Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

The last post

Posted in Adam by Adam Westbrook on October 4, 2012

After six years, 520 posts and who knows how many words, this is the last thing I’m going to write on this blog. 

It’s a decision I’ve been thinking about for almost a year and I’ve kept putting it off, partly because I still had things I wanted to figure out and share with you, and also because – believe it or not – this blog does make a bit of money!

But 2o12 has been a year of reflection and contemplation for me and ultimately of heading in new directions. Over the last few years my interests and passions have developed to the point where I now no longer think of myself as a journalist, but more of a producer and publisher. What I write about has gradually shifted from news to storytelling, to cinema to entrepreneurship, and I know that’s not what many of you come here for.

At the same time, how I think about creating stuff has changed and I want to focus my energy on building things that matter: films, magazines, books, businesses and more. Sadly a weekly blog post, and hours spent on Twitter don’t fit into that.

Parting gifts

I’ve spent some time bringing together 20 of my favourite pieces from the last few years and written five brand new ones, and put them all into a one-off collection. If you’re here for the first time and want the highlights this is for you, or if you want an intensive burst of ideas and inspiration in one sitting then I recommend it too. It’s completely free:  you can have the pdf right here, no email address or nuthin’.

Everything I’ve written on here will stay forever, for free. You can select just the video and storytelling posts or the entrepreneurship and creativity posts if you like, or just see what’s popular.

What next?

In a few months I’ll be leaving my life in London behind and seeking some new adventures. I’ll be heading to Paris in January and then to wherever the wind takes me. There is no plan or strategy, just embracing uncertainty, putting faith in having no plan.

I’ve got some bold new projects I want to start, some experiments I want to try and I’ll generally be gettin’ busy gettin’ messy. I’m still insanely passionate about creating insightful, intelligent and thought-provoking factual stories so a lot of my projects will be trying to solve this problem.

I’m also crazy about storytelling structure and visual storytelling and still have loads of questions about it. The response to the Inside the Story project earlier this year was awesome, and I have plans to develop it in early 2013, most likely in magazine form. If you’ve downloaded a free copy of the ebook, then you’ll hear about it later this year. Click here to get a copy if you haven’t already.

I’ll be location independent so I’ll still be working with clients in the UK and elsewhere and I’ll continue to be available for film, motion graphics and writing commissions. Click here to contact me about that. I’m also still consulting and training, and there are still a few spaces left on the next video journalism workshop in November. At the same time, if you’re an organisation committed to creating great narrative experiences anywhere in the world then drop me a line too, maybe we could work together one day.

Thank you

Finally, and most importantly, I want to say a huge thank you to you for reading all this over the years. You can double that thanks if you’ve ever left a comment after a post, triple it if you’ve retweeted, reblogged or shared a post, and quadruple it if you’ve ever bothered to send me an email. Knowing that something I’ve written has inspired another person, given them a new idea, or helped them do something awesome always puts a smile on my face.

After all this time blogging about journalism, what advice can I offer? Well, there’s a spot open for someone to share more new ideas about how journalism can be done better. If that appeals to you, then remember: be positive, not critical, share and inspire and above all be immensely generous.

Blogging is a great way to crystallise your own ideas and get feedback, not to mention a great way to learn, build a platform and a reputation. It worked for me and it was great fun, so go on, get busy writing. Here’s a series I wrote a couple of years back with advice on how to start your own blog.

Keep up!

I have honestly no idea what will happen next in my life but here are some ways you can keep up with whatever the hell does happen.

My Journal: I’ve slowly been building a personal online journal. Is it just another blog? Sort of, although it is really a blogazine, with each article individually designed, as a way for me to practice web design. It’s a 100% personal site, so if you’re interested in me as a person then take a look. Inspired by Robin Sloan’s brilliant tap essay I’m going to be making tributes to people, things, places and stuff that I really love.

My homepage: My main website is still there – it’s the best way to contact me.

Twitter: I’ll still be tweeting and tumblring, although a lot less frequently.

Hotpursuit.co: This is my new publishing venture..it’s just a top co right now, but will develop more in the future. Still you can sign up to the mailing list if you really want.

• • •

And lastly, I’m not stopping this blog because I have lost faith in the future of journalism or the industry. Quite the opposite. In the lifespan of this website we’ve seen journalism hit hard, and its foundations thoroughly shaken. But the last two years have brought an energetic burst of new ideas, platforms and experiments from ordinary people that I’m certain will propel us through to a remarkable new age, where stories are told, ideas are spread and the truth always challenged.

If you ever despair, remember: we are just at the beginning. 

A quick note on innovation in media

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism by Adam Westbrook on September 17, 2012

The first thing to realise is that the secret is not to come up with a new idea.

There is rarely such a thing. Instead, the secret is to look at a space with people, or businesses already established, and see what they’re doing wrong. Then invent something that improves on what they do.

Whether this is blogging, publishing, film-making, business, photography or whatever, you can do this. The “gap in the market” isn’t some big group of people that no-one has thought of targeting before. It’s found in the shortcomings of players already in the market.

Here are some disruptive approaches into any of these fields.

Be the inspirer: use your work to inspire and excite others with new ideas: this is how I have blogged for six years. People love being inspired.

