Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

“This is not the internet!” What Robinson Crusoe tells us about the future of news

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism by Adam Westbrook on August 8, 2011


Enough talk and conferences and experimentation about the future of journalism! We want answers right!? I mean, how long has it been already?

For all the talk by people like me about experimentation and enterprise, the number of jobs in the industry aren’t getting any larger. If you’re a journalism graduate looking for a job your prospects haven’t gotten any better since reading my blog a year ago, have they?

Well, yes and no.


I’m currently reading Frank Rose’s The Art of Immersion: how the digital generation is remaking Hollywood, Madison Avenue and the way we tell stories.

In it, he quotes the introduction to Daniel Defoe’s novel Robinson Crusoe, it goes like this:

“If ever the Story of any private Man’s Adventures in the World were worth making Pvblick, and were acceptable when Publish’d, the Editor of this Account thinks this will be so….The Editor believes the thing to be just a History of Fact; neither is there any appearance of Fiction in it…”

To decifer the 18th Century parlance, Daniel Defoe is saying – before you read his fiction novel – “this is not a fiction novel.”

Why? Well, with a few exceptions, Robinson Crusoe is one of first novels ever written. Up until then, it had been poems, plays, myths and The Bible. As hard to imagine as it is, the idea of a novel was so new, it was risky to publish it.

Rose notices a common trend in all the major mediums since (movies, television and the Internet): when they first begin, they try to convince you they are not new.

The earliest films were basically filmed like a theatre performance: a stage and a stationary camera – the first movie makers were saying “this is not a movie!

Television did the same thing, up until the 1950s producing shows that resembled theatre – the first TV producers were saying “this is not television!

You can argue TV News still does the same thing, sticking presenters behind desks to mimic the radio announcers of the 1930s.

And the early attempts at online publishing have tried so hard to mimic print and television that it’s almost laughable. From the front page of the New York Times website, to the format of all online video stories, these digital producers are busting their nuts to convince you “this is not the internet!”


And it was ever thus.

But Frank Rose’s other point is what’s really important for any digital publishers, journalism entrepreneurs and video journalists: we are only at the beginning – and the answers won’t come for years.

Frank Rose sold me on his book with his tidy use of online video to publicise it (beats a crappy blurb, right?) He makes the point quietly (about 3’20” in) that whenever a new technology arrives, it takes pioneers 20 or 30 years to figure out what to do it with it.

Cinema was invented in the 1890s, but it wasn’t until the mid 1920s that Pudovkin’s five principles of editing were laid down. It took decades for someone to say ‘hey, what if we edit two different scenes together to make it look like they’re happening at the same time!’

TV was born in 1925, but as Rose points out it was another 25 years before it came into its own with the sitcom format, game shows and the like.

So, by the same logic, this marvellous new medium we’ve created for ourselves – the internet – is 20 years old this month. But you could argue, its true power (web 2.0) wasn’t born until 10 years ago. Either way, it’ll be another decade before we really figure out what the hell this thing can do.

However far we think we’ve come, we’re just at the beginning. 

And us? We’re the pioneers. Anyone who’s produced online video (specifically for the internet), created a podcast, launched an online magazine, started a social network or written a blog: you are the internet’s pioneers, marching determinedly into the frontier.

And that’s a generational privilege we should relish.


5 Responses

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  1. Philip Darley said, on August 9, 2011 at 11:47 am

    Inpiring – you’ve plugged the book – it’s on my wish list…

  2. […] recently mentioned Frank Rose’s new book on how the internet is changing storytelling. As he sees it, these new ways of telling stories are […]

  3. […] Lessons from the first ever novel for the first online video producers: what do novels, cinema, radio, television and now, online video, have in common? Find out here. […]

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  5. Drusilla said, on July 17, 2013 at 2:50 am

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