Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

The journalists winning the race – to the bottom

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism by Adam Westbrook on October 4, 2011

The problem with a race to the bottom is that you might win.

Seth Godin

I.

Seth Godin’s words (buried in this blog post from just a few days ago) must seem painfully apt for any one of the journalists on newsdesks at The Guardian, Sky News, the Sun and the Daily Mail today.

I was in the pub celebrating a friend’s birthday on Monday night when my flatmate checked the Guardian app on his phone just before 9pm. “Amanda Knox has lost her appeal” he said, “bloody hell”.

Guardian app on my flatmate's iPhone

For several minutes we talked about how terrible that must be for her, and how dodgy the police case was – until, that is, I checked Twitter. At which point it got confusing.

“People on Twitter are saying she’s been freed” I said, counting the dozen or so independent tweets from journalists, friends and colleagues.

“Are you sure..?” my flatmate said, reaching for his iPhone.

II.

And so the sorry affair of the obtuse judge, the slow translater and the trigger-happy hacks unfolded.

In this mess lies a really important lesson for online publishers of all creeds, entrepreneurs and young journalists. The race to be faster than your competitors is the same as the race to be cheaper than them: it’s a race to the bottom. There is only one loser in this race and it’s usually you.

I remember an entrepreneur giving me advice last year when I launched my online video production studio: “you don’t want to compete on price – ever.”

So if you run, or want to run, your own publication or business, heed this advice: aim to be the be best: the most accurate, the most accessible, the best produced, the most beautiful - not the fastest and not the cheapest.

Your work should be the Coutts of journalism. Last night the Daily Mail et al joined the ranks of Wonga.com.

Don’t get me wrong, these were one-off mistakes, made by otherwise talented, experienced and honest journalists. But they are mistakes which are only made in a newsroom where the overriding attitude is to be faster. The ethos created the haste, not the journalists themselves.

In a newsroom where quality is king, the hands would have stayed.

III.

I’m convinced if you’re to succeed as an entrepreneurial journalist (or whatever we want to call it), the only way to get ahead of the pack is by betting on quality. Sure, successful new businesses like the Huffington Post and Mashable gamble on quantity but to succeed here you need legacy, or lots of money.

Brian Storm, founder of MediaStorm, made the quality point really well on a recent visit to London. He makes sure everything MediaStorm publishes is as good as it can be – even if it means going several months between each new piece. As he put it: “why be part of the noise?”

The mainstream media (especially those who make speed their tagline) are trapped in this race and can’t reinvent themselves. But that leaves a nice space for the next generation of journalists with a remit of quality.

Whatever kind of journalism you do, aim to produce the best. That is a race to the top: a race worth winning.

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.

Apocalypse soon

Posted in Broadcasting and Media, News and that by Adam Westbrook on October 14, 2008

I wrote a while back about whether the UK media industry would weather the [insert "economic storm" metaphor here].

I reckoned it would be changed significantly at least.

But according to Charlie Beckett writing about a Polis speech by the Guardian‘s Emily Bell, that was a bit of an understatement…!

“We are on the brink of two years of carnage for Western media. In the UK five nationals could go out of business and we could be left with no UK owned broadcaster outside of the BBC. We are facing complete market failure in local papers and regional radio. This is sytematic collapse not just a cyclical downturn.”

Never get out of the boat...

Never get out of the boat...

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Maybe letter writing does work…

Posted in Adam, Broadcasting and Media by Adam Westbrook on April 16, 2007

Today’s Media Guardian has a spread announcing the launch of the 2007 Student Media Awards – the annual parade of student journalism talent in the UK.

And for the first time, there’s a category for Student Broadcaster of the Year.

It’s taken 12 months exactly…but maybe letter writing does work:

Letter to the Media Guardian

Shame all three of us are no longer elible to enter though.

[Cheers to Doidge for the tip off]

Screw the pandas

Posted in Uncategorized by Adam Westbrook on February 2, 2007

Today’s G2 has a big spread on “Ten animals we have to save – and how to do it.”

