Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

The hacking of Rome: it’s time for transparency in journalism

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism, Journalism by Adam Westbrook on July 14, 2011

Image: TheSun/SkyNews/Twitpic

The Sun newspaper runs a front page article today in which big-rival the Guardian apologises to the tabloid for claiming they hacked the phone of former Prime Minister Gordon Brown. 

The Guardian said the Sun got its exclusive about Brown’s son’s battle with Cystic Fibrosis by reading confidential medical records.

Of course, this comes amid a plague on the House of Murdoch as allegation after allegation about News International’s hacking exploits swarms through all the press – a lot of it after dogged investigation by The Guardian (and in particular, investigative journalist Nick Davies). The News of the World’s sudden Mubarak-like fall has put the other media sultans in a nervous position.

Now you could view The Guardian’s apology as embarrassing for the paper who has led the charge against hacking.

But there’s something else at play. Slowly (painfully, unwillingly) – but surely, we are seeing a long overdue process appear in journalism: transparency.

II

Say what you like about journalism today – it is not in any way transparent. As consumers (and in the case of the BBC, funders) we are never told where our news comes from: we aren’t told if it’s from a private briefing, a press release, in exchange for cash – or even copy and pasted from the wires.

We have no way of understanding who “sources close to David Beckham” might be. Stories ripped from agencies are often bylined with a fictional name (I’m told this is true in major broadsheets, not just tabloids).

And it’s not just something endemic in the press: I’ve written before about the lack of transparency in mainstream broadcast media too. The BBC, Sky and ITN use agency footage as if they shot it themselves.

This is something that really, really bugs me. I’ve tried to counter it, by publishing full source lists & data in my own journalism, and by pitching ideas for how technology can add layers of transparency to current journalism.

And you know what? It’s not about being right all the time. What a stupid pedestal to position yourself upon. The world is not a clear-cut, yes-and-no place. A fact today is not necessarily a fact tomorrow. If journalism accepted the uncertainty in the world as readily as most of its readers & viewers it wouldn’t get itself into such a mess.

III

The quite fantastic thing about all this terrible hacking business is that it’s forcing journalists – like those working for The Sun and The Guardian – to be accountable for their work, on their own front page! This was inconceivable a few months ago.

Now, imagine a future where all media is transparent by nature. Where journalists are properly accountable, but also more accepting of the random unpredictability of life, celebrating it instead of trying to control it. A future where mistakes are made – but acknowledged without embarrassment or shame. We all make mistakes don’t we?

The Guardian though has its own correction/apology f0r the Gordon Brown story buried at the bottom of the online article; is it embarrassed a mistake was made, or afraid of transparency as much as everyone else?

For transparency to really happen, a lot of shit has to be cleaned out of a lot of media stables. The media-vine is alive with claims many other organisations will be exposed for hacking, and before long will be forced into their own humble mea culpa.

Perhaps then journalism won’t take such a gloating view over other peoples’ failings, and be more willing to acknowledge its own.

Five things that make a great news business idea

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism by Adam Westbrook on January 31, 2011

Entries for myNewsBiz, the student journalism enterprise competition are open and we are starting to get early entries through.

If you haven’t heard of it, myNewsBiz is open to any undergraduate or postgraduate journalism student at a UK university. There’s a prize of £1000 for the best new idea for a journalism business, be it a product, like a magazine, or a service. A runner up gets £500.

But what makes a good business idea?

That’s a difficult question, if you’ve never thought about starting a business until now. If you don’t know where to begin, here are five different starting places for your search for that winning business idea.

.01 Fill a gap

Any concept (entrepreneurial or otherwise) has to service a need that a large enough group of people have, in order to survive and thrive. So a good place to start is to ask ‘is there a product or service which is not being provided right now?

Murdoch’s much anticipated iPad only newspaper The Daily can be viewed in these terms. The iPad’s been around for just over a year, and yes, there are plenty of magazines and publishers with their own iPad apps…but there is no single dedicated iPad news product. It’s a gap. And News International appear to be trying to fill it.

.02 Scratch an itch

Image credit: corrieb on Flickr

Great business ideas ‘scratch an itch’, by which we mean solving a problem that a group of people have. The best place to identify an itch is on your own body. What’s bugging you right now? What do you see which can be done faster? Cheaper? More accurately? More locally or more beautifully?

TheBusinessDesk, a successful online news startup in the UK, clearly scratched an itch its founders had: there was no good source for regional business & finance news. They scratched their own itch, and in doing so created a thriving business.

Scratching your own itch has a big advantage: because it’s your itch, you are best placed to tell whether your solution is scratching it properly.

