many regular visitors were coming. We measure a regular visitor as somebody who has visited the site at least once a week for eight weeks. I wanted to see that the live blog was attracting and retaining and growing regular visitors, the people most likely to convert to subscribers or to donate.

The election was massive for the Guardian as a whole. It recorded its highest-ever digital traffic on Wednesday 4 November, reaching more than 190 million pageviews and 52.9 million unique browsers worldwide in 24 hours – exceeding all previous traffic records by an enormous margin.

Over the years, I’ve had plenty of abuse on social media, and covering the US election was no different, but I also have to say that in the run-up to the big day and especially in the few days afterwards, I had so many emails from Guardian readers thanking me and the paper in general for the coverage, for how clear and simple we had made the issues, and it was genuinely a lovely – and quite rare – experience for a journalist. Especially a very tired one.

If you’ve been covering a story nearly every day since March, you don’t want it to be assigned to someone else during the gripping bit.

This article was first published in InPublishing magazine. If you would like to be added to the free mailing list, please register here.