Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

10 tips for recording a better interview

Posted in Online Video by Adam Westbrook on December 1, 2011

The most exciting power of great multimedia storytelling is the potential to give a voice to those who would otherwise go ignored.

I’m deep into teaching undergraduate students on Kingston University’s journalism program the basics of producing good video stories. They recently finished their first film, portraits of fellow students and how they feel about their job prospects in light of high youth unemployment. A dry-ish topic, and so their challenge was to tease good stories from their subjects, find specific angles and get to the nub of the issue.

The key to doing this is the interview: in most great online video stories & portraits it forms the spine of the narrative. Everything else in the story hangs off the interview.

Watching their first attempts at film making, it was clear conducting good interviews is an issue. So I put together a presentation with 10 tips for recording a better interview – I thought I’d share it here. Lots of this advice has been won through hard experience in my last 8 years of interviewing everyone from genocide survivors to David Cameron; but I’m also grateful to multimedia maestros like Ben Chesterton of Duckrabbit and Brian Storm of MediaStorm for a couple of the specific tips.

Again, there are bound to be things I’ve missed off: let me know in the comments!

10 tips for recording a better video (or audio) interview

NOTE: I’ve published the presentation under a Creative Commons Licence (attribution) – feel free to reuse and share, but please credit.

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?

Powerful multimedia to illuminate the past

Posted in Broadcasting and Media by Adam Westbrook on January 27, 2010

65 years ago today, Russian scouts entered the grounds of Auschwitz-Birkenau near Krakow in Poland, and one of the darkest chapters in human history came to an end.

These days the end of the Holocaust is remembered with events around the world; this year multimedia is playing a big role in reminding a new generation about what happened. The Media Guardian reports on the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust‘s web 2.0 efforts, including a Facebook group and Twitter feed.

They’ve also commissioned a pretty extraordinary film. Anyone who’s met me in person may know about my personal pet project to reinvent how history is done for mass audiences. So much is dry and formulaic about the offerings of the mainstream TV networks I could be here all day talking about.

But telling stories from the past isn’t easy, which is why these cliches exist: depending on what period you’re talking about, many of your subjects will be dead; you are left with GVs, archive photographs and grainy footage…and at worst beardy talking head historians: the Times New Roman of interviewees.

I’m excited the internet & multimedia provide the potential for new styles, new stories and new audiences, and even more excited the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust have invested in that with this film.

OK, it’s narrated by Harry Potter, and OK, it is 10 minutes long…but it is beautifully shot, elevated by strong characters, amazing stories and a haunting soundtrack. And just wait until you see what they’ve done in After Effects (you’ll know when you see it). It’s good to see history being illuminated with innovative storytelling.

At the time of writing, it’s only had 552 views in 5 months which is a crying shame; it’s something the people at Chocolate Films should be very proud of.

6×6: business

Posted in 6x6 series, Journalism by Adam Westbrook on August 24, 2009

6x6 advice for multimedia journalists

The fourth in a series of 6 blogs, each with 6 tips for the next generation of freelance multimedia journalists.

business

While the news industry is still in an uncertain and uncomfortable state of flux, one certainty has already emerged: journalists can no-longer just be journalists – they must be entrepreneurs too. It’s the difference between the ‘passive’ freelancer who writes to a few editors and waits for the work to come to them, and the ‘active’ freelancer who run themselves as a mini-business.

Until J-schools start adding business skills to the curriculum this will be something we’re all going to have to teach ourselves.

01. diversify

If you went into journalism to become a TV news reporter, and just a TV news reporter, the sad news is those days are over. As are the days of being paid to stay in nice hotels in foreign lands drinking cocktails.

In order to maximise your income, you will need to diversify your skills base. That means selling a range of skills and service, and not just journalism related ones. I know radio journalists who have a nice sideline designing websites, video journalists who run training courses, and photojournalists who work for non-profits.

Training can often be the most lucrative of these – but only consider this if you really know what you’re doing!