Be the connector: bring people together, either in person, or online, like a good party host. Create a digital space for people to interact (a forum, a social site) or a physical one (start a monthly meetup).

Be the combiner (of new ideas): I’ve written about this before. Combine two disparate ideas to make a new one.

Be the leader: have a vision for how things can be better and actively set out to make it happen. Others will follow.

Be the experimenter: be about lots of ideas, rapid prototyping, quick feedback. Very few people do this openly in any niche (afraid of looking stupid)

Be the doer/maker: get busy building (films, books, events, software) – let your actions speak for you. Probably the best way to go (after all, anyone can talk the talk..)

Be the problem solver: actively look for the problems in a particular area, and create solutions.

Be the UX fixer: any bad (reading, watching, buying, discovery, sharing) experience is an opportunity to own the market, simply by creating a better experience. Instagram wasn’t the first photo-sharing app, but it’s the one that’s the most satisfying to use.

Be the most fun: constantly surprise and delight your users/audience/readers.

Be the most caring: how many magazines or news websites give a damn about their audience? If they really did, would their products be full of adverts? All big organisations and corporations have this human disconnection problem (when was the last time your bank wasn’t an arsehole?)..and they’re all opportunities for smaller, leaner people-driven competition.

Notice the two items that are missing: be the fastest and be the cheapest. They’re races to the bottom and should be avoided at all costs. 

How 1 and 1 makes 3 and more lessons in storytelling from Ken Burns

Posted in Online Video by Adam Westbrook on September 10, 2012

Tumblr followers might have seen this video I discovered (via Maria Popova’s ever-excellent Brain Pickings) last week. It’s a short profile of the history documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, a man whose technique and style has become so recognisable, he’s even had an effect named after him.

Burns has a difficult job: make stories from the past compelling on screen. It’s tough because your characters are dead and the action you want to film has long since happened. You are left with interviews with historians, still photographs and empty buildings. As a former historian myself it’s a genre I’ve long thought needs a fresh approach – but I’ve been looking at it in the wrong way.

Watch this short film (itself superbly produced by Tom Mason and Sarah Klein) and you’ll see the Ken Burns approach isn’t so concerned with what we see. For him it’s all about crafting a compelling story.

And here are my notes from watching it a few times over.

Great stories: there are millions of them! It’s easy to forget sometimes, but the world is full of amazing stories happening right now, every second. Burns gives two examples from US history – and you’ll notice both stories have a ‘wow’ factor: they both make you go “shit, no way“. We need to pursue these stories more often – remember the flying rhino!

The good guys have very serious flaws and the bad guys are very compelling. Remember how Indiana Jones is scared of snakes? That’s a great example of a contradictory hero. No-one is interested in a tough guy who solves a problem with ease. We want to hear about people who are as scared, nervous and fallible as we are.

All story is manipulation. This is a debate point for factual film-makers but I think I agree with Burns on this one. He says it’s ‘good manipulation’ – using the range of storytelling devices within reach to make people feel something. Whether you believe in manipulation or not, you always want someone to care about your film, and that in itself is an emotion.

We coalesce around stories which seem transcendant. This is a nod to the universal story. The best stories – no matter who the characters are, when or where it happens – stick with us because they evoke common ideas that we can all relate to. The story of Julius Caesar’s death is retold 2,000 years later not for its political ramification but because it is a story of betrayal: we’ve all been betrayed (or been the betrayer) and we understand the story more deeply. The lesson: always look for the universal in your own stories.

We’re all going to die; story is there to remind us that it’s just OK. Finally in a very elegant nod to the universal story, film makers Tom Mason and Sarah Klein end their piece with Ken Burns wondering why he tells stories about the past. He reveals his mother died from cancer when he was 11.

…I try to make Abraham Lincoln and Jackie Robinson and Louis Armstrong come alive, and it might be very obvious and very close to home who I’m actually trying to wake up. 

If you care about storytelling then watch this a few times over.

And, if you want more great wisdom on storytelling, you should watch these interviews with Ira Glass, this talk by Amy O’Leary and of course, download your free copy of Inside the Story.

30 free ideas for multimedia producers and digital storytellers

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism, Online Video by Adam Westbrook on September 3, 2012

One of the first and best bits of advice I’ve ever been given has been this: write everything down.

Writing an idea down – making it physical on the page – engages your brain in imaging how that idea might happen. As the words form on the page, you think about logistics, treatments, audiences.

It also gives you the ability to vocalise and understand a problem. If a film you’re making isn’t working for some reason, try and write down why: if you can put your problem into words, you have power over it.

So for the last three years I’ve written ideas down as a matter of routine. I’ve got notebooks upon notebooks, as well as a 50 page Word document on my hard drive full of them. Many of the ideas are now redundant as I’ve moved onto other things, and following last week’s confessional, I thought I’d give some them away for free.

You never know, one person’s trash might be another person’s treasure.

A couple of disclaimers: I am fully aware most of these ideas are either lame or not original – that’s partly why I never pursued them. So I won’t be taking criticism in the comments about the quality or originality of the ideas, thank you. However, even if you don’t find any directly useful, they might fire off a spark into something else.

