Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

Inside the Story: quality counts

Posted in Online Video by Adam Westbrook on April 25, 2012

The countdown is on! There are less than 24 hours to go until Inside the Story: a masterclass in digital storytelling by the people who do it best is released upon the world. You’ll be able to buy a copy from 0800 BST tomorrow, Thursday 26th April 2012.

The English version will be live from tomorrow and German, Spanish and Catalan editions will be available in the next few weeks.

But how much is Inside the Story going to cost? Good question. We’ve thought really hard about pricing and we want this book to be affordable and make lots of money for Kiva – who we’re raising money for.

So I’m thrilled to announce the book will be yours for a ridiculous $5.00!  It’ll be on sale in US dollars, which will be converted to your local currency when you buy (but it’s roughly €4.50 or £3.75) – an absolute bargain.

It means we’ll need to shift lots of copies to raise all the money we want for Kiva though – so in exchange for getting in cheap you must promise to share it with as many people as possible! But there’s a catch: Inside the Story will only be available for a matter of weeks (so don’t hang around).

How to tell quality stories like a pro

You’ve had a week of sneak previews and there’s space for just a few more. In the last week, I’ve previewed advice from the book about how to plan stories like a pro, structure them properly and use design to your advantage. And that still covers a mere third of what’s in the book!

If Inside the Story is about one thing, it’s quality: it is aimed directly at producers, film makers, video journalists, photographers and designers who are in hot pursuit of creating remarkable stories for the web – stories that really impact people. For most of us, we fall short a lot of the time. So what are the secrets of achieving quality?

A great person to ask is Richard Koci Hernandez: a pioneer of multimedia storytelling – for which he’s even won an Emmy. In a great chapter which rounds off the book, Koci shares six tips for anyone who wants to aim high.

“Spend time everyday consciously shooting pictures, recording sound etc. Work deliberately on improving a multimedia skill, because practicing your craft is one of the biggest productivity payoffs around.”

Richard Koci Hernandez, Brian Storm and John Pavlus in Inside the Story

If you thought there was an easy way round getting good at storytelling you were wrong! Koci is backed up by another multi award winning producer, Brian Storm, Executive Producer at MediaStorm, again nominated for a prestigious Webby Award earlier this month. For Brian there is one sure-fire path to achieving good quality.

“We look for projects that have deep reporting, especially a commitment to coverage over a long period of time. Then we spend as much time as necessary in post production to pull the best possible story from the coverage.”

Brian explains more about the secret ingredient of quality storytelling and how to apply it to your projects. And perhaps counterintuitively, a final word from yet another award winner: John Pavlus, who’s produced multimedia for NPR, the New York Times and the Atavist among others. For him, the secret of achieving quality is something else entirely.

“Make it suck”.

Trust me, it makes perfect sense when you read his full article – and there’s only one way to do that! Sign up to the Facebook page, join the mailing list, and make sure you’re on this website tomorrow morning.

Inside the Story will be on sale for a limited time only – a matter of weeks, so don’t hang around!

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The most important part of your online video stories

Posted in Online Video by Adam Westbrook on January 30, 2012

What’s the most important thing to consider when making online video?

Is it having a high end DSLR camera with a prime lens? Afterall, if your pictures look pretty and slightly out of focus more people will watch it, right? Nope.

Is it having a really compelling character on a journey we can all relate to? That’s super important – but it’s not the most important thing.

Is it having a rhino suspended upside down from a helicopter? Nope, it’s not even that!

So what’s the most important thing to consider when making online video?

It’s the first ten seconds.

That’s how long you have to win your viewers over. As I mentioned in this article for journalism.co.uk last week, statistics suggest around 20% of people click on from a video after just 10 seconds.

According to Visible Measures, that means if your video gets 1 million views, 200,000 of them didn’t watch past the first ten seconds.

It’s a harsh fact but people are fickle; weeks and months of work, and thousands of dollars invested in a video all stand on the first 10 seconds.

It amazes me then, just how care-free some big publishers are with their first 10 seconds of video.

For example, in a non scientific test, I had a look at some leading online news organisations. The Financial Times, Telegraph Newspaper and CNN all blow their first 10 seconds showing me a pre-roll advert. No thanks guys.

