Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

Great online video: Gold’s Strong Stories

Posted in Online Video by Adam Westbrook on March 10, 2011

Newspapers and magazines are still, I think, hesitant to use online video in new and creative ways. It doesn’t help that many are trying to cut costs, but the other problem is a creative one: most video journalism still mimics television.

It’s not the first time on this blog I’ve highlighted great online video coming not from journalists, but from businesses. They’re the ones picking up the mantle of of video storytelling, embracing it and providing work for reporters, film makers and editors.

A week or so back I added a prime example of this to video .fu, our library of great online video storytelling.Production company Phos Pictures were approached by – of all people – a gym. They used documentary-style, portrait storytelling: not to create a naff advert for the gym, but to engage us with the stories of the people who use it.

The videos themselves are not embeddable, but here’s a promo produced by director Eliot Rausch.

You can’t gleam a huge amount from the trailer, so head over to the main site and watch one of the short films on there.

What’s the point?

You might recognise the people who produced these films – they’re the guys behind Last Minutes With Oden (Vimeo’s Documentary of the Year 2010) and Pennies HEART, both of which feature in the video .fu library.

The Gold’s Gym films utilise many of the same strengths: a single, engaging character, on an internal and external journey. We hear their voice, but don’t always see them speak. The characters are carefully chosen, and interviewed extraordinarily well: their words are almost poetic, and you’d think they were scripted if they weren’t delivered so naturally.

This comes from a skill which really sets the Phos Pictures team apart: they know their subjects intimately.

Here’s what Lukas Korver said about making Last Minutes With Oden on my other storytelling blog, blog.fu:

I think the best advice we can give is to always keep your eyes open for fresh characters and stories, they are all around us.  Take a few moments out of your day and talk to interesting people you pass in your daily life. If you’re intentions are good most people are quite receptive to being on film, once they get to know you and your intentions.

One of the best parts about being a filmmaker is getting away from the bubble  you create at your desk around your computer and go out into the real world and do some real face to face interaction.  Most days I’m not shooting I live a pretty solitary life so its great to break out of that routine of controlled isolation and experience life, or in our case as a filmmakers, experience others experiencing life.

These videos prove that engaging, documentary storytelling has uses beyond the boundaries of news and current affairs. Why does that matter for us? Well, it provides a possible new revenue stream, which can potentially fund independent journalism. Not only that, it provides a great opportunity to practice this very challenging craft.

It’s a lesson for journalists, but really it’s a lesson for businesses big and small: online video done well can bring your business to life.

Blogging week #3 How to build an audience

Posted in 6x6 series, Journalism by Adam Westbrook on August 11, 2010


In this week-long series, I’ll be taking a look at why you really can’t ignore blogging if you’re a journalist, guide you through the basics of getting started, and reveal some top tricks for making blogging work for you.

We all want readers, right?

There’s little more galling than spending hours on a crisp blog post, announcing your presence to the world and finding nobody’s listening.

The first thing to remember is this: why should anybody read what you write? Why should anyone know you exist? No-one has a right to be instantly noticed in the crowded online world. But it is possible to quite rapidly build a regular audience, and with that a community, prestige, perhaps even extra income.

I know this because I’ve been on the journey. This blog you’re reading now was started on the 1st September 2006 (after my Warwick one was closed down).

I started writing in earnest, and a few people read it – mostly friends and relatives. It maybe got a thousand page views a month, which amounts to roughly 30-odd a day.

And it carried on like this…for nearly three years.

It was OK, I never really had any blogging ambitions, (I was more interested in my journalism); I updated maybe two or three times a month, writing about whatever interested me.

Then, about 18 months ago, I did two things, which I hadn’t been doing before.

  1. I wrote about one single thing (and wrote about it well)
  2. I made sure whatever I wrote added value to other peoples’ lives.

That’s the blog you’re reading now: solely about multimedia journalism (and not interspersed with details about my last holiday), with lots of practical articles like this one.

And sure enough, more readers emerged.

I’ve learned over that time what brings and audience to a blog and what doesn’t. There was no keyword wizardry going on, I didn’t buy anything from Google. I just started writing good stuff, which helped other people.

Seems simple, right?

Five things you can do to add value to your blog and build an audience

Be valuable & regular

The most important thing you can do is write about a very specific thing, and write for an audience who are interested in that thing. So, if you’re a travel journalist, running a blog for business-travellers, write articles which they will find useful.

It’s the difference between an article titled “W00t! I got an article commissioned!!!1 :D” and one called “5 iPhone apps to make your flights fly by”.

Put yourself in the shoes of your readers. What are the difficulties in their life (the pains, the wasted time or dollars, the boredom) which your journalism can fix?

Second of all, be regular. You should really be writing good, useful, valuable articles two or three times every week. Punctuate them with week-long specials (like this one), guest posts (see below) or links-of-the-week type posts.

Engage

The next most important thing to do is engage.

It is not enough to write for the masses, sit back and let them leave comments. Every comment you receive (especially in the early weeks and months) you should respond to. Any debate which sparks off the back of one of your posts you should join in with.

Be controversial. Be provocative. Make some noise. Challenge people.

Another great way to bring in readers, especially important ones, like big names in your field, is to comment on other peoples’ blogs. Say you’ve got competition from another blogger in the business-travel sector. Start commenting on their posts – they’re bound to follow the link back to your post.

Don’t make it obvious, just leave genuine, thoughtful and maybe provocative comments, and they’ll look at who you are.

