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When the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan began accelerating with stunning speed, The New York Times quickly shifted into live coverage mode: Reporters and editors posted developments as they happened on the collapse of Kandahar, the disintegration of the Afghan military, the global response to the U.S. government’s actions and more, all packaged together.
The live coverage format, which allows journalists to share the news as they learn it, has become a familiar one at The Times for reporting big events. So far this year, the newsroom has published more than 800 live stories, each consisting of a series of dispatches and updates that together can amount to thousands of words. On a typical day, The Times publishes four live packages — on the coronavirus, politics, business news and extreme weather — but there have been days with as many as eight.
In the middle of it all is the Live team, a unit of about a dozen reporters and editors that was formed at the beginning of the year to collaborate with desks across the newsroom in creating and executing breaking news coverage.
The Times has outgrown its role as a New York-centric print newspaper, Marc Lacey, an assistant managing editor who leads the Live team, said. It is now a global digital news organization that also produces podcasts, videos and newsletters along with a newspaper — the investment in the Live team is just the latest step in its continuous evolution, he added.
“I want people all over the world to think about us when a big story breaks,” he said. “Whether it’s in Times Square or Tiananmen Square or somewhere in between.”
Front-page news events — wildfires, the earthquake in Haiti, the resignation of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo — are obvious candidates for live coverage. But The Times has offered live coverage of the Grammy Awards, the National Spelling Bee, the Olympics, even Meghan Markle and Prince Harry’s interview with Oprah Winfrey.
“Anything people want to know information about immediately is a good fit,” Traci Carl, one of two deputy editors on the Live team, said.
Live stories are anchored by beat reporters who are experts on their subject matter, and the Live team works as a group of consultants to other departments. Its journalists will offer ideas, troubleshoot problems, assist in reporting and editing, and at times create or manage a live story. “We act as a support system for desks,” Ms. Carl said. “We help them get a team in place and advise on the best approaches, but we don’t want to run their coverage.”
While The Times’s Express desk, another unit of reporters and editors, initially responds to many breaking news stories, the Live team, working with other departments, focuses on setting up live coverage. Express reporters are frequently critical in contributing to live coverage as other desks like International and National dispatch correspondents to the scene.
The Times mainly uses two types of live formats. A fast-moving blog, in which the latest information appears at the top, allows for short comments by reporters interspersed with concise reported items, a format used for the Derek Chauvin trial and the Emmy Awards. Briefings, which have an index of their entries at the top, “are more of a synthesis of a big story, a little higher altitude,” Mr. Lacey said.
“A blog is like a fire hose of news,” Melissa Hoppert, a deputy editor for the Live team, said. “A briefing is a curated experience with takeaways at the top: Here’s what you need to know if you read only one thing on the subject all day.”
The Times has experimented with live blogs for about a decade, and it turned to live coverage to report on momentous events like the terrorist attacks in Paris in 2015. The Times published its first daily coronavirus briefing on Jan. 23, 2020, and has not stopped since, making it the organization’s longest running 24-hour live briefing.
The reader demand for live coverage, especially the coronavirus briefing, which recently surpassed 900 million page views, led The Times to create the Live team.
Producing the daily live briefings requires collaboration among dozens of editors, reporters and researchers around the world: The coronavirus briefing, for instance, is a 24-hour relay involving multiple time zones and three hubs in Seoul, South Korea; London; and New York.
The editors overseeing the briefings stay in constant contact through video conferences as well as email, multiple encrypted apps, internal chat groups and Google Docs.
“It’s intense,” Ms. Hoppert said of working a briefing shift during a fast-breaking news event. “You’re essentially figuring out what’s going on at the same time readers are.”