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As the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan accelerated at a breathtaking pace, the New York Times quickly switched to live reporting mode: reporters and editors covered the collapse of Kandahar, the disintegration of the Afghan military, the global response to US government actions and more, all in one package.
The live coverage format, which allows journalists to share the news as they experience it, has become known at The Times for covering big events. So far this year the newsroom has published more than 800 live stories, each made up of a series of news and updates that together can add up to thousands of words. On a typical day, The Times releases four live packages – covering the coronavirus, politics, business news, and extreme weather – but there have been days with up to eight.
At the heart of it all is the live team, a unit of about a dozen reporters and editors that was formed earlier this year to work with desks across the newsroom to create and execute breaking news.
The Times has outgrown its role as a New York print newspaper, said Marc Lacey, an assistant editor-in-chief who leads the live team. It is now a global digital news organization that produces podcasts, videos and newsletters in addition to a newspaper – investing in the live team is just the latest step in its continued evolution, he added.
“I want people all over the world to think of us when a big story begins,” he said. “Whether in Times Square or Tiananmen Square or somewhere in between.”
Front page events – forest fires, the Haiti earthquake, the resignation of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo – are obvious candidates for live coverage. But The Times did offer live coverage of the Grammy Awards, the National Spelling Bee, the Olympics, and even Meghan Markle and Prince Harry’s interview with Oprah Winfrey.
“Anything people want information about right away fits in well,” said Traci Carl, one of two assistant editors on the live team.
Live stories are anchored by Beat reporters who are experts in their fields and the live team works as a group of consultants for other departments. The journalists offer ideas, fix problems, help with reporting and editing, and sometimes create or manage a live story. “We act as a desk support system,” said Ms. Carl. “We help them build a team and advise them on the best approaches, but we don’t want to do their reporting.”
While the Times Express Desk, another unit of reporters and editors, initially responds to a lot of breaking news, the Live team works with other departments to focus on setting up live coverage. Express reporters often make a decisive contribution to the live reporting, as other desks such as international and national correspondents of the scene are on site.
The Times mainly uses two types of live formats. A fast-paced blog, topped with the latest information, allows for short comments from reporters interspersed with incisive reports, a format used for the Derek Chauvin Process and Emmy Awards. Briefings that have an index of their entries at the top “are more of a synthesis of a great story, a little higher,” said Lacey.
“A blog is like a fire hose for news,” said Melissa Hoppert, assistant editor for the live team. “A briefing is a curated experience with takeaways at the top: you need to know that if you only read one thing on the same topic all day.”
The Times has been experimenting with live blogs for about a decade, turning to live reporting to cover momentous events like the 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris. The Times published its first daily coronavirus briefing on January 23, 2020 and has not stopped since, making it the organization’s longest-running 24-hour live briefing.
Reader demand for live coverage, particularly the coronavirus briefing that recently topped 900 million page views, prompted The Times to create the live team.
Creating the daily live briefings requires the collaboration of dozens of editors, reporters, and researchers around the world: the coronavirus briefing, for example, is a 24-hour relay with multiple time zones and three hubs in Seoul, South Korea; London; and New York.
The editors who oversee the briefings stay in constant contact via video conferences as well as email, several encrypted apps, internal chat groups and Google Docs.
“It’s intense,” said Ms. Hoppert of working a briefing shift during a fast-breaking news event. “You are essentially figuring out what is going on with the readers at the same time.”