The Guardian loses 4 seconds on its branding ident, even though Guardian videos are not shareable (and so you’ll likely only ever watch it on the Guardian website). That gives them just 6 seconds to make me interested.

So who gets it? Good.is get it – they don’t mess around with branding at the start of their videos and crack straight in. Not always, but usually with a good hookline.

Phos photos, the producers of Last Minutes with Oden get it. In the first 10 seconds they tell us the title, introduce the main character and he says something interesting.

Eliot Rausch/PhosPictures

The exceptions to the rule are the longer, cinematic pieces – for example those produced by MediaStorm: the first 10 seconds still matter, but they’re able to take a slower approach, easing you in & setting the scene. In this case we’re watching for the story, and the opening of Act I is a good place for storytelling nuance.

Getting the first ten seconds right is not easy. Looking back over pieces I’ve produced in the past, I’ve blown the first 10 seconds on all sorts of nonsense. I’m trying to make more active decisions though, and in this short film I recently directed for Kingston University, I used the first 10 seconds to tell a bizarre anecdote that doesn’t fit with what the audience expects, as a way of piquing interest.

Kingston University/Adam Westbrook

So what should you use the first ten seconds for?

  • To show your most arresting images
  • To use your strongest soundbite
  • To surprise your audience
  • To raise a question in the mind of your viewer, setting up “the big reveal
  • To get straight into the story

It is not the place for idents, adverts, cliches, weak pictures, hackneyed introductions, or anything waffly.

This advice has nothing to do with creating good documentaries or crafting engaging narratives – but none of those things matter if you blow your first 10 seconds.

Revenue streams for your news business: part 1

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism by Adam Westbrook on March 21, 2011

 

Image credit: JelleS on Flickr

A two-parter this week: I’ll be explaining 10 revenue streams journalists can use: five today, and five on Thursday.

OK so you might have a brilliant idea for a new news business. You have the collaborators. You’ve got the website. You’ve got the content…

…but you’ve got to make it pay right?

There’s less than two weeks for students in the UK to enter myNewsBiz, the journalism enterprise competition. One of the questions entrants have to answer on their entry form is explaining how their business might make money: where will the revenue come from? To help in that endeavour, I’ve assembled these 10 possible ways to bring in cash.

They are just ideas, and the most successful businesses pick’n’mix from these plus several others. If there are any glaring omissions, let me know in the comments box!

10 ideas for revenue streams for your news business (part 1)

.01 mailing list

It’s an oft quoted maxim among online content creators that “the money’s in the mailing list“. Never mind creating a sharp looking online magazine – if your content isn’t flying straight into peoples’ inboxes then it has a far weaker chance of being viewed. Building a mailing lists means you have a clearly defined group of people interested in your journalism – and therefore they’re more likely to open the email.

Once you’ve built your mailing list up with great content you can look for sponsorship from organisations who’ll appreciate their advert going to inboxes and not just online. They then get a banner at the top of your newsletter.

I’ve mentioned TheBusinessDesk on here before: a daily newsletter of business news to their readers is one of the core things they create. There are plenty of services, like MailChimp who manage lists for you.

.02 other businesses

Here’s another maxim to learn from the business-heads out there: “the best customers are other businesses“. Why? Well, you can charge businesses more than you can charge an individual for something; but also businesses tend to be easier to deal with, and you’re less likely to get complaints.

So how do news businesses find revenue streams from other businesses? Well, there are several ways which pop to mind:

B2B journalism: Business-to-Business publications have mostly done OK during the recession. Their secret is they provide really good journalism to specific industries: their readers aren’t passing individuals, but (often) big corporations with lots of money to spend – who need the information you provide.

Another option is to act as an agency: in this line think of Getty, Demotix and of course, the news wires. Again, they’re building long term relationships with news organisations and charging thousands, not mere pounds.

If you still fancy creating a popular magazine, then there are ways to capture business revenue too. Treat it as a ‘shop-window‘ for a service business. For example, if you love web design as well as journalism, you can run a web-design business off the back of the magazine, with the mag’s awesome design bringing you attention and clients.

.03 partnerships

On a similar theme, another source of revenue could be the ‘partnership’. Here you are collaborating with a whole range of organisations on a specific project, and it’s very suited to the service business model.

