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Running the Guardian’s politics blog: ‘We’ve never had so many readers’ | Politics

How did you join the Guardian?

I spent 11 years covering politics in the lobby for local and national papers, and then gave up work when our youngest daughter was diagnosed with autism. When I was ready to go back, the Guardian was advertising for an online political correspondent. Like all sensible journalists, I had always wanted to work for the Guardian, but it was a time when political blogging was taking off, and I was also starting to think that online offered opportunities to cover politics in better ways. I got hired.

When I joined, sport were using live blogs regularly but in news they were relatively rare and almost never the main vehicle for covering a political event on the website. I started using them a lot, they got longer and more detailed, and editors and readers were enthusiastic. A big breakthrough came with the Iraq inquiry in late 2009, when we led the website with my inquiry blog, rather than a conventional news story, for days on end. I remember it as the moment when editors became comfortable with the idea of anchoring web coverage around a blog. In 2010 I did a daily general election blog and after the election was over it just kept going as Politics Live.

Can you describe your daily routine?

I work in the Guardian office in the House of Commons and I start at about 8am. Sometimes I go to lobby briefings, or I take my laptop to events that are not being televised, but mostly I’m at my desk monitoring events in parliament and elsewhere on TV, but also keeping track of what is happening via the news wires, email, Twitter, WhatsApp etc. It’s a hybrid job; part reporting, but also largely editing.

How does blogging compare with conventional political reporting?

Andrew Sparrow blogging about Kenneth Clarke during the 2009 Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
Andrew Sparrow blogging about Kenneth Clarke during the 2009 Conservative Party conference in Manchester. Photograph: Martin Argles/The Guardian

Even though it’s unrelenting (a live blog does not work if you head off for a long lunch with a contact), I find it much more rewarding. As a newspaper reporter I would often end the day feeling that I had learned 20 interesting things, only about four or five of which I could get into the paper. The chat in the office was often more stimulating than what we were publishing. That was not because of a conspiracy to conceal information; it was just that, unless you could shoehorn information into the rigid format of a news story, you could not get it into the public domain.

Writing a blog, that is not a problem. Partly that’s because space is unlimited. But mostly it’s a matter of having more elbow room as a journalist. Without being constrained by the conventions of writing a news story, there is more opportunity for commentary and analysis; for covering not just what happens, but what it means and why it matters. Now I never go home feeling I haven’t had the chance to share what I know.

What impact are Brexit and the Tory leadership contest having on the blog?

They’ve generated a surge of interest. I’ve been writing the live blog for almost 10 years and it’s never had such a big readership: 1m-plus hits a day on average in the first quarter of the year, when the Brexit crisis was acute. It’s less now, but the blog is almost always one of the five most read articles on the website on any day, and quite often it’s the best read.

You need three things for a live blog to work: what I call “now news” (that is, news you want to read immediately, not over breakfast tomorrow); a story that keeps changing; and a story that people want to read at length. Brexit ticks all these boxes.

Do you worry that you just don’t have time to analyse properly what’s going on?

A bit. If you have six hours to think about a politician’s speech, you will produce a more considered view than you can in 20-30 minutes (my timeframe – I write a lot of “snap verdicts”). But there is an intense demand for instant news and, if we don’t meet it, someone else will. There is a famous 19thcentury Times editorial saying the first duty of the press is to obtain “the earliest and most correct intelligence of the events of the time” and, by disclosing them, make them “the common property of the nation”. That still stands; it is just that “earliest” is quicker than it used to be. I also think the assumption “fast news must be flawed” is wrong: sometimes the quickest takes are the sharpest.

What do your readers contribute to your blog?

More than they probably realise. My blog regularly attracts 10,000 or more comments a day. I can’t read them all, but I read some and I try to reply to anyone who asks me a direct question (by wordsearching “Andrew”).

I don’t think I’m giving away any trade secrets if I say not all journalists welcome being told they’re wrong. Who does? But the live blog format makes it possible to have a very constructive relationship with readers. Once a reporter files a story, it’s over, and any non-positive feedback counts as a complaint. But my blog is open for eight or more hours a day, and when people point out mistakes, or challenge my judgment, there is time for me to respond.

In my book, no error is too minor to correct (if you care about getting the small things right, you’re more likely to get the big things right too) and if people question my analysis or language, as long as they’re not offensive, I’m happy to consider their point. Over time I’ve realised this scrutiny makes me a much better reporter. I spend around 20 minutes a day reading and replying to comments, and it’s a part of my routine I always find illuminating.

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