Diversify too in your client base. Pity the news-snob who just pitches to the New York Times and The Guardian! The digital revolution means there are more online-only news outfits, but they can be easier to pitch to.

Freelance science journalist Angela Saini offered me this advice recently: “I think it’s almost impossible to survive right now unless you freelance in more than one medium – so as well as doing VJ work, you may have to do radio and print too.”

If you’re a radio journalist you won’t survive as a just a radio journalist. Pitch for video, online, print…everything! Profiling multimedia journalist Jason Motlagh, David Westphal notes:

Motlagh doesn’t just write stories. He shoots still photos. He shoots and edits video. He does audio. He blogs. He narrates slide shows. And because he does all of those things, he says, he has a huge advantage over free-lance foreign correspondents working in a single medium.

Having multiple media skills is “still unusual,” he said. “There aren’t a whole lot of people yet who have gotten up to speed. If you are, you can make clients an offer they can’t refuse.”

02. find new markets

The entrepreneur, although a business profession, requires a lot of creativity. Just ask Richard Branson. From what I’ve gauged you have to be constantly brainstorming new markets and potential clients. And thinking outside the box reaps rewards.

Career evangelist and author of the popular new book Career Renegade: How to Make a Great Living Doing What You Love Jonathan Fields explores how to sidestep traditional career paths to forge your own unique way. He talks about “moving beyond the mainstream” and finding new markets in 6 different places:

  1. finding a hungrier market
  2. finding the most lucrative micro-markets
  3. exploiting gaps in information
  4. exploiting gaps in education
  5. exploiting gaps in gear or merchandise
  6. exploiting gaps in community

The first two are about digging deeper into the industry and possibly connecting two unrelated ones. A great example comes from a friend of mine, film maker Oliver Harrison. He loves cooking, and loves making films but couldn’t find a way to make any money out of either. After a lot of searching, he and business partner Simon Horniblow started talking to universities – and combined the two. They now run studentcooking.tv a very successful online cookery website for students. Would you think to do that? Think outside the box!

To Jonathan Fields:

“In thinking about potential alternative markets, or trying to find smaller, more lucrative submarkets, think about fields, careers, jobs, or paths where the elements of what you love to do are valued, but in short supply. You are looking for a market where your passion leads to: differentiation, hunger [and] price availability.”

Be practical and realistic though: is there really a demand for your new idea?

Here’s 3 examples of journalists who digged a bit deeper to find new markets:

Weyo found a new market in non-profits looking for quality storytelling

Weyo found a new market in non-profits looking for quality storytelling

Journalist Martin Lewis exploited a gap in the market for impartial financial advice

Journalist Martin Lewis exploited a gap in the market for impartial financial advice

Duckrabbit ex[ploited a gap in education and produce training courses in photography and audio design

Duckrabbit exploited a gap in education and produce training courses in photography and audio design

03. bootstrapping

Bootstrapping means starting your freelance business with little or no cash. It means learning how to get things done for free – and most valuable of all – learning to be careful with money.

The great news is you don’t need any money to start out and market yourself. A website domain name will cost you a small amount. But social media means you can market your talents absolutely free (see the previous 6×6 on branding).

Josh Quittner, writing in Time Magazine uses the term LILO – to mean ‘a little in, a lot out': “At no other time in recent history has it been easier or cheaper to start a new kind of company. Possibly a very profitable company” he says. “[bootstrapping] means your start-up is self-sustaining and can eke out enough profit to keep you alive on instant noodles while your business gains traction.”

If this recession has taught us anything, it’s that the best business is built from the bottom up, on the funds available (not borrowed).

04. dealing with inflexible income

The biggest fear of starting a freelance career is money. Oh, and failure. ‘What if I don’t get any business?’ ‘How will I be sure I’ll always pay the rent?’ Truth is you won’t ever be sure, but that’s part of the thrill, right?

Still there are some things you can do to make the ebb and flow of freelance income a little more stable.