We’re already seeing multimedia producers like VII Photography and MediaStorm talk about partnerships with organisations, either as a funder or a publishing partner. Here’s Stephen Mayes of VII, describing the idea in the British Journal of Photography in 2010:

“Certainly the magazines are still in the mix, but now more as print distribution partners rather than as exclusive clients (with additional distribution through TV and online partners), often co-funded by another party and supported separately by technology partners with access to story-knowledge being supplied by yet other people…The line-up shifts for each project, and as each new partner comes on board the opportunities to do interesting work and to generate income multiply.”

I guess it’s not hugely different to ‘clients’ but instead of finding one ‘client’ to pay you to do some journalism, you’re designing a project and getting involvement & funding from several organisations. This means you’re more driven by the project and not who’s paying for it.

.04 affiliates

Martin Lewis: MoneySavingExpert.com

Affiliation is where we get a bit close to the sales/infomercial area of business I think many of us would prefer to avoid. Still, there’s big (and relatively easy) money to be made in affiliates so don’t write it off.

How does it work? Well, you push your readers to someone else’s products, and take a share of every sale made. It has potential in a niche market, because if you can build up a significant, loyal fan-base around a specific area, related businesses will want their product in front of those people. Affiliate deals can nab you between 10-30% of every sale.

Sounds a bit dodgy. Can it be done in journalism? Martin Lewis, founder of MoneySavingExpert.com reckons so: his hugely popular website is funded almost totally by affiliate arrangements. But he is very transparent about when a product is affiliated, and separates it from the editorial content: crucially, he can still criticise a company even if they’re an affiliate.

.05 subscriptions

This revenue stream is very dependent on the type of news product you’re out to create, but in the right circumstances you can get people to pay to read your content. Here’s a must-read articles on how media outlets are using subscriptions.

As newspapers are learning, the key is to avoid ‘news’ content – that’s a commodity now, and very few people will pay for it. But even if you’re writing for a very specific niche, you have to work hard to create something people will fork out for. Targeting the B2B market will give you a better shot.

Is it worth it with hardly any readers? Well, do the maths: if you create really good content for a specific audience, of say, 5,000 readers, that is so good, they’ll be happy paying £5 a month to access it – that’s £300,000 in the bank. A legacy news organisation can’t sustain that, but that’s enough cash to pay yourself and a few others a decent salary. This is where being small is important.

On Thursday: five more revenue streams – plus the most valuable one of all.

The first question every entrepreneurial journalist should ask

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism by Adam Westbrook on February 21, 2011

So you want to create a news business? Awesome, you’ve arrived at just the right time.

One of the first lessons I learned was to make an important distinction early on – and I think it is the first question you should ask before you start your entrepreneurial adventure:

Are you creating a product or a service?

They are two different, but equally valid, types of business – both of which offer great opportunities for journalists. A product is something tangible – something you make and sell, which is distinct from you. A service on the other hand, is something you specifically offer yourself, in exchange for money.

Products

The world of journalism has a limited (but growing) number of products. A newspaper is a product. So is a magazine. In fact, you’ll often get the more managerial types of journalists often talking about ‘the product’.

The types of products have grown a lot in the digital age, and with that so have the opportunities. A book is a product, as is an ebook. A podcast, vodcast, blog, online magazine, smartphone app are also products. A TV programme is a product. A hyperlocal website is a product, so is a DVD, event and photobook.

In short, it is something you create and then try to make money from. And the people who buy your product are customers, or readers, or viewers.

When we think of business and enterprise, products are probably the first things that come to mind. The Dyson, the Macbook, the Prius: they’re all products. But, according to journalist and entrepreneur Nick Saalfeld, the service sector accounts for more than 70% of the UK economy, and in terms of the work and opportunities around, it’s a lot more varied.

Services

A service is a skill or craft you offer to someone, in exchange for money. Often, but not always, you charge for your time.

This is the most natural type of business for journalists, because essentially it is doing anything freelance: a copy writer, photojournalist, video journalist, blogger, infographic designer, SEO bod, sub-editor…they are all services.

You as the service provider are intricately bound to the success of the business. The people who pay for your service are clients.

