Insight into The Times’ Afghanistan debate

Earlier today I ‘sat in’ on The Times’ liveblogging debate about whether the war in Afghanistan is winnable. The Times have been experimenting with Cover It Live for a while now, but haven’t put it to use to cover defence issues until today (as far as I’m aware).

The debate featured Defence Editor, Michael Evans, Matthew Parris and David Aaronovitch as well as questions and contributions from the audience.  

I got in touch with Robin Ash at The Times to ask a few questions about the debate:

Q. Why did you decide to do a debate on Afghanistan using Cover It Live?

We are experimenting with interactive services as it’s a great way to engage readers and will certainly be used more and more as online news technology develops. We wanted to cover Afghanistan and thought a debate would be more interesting than a standard Q&A.

Q. How did you get your journalists involved in the project? Did you have to persuade them it was a good idea?

The journalists who contributed are all heavyweights on the paper…I was rather surprised how eager and willing they were to take part – in fact we had to reschedule because one of them was so disappointed not to be able to make the planned time.

They took no persuasion, despite not having done this before, and were very accommodating when it came to organising a time that suited everyone which wasn’t easy as they all have deadlines for the paper and are often busy with radio interviews and television shows.

Q. What was their experience of using Cover It Live to interact with readers?

They all enjoyed the experience and were keen to do more. They said that it was slightly disarming as there is no time to polish your answers – even less so than radio, they felt.

Q. How did you feel it went? Would you do anything differently?

I felt it went very well, although it was originally conceived as a debate between journalists with rival stances, it evolved into a wider debate with all the participants contributing. Since reader participation is the raison d’être of doing these things that worked well.

Q. Were you pre-moderating comments/questions? The debate seemed on topic and focussed…

The system we use allows you to view and moderate comments before publishing them. There was some attempt to bunch comments into a relevant stream but they were coming in so fast this was not a major aspect – luckily this seemed to happen organically anyway.

The challenge was to keep things moving by publishing comments/questions regularly while maintaining a coherent debate in which questions and expert answers don’t get separated and lost.

Q. What was traffic like to the page?

We have some traffic stats – about a third of people viewing participated with comments as the event was happening, but the main number of views will come later as people replay the debate. We won’t know the total for a while yet.