I’m publishing these under a Creative Commons Licence I’m calling the Call-Your-Mum-Licence (CYML 1.0). You don’t have to give any credit or anything, but if you do find a use for them, promise you’ll give your mum (or equivalent) a ring.

Right, let’s get on!

30 free ideas for digital producers

  1. Amazing real life stories that emerged solely from data on a spreadsheet
  2. Stories about items (typewriter/kodachrome) going extinct
  3. Stories of the glamour days of air travel (PanAm etc)
  4. Missed connections on Gumtree
  5. Profiles of people who make a living pretending to be someone else
  6. “My first…” directors/writers/painters talk about the pain of getting the first film/book/painting done
  7. “Journeys that almost killed me”
  8. “Scene of the crime” – take people back the place where something major happened in their life
  9. Is Britain tilting? (apparently it is)
  10. Elderly people share one piece of advice they’ve learned in their many years
  11. Investigate how easy it is to plant a tree in a public place (apparently not very)
  12. Run for MP in the next election and make a documentary about it.
  13. Visit every World Heritage Site in the country and document
  14. A website/magazine about people for whom ‘OK isn’t good enough’
  15. A collaborative piece where people across the country find out where their waste goes
  16. A website where people can fill in a box to say sorry for something they’ve done (anonymously)
  17. An app that lets people photograph potholes/graffiti and sends it, plus location, to their local authority. The LA can then text them directly when the problem has been fixed.
  18. Competitions to bring people from around the world together to solve a big problem – crowd sourcing problem solving
  19. A platform to show news packages from around the world..how have different countries covered the same event?
  20. Films about people who do a dying trade (blacksmith/wood turner etc)
  21. If we could build the internet from scratch, with everything we’ve learned, what would it look like?
  22. Repackage out-of-copyright books in a more visual and engaging way
  23. An app that makes it really clear what food is in season and local to you for when you go shopping
  24. Use splitscreen/tallscreen to show two sides to an argument
  25. A simple, non-technical description of how web sites are made
  26. A celebration of unconventional solutions to problems
  27. A visual rundown of all the different types of material and  how long they take to decompose
  28. Take someone who’s in a bad place in their life on a creative journey (How to look good naked but with creativity not clothes)
  29. Get 15 brilliant people from completely different industries together to try and solve a problem in a weekend. Document it.
  30. A repository for unwanted ideas that other people can use and take inspiration from. In fact, let’s start it right now – share yours in the comments box!

UPDATE: Journalist Ben Whitelaw has added some of his spare ideas on his blog. Let me know if you do the same and I’ll link to them too.

False starts

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism by Adam Westbrook on August 27, 2012

Most of us, either through our upbringing, education or profession, have an aversion to making mistakes. Most of us too are governed in some way by a fear of failure.

Fair enough, but we live in a world, and work in an industry, where change is afoot and where innovation is desperately needed. This comes not from walking the line, but from making mistakes and experimenting.

As I start to wrap things up around here I’ve been looking back over some of the mistakes and false starts I’ve had over the last few years. There are lots of them. I hope that sharing mine will make you feel better about yours.

Here’s a quick list of some of the false starts I’ve had so far:

  • I blew my first potential gig as a film-maker, a commission to make a documentary for an NGO. In my naivety and desperation to get the gig I under-sold myself and gave a very cheap quote. Sensibly, they decided to go with someone more expensive!
  • I wrote an ebook of journalism skills for hyperlocal bloggers – it sold a whopping 15 copies
  • Next Generation Journalist did a bit better – it made enough to justify the time I spent on it – but sold far fewer copies than I thought it would
  • My Future of News Meetups in 2010 started off amazingly, but I was unable to continue them after 6 months (although others carried on the baton)
  • I spent about 5 months developing an idea for a new magazine with a friend, but we both lost motivation when we couldn’t marry it to a demand in the market.
  • I started a video business in January 2011 and it did really well. But when the web domain came up for renewal I decided to cancel it and end the business – not through lack of work, but all my clients were coming through me, not the business.
  • I worked with two great  journalists on ambitious plans to create a multimedia explainer of the Eurozone crisis last winter. The topic was so big and fast changing we had to drop it over Christmas.
  • I started a website called Volcano Love Stories which was going to collect love stories that emerged from the volcanic eruption in 2010. I only got one submission
  • Not to mention more than 20 films that have not made the splash I wanted, a dozen web domains bought and left to rot, and the countless ideas that sit in notebooks.

The point is, every one has false starts and stumbles. Everyone falters and fails, particularly on the way to doing important work. Although each of these were disappointing and painful at the time, I learned something important from each of them.

Don’t be set back by your personal false starts. The people who make it in the end are the ones who pick themselves back up, dust themselves off and get busy again. As long as you learn something from them they haven’t been a waste of time.

What have your false starts been and what did you learn from them?

Your online video shopping list

Posted in Online Video by Adam Westbrook on August 20, 2012

There’s an old analogy, which I can trace back to the 1990s, that says making a film is a lot like making a meal. 

It goes like this:

“You choose your recipe (subject and angle), write out a shopping list (treatment and storyboard), get some money (you need more than you think) and go shopping for the raw materials (shoot the pictures and record the sound). Then you return to the kitchen (cutting room) and start cooking (editing). The meal is made in the kitchen; the film in the cutting room.”