A good tip is to open up a separate bank account for your business earnings. Get Rich Slowly offers this advice: “Every month as you earn income, receive it (and leave it) in your business account. This is where you accumulate your cash. Because it’s in a high-yield account, it earns interest as it waits for you to use it.”

They recommend paying yourself a monthly salary from that business accountand leaving the rest for tax and other investments. The worst thing is to use the profits from a bumper month to pay for a bumper holiday, only to return to slim pickings.

But the best advice for living on an irregular income? Learn to live lite. Cut back on unnecessary spending wherever you can. Back to David Westphal profiling Jason Motlagh: “He lives modestly and accepts that there may be periods in his work where he’ll have to do something besides journalism to pay the bills.”

05. find your creative time

Sure, for some freelancers the appeal of being your own boss is getting up at 10, watching some TV, doing some work, heading out on a night out without the guilt…and that might work for some. But the creative entrepreneur’s life is most likely to be a different one.

Just ask Mark McGuinness. He coaches creative freelancers and says for the successful ones, it ain’t no bohemian life:

After scanning my diary and surveying the tasks in hand, I was faced with a depressing conclusion. I was going to have to get up early.

He’s up at 6 in the morning, every morning, getting the crap out the way, like emails and the like.  He then says he has several hours free to work solidly on creative tasks, before the rest of the world gets up and the phone starts ringing. Know when you are at your creative best and ring fence it, so you can’t get disturbed. It might be 6am, it might be midnight. Whatever, just make sure it’s protected.

…when I look back over the last couple of years, the time when I’ve created most value, for myself and my clients, has been those first hours of the day I’ve spent writing blog posts, essays, seminars and poems. It’s the creative wellspring that feeds into all the coaching, training, presenting and consulting I do when I’m face-to-face with clients.

Treat it like a full time job too. If you can, work somewhere where you can commute to, or have some ringfenced office space at home. I recommend Mark’s excellent (and free) ebook “Time Management for Creative People“.

06. be lean, but don’t be mean

If you’re dreaming of going freelance, you might be thinking about holding off until after the recession. No need, says Leo Babauta 0f Zenhabits fame:

This is the best time to start. This is a time when job security is low, so risks are actually lower. This is a time to be lean, which is the best idea for starting a business. This is the time when others are quitting — so you’ll have more room to succeed.

And with social media and networking taking off, this is the easiest time to start a business, the easiest time to spread the word, the easiest time to distribute information and products and services.

Starting now though won’t be easy – and you’ll need to be lean. But that is such an important skill to keep things afloat later on. Be sensible with your money, don’t overspend. It’s the thing the big companies can’t do, and the reason they lose money hand over fist. And don’t be mean: journalism is a small village – make friends and keep ‘em!

The final word:

Journalism.co.uk offer some great practical advice for freelancers, which cover things like registering as self-employed, pitching for new work and managing finances. And if you’re still unsure of taking the entrepreneurial route, just watch this:

Next: audio for multimedia journalist!

“for people to act, they must truly believe”: the charity message debate

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on August 14, 2009

How should charities, non-profits and NGOs get their message across?

It’s a question which has been passionately debated today, after Ben and David at the excellent DuckRabbit blog invited Pete Masters from Medecins Sans Frontiers UK web team to share the thinking behind a cinema ad, which to describe as hard-hitting, doesn’t even come close.

First, you have to see the ad:

See what I mean?

It is a short, simple and stungun method of storytelling: it sucks you in, and spits you out. Great. But does it actually get the MSF message out there? After all, where is this happening and why? You’ll no doubt have opinions on this, so make sure you share them with Duckrabbit.

They are just the small questions though, because Duckrabbit and MSF have inspired a far more significant debate: should charities be forking out for PR spin when they have real stories to tell?

You can argue after all, spending tens of thousands on a glossy ad is the media equivalent of paying “charity muggers” £10 an hour to harangue people in the  street.