Don’t ask me what it’s like – I can’t be arsed to read it – but a quick skim shows the ten animals the G2 wants to save are:

  1. Tiger
  2. Orang-utan
  3. Atlantic cod
  4. Leatherback turtle
  5. Wandering albatross
  6. Iberian lynx
  7. Mountain Gorilla
  8. Western Pacific grey whale
  9. Mediterranean monk seal
  10. Polar bear

Anything missing anyone? That’s right, the Panda – a regular on the “awww sooo cute we must save the fwuffy wuffy animals” list – hasn’t made onto this (far from scientific) countdown.

Good.

For anyone who’s unfamiliar with my stance on Pandas, please refer to a year old entry to this blog’s previous incarnation, entitled: “Pandas Should Die“.

Maybe the G2 lot read it…

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Meet the man who should do every movie review EVER

Posted in Uncategorized by Adam Westbrook on December 8, 2006

Perhaps I’m becoming more sceptical as a journalist these days, but I’m really getting tired of all the advertising toss that barrages me every day on the tube, the TV and the radio.

Like that new Oral B toothbrush that helps you “brush like a dentist.” Ignoring the patronising text that appears on screen (to remind us that the computer generated tootbrush massaging the computer generated teeth is a reconstruction and that they haven’t just shoved a camera inside a cartoon gob) the mere hint that dentists know some magical trick about how to brush teeth that they haven’t been telling us is pure arse.

And don’t get me started on all the freakin’ shampoo adverts that “utilise new hydra-ceramide-completely-made-up-amide with special shine compounds” that really give your hair lift.

But what’s really been bugging me is the film posters. You know the format: glossy image, big title and then little quotes from supposed reviewers telling us – always – that the film is so great it’ll make your eyes haemorrage and bleed out through your nostrils.

Like Zach Braffs piss poor rom-com The Last Kiss. Heralded as “the funniest film of the year”. No it wasn’t.

And that awful Russell Crowe one about the wine. The posters declared “witty and funny…I could watch it over and over”. No way hose. Once was bad enough.So enough lies! We need someone who can tell it to us straight. And I’ve found him. He’s called Charlie Brooker…he’s a writer/reviewer/comic who’s rather good at telling it how it is.

Charlie BrookerYou might have seen him over the summer on BBC Four’s excellent Charlie Brooker’s Screen Wipe and he currently writes a column in the Guardian’s G2 supplement on Mondays called Screen Burn.

He described the McDonald Brothers (thankfully now booted out of the X-Factor) as “the kind of act a child killer might listen to in his car”and thinks we should shove TV psychics in”windowless cells and make them crap in buckets. They can spend the rest of their days sewing mailbags in the dark.”

He’s got a cracking way with words and the sharpest bullshit detector on the planet. So you know that when he tells you a film’s good — it actually is good. And if he tells you a films is so scary “it’ll make you shit your own spine” then you can feel confident taking an extra pair of pants to the cinema. And perhaps sitting on your own somewhere.

And best of all, if film posters adorning tube platforms went something like:

Twentieth Century Fox Presents

Eragon

“You are stronger than you realize. Wiser than you know.”

Easily the worst dollop of wank to get funding since Kevin Costner. A piss-poor imitation of Lord of the Rings” Charlie Brooker

we could all save ourselves £6.50.

Check out Charlie Brooker’s hilarious TV Go Home (offensive language)

And here’s a clip from Screen wipe where Brooker’s distaste for TV psychics becomes apparent:

 

How not to write home

Posted in Uncategorized by Adam Westbrook on November 6, 2006

As an ex-gapper/someone who’s travelled about a bit, I’ve grown to understand the importance of writing a good email/blog home to keep the parents at bay, and the chocolate/newspapers coming.

I’m not sure my brother did, however, having completed a calamitous ’round-the-world’ expedition, the correspondence from which read like a cross between The Beach and a trashy Joan Collins novel.

Dearest Benjamin isn’t alone it would seem, according to today’s G2. “Panic not, mother” featured a collection of emails from backpackers getting into all sorts of scrapes, which are well worth a read. Here are some of my favourites..

Hey Mum and Dad, Don’t fret, cos I am still alive, and you always said that was the main thing. I should probably mention that I am not pregnant. I am also not yet a heroin/coke/ ecstasy/morphine addict. I have definitely “found myself” and also made a huge difference to the village where I am staying. I have lots of good intentions, like building wells and libraries. I have given up smoking. I have started writing poetry. I have found God. I miss you and love you all so so so much and can’t wait to see you. Love Tasha.