.03 Improve something

If that doesn’t work, why not try improving on someone else’s idea?

There are plenty of magazines, websites, services we all use which get us grumbling. “This coverage stinks!” “Their infographics are rubbish” “They could have done that website so much better!”

If there’s something out there which is not up to scratch – make your own, improved, version.

That’s part of the thinking behind studio .fu, my online video production company. There are lots of independent video producers out there, but I could see lots of things they were doing wrong.

I improved their offering by just focusing on online video, and by steering clear of an office or (any) staff, I can offer the same thing at a much more affordable rate.

.04 Begin with you

Instead of looking for a business idea straight away, start with you and your strengths and passions.

What do you love doing? If you could wake up tomorrow morning and commit one act of journalism, what would it be? Designing? Writing? Data interrogation?

Once you’ve identified that, you want to wrap a business around it. Look for markets for your passion, and build a business from there. This philosophy sums up the approach taken in my book Next Generation Journalist, which starts with a look at your real interests.

After all, there’s no point in pursuing a business idea you’re not interested in, just because it looks like a workable idea. I have a brilliant idea for an environmentally friendly kettle. But am I going to make it? No. Because manufacturing, retail and, err, kettles, don’t do it for me right now.

.05 Start making something – right now

Image credit: David Haygarth on Flickr

Finally, once you’ve got an idea – or maybe if you still don’t – start creating, right away.

Ideas are one-a-penny, but they don’t count for anything until you’ve turned it into something tangible. So if you’ve got an idea for an online magazine, get the webspace and domain, upload a WordPress theme and get creating.

Why? Because you’ll only know if your idea is any good once it’s real.

If you don’t have an idea yet, then start creating anyway. Whatever it is you feel like. If you think you’d like to start a business making infographics but aren’t sure what gap it would fill or itch it would scratch, keep going. Start designing infographics and put them online. See what the feedback is. Are people biting? This way you can develop your business idea organically.

Only once you’re making something can you know whether it’s got legs.

Remember the deadline for entries for myNewsBiz is the 1st of April 2011 – so you’ve still got plenty of time to put something together.

And in February we’re publishing awesome interviews with some of the top journalist-entrepreneurs out there, packed with advice on how to get your news business off the ground!

Bring on the wall! (But is it worth paying for?)

Posted in Adam, Broadcasting and Media, Journalism by Adam Westbrook on May 25, 2010

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“We are completely unashamed of this, we want people to pay for the journalism”

Daniel Finkelstein, Times columnist

Did you know the Times has an Ocean Correspondent? That’s right: a journalist dedicated to covering ocean news. He’s called Frank Pope and he was on the front page of yesterday’s print edition, diving into the Gulf of Mexico, an experience which must currently be akin to swimming through a gigantic jar of Marmite.

He’s a man whose beat is 70% of the earth’s surface, yet the position of Ocean Correspondent is a luxury not many papers or broadcasters would afford.

And that’s why the Times wants us to start paying for its online news, just like some pay for the paper. And this morning we see the launch of this – with thetimes.co.uk and thesundaytimes.co.uk going live in the last few minutes.

Last night I joined a small group of bloggers and media/tech journalists at the headquarters of Rupert Murdoch’s News International in Wapping, London to get a sneak preview of the site before the wall went up.

It’ll be something of a glass paywall at first with the content visible to all — then, after four weeks, the glass becomes brick and not even Google’s spiders will be able to crawl between the mortar cracks.

That’s right: articles on thetimes.co.uk and thesundaytimes.co.uk will not be searchable on Google…if you see a story you like, you won’t be able to share it on Twitter or Facebook…it would seem, a massive own goal, but at least they’ll save money on SEO consultants.

Niche & experience

My two concerns for the Times paywall are these:

  1. the Times is not significantly niche enough (as, say, the Financial Times or Wall Street Journal are) to attract paying readers
  2. the experience of reading the Times online was not good enough to make it something to pay for

On point one, they have put thought into it. The websites will boast what the Times and Sunday Times do have – excellent columnists, good travel, review and culture. It won’t, we’re told, be a repository for breaking news “taken from PA”, insisting they won’t put a story up “if they can’t add value.”

That is a good step, although I am still not sure what the Times stands for: middle-of-the-road, middle-class, middle-aged Britain? As someone once the said, ‘the only thing in the middle of the road is white paint and dead animals.’

The Times and Sunday Times are to have two separate websites, each independently updated. This means even though the Sunday Times is printed only on a Sunday, it will be updating the web with new content throughout the week.

And what about the experience of reading the Times or the Sunday Times online?