Now you might say because of that, entrepreneurial journalism has been around for a long time. But it’s not quite like that. You see, only recently have people started to create full businesses out of their services – packaging their services into products.

For example, take this video production company in the US, called TVKevin. They are a service business: people hire them to make short films about their company or business etc. But take a look at their website, and you can see how they have packaged their service into products: they offer something called BizShorts, and something else called MyStory.

Scale it up, and throw in some hardcore journalism, and you have MediaStorm, one of the most successful multimedia production companies out there. They offer a service to clients: high quality multimedia documentaries; but they package their services into product type solutions: films, audio slideshows and infographics. MediaStorm also have a lot of by-products: training, DVDs, and even t-shirts.

So which should you do?

Before you start thinking of business ideas, or even if you already have one, you should work out whether you are offering a product or a service. Knowing this early on saves any confusion later on. And there’s nothing to say you can’t do both, or be clever and mix them up like TVKevin & MediaStorm.

To find out about the pros and cons of both Products and Services head on to myNewsBiz, where there’s more training in entrepreneurial journalism in video.

A multimedia journalism gear guide (on the cheap)

Posted in 6x6 series, Journalism by Adam Westbrook on July 23, 2010

The excellent US multimedia producers MediaStorm published a very useful multimedia gear guide this week, outlining some of the kit you’ll need to get started as a video journalist or online film maker.

It includes the popular Canon 5D MKII, Sennheiser mics, and Marantz audio recorder.

Now I’d love to use the Canon 5D MkII, and some top of the range Sennheiser mics, but they have always been a bit out of my budget range. The 5D, for example, will set you back around £2,200 ($4000), a difficult investment for a recently graduated journalist or someone bootstrapping a business. There are however a few alternatives for the multimedia journalist on a lower budget – I thought I’d share them here as a complement to the MediaStorm list.

All prices & currency conversions are approximate and based on a brief scout online. Definitely search around for good deals.

HDSLRs

Depending on where you read, Canon have upset some photographers who were waiting for a firmware upgrade to their 5D or had just shelled out for a 7D – by releasing the 550D for a fraction of both prices. It shoots in 1080i HD and in 720 at higher frame rates and apparently its LCD display is better than the more expensive options. I have been using this camera for about four months and have very few complaints so far. It is very small & light, but has a less sturdy body. You’re unable to adjust or monitor sound levels and are limited to 12 minute video recording sessions.  All problems you can work around however.

Below that the 7D is more expensive and has a slightly nicer sensor from what I can tell, although I have not used it myself. The Kodak Zi8, perfectly capable of good footage if used correctly has now slipped below the £100 mark – a really realistic option for the journalist on the very low budget, or even as a backup camera.

Canon 550D (+ 18-55mm lens) ~£600/$900

Canon 7D ~£1100/$1700

Kodak Zi8 ~£100/$150

Lenses

I use a bog-standard 18-55mm lens for most of my shooting at the moment. However there are an array of affordable lenses out there too, even those with a wider aperture. For the lower price you’ll have to accept a plastic body, and probably lower quality glass – but it’ll still be good enough for most shoots. Note I have not used any of the following lenses myself.

If you’re doing any extreme close-up filming, another cheap option is an extension tube macro ring. I found one for just a few pounds -it is essentially a plastic tube you attach in between your camera body and lens, and it creates a macro zoom effect. The cheaper ones don’t have contact rings though, and the camera won’t be able to automatically adjust exposure or white balance. For filming this is usually OK.

Canon EF 50mm f1.8 II (known among photographers as the thrifty fifty!) ~£60/$99

Canon EF 50mm f3.4 USM ~£290/$440

Canon EF 100mm f2 USM ~£350/$530

Extension Tube Macro Ring ~£15/$25

For a fuller list of cheap Canon & Nikon lenses check out this post on PhotoTuts.

Audio Recording

To get around my camera’s poor audio settings I, like many DSLR shooters, use a dual audio system – I record the audio completely separately to the video and sync it up in post production. I recently invested in the budget Tascam DR-07, certainly the cheapest option. You loose any XLR inputs and just rely on a 35mm jack, but you have full control over the audio levels and settings. For the low price you also get a crappy plastic case, which does rattle if held incorrectly, but otherwise the quality is just fine.

