During the Egyptian uprising of early 2011, the government of then-president Hosni Mubarak attempted to stymie Qatar-based network Al Jazeera’s coverage of the story by disrupting its signal and detaining its journalists.
Canadian-designed technology, however, helped Al Jazeera break through the censorship. ScribbleLive’s live-blogging software allowed reporters to phone in updates and have them published instantly online.
That experience is just one sign of how an increasing reliance on such technology – whether to cover a major geopolitical event, a natural disaster such as Hurricane Sandy or a marquee game between sports rivals – has indelibly altered and expanded the field of news gathering.
But it is also an indication of how these kinds of innovations pitched two relatively small Toronto-based startups onto a global stage. What’s more, neither company, ScribbleLive nor CoveritLive, needed to rely much on traditional marketing ploys to get there.
ScribbleLive co-founders Michael De Monte and Jonathan Keebler first came up with the idea of developing their software for live-blogging, or what Mr. De Monte prefers to call “progressive storytelling,” while walking home from their jobs at CTV.
“Because we worked in the newsroom and saw the challenges they were having keeping up with social media, publishing information extremely fast and one piece at a time, we decided to try to build something that would solve that particular problem,” he said.
Shortly after launching ScribbleLive in 2008, he said, “Apple events [launching new products] always seemed to put us on the map. A lot of technical people used live-blogging much earlier than other organizations.”
Participants in the online sessions could see that the capabilities were powered by ScribbleLive and started downloading the then-free software themselves. “Whenever it was running on other sites, people knew it was done by us,” Mr. De Monte said. “That branding helped fuel people trying it out.”
The technology also caught the eye of big international media corporations, such as Hearst and Thomson Reuters. “When I got these calls I almost fell off my chair,” Mr. De Monte recalled. “I’m thinking, how do these people know who we are? We weren’t spending any money doing marketing at that time, because we were just two people really.”
By 2011, a series of compelling news events was making real-time online communications – and interaction between on-site journalists and the public – the main way to cover global events. That brought CoveritLive international attention as well.
For Bob Barnard, co-founder with Keith McSpurren of CoveritLive in Toronto in 2007, the very nature of the web made their live-blogging tool an international phenomenon.
Although the company placed ads in Google, employed search engine optimization and contacted potential customers by phone and e-mail, he said, “Because we’re on the web, and the web is global to begin with, we saw a lot of adoption in North America, then the United Kingdom, all over Europe, Australia and New Zealand.”
By running Google Analytics, he added, they could see where their customers were from, and started translating the program into more than a dozen languages. “After a few successes, and people continuously using the software, the product became its own marketing tool,” Mr. Barnard said.
While the company’s primary focus was news, early adoption by sports media such as ESPN and CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada made CoveritLive’s interactivity an integral part of the game experience.
People often don’t mind taping other kinds of television programming to watch later, Mr. Barnard noted, “but within the whole live concept, sports is one of those events that people are only interested in when they are live.”
Nonetheless, when U.S. content and social media company Demand Media Inc. purchased a share of CoveritLive in 2009 – prior to buying it outright last year – news organizations such as the BBC, Le Monde and PBS also adopted its live-blogging platform.
The Globe and Mail uses ScribbleLive – on its Hurricane Sandy coverage this week, for example – and has used CoveritLive.
According to Ben Schneider, CoveritLive’s general manager in Austin, Tex., the company runs about 20,000 events every month, as websites live-blog everything from the Oscars to the World Cup of soccer to the recent U.S. presidential debates.
And both companies are now getting significant adoption of their technology in the corporate sphere. “Companies are using our technology for corporate events, crisis management or product releases,” said Mr. De Monte, “but they can also syndicate those.”
Sun Life Financial, for example, which recently held a conference on how it can help companies with their business needs, he said, “syndicated it out to MSN Money and extended their reach tenfold.”
The syndication marketplace “is the thing we’re building on now,” Mr. De Monte said.
Car manufacturers such as Ford, General Motors and Volkswagen have also been using CoveritLive for both in-house interactive chats with their employees as well as customer outreach, Mr. Schneider said. “For example, they can do Q and A’s, where customers can ask the head product designer of the Ford Explorer questions about the new Explorer,” he said.
While its integration into Demand Media has brought CoveritLive access to a large marketing department in the United States, ScribbleLive, with 40 per cent of sales coming from Europe, has established a sales office in Britain.
In Canada, however, ScribbleLive continues to focus on the use of live-blogging by journalists. “We’re doing a lot of outreach to journalism schools, and giving away the technology to expose them to it,” Mr. De Monte said.
“I just want them to know that this is the way things are being done,” he said. “This is the new technology they need to deal with. ”
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(Editor's note: An earlier online version of this story misspelled the surname of Bob Barnard, a co-founder of CoveritLive. This version has been corrected.)
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