Harris Watts, On Camera

I like this analogy a lot, but it’s worth unpacking for 21st century video storytellers.

Choose your recipe

The big point here is you must have an idea of what your film is going to look like when its finished. You must be able to picture the opening, the closing and perhaps some key sequences in the middle. You must be able to close your eyes and hear your  potential interviewees talking, imagining what kind of things they’ll say. You should have a feel for the pace of the film – is it fast or slow? Upbeat or sad?

Ultimately your story should have a theme – a controlling idea of some kind – which you can summarise in a single sentence. You wouldn’t make a risotto for the first time without knowing what one looks like would you?

Write a shopping list

This always finds its way into my workflow, and I teach it to students and clients as well. Before I start filming I mind-map all the elements and use it to plan the shoot. I draw out the key ingredients: the interview, the sequences, the scenes, the other b-roll and anything else like music and graphics. Then from each of these segments I brainstorm ideas for how each one could play out.

A “shopping list” I drew for a short documentary in 2011

So around the interview bit I come up with different ideas for where I could conduct my interviews; I think about what questions I’ll ask. It helps me anticipate any problems which might come up during the shoot. Your first idea is rarely the best, so try and come up with unique takes on each segment.

I’m running another online video basics course with journalism.co.uk in September 2012. Click here for details.

Get some money

The quote above was written for television in the 1990s with its big budgets. These days I’d say video can cost less than you think. Certainly the hurdles to creating and publishing video have fallen through the floor. If you’ve got an iPhone or a flipcam – or even a webcam – the power to tell visual stories is in your hand.

Shop for raw materials

Here’s the big thing: the shoot is like the shopping expedition. You are merely collecting items to edit later on. This isn’t to belittle the shoot and the hard work that goes into it (you can’t make a good meal with bad ingredients, after all). However, to get obsessed by equipment and spend ages on complex super-slick camera moves misses the point: the film is made in the edit. It is the combination and contrast of images that tell the story, rarely the images on their own.

The rules of a good shopping trip apply: have a shopping list, know your way around the supermarket and get in and out as quickly as possible. You want more than enough of each ingredient so you can choose the very best to include in your meal. That means shooting more b-roll than you think you need, and shooting a longer interview than you’ll use.

Start cooking

As I said the real flavours of your film won’t emerge until the edit. That’s the magic moment when you combine your ingredients to create something greater than the sum of its parts. In video we are talking about the combination of images to create an idea in the audiences’ mind. Why does that matter? Because then the story doesn’t happen on the screen, in happens in someone’s brain: they own a bit of it, and it draws them in.

Too often – especially in journalism – we take the inverted triangle approach and tell our audience everything, instead letting them figure it out for themselves.

Anyway, once you’ve stirred all your ingredients together, leave it to simmer for 20 mins and add salt to flavour. But not too much.

Nine myths about publishing books, films and magazines

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism by Adam Westbrook on July 30, 2012

Publishing is changing fast, and so are its rules. This is fantastic opportunity for anyone willing to take it, and a problem for traditional publishing houses (unless they’re willing to adapt, and quickly). 

At the same time, the danger is to walk into this new world carrying the baggage of the old. We’ve seen it happen a lot in video. Whether you’re publishing ebooks, digital magazines, podcasts, a blog or video, here are some “rules” which apply to traditional/mainstream publishers, but not to you.

.01 you need to publish to a regular schedule

Traditional magazines publish weekly or monthly and it’s easy to fall straight into that mindset if you’re publishing digitally. But remember magazine schedules are based on the cost and systems of printing paper. Publishing digital products, like ebooks, magazines and apps online you are free from those constraints.

Think for example of California Is A Place: it’s a video web series, but new episodes appear only when they’re good and ready. That hasn’t stopped each video racking up tens of thousands of views.

.02 you must make advertising revenue

Again it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that the only way to make your journalism pay is to stick adverts all over it. GQ and Grazia might be 60% advertisement but your digital publication doesn’t need to be.

How come? Well, firstly your overheads are lower so you don’t need big contracts to keep going. Secondly, the web opens up a whole host of other revenue streams from subscription, to events and other products.

Here’s the thing about advertising: in an ideal world, does your audience want to consume adverts? No. So do a good thing and spare them the pain.

NOTE: by coincidence, the New York Times has just revealed it is starting to rely less on advertising, in the face of big slumps in revenue.

.03 you need to publish a certain quantity every month

Isn’t it funny how a newspaper is always the same size no matter how much news there’s been that day? How the evening news is always 30 minutes long no matter what? Again, these are constraints created by those specific platforms.

And yes, publishing online frees you from this too. So, if you’re publishing a digital magazine don’t feel you need to fluff it out with more pages just to fit a quota. And don’t feel your ebook must be at least 100 pages to make it valuable. If you’ve got 20 pages of fried gold your readers will appreciate the quick read.

Incidentally, I read somewhere once that physical books often need to have a certain number of pages in them, so their spine is thick enough to get noticed on a bookshelf!

.04 you need to publish forever

Again the overheads associated with magazine production make it necessary to aim to publish indefinitely. While it’s impressive to build a formidable brand over many decades of publishing, it doesn’t have to be so.