Well, at first impressions I am not bowled over: black text on a white screen, size 12, serif font – just like every other news website out there (and even this blog!). A web page can be any colour and fully dynamic – a concept no major newsroom is yet to grasp.

I was taken to task on this though by Times Assistant Editor Tom Whitwell who insists they looked at different options. There are apparently fewer stories on the front page, leaving it less cluttered. The experience is also more visual with larger front page images, and a chance to explore the top news stories in pictures (a cue taken, perhaps, from the Independent’s NewsWall produced by UltraKnowledge).

The Sunday Times website is actually quite a pleasure to navigate with a large rolling ‘shop window’ carousel and multimedia galleries. Said the editor: “we’re expecting people to browse and enjoy the experience.” Is it distinct enough from the Guardian, Telegraph, New York Times or the BBC? That’s for you  to decide.

Other cool bits include a culture planner to organise your week, and the rather neat ability to set your Sky+ box direct from the Times website, both giving the sites usability rather than just something to read. Interestingly if you wish to SpeEk You’re bRanes about the content, you’ll only be allowed to comment using your full name.

On video & multimedia

Now to the bit most readers of this blog are really interested in – the multimedia stuff.

The editor of the Sunday Times told us they’d “invested a lot of time and money in multimedia” including on a new video studio.

There’s to be a push on interactive infographics to rival the Financial Times, and multimedia photogalleries of the best images. They want to connect their journalists with their readers and there’ll be plenty of live webchats online.

But it seems there hasn’t been an investment in more multimedia staff, or a push for innovative video storytelling. Instead the investment has been in getting their current crop of journalists to create more stuff for the web, with pen still in hand. As if keeping tabs on all the news from 70% of the earth’s surface wasn’t enough, our Ocean man Frank Pope must also file video every time he goes diving.

Now that’s fine – and indeed, if the print journalists I have met in my time are anything to go by, not an easy pitch for the Times editors to have made.

But the Times or the Sunday Times won’t sew the seeds of innovation in multimedia. Tom Whitwell described having to ask columnist Caitlin Moran, who’s interview with Lady Gaga just went viral, to do some video on the story. The problem: Caitlin is on a ‘writer’s retreat’ in Brighton apparently.

Will any of their video journalists be treated to a ‘video retreat’?

(NOTE: Caitlin is doing a live webchat about meeting Gaga at 1200 BST today)

Is it worth the money?

That was the one question everyone asked when I tweeted from last night’s preview. And I’ve needed to sleep on it to make my mind up.

Here’s the numbers: for a single day’s access it’ll cost you (in 4 weeks time) one of your English pounds. But you can get a whole week’s access for £2 – so if you’re interested, don’t bother paying by the day.

And actually…£2 for access to comment and analysis from a good newspaper – and topped off with access to the Sunday Times is almost, almost, worth paying for….

You can try speculating about whether Rupert’s paywall will work, but whatever your conclusion you’ll probably be wrong. So let’s bring on the wall …and see what happens.

Other commentary about the paywall…

The future of news belongs to those who…kiss

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on April 16, 2010

Image credit: Okinawa Soba

The traditional news organisations: the BBC, CNN, New York Times, the Guardian, Sky News – and all the others – have got a problem.

Up until recently I thought the problem was revenue and the lack thereof; but that will solve itself organically over time.

And then I realised they’ve got another problem:  it’s one they’ll never be able to solve – and it threatens their place in the future of journalism.

They’re too big.

Sounds strange doesn’t it (after all, size is usually good for a news organisation with a big remit). The insight comes from Clay Shirky, whose blog posts are rare, but always near revolutionary. He talks about the collapse of the great empires of the past: the Mayans, the Romans. They collapsed because they got too big, too complex and couldn’t adapt to a new world.

His modern case in point: the Times paywall. He interprets Rupert Murdoch’s justification for charging online content as this:

“Web users will have to pay for what they watch and use, or else we will have to stop making content in the costly and complex way we have grown accustomed to making it. And we don’t know how to do that.”

In other words, News International is so big, so complex, so addicted to the exuberant and wasteful systems which it consumed in the 20th century, it just can’t change. So it has to charge customers to help sustain its lifestyle.

Shirky goes on:

“In a bureaucracy, it’s easier to make a process more complex than to make it simpler, and easier to create a new burden than kill an old one….Some video still has to be complex to be valuable, but the logic of the old media ecoystem, where video had to be complex simply to be video, is broken.”

That last point about video is important. Think how many TV production companies are addicted to $20,000 cameras, big rigs, professional lighting, large crews and plush offices in the centre of major cities. They don’t know how to do anything different, and so they charge their clients thousands upon thousands to cover their secret addiction to luxury.