I think the future lies in the aftermath of the revolution in journalism. It is already shedding jobs…and leaving scores of creative freelance journalists (many with multimedia skills) passionate about storytelling and passionate about social justice and fighting poverty.

Don’t think it’ll work? Lets look at some examples of journalists working for NGOs.

Weyo

Launched by two photojournalists in Virginia, Weyo brands itself as “storytellers to the non-profit world”. They’ve worked with the Edmarc Childrens Foundation and Physicians for Peace.  Founder Chris Tyree told the Resolve blog this week: “Nonprofits need us more than ever to tell their stories, and we have been able to attract people with not only great talent, but also great souls.”

WeyoPDN Online reckon this kind of work pays: “Weyo just finished one job that paid $10,000 for a 7-minute video and a Web site with “20-some” linked pages. Another recent job for a women’s shelter paid $15,000 for similar work.”

Chris Tyree: “for people to act, they must truly believe”.

Story 4

Born out of job losses at the Mercury News, Story 4 makes multimedia for non-profits from its base on the West Coast of the US. On their website they say: “We specialise in constructing vibrant visual stories. We partner with organisations to create rich multimedia content and collaborate to bring the clients mission and acheivements to life.”

David Walker in PDN Online says: “So far, Story4 has landed its present work and other projects by word of mouth. The company is currently finishing up post-production on a multimedia project for the Women’s Foundation of California.”

Duckrabbit

They sparked this debate today but they have also produced some stunning multimedia for charities, including Internews andthis piece on Sri Lanka:

There are others too, like Media Storm and the Bombay Flying Club.

At the heart of this lies the important question of how charities choose to spread their word. The public generally are now far less trusting of spin and PR. We want true stories, and we want them as gritty as the real world is. But we also want balance – and we recognise a third-world-cliche when we see it.

So to the non-profits of the world: who do you want to tell your story? A marketing firm, or a journalist?

A quick question:

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on August 3, 2009

I’ve been wondering this recently: is it better to have a steady income working as part of a big news operation, or to be on your own in the risky, but exciting world of freelancing?

I’ve shifted from one to the other over the last few months. I know it’s horses for courses, but I’d love to know what everyone thinks:


History alive!

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on July 21, 2009

The world shared a very important anniversary this week: 40 years since man landed on the moon.

Some call it the biggest single moment of the 2oth century; they all call it a day history was made.

But what does history have to show for it? It is a subject in decline, both academically and in the mainstream. That, however, could be changing and the moon landing anniversary has spawned a project which I think symobilises history’s rebirth as a popular subject.

Wechoosemoon1

We Choose The Moon began a week ago, and lets its visitors follow the Apollo 11 mission in real time. At it’s centre: a beautiful 3d animation showing key sequences including the Apollo launch (above). Original audio recordings from mission control and the lunar module let you relive the event. At certain stages you can click around an interactive multimedia display to look at video, pictures and audio.

You can follow history in real time, in not one – but 3 different twitter accounts.

It is a fantastic – and rare – example of multimedia being used creatively and with innovation, not to tell news stories, but the news stories of the past. And I really think there’s a future in this.

Wechoosemoon2

There is another one I’ve found, albeit on a newspaper site. Ted Kennedy: A Life In Politics, set in the same iconic era as We Choose The Moon is a multimedia biography of the brother of the man who uttered that immortal space-race phrase.

Less innovative than the moon landing story, it is still packed with beautiful images and video. What I really like is the carousel at the bottom of each chapter, giving you access to original documents from the past.

TedKennedy1

Could this be the start of a much needed retelling of history? I think history is a fantastic subject for multimedia storytelling to embrace. History is already leaving the dull theoretical debates behind for the academics; for the average punter I think an exciting new fascination awaits: focused on using video, original archive material and interactivity to tell amazing stories. It’s a heady mix of surprising facts, gripping narratives and great personalities. There might even be money in it.

Who’s with me?

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