The Domino Project was a publishing business that ran for a year with great success and published 12 titles before Seth Godin decided to wrap it up. “Projects are fun to start,” he said “but part of the deal is that they don’t last forever.”

If that feels a bit futile, don’t forget you can start a company that runs short projects, each one temporary but contributing to a larger brand.

.05 people won’t pay for digital products

This is being proven wrong all over the shop. While a couple of years ago it seemed consumers were hesitant, ebooks now generate $2billion of revenue a year; meanwhile iTunes and Spotify are the biggest forms of income for record labels.

Furthermore, it’s not the cheapness of digital projects that appeals. Don’t get fooled into pricing your next book at 79p. Instead try charging £5 – and making it worth all five pounds.

.06 you need to reach a large audience

The mainstream media and mass communication is about just that: the masses. Traditional books, movies, magazines and TV shows are judged solely on numbers and can’t survive unless they have big audiences.

It’s a relief to see the debate around online publishing moving away from its obsession with hits. The internet is designed for niches: slim, deep verticals where people are small in number but big in passion and engagement.

You only need 2,000 passionate readers willing to pay $100 a year to subscribe to your work and you’re making a tidy $200,000.

.07 you need to control your content

TED know this very well. For years they’ve released their talks, completely for free, on Youtube, and they’ve garnered hundreds of millions of views. Everyone wins when you do this.

Audiences are grateful for your act of generosity, and your idea and brand are spread far and wide. So don’t try and own your content so hard; make it easy to share, let other people remix, transform and copy it, let it spread far and wide.

Acts of generosity always come back to you in the future.

.08 you need to be short, snappy and controversial to get attention

While “50 pictures of cats wearing sweaters” and their ilk may be around forever, the debate about journalism and content is finally appreciating deep, high quality – if less regular – journalism. I’ve written about Matter before, it’s the science magazine launching in September, aiming to publish one long-form article a month.

They’ll be specially commissioned in-depth pieces, with their own bespoke illustrations. This is clever because rather than trying to get lots of eyeballs and attention, they’re setting a standard for quality: something worth paying for.

.09 you have to have a consistent price

We slip into this mindset of commerce without even thinking about it: when one charges for a product, one must choose a single price. 

Says who? Here’s two ways you can mess with that idea: firstly, scaled pricing where you offer a bronze version, a silver price and a platinum edition. Each layer gives you more stuff. Kickstarter has proven how well people respond to tiered pricing levels.

Secondly (and I love this idea): have a dynamic price for your product that increases by one-penny every time a new copy is sold. In other words, the book gets more expensive the more people buy it. If you’re a customer, that injects an urgency in buying the book.

It bears repeating: this really is the time to get into this game. Choose to be a creator, not just a consumer. Make great stuff and build a crowd around it. And forget how publishing has been done, and instead think about how it could be done. 

Inside the Story is back (and free!)

Posted in Online Video by Adam Westbrook on July 23, 2012

It’s a short post this week and it comes in two parts.

Firstly, get the book

Yes, as suggested a few weeks ago we have re-released Inside the Story, after lots of demand from people who didn’t manage to get a copy in the first run. Frankly, the advice in the book is too good to be kept away forever, and we want as many people to benefit from it as possible. So, not only is the book back – and permanently – it’s also free.

The first run raised a more than $4,000 for the developing world charity Kiva, which blew our socks off. It’s more than we could have hoped for and so now the book is yours to keep for free. There is, however, an option of a voluntary loan or donation should you want to support the charity.

And finally, thanks to the hard work of some talented journalists/translators, the book is now available in three new languages: German (translated by Dieter Hoogestraat); Spanish and Catalan (translated by Alba Falcó and David Domingo).

So if you haven’t got yourself a copy yet, now’s the time. Just head over to Inside the Story and follow the download instructions.

Secondly, take the quiz

If you’ve already read Inside the Story, I need your help. The response was better than we had expected and many of you got in touch to say how useful it was to you.

That’s awesome, and we want to make more stuff like this that you’ll find just as helpful and inspirational.

So what’s missing in your digital storytelling world?

We’ve designed a very short survey to find out what you would find most useful. It’s anonymous and quick – filling it in will help make sure our next big project is as useful to you as possible.

Click here to take the survey.

And a bonus tip!

If you’re interested in starting your own innovative publishing projects and building a business around it, I’m running a workshop with the General Assembly in London tomorrow night. Tickets are still available – click here to get one.

Meet the Micropublisher: an interview with Thom Chambers

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism by Adam Westbrook on July 16, 2012

You’ll know it’s not often that I do interviews on this blog, despite getting requests from PR folk each week.

Thom Chambers though is someone I think you should meet.

He left a job in marketing to found his own micropublishing business Mountain and Pacific. It publishes two digital magazines: In Treehouses, a free release about freedom lifestyles and The Micropublisher, a subscription based magazine for wannabe publishers. He’s recently joined authors Colin Wright, Joshua Fields Milburn and Ryan Nicodemus in founding Asymmetrical, a community for writers and publishers, which I have had some great fun with in the last month or so.

But what I really like about Thom is his approach. He knows that you don’t need to be big or have a huge audience to be successful, just please a small, loyal crowd. And he knows there are no shortcuts to thriving in the age of the online publisher, just hard work and commitment.