Well, I got mugged again, trying to get across eight lines of traffic from Cinelandia to the Modern Art Museum in the pouring rain. He did have a knife, but he wasn’t particularly threatening, and he let me open my wallet and give him the notes, rather than taking everything, which would have been a pain. It’s OK. I’m used to it now.

The local culture in Auckland is “kandi”. It’s a drug that is very similar to ecstasy, with one major exception – it’s completely legal. I figured that as they were legal they couldn’t be that strong, so I ignored the warning not to exceed four pills per week and took 12 in one night . . .

The accommodation is OK. Well, it’s interesting, a bit sticky on the floor and a few cockroaches but it’s OK. I’m staying in a little place about 40 minutes from Sydney on the train. It’s a small town, loads of crime, drugs etc, etc, a bit like Stoke – only less pottery.

Dad, you keep complaining about my spending but the longer you fail to get this problem sorted out, the more money will get spent. Beijing is an expensive place to piss about going to banks all day, plus its 39 degrees outside, which makes me annoyed the minute I step out of the hotel. Seriously, I don’t know how much longer I can last . . . I’m fucking fed up with this, stop sending me sarcastic emails and telling me “it doesn’t add up”. I DON’T GIVE A FUCK. Just go down to HSBC and don’t leave until you’re convinced that something has taken place which will enable me to come home . . . I don’t care if you have to use all your savings to pay off my overdraft, or if you have to sell your car, PLEASE JUST GET ME HOME!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Brief Intermission

Posted in Uncategorized by Adam Westbrook on November 1, 2006

Sorry for the lack of interesting articles this week…I’m on an intensive 4-day course on the structure and function of British government.  As part of it, we have to spend three weeks researching a particular issue within government in groups.

And do I get flooding controls? Controversial new stadiums? Nope, I get level crossings.

I couldn’t think of anything interesting to write about it if I tried.

Brief interesting news: Kofi Annan today warned about a possible war between Ethiopia and Eritrea, as I wrote about last week. See the Guardian article here.

Whatever happened to the Fifth Estate?

Posted in Uncategorized by Adam Westbrook on October 16, 2006

fourth es-tate noun. journalists, the press or the media in general, in addition to the ‘three estates’ (the Lords spiritual, the Lords temporal, the House of Commons).

The media, in one of it’s key roles in a democracy, is seen as the fourth estate, the watchdog of those in power, recording their movements and holding the powerful to account. But who watches over the watchers?

The presence of a fifth estate is vital for keeping the media in check. But in Britain, a country hailed for the doggedness of its journalists, the press has no accessible watchdog. There is of course the Press Complaints Commission and (for broadcasters) Ofcom, who set the standard and deal with complaints.

But there’s no publication, no programme which regularly takes on the people with power over information.
And even worse, it seems attempts to set up a Fifth Estate have been quashed by fat cat editors in the most backhand of ways.

It’s known, for example, that media journalists face a constant battle with the papers and broadcasters they write about to stop critical articles going to print. Concerted efforts have taken place to stop papers running their own media pages…ever wondered why just the Guardian and the Independent run a weekly supplement?

There’s even allegedly a backroom deal between the owners of the Telegraph and Associated Newspapers (owners of the Daily Mail) to ensure no coverage critical of the Telegraph is printed in the Mail, Metro or Evening Standard.

So far from having a healthy press in Britain which monitors itself to avoid abuses of power, the Fifth Estate function has been silently suffocated.

It wasn’t always this way. In the late 80s good ol’ Raymond Snoddy (now of Newswatch fame) hosted a Channel 4 programme called Hard News which gave tabloids and the rest a weekly spanking for bad behaviour. It even won awards.

Of his new programme, Raymond Snoddy says “The idea of a programme like Newswatch is long overdue” and he couldn’t be more right. But we need more. We need a new programme that hauls the press and broadcasters into the dock and ensures they only do good in our name.

Creative producers could develop a Top Gear style format, live/as live studio based, with a fun cheeky tone that puts the assertions made in print and in broadcast to the test. Where Clarkson test drives a new car, the new Snoddy would test drive a sleazy allegation made by a Sunday tabloid.

