Dispatches from the living amongst journalism's walking dead

Kick It Old School: Engaging Your Community Through Live Chats

The live chat is, in a sense, the original social media – the Arthur Crudup to Twitter and Facebook’s Elvis Presley. I think I set up and conducted my first live chat in 2004, when I was a fledgling web producer at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The technology has evolved somewhat, but the idea remains the same: Get readers into a virtual room with reporters, experts and newsmakers to ask questions directly.

Back in the day, we used the earliest incarnations of CoveritLive to hold text-based chats with readers. Nowadays, newsrooms have a lot more options to do this, including Google+ Hangouts, UStream, Twitter chats, Facebook chats and enhanced text-based options via ScribbleLive and CoveritLive.

In my recent travels for Digital First, I’ve been teaching a little bit about liveblogging and chats – and learning a lot, too. In what I hope will become something of a regular thing here at ZJ, I’d like to highlight the work of some of my DFM colleagues and pass along best practices and how-tos for any other journalists who’d like to try out what they’re doing.

At the York Daily Record (in York, Pa., birthplace of the peppermint patty with the same name), business reporter Lauren Boyer has become a community fixture. While she’s active on social media, her best successes have come from a couple of older-school engagement tactics: Live chats and real-life meetups.

In early February, Lauren started organizing weekly CoveritLive chats with members of the community, beginning with a live chat with a local CPA firm to kick off tax season.

“This initial effort had only 30 live readers — but they posted A LOT of very specific questions about their income tax filings,” Lauren says. “This motivated me to keep it up, figuring the quality of the discussion — providing a public service to those few readers who tuned in — was more important at the beginning as people start to catch on.”

Lauren says a Valentine’s Day-themed chat featuring a local dating coach was the most engaged effort she’s seen so far. This particular edition had about 55 participants and was replayed nearly 200 times, making it one of the most-viewed stories on YDR.com.

Just last week, one of Lauren’s YDR colleagues, Sean Adkins, shared a particularly notable success story.  Following a live chat with a local staffing firm, a local reader sent in her resume and was later offered a job earning $40K (now that’s community service!).

There are probably many opportunities for your newsroom to take advantage of free or inexpensive live chat tools. Here are a few ideas to get you started:

  • If a reporter has a big investigation or enterprise story published that got people talking, hold a chat with that reporter and/or some of the newsmakers involved in the story.
  • Hold regular chats with your reporters and columnists. When I worked at the Cincinnati Enquirer, we had chats almost daily with a staff member. From the TV writer to the food critic and the various sports reporters, all of these chats were on a regular schedule and usually got a lot of participation.
  • Open up a chat for your readers and staff to dish live during the big game/debate/local event.
  • Hold chats with experts in your community on topics of interest like taxes, health care, pet care, gardening, relationship advice, cooking, etc
  • Invite one or more local bloggers to participate in a chat about local issues or their blogging subjects.

Here are a few more ideas from CoveritLive.



Live Chat Best Practices

Step-by-Step Directions to Setting Up A CoveritLive Chat

Matt Thompson’s tips on using CoveritLive for liveblogging and chats


This may be an old hat to some of you (much like the phrase “old hat”), so please share your experiences with live chats in the comments area. What tools do you use for your chats? What topics and people have worked best for you? What best practices could you share?

Live Chat Best Practices

Below, I’ve compiled some best practices from Lauren and my own experiences, I do hope you’ll share your own in the comments below.

Get Help Finding Panelists If You Need It: Lauren says she turned to a local public relations firm to help secure chat guests in the beginning of her effort. They promoted the concept to their clients as a way to spread their businesses and expertise. Since then, Lauren says, the concept has been “self-perpetuating”.

“One person will see that I’ve done a live chat with someone in the community, and they’ll pitch me an idea — either someone they want to talk to. Other times, they, themselves, want to reach out through this medium. I don’t really have to exert energy finding good panelists.”

Keep Constant Contact with Panelists: Whether your panelists are community members or your coworkers, you want to be sure everyone’s comfortable on the chat tool and ready to go come live time. Lauren says she touches base with chat guests right after she’s set up the chat in CiL and launched their invitation email.