•••

(By the way, if you’re interested in finding out more about how the microbusiness approach can be applied to journalism and publishing, I’m running a workshop at the General Assembly in London on the 24th July 2012.)

Interview with Thom Chambers, founder of Mountain & Pacific

What is the concept behind micropublishing and how is it different to normal publishing?

Self-publishing, as you’ll well know, has changed. It’s no longer a stepping stone or a fallback, but a lucrative destination in its own right. The opportunity for you to make a living with words is greater than ever before. But there’s a problem: in the self-publishing world, without publishing houses to filter out the rubbish, readers are overwhelmed. It’s harder than ever to stand out.

I believe there’s a simple solution: be your own publishing house.

  • A micropublishing house is simply a traditional publishing house shrunk to down to a one-person operation. A micropublisher is the person who runs it.
  • A publishing house distributes to bookstores. Your micropublishing house can sell books through its own website, through an online bookstore like Amazon, or both.
  • A publishing house needs writers. Your micropublishing house only needs one writer: you.
  • A publishing house aims for a large audience. Your micropublishing house finds a small, specific niche audience and aims to delight those happy few.
  • A publishing house publishes a large number of titles. Your micropublishing house publishes a small number – perhaps only one.
  • A publishing house has huge print costs. Your micropublishing house makes digital publications or print-on-demand titles only.
  • A publishing house runs big promotion campaigns. Your micropublishing house talks to fans who’ve given you permission to talk to them.
  • A publishing house has a huge staff and expensive offices. Your micropublishing house can be run by just you and a computer, from anywhere in the world.

I believe that micropublishing is the best way to make a living with words. By taking up the professional attitude of a traditional publishing house, you help readers, turning them into fans and customers. A micropublishing house is a publishing house for the self-publishing world. It’s a combination of the intimacy of blogging with the professionalism of traditional publishing houses.

How did the Mountain & Pacific business develop over its first year? Was it a slow start and was it hard to get going? How did you build momentum?

Mountain & Pacific only came about after I’d been publishing online for a little while. I started out with In Treehouses, which was a standalone magazine. When I started publishing other work as well, I wanted an umbrella under which to gather it all, rather than have it scattered across different websites. Starting a micropublishing house was a good way to accomplish that.

By taking up the professional attitude of a traditional publishing house, you help readers, turning them into fans and customers.

As a result, Mountain & Pacific had a kind of running start – there was the audience for In Treehouses who came over and read the other things I was writing as well.

With everything I’ve started, though – whether the micropublishing house or the individual magazines – they’ve grown slowly and steadily. I’ve never ‘gone viral’ nor have I made work that was designed to. Instead, I’ve tried to make things that delight those readers I do have. They’re then generous enough to spread the word, and so my readership grows.

That’s the real ‘secret’. However much you want there to be a nice easy shortcut, the only way you’re guaranteed to succeed is by doing great work that delights your existing readers, over and over. Do that, grow slowly, and set aside the gimmicks.

You recently launched Magazines for the Rest of Us – can anyone become a micropublisher these days? 

Sure – but whether you’re able to be a successful micropublisher is a different matter.

All those things it takes to succeed in any other career or discipline – dedication, practice, focus, effort, time – all apply to micropublishing as well. While anyone can publish to the web, not everyone will make a living out of it.

You’ve got a very disciplined strategy which impressed me straight away: your blog posts are short and to the point, you don’t seem interested in having lots of followers or making a big noise. And heaven forbid, you don’t live in London, New York or San Francisco! What are the benefits of doing it this way?

You know, the biggest shift in my entire philosophy came when I realised that most online publishing works best as a means to an end, rather than an end in itself.

There was this little period in time, and I think it’s already gone – when you could make a living as a ‘pro blogger’. Really, though, a blog is just a communication channel. It’s a wonderful one, but that’s all it is – a way of spreading your message, connecting with readers, generating new business. It’s not a business in itself, it’s a platform from which to build your business.

However much you want there to be a nice easy shortcut, the only way you’re guaranteed to succeed is by doing great work that delights your existing readers, over and over. Do that, grow slowly, and set aside the gimmicks.

When you realise this, you also realise that you don’t need to be ‘that guy’ if you don’t want to be. That guy who’s guest-posting everywhere, trying to scrape other writer’s readers. That guy who’s podcasting because a blogging guru told him he should. That guy who writes provocative ’30 things you don’t know about me’ posts that include some naughty swear words, because he’s seen it succeed elsewhere.

I’m not writing to get traffic, or make a big splash. I’m writing to make a connection with people who share my values and philosophy, and to build a reputation of which I can be proud. It’s still important to entertain, be interesting, and so forth – but there’s a difference between doing that and pandering to the lowest common denominator.

It’s becoming clear that success in online publishing comes from building a loyal audience around consistently high quality content – the hardest thing to do! Is that good news for micropublishers or bad?

Well, it’s bad news if you see micropublishing as the next ‘get rich quick’ tactic – if you’re looking at Amazon or the Kindle as ways to make a fast buck. Yes, some people will succeed with that – but most won’t.

The good news is that, if you’re willing to work hard to become the best you can be and you’re willing to do valuable work (rather than simply imitate others), then you can find a bigger, stronger, more vocal audience than ever before. Yes, there’s a lot of noise with which you have to compete, but if you’re able to cut through that then the audience is ready and waiting.