I attach a Rode VideoMic to the top of my camera to collect ambient sound and to sync the audio later. It is a very good mic on its own however, and I find it works fine as an onboard camera when a tie-microphone won’t do. For the tie-mic itself, I went proper budget and spent just £20 on a tie mic about a year ago. 12 months on and it still works great alongside the Tascam. It is not a wireless mic though, so your interviewee cannot be at a distance!

Tascam DR-07 ~£130/$200

Zoom H4 ~£220/$330

RodeVideoMic ~£80/$120

EM102 Condenser Tie Mic ~£20/$30

Accessories

Manfrotto’s Modo tripod is designed for both stills and video cameras. It’s tiny and extremely light, and it has sticks which can be moved into a practically horizontal position, meaning you can have a steady shot at floor level. I recently bought a couple of cheap filters from Amazon, which work fine. Play.com got me a 32GB SD card for around £30 – make sure you get a Class6 card if you’re shooting in HD!

Manfrotto Modo Tripod ~£39/$60

35mm Filters ~£15

16GB Class 6 SD Card

Post Production

For post, Final Cut Studio is now around £250 but it’s quite a bargain when you consider you get Apple Motion, Color and Soundtrack, plus a library of sound effects, licence free music and graphics with that too. If it really is out of  your budget, I still swear by Adobe’s Premiere Elements for Windows which I have used until very recently. Rumour has it the latest version of iMovie 9 now allows you to separate your audio and video tracks giving you almost professional editing flexibility for free.

Audacity is a good enough audio editor considering its free (open source) and Pluraleyes has made the job of syncing your video and audio tracks a lot easier. That’s just under £100 to download, or there’s a free trial.

Final Cut Studio (Final Cut Pro, Apple Motion, Color, ProRes) ~£250/$380 (as an upgrade, or with a new Mac; approx £400-600 elsewhere)

iMovie free

Adobe Premiere Elements

Audacity Free

Pluraleyes ~£97/$149 (free month trial)

All images licenced under Creative Commons. Image credits (from top to bottom):Dave Dugdale, visual.dichotomy, Stephend9 & D’Arcy Norman

Do multimedia journalism…and get paid!

Posted in Next Generation Journalist by Adam Westbrook on May 10, 2010

Here’s a great way to build a business telling powerful human stories for people who really need them.

01. make multimedia for non-profits and NGOs

The first featured career path for the Next Generation Journalist is not so new, but it is yet to reach it’s full potential. What it’s looking for is journalists with the innovation and vision to do something different. What’s this one all about? It’s about applying your research, storytelling, writing and multimedia production skills to produce powerful content for the third sector.

In the US and Europe a fresh crop of companies are making this work. In North America, companies like MediaStorm, Weyo and Story4 (which I have featured in articles like this one) are independent companies producing content for NGOs and non-profits as well as editorial clients. In Europe, the competition is smaller, with just a handful of businesses starting to establish themselves, including Duckrabbit, Not On The Wires, and the Bombay Flying Club.

This is a sector with huge potential and it’s a great opportunity for forward thinking journalists.

If you get it right, the money is there. Brian Storm, who founded MediaStorm, says 2009 was their best year ever – but when I spoke to him in February 2010 they had already booked in 65% of that for 2010. MediaStorm actually turn down 70% of work because they’re so busy! At this year’s Digital Storytelling Conference, Duckrabbit revealed they are making money too. Do you want a piece of that pie?

Setting up a multimedia production company…

  • gives you the chance to focus on telling compelling stories, often about unreported issues
  • lets you build a solid business and brand with a well defined market
  • markets to a sector with a lot of money, and minimal expertise in journalism

And it’s not too expensive or risky to do either. A website costs $50 and a weekend’s work to get looking great with a WordPress theme. The kit, if you don’t have it already, can be yours for around $1000 (see my articles here and here). Then you need the cracking content: building a portfolio of remarkable work, by offering to produce things for free.

Find out more…

Fresh eyes: what can journalists learn from musicians?

Posted in Fresh eyes series, Journalism by Adam Westbrook on March 1, 2010

What happens when you ask a film maker or a musician about the future of journalism? What skills can the next generation journalist learn from a branding expert? As part of Fresh Eyes experts in non-journalism fields cast their eye over the digital revolution and offer their wisdom.