“I want to make sure it didn’t get filtered to spam and that they save it somewhere accessible.”

She also will send each panelist a form e-mail with specific instructions a few days before the live event. In one case, she says she met with a law firm and used the “practice” function on the desktop version of CiL to show the participants how it would work ahead of time.

 Chat From Anywhere: CiL and ScribbleLive (and probably others too) have excellent mobile apps that make it possible for a staffer in the field to give or administer a reader chat. So long as you have someone who can embed your chat/liveblog on the site, most everything else can be done from the app, including adding multimedia elements and administering reader questions.

But Be in Person When Needed: You don’t need to have all parties in the same room (or even the same country) to hold a virtual chat – but sometimes it can be a help. From my own experience, if you are dealing with a politician, celebrity or some other guest who has “handlers”, you want to ensure those handlers aren’t the ones actually conducting the chat (this is why video chats are great – instant transparency!).

Promotion is Key: Lauren’s weekly chats get heavy advance promotion online, in print and on social media channels. In addition to promoting these chats on her own and the YDR’s social media accounts, Lauren prompts the panelists to cross-promote their appearances on their own social platforms. When promoting your chats, encourage readers to sign up for e-mail reminders (a built-in function on CiL and others).

Set a Time that Works: Lauren says her chats seem to remain lively for about an hour before they start to trail off. In my own experience, hour-long chats around lunchtime seemed to work best in terms of getting response. If you have a lively chat that keeps on getting good questions, see if your panelist can stick around to answer more questions.

Moderate Questions and Comments Carefully: The moderator function allows you to control which reader comments and questions can be seen on the chat. If you’re concerned about completely anonymous questions, in CiL, you have the option to require user login using Twitter, Facebook, OpenID or other options. If you need to communicate with a reader/commenter privately, you can message them within the app.

Space Out Questions: Don’t approve a bunch of questions at once. If you get a few questions that are the same or similar, however, group them together for the panelist to avoid duplicate answers.

Add in Media and Polls: In CiL, you have the option of adding in polls or trivia as the chat (or liveblog) is running, so get even lurkers involved during lag times waiting for an answer. Add in background links, contextual info, photos, videos and audio if it relates to the chat subject.

Repurpose (and Re-Promote) Chat Content: Depending on the topic, the YDR’s chats are occasionally repurposed for print (a factor, Lauren notes, prompts more people to get involved as panelists). If nothing else, be sure to promote the chat transcript after the fact and link it to related content on your site.



How to Set Up A Chat Using CoveritLive


Are Facebook’s Social Reader Apps on the Decline – and Why?


  1. Good stuff, Mandy. Useful tips. You are showing your youthfulness, though. Old guys like me remember bulletin boards and listservs as “the original social media.” We were crowdsourcing and engaging with the community even before the invention of the World Wide Web.

    OK, enough with the Grandpa Simpson stuff.

    We did a live chat last night in the wake of our “Finding Their Way Out” package (http://bit.ly/Jm6rFQ) about a small town’s long recovery from a deadly school shooting. The stories published over the weekend, and the reporter, photographer and lead editor on the project met with the public online for about an hour last night. We had meaningful, heartfelt engagement with people who were mad at us, people who supported us, and people who were interested merely from a journalistic standpoint. You can see the chat archive here: http://bit.ly/Ilrcx2

    • Hey now Randy, I remember bulletin boards…sort of….though I didn’t get online for the first time until 1996 (when my parents finally got dial-up). So you got me. 

      But seriously, thank you for sharing the “Finding Their Way Out” chat – it sounds as if it may have been a bit therapeutic for everyone involved.

  2. Try this for the “Finding Their Way Out” link, which seems to have failed below:  http://bit.ly/Jm6rFQ

  3. Hi Mandy, thanks for sharing. I am currently deciding between CoveritLive and ScribbleLive as a live blogging platform for a technology news site. Do you know about their pricing models? Do you use a free or paid version? I think our site is too big for the free version (we don’t want the ads) but too small to pay a big monthly fee. Any ideas? Thanks 

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