What’s the biggest challenge you’ve overcome in building up the Mountain & Pacific?

Well, I think I’m still overcoming most of the challenges. I’m still teaching myself to be more focused, to do better work, to put in the hours. I haven’t scratched the surface of what I want to achieve – with Mountain & Pacific or with other aspects of my work.

Perhaps that’s the biggest challenge of all – overcoming complacency. Reminding yourself that ‘good enough’ isn’t good enough.

The good news is that, if you’re willing to work hard to become the best you can be and you’re willing to do valuable work (rather than simply imitate others), then you can find a bigger, stronger, more vocal audience than ever before.

Every day.

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism, Online Video by Adam Westbrook on July 9, 2012

You’re probably a reader of this blog because you work in, or want to work in, digital publishing.

There are dozens of sub categories in this space like blogger, video journalist, web designer, fashion photographer, that you’ll identify yourself with, but they all boil down to a few broad skills: you want to be a writer, or a film maker, or a designer, a photographer, an audio producer, or perhaps the publisher yourself (and if you’re a tortured soul like me, all of them!)

Here’s the best advice I can give you about succeeding in these areas, and it is very simple. Whatever it is you want to do, you must produce it and consume it every day.

Produce and consume

Stephen King’s popular book about the craft of writing On Writing makes this point very clearly:

“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot”

Stephen King, On Writing

If you want to write, you must write every day and you must read every day. If you want to be a web designer you must design something every day and you must study good web design every day. If you want to be a film maker, you must find time to make films every day and watch films every day.

You don’t have to finish a film or a design a day, but you must devote a solid block of time to working on it.

Note there’s a difference between ‘simple’ and ‘easy’ and this isn’t easy. For many people, myself included, it involves getting up an hour or two before everyone else to put the work in before heading out to do the stuff that pays the bills. Or it means staying up late, or working on weekends (when I am writing this post, incidentally). It’s not easy. But it is simple.

There are things to help you. I recently started using 750words – a clever little platform which nudges you to write 750 words of something every day. It doesn’t matter what, it just has to be written.

If you have passion for your craft then this should come a little more easily. But even passionate people lose motivation and direction occasionally. These are the days where it is even more vital you keep producing and consuming. If you do it every day, even for just an hour, it becomes a habit (in other words: automatic). When you achieve this, your day won’t feel right until you’ve done your thing. Stephen King admits he writes 365 days a year – even on Christmas Day – and for him “not working is the real work.”

It doesn’t have to be for long, and it doesn’t even have to be productive or successful.

But it does have to be every day. 

A call for collaborators II

Posted in Online Video by Adam Westbrook on July 5, 2012

Are you an independent multimedia journalist already deep into reporting a big ambitious issue?

I’m just starting work on another big publishing project, but right now it’s a lot of planning, ideas and desk-based work. I’m always trying to keep busy telling stories but haven’t had the time to invest in finding a new one yet.

I figured, rather than wait for one to come along and embark on another solo project, this would be the perfect time to help someone else produce their story to a top quality standard. So I’m looking for someone to collaborate with.

Note: this isn’t the same as my call for general collaborators earlier in the year – Mo, Nick, Tony, David, Fabio, Gavin, Lindsay and Pablo thanks for your emails – I’ll be in touch.

Who am I looking for?

I’m looking for someone who is already well into the reporting of a story, has already gathered a lot of the raw materials but is unsure of how to produce it. Maybe you feel that you don’t know how to organise all the materials you collected, or you can’t figure out how to structure the narrative in the most effective way. You might also not be confident at editing and other post-production skills or how to get the story on the web. I can help you with all those things.

It doesn’t matter where in the world you are as we can communicate over Skype and email. However if you would like some hands-on producing then it would be useful (although not vital) if you were in the UK so we can transfer large chunks of media.

What stories am I looking for?

It should be an ambitious, deep reporting multimedia project that you have invested a good amount of time in, building relationships and contacts in the story, immersing yourself in it. I don’t have enough time to do any of the reporting myself so it should be near the end of the ‘gathering’ stage, ready to go into post-production.  There’s no particular subject matter that I’m looking for but I’ll pick the one that interests me most and looks like it has the best potential to be a great story.

You might have photographs, audio and even video to put together. Ideally the story is character led, with a strong engaging person at its heart.

What can I help you do?

I can work with you to shape your raw materials into an engaging, attention grabbing narrative full of all the right story ingredients, whether as a standalone documentary, website, digital magazine or even a one-off iPad magazine.

I have a fair few other commissions and projects on the go at the moment so this wouldn’t be a full time gig – but we’ll work hard together on it until its done and ready to be published. I’ll also help you turn it around swiftly so it goes live by the end of the summer.  I won’t charge anything for my time or claim any ownership of the content itself, although a producer credit would be nice.

How to get in touch 

If your project sounds like a good fit then first of all drop me an email and tell me a bit more about you and your project. I want to know who you are, what your story is, what stage it is at right now and how it fits the criteria above. I’ll get in touch with the ones that appeal to me and the next step will be a short Skype conversation where we can see if we’ll work well together.