List posts

An easy way to guarantee your posts are valuable to other people is to write plenty of ‘list’ posts. You’ll recognise them, especially if you’ve read my blog before, or Mashable, or Smashing Magazine. The one you’re reading right now is a list post (and you’re on number 3, by the way).

Lists are popular for two reasons. One, the reader can tell from the title alone whether the post will interest them and they can make a quick decision whether it’ll add value. A list-post title promises quantifiable, tangible advice as opposed to long-winded rhetoric.

And two, if they’re interested enough to click to your post, they can quickly scan down the list itself to see if they’re learning something new-they’ll either click away very quickly, or ideally, you’ve written something good so they’ll hang around.

Aim to write at least one list-post a week when you start blogging – you’ll make your blog so much more valuable.

Sneeze & squeeze posts

Sneeze and squeeze posts are used a lot by ‘professional’ bloggers but they’re useful to occasionally adopt yourself.

A sneeze post is a way of breathing life into old articles, usually taking the form of “Top 10 most popular posts this month” or “15 articles you might have missed”. See my quarterly ‘summary posts’ or the Media Blog’s weekly Top 10 for examples.

It’s a shame, isn’t it, when you write a new article, the one below it slowly slips beneath the waves. Writing a monthly, or quarterly sneeze post brings them back to life – and gives new readers a chance to look through your archive.

A squeeze post is another thing entirely. It’s actually a way to turn readers into either subscribers or customers. It offers them plenty of free stuff (like an ebook or a free report) in return for their valued email address. Something to think about if you decide to take your website to the next level.

Guest posts

Finally, another way to bring in readers with shit-hot content is to get other people involved, usually in the form of a guest post.

They’re used lots by successful journalism blogs like Innovative Interactivity and plenty of the biggest blogs in the world like Copyblogger and Lateral Action.

Identify the big players in your sector and invite them to write a post for you for free. They’ll usually be flattered, and will be happy to do it in return for some link-love. The best bit is they’ll link to your blog ever-after, so you get a chunk of their readers.

Think about interviewing other big players and publishing the interview too. On my other storytelling blog, blog.fu, I’ve invited four film directors to answer questions about their most recent pieces. It’s great for my readers, nice for them, and cool for me. Win, win, win!

And you thought blogging was just an amateur hobby! It is actually a little bit of an art and applying just a couple of these proven blog techniques will almost certainly bring in more readers. But the whole thing must be built on focused, valuable content.

If you’re not making your readers lives easier, more informed or entertained, why would they give you a slice of their fought over attention?

Journo blogger of the day: Christine Ottery

London based freelance journalist Christine Ottery is a good example of someone using not just one blog, but several, to really make the most of their niche and boost their position as an expert in the field.

Christine’s beat is science & environment news and she’s written for the likes of the Guardian and the Ecologist.

Her personal blog, Open Minds and Parachutes, while not that frequent, features some pretty long-form analysis of journalism and the environment, including this excellent piece about campaigning climate change journalism.

Alongside this there’s a tumblr blog which acts as a portfolio site and, as if that wasn’t enough, another blog, Women’s Mag Science – which hones in on a very specific and well defined niche.

Christine’s blogging is similar to that of science journalist Angela Saini who I’ve mentioned many times before. Her blogging and journalism has led to a book deal. Seriously, I’ll say it again, if you are lucky enough to have a journalism specialism get out there and start a blog about it!

Tomorrow: 10 awesome plugins & themes to give your journalism blog spark

(*cough! list-post cough!*)

Introducing studio .fu

Posted in Adam, studio .fu by Adam Westbrook on July 13, 2010

Did you know one of my big projects for 2010 is to launch a new business?

Some of the others included writing an ebook (which I’ve done) and doing some kind of sporting event for charity (I ran the London 10k on Sunday).

With those out of the way, it’s time to focus on the business, which is why I’m very excited to announce studio .fu, a new multimedia production company. Those of you who have read Next Generation Journalist: 10 New Ways to Make Money in Journalism will recognise the model from Chapter 8.

I’ve spent a fair bit of time rattling through a business concept, target audience and finance plan – and I’ll be sharing all my discoveries along the way. I’ve set it up because I really believe online news products, NGOs and small businesses need to embrace high quality digital storytelling – but shouldn’t pay through the nose for it.

Much of the past few weeks, and the next couple of months are being spent building up a strong portfolio of digital stories, talking to potential clients and other journalists interested in collaborating in projects.

Because it’s a new business in journalism, I have promised to write about it once a week on this blog so you guys get some value out of it as well. The business is in a soft-launch phase ahead of the autumn, and already has just missed out on a commission (more on that soon).

I’ll be sharing as much of the process as possible, the ups and the downs as well. The whole thing may well fail…and in a strange way, I’d almost be quite relieved if it does – as long as it fails quickly (see this advice from the Knight Foundation!)

Changes to the blog

studio .fu also has its own blog – blog .fu which means there’ll be some changes on this site over the coming weeks.

blog .fu will focus on techniques and examples of digital storytelling as a craft. So all the stuff about how to tell stories, how to create awesome online films will appear on there from now on (you can subscribe by clicking here). If you come to this blog to learn about how to do multimedia journalism, I strongly recommend you subscribe to blog .fu!

All the posts from this blog, such as this one and this one, are now available to read on blog .fu. You can also follow the company on twitter (@letsfu)

This blog meanwhile, will focus on entrepreneurial journalism, the business of journalism and the future of news. There’ll be information about the Future of News Meetups which I continue to organise, and my own research into journalism business models.

Right, that’s it. Wish me luck!

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