Christopher Ave, musician

Christopher runs the excellent Music for Media blog where he profiles great examples of music being used in multimedia pieces and shares advice on how to do it. A life long musician himself, Christopher is also a journalist with the St Louis Post-Dispatch.

Music and Journalism

Many if not most of us journalists who create content for the web came from a print background. Naturally, we are most concerned with quotes and images — things we can see.

Things we can hear? Not so much.

So when I talk about using music in a journalistic multimedia project, I often get blank stares — or outright opposition:

Music? That’s…. manipulative! How dare we FORCE viewers to feel something!

It’s not surprising that so many journalists fear using music in multimedia storytelling - a reluctance expressed here by legendary writing coach Roy Peter Clark and again here by Poynter’s Regina McCombs. Many journalists who come from newspaper backgrounds are by nature suspicious of new storytelling tools — especially those used by radio or — gasp! — television.

But the very attraction of multimedia is that it can engage all the senses.Think about the great documentarians like Ken Burns, who used original music so effectively to help tell the story of the Civil War. Does anyone feel they were manipulated by the lovely, plaintive “Ashokan Farewell”?

In an increasingly fractured media world where we find ourselves competing for eardrums as well as eyeballs, I would argue that we ban such a powerful tool at our own peril.

Still, can’t overwrought music manipulate listeners’ emotions? Can’t jarring music detract from the story narrative? Of course – just as badly chosen words or images can distract viewers.

It’s just as manipulative to lard a narrative with mournful adjectives, or to quote sources from only one point of view, as it is to use music badly.

So the real issue, in my view, is this: We should use such tools properly.

Five tips on using music for journalists

But how can a journalist without significant musical skills do that? Here are some suggestions:

01.First, this is not about the music. It’s about the story you’re trying to tell. The music MUST fit within the tone established for the story (unlike, say, a music video, where the images serve the music).

02. Don’t imply that the music you’re adding is part of the scene you’re documenting (unless of course, it is). That’s like using Photoshop to add something to a news photo. This can be a fine line, and might seem to conflict with No. 1. If you’re in doubt as to whether you’re misleading the audience by choosing a piece of music, always leave it out. Go with something else. Risking your credibility isn’t worth it.

03. Don’t steal someone else’s music. This seems obvious, but in the cut-and-paste age, the temptation is there. Don’t yield to it. Do some research – know the law when it comes to fair use, trademarks and the like.

04. So where do you find just the right music for your project? There are scads of people selling pre-recorded music online (search “royalty-free music” for an idea.) If you’re looking for something in particular, find someone who can create it for you. MySpace, despite what you’ve read, is STILL full of bands and composers who are looking to distribute or license their music; perhaps you can find the creator of some music you like who will allow you to use it for free, in exchange for the exposure. Just make sure you get the agreement in writing. Or…..

05. Can’t find precisely the right music? Try creating your own. With tools like Garage Band and Acid, plus the plethora of free and low-cost loops out there, this might be easier than you think, especially if you have some time and the inclination to play around.

Here’s some music composition advice from Jon Patrick Fobes, a picture editor for the Cleveland Plain Dealer and a talented musician who often creates original music for the newspaper’s website:

Have a beginning, middle and end. Vary the instrument voices. Don’t be afraid to change gears. And don’t be afraid to go minimal. Let the music serve the visuals, not overpower them. Don’t be afraid of silence! Put in some drama.

And here’s some excellent advice from MediaStorm’s Eric Maierson, one of the most thoughtful users of music in the multimedia world.

Finally, there are many, many examples of the skillful, effective and ethical use of music in nonfiction multimedia projects. Watch, listen and study.

So yes, be careful when using music in any nonfiction project. But I believe we journalists should embrace music – that is, music used with skill and restraint. As we fight tooth and nail for viewers and readers,  I believe it’s a tool we can’t afford to do without.

Christopher Ave, who directs political and government coverage for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch/STLtoday.com, is a lifelong musician and career journalist. He blogs at christopherave.wordpress.com and creates music for a variety of uses at www.christopherave.com.

Tomorrow: what can journalists learn from a coding expert?

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