It would be an entertaining programme as well, not to mention a shocking one on occasion. But it should be something to scare the press into maintaining high standards, so sad occurences like the hounding of Neil Kinnock and then the Tories and the Hutton affair are less likely to happen.

Monkey mischief

Posted in Uncategorized by Adam Westbrook on October 16, 2006

Media MonkeyCity University (where I’m studying) was the subject of a scandelous expose by the ever watchful Media Monkey today:

Print out
To City University now, where the journalism course boasts alumni such as Sophie Raworth and Faisal Islam, and enrolled a dozen extra students this year, boosting uni coffers by around £70,000. The bigger intake, however, has left less space in City’s cramped east London classrooms, and barely a month into the new term, the new arrivals are annoyed that not a single printer in the building seems to work. They would write a letter of complaint, but there’s nothing to print it on.

Clearly, everyone’s favourite Monkey has eyes not just in professional newsrooms but the trainee ones as well. In the interests of fairness I should point out that I successfully printed a bursary application form on Friday afternoon, but I did struggle to get the department photocopier to work.

Rumours are abound as to who the mole was and more crucially, why he/she didn’t have anything more interesting to tell monkey about.

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Current TV comes to the UK!

Posted in Uncategorized by Adam Westbrook on October 8, 2006

Exciting news from the media world this weekend: Sky’s announced plans to launch US network Current TV in the UK and
Ireland in spring 2007.

…..well I’m excited anyway.

And you might not be dribbling away like me because you probably haven’t heard of Current TV…so allow me to enlighten you.Current TV wall

Launched last year by the 21st century’s own version of Captain Planet, Al Gore, Current TV is
America’s first “user generated” network. This means that around 30% of its output is produced by its viewers, ordinary peeps like you and I.

Some are professional film makers, some journalists. But they all have a story and a passion to tell it.

Each film (or “pod” as they’re known as) can be between 1-10 minutes long or thereabouts.  First users upload their films where they’re watched and voted on by other viewers. Those deemed good enough for broadcast are given the “green light” and it enters the network’s schedule to beamed across
America.

A quick peruse on the site reveals coverage of a hunger strike to call for the recall of US troops in Iraq, the story of a young Brazilian emigrating to Europe and a film about an oil spill in the
Mediterranean.

It’s great because anyone can make a film as long as they’re interested in the subject. So events that would be ignored by network media gets due coverage; issues big business would prefer we didn’t know about get exposed. In other words Current TV does what good journalism should do but often doesn’t.

And the fat cats are sitting up and taking notice too. Current has the one thing big business gets hot and sticky about: the attention of the 18-34 market. Young people make these films and young people watch them too.

So I’m excited about Current TV coming over here. Partly because it’s a great chance for young British filmmakers to get stuff on air and because it’ll be fascinating to see what us lot will make programmes about.

Oh and did you know they pay up to $1,000 for pods that make it to the air?

Al Gore’s excited too, he said the UK deal is: “a big step in fulfilling Current’s mission of sparking a global conversation among young adults

Sudan: a “cruel hoax”?

Posted in Uncategorized by Adam Westbrook on October 7, 2006

Excellent opinion piece in yesterday’s Guardian. Jonathan Steele, still reporting from Sudan, making a sad point about the British and American’s seemingly positive response to the Darfur crisis:

A cruel hoax is being perpetrated on the desperate people of Darfur. With their constant demands for UN troops to go to Sudan’s western region as the only way to protect civilians, George Bush and Tony Blair are raising hopes in a grossly irresponsible way.

It is not just that the Khartoum government rejects the idea of UN troops. More important, Bush and Blair know that, even if Khartoum were to back down, they will not be sending US or British troops to replace the African Union (AU) force. Nor will other European governments.

Why does this matter? Because hundreds of thousands of displaced villagers who sit in miserable camps across Darfur are under the impression that European soldiers will soon be riding over the hill to save them.

All the rhetoric, all the promises then, mean nothing. For some reason I’m surprised, but I know I shouldn’t be.

Click here to read Jonathan Steele’s piece on commentisfree

Sudanwatch and the Hell On Earth blog have also picked up on it

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