To get in touch visit my website and click the big ‘Contact Me’.

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How to make boring things interesting in video

Posted in Online Video by Adam Westbrook on July 2, 2012

There’s no doubting that video is an incredible medium. It has the power to transport us to other worlds, feel other peoples’ feelings and can affect our emotions quite dramatically, when done well. Ultimately, video can move people to action.

Part of the secret to doing good video is choosing the right stories to tell with video in the first place. Read that sentence again and you get an important truth about video: it can do some stories, issues and subject matter really well. Everything else, it does badly.

What is video good at?

When I give talks, lectures or workshops about online video I usually start by laying out what video can and cannot do. This is my list of its favourite subjects:

  • explosions, fire, sparks and noise (ever wondered why these always lead the news bulletins?)
  • action and movement: every video must involve someone doing something
  • awe-inspiringly big things like landscapes
  • amazingly small things that our eyes can’t see – but also anything closeup in general
  • human stories and emotion – no matter how complex

What is video bad at?

Human emotions are probably the most complex things out there but video can convey them better than any other medium. When it comes to other complex issues however, video is out of its depth:

  • Politics and meetings: much of it happens behind closed doors, is polemic and involves little physical movement
  • Business, economics and theory: similarly non-visual at first glance
  • Statistics, numbers and data: video and data journalism don’t sit side by side
  • Interviews (yes, really): video is not designed for people sitting down and talking

However, almost everyone involved in video finds themselves working on the latter a lot of the time. The nightly news has to cover politics and the economy. A management accountancy firm has to make videos about management accountancy. We all have to run interviews (do we?)

So the question then is: how do we make this shit interesting?

“There’s no such thing as boring knowledge. Only boring presentation.”

Dan Roam

I start with this quote in mind. Although I’m putting down business, politics and data as video subjects, there is no denying they are hugely interesting subjects in and of themselves. But to make them work on video we have to put in some extra work.There are some tested techniques filmmakers use to inject interest into potentially dry stories – many of these you will recognise from television, where programme makers face this challenge regularly.

In other cases, we are still struggling to make it interesting – so there’s potential for disruption from brave new film makers (that’s you).

.01 humanise

Tell a real human story as access into the issue. Ever wondered why news packages about gas price rises always start with an old lady filling up her kettle and worrying about her winter fuel allowance? That’s how journalists try to get people to care about a story that is actually about oil prices and Russian diplomacy.

This, incidentally is the secret behind great films that promote either non-profits or business. Duckrabbit’s TV campaign for Oxfam uses the real story of a donor to make us care; this series by Phos Pictures uses the same device to advertise -wait for it: a gym. It almost made me sign up, and I live 4,000 miles away.

.02 visualise

If every story should be human, it must also be visual. Video, like photography, graphic design and web design is about using images to convey the message – not words. A common crime of directors is to rely on dialogue, voice over and interviews to tell the story when ideally people should get it with the sound turned off.

At its most simple: if you’re filming an interview with an IT specialist for your website, don’t just film a straight interview. Make it visual: film them at work, going for a walk, cycling to work, eating lunch, playing squash whatever – it’s the eye-candy video is made for. Done well, visually led films can turn an interview with a blogger (snore…) into something quite wonderful.

.03 surprise

Amy O’Leary makes the point in this talk that surprise is a key element to a successful story. We love surprises because they release happy chemicals into our brains. You can hook your viewers on the surprise drug in two ways: you can be clever with your narrative to create a set-up and punchline throughout a piece (difficult) or you can smack them in the face with a wet fish.

For example, if your bread and butter is a weekly video interview with a leader in your field, why not do the interview while they’re getting their haircut? I’m serious. Find an amicable barber and you’ve got something easily set up, that fills its purpose and is visual at the same time…all while sticking annoyingly in your audiences mind. (If you manage to pull it off in your organisation, let me know!)

UPDATE: jump down to the comments section to see how Reuters do this effectively with a strand of their videos

.04 be useful

If you can’t be interesting then at least make sure your video is useful. Some people will sit through a 20 minute panel discussion if they know the information is important to them.

If you can’t even be useful, then for the love of God…

.05 be short

Some people say videos on the web shouldn’t be longer than two minutes. You can definitely tell a good story in less than this. While I don’t think there is a hard and fast rule, I do believe anything longer than five minutes is a result of laziness or ego (please note: I am regularly guilty of both of these).

Does your video have an upside down flying rhino in it? If not, it probably doesn’t warrant being longer than two minutes.

That said, if you’ve got a great human story, that you’re telling visually and is packed full of surprise: then please, I will give you hours of my attention. 

So in summary: if you can’t be interesting, useful or concise, you’ve picked the wrong medium.

The video decision workflow

To help you out I’ve designed this video decision workflow which puts all the above points into place. Start at the top and hopefully it will help you decide whether or not to tell your next story in video. As well as journalists and documentarians, it is also designed very much with commercial factual video in mind too. I know there are a lot of B2B magazines, agencies or industry websites out there wanting to use video but doing it ineffectively.

Please note: although the image has a © symbol on it, I am releasing it under a Creative Commons Licence for attribution. Please takeaway and use, but give credit if you publish it elsewhere. 

Adam Westbrook's Online Video Workflow

Click to enlarge

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