Video Journalism has been around as a cheap alternative to traditional TV news gathering since the 1980s. Why do all the big news organisations still send 2 or even 3 person crews to stories? Michael Rosenblum points out dryly, ABC News’ move to VJing should have been news in the 90s.

Bad times for them. Good times for the next generation of journalists and producers.

How to survive in the future of journalism

Keep It Simple, Stupid.


Next generation journalists have a big advantage: we’re not addicted to expensive gear, offices, full time employment or bureaucracy. We know we can do things quick, cheap and simple. We can get impressive results with DSLRs, open source software, a laptop and creative commons media. We’re not ashamed to interview someone on a FlipCam, or embed our video with Youtube.

Do not underestimate the advantage that gives us in the market.

Someone who gets it is media commentator and lecturer Jeff Jarvis. Here’s what he wrote for the Guardian, when the Times paywall was announced:

“…in Murdoch’s folly, I see opportunity….As a teacher of entrepreneurial journalism at the City University of New York, I see openings for my students to compete with the dying relics by starting highly targeted, ruthlessly relevant new news businesses at incredibly low cost and low risk.”

And that’s precisely it. Go in lean, mean and ruthless and start tearing stuff up. But know this: if your career takes you into the fold of the giants, you too will become addicted to their opium. It’s a tough drug to get over. I’ve been lucky in some ways. I’ve only ever worked for tiny, struggling commercial outlets. I thought it sucked at the time, but it meant I always had to do things cheap, and quick – and I never got hooked on the luxurious journalism of the BBC or anyone else.

But the future is bright: here’s Clay Shirkey to wrap it up:

“It’s easy to see the ways in which collapse to simplicity wrecks the glories of old. But there is one compensating advantage for the people who escape the old system: when the ecosystem stops rewarding complexity, it is the people who figure out how to work simply in the present, rather than the people who mastered the complexities of the past, who get to say what happens in the future.”

10 trends in journalism in 2010

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on December 15, 2009

It’s that time of year again…

After a turbulent year in the industry, I’ve had a good think and put together my top 10 trends for journalism for 2010, wrapped in a big shiny positive outlook. But rather than roll out another list, I thought I’d be a bit different and crack out some video. Enjoy!

And is there anything I’ve missed? Add it in the comments box!

The “do” economy (or: why I’m glad Murdoch’s charging for content)

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on August 10, 2009

So Rupert Murdoch’s announced he’s going to start charging for content for the Times newspapers in the UK. This guy thinks it’ll work. This guy doesn’t.

For me, it doesn’t really matter either way, I’m just glad he’s doing it.

Do I support pay walls? No.

Do I think it’ll work? No.

But it’s good because someone, somewhere is doing something.


I’ve used this illustration a couple of times when I’ve given presentations about the future of journalism. It sums up the fact as an industry we’re at a crossroads. Lots of different directions ahead, and the only road we know we can’t take is the one we’ve all just walked up.

But all we’re doing is standing in the middle like a huge flock of sheep arguing about which road to take. And going nowhere.

Murdoch’s announcement marks a positive step forward: someone is walking down one of the roads. Will it work? Who knows. The important thing is he’s trying – and only by actually doing something – something different to what we did before – will change happen.

Lindsey Agness at The Change Corporation sums it up:

“The important thing [is to take] action – sometimes it felt like two steps forward and one step back, but it doesn’t matter as long as you are moving ahead.”

Richard Branson built his empire on the “screw it, let’s do it” mindset

“If something is what you really want to do, just do it. Whatever your goal is you will never succeed unless you let you of your fears and fly.”

And now really is the time.  Multimedia journalist Henkrik Kastenskov over at the Bombay Flying Club summed up the crossroads perfectly this weekend:

“No such thing as the aftermath of an Extinction Level Event to fertilise the ground for new things to come. And the global economic recession was exactly that: an extinction level event.

“The impact of an almost overnight disappearing commercial print market in traditional media have had some profound consequences for the evolution of online media as the great meteor impact on the Yucatan Peninsula had on the off’ing of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, preparing the ground for the rise of mammals.

“…nobody gets ahead by following in the footsteps of others! That…new thing is still lingering somewhere off stage. And right now is the defining moment for that new set of rules to be written. It’s Year Zero, it’s come to Jesus time, and you guys out there are the authors of the new manifest. And frankly: at this point, anything goes.”

Sure, somethings will fail. But what have we got to lose? Anything goes. Just do it differently.
In fact, just do it.
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