Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

How to feed your journalism cow

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism by Adam Westbrook on September 22, 2011

Image: cheeseslave on Flickr

Here’s a question I bet you don’t get often: do you feed your cow?

In the early days of my freelance career, back in January 2010, I spent a couple of weeks working on a film with video journalism supremo David Dunkley-Gyimah at the Southbank Centre in London.

We were interviewing artists from around the world, and every discipline imaginable: poets, musicians, film makers, painters and violinists. Among them was the architect Shumon Basar. Off camera he was the most interesting and relaxed, and while we were talking he said something that’s stuck with me since.

He said whatever type of art you do, it’s vital you keep consuming ideas and information. He likened the brain to a cow: ‘you want the cow to produce milk [ideas] but to do that you must feed it well.’

Journalism, and its periphery disciplines (writing, film making, photography, design) consume ideas like we consume petrol. If you’ve worked on a magazine, 24-hour news channel or even run a blog, you’ll know just how ideas hungry these things are.

So, no matter how busy you are, make time to take Betsy out for a big lunch. As always, I’d love your own personal recommendations too – stick ’em in the comments box!

Six things to feed the cow

.01 A good newsletter

Sign up some inspiring, idea-laden, newsletters, that pop into your inbox without you having to do anything. If it’s sitting in your inbox it’s harder to ignore, and you can still save it for later on.

I’m personally loving two particular newsletters right now: BrainPickings, a weekly collection of great design and ideas curated by Maria Popova in New York. Her Twitter feed is really worth following too. Secondly the Do Lectures (think TED lectures but on a Welsh farm) send out a weekly newsletter called Kindling, which does just that: it sets off little sparks of inspiration and lets them catch hold.

.02 TED Lectures

If you can make time, even once a week, to watch an 18 minute TED lecture, you’ll be a more informed and inspired person. As well as good talks on productivity, ideas and the like, the best TED talks are about something completely off the wall, like whaling or painting.

The success of the format relies on the focus on new ideas (rather than a soap box for criticism) and on the 18 minute slot: too short for an expert to waffle on for hours, but too long to just scramble a powerpoint together at the last minute. This one on the future of online video has inspired my ideas throughout 2011.

.03 Kickstarter

Never mind cool ideas, what about being inspired by what people are actually doing? That’s why I love visiting KickStarter. It started as a platform to raise funds for cool projects, but has a secondary role as a hub for inspiring ideas people are trying to get off the ground. If you’re a film maker, it’s a useful watering hole to see what documentary projects people are trying to get off the ground.

I’m living in patient wait for KickStarter to become available to those outside the US (at the moment only US citizens can fundraise). Oh and if you see one you like, don’t forget to donate a dollar or two to the cause.

.04 Video .fu library

Speaking of films, I couldn’t miss off the video .fu library from this list. I’ve been curating a collection of epic, cinematic, memorable video storytelling all year. There are more than 30 films in the library so far, and dozens of subscribers.

In particular, I look for factual stories which take a cinematic approach to how they’re made, focusing on compelling characters and strong narrative arcs. Many appear on this blog but not until some time after they’re in the library so get an early peek. If you’re looking for inspiration for characters, styles or story structure, this is a good place to start.

.05 This American Life

This American Life is a wonderful way to feed the cow when you’re on a long journey or even just commuting to work. The hour-long weekly podcast is a finely crafted nugget of great stories well told, by Ira Glass and his team. If you want to learn how to tell better stories you must listen to TAL.

As it’s a podcast it’s something you can drop onto your iPod, iPhone or just the laptop, and listen when you’re travelling. A word of warning about This American Life: each episode demands (and rewards) your concentration. Don’t listen while you’re doing emails or writing a blog post – give it your full attention.

.06 beta620

A new product from the New York Times, beta620 is a platform for experimental projects being tried about by developers, journalists and co at the paper. They include apps and mashups – worth a visit to see what some of the smartest people in journalism are up to. They also have some great hacking events going on, if you’re NYC based.

Of course, I should add visits to museums, galleries and exhibitions to this list, plus who knows how many countless books. But at least this digital selection is something you can dive into right away. Please add your own suggestions below!


10 Responses

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  1. Will Peach said, on September 23, 2011 at 12:32 pm


    A great list of things there and many things I’ve never hears of that I can’t wait to check out. Couldnt agree more with the TED recommendation and definitely going to check out the TAL podcast. Cheers!

    I’d like to add into the mix too as a great resource for productivity/lifestyle nerds. His book is really helping me!

  2. shirleyhs said, on September 25, 2011 at 12:23 am

    What a terrific resource list. I love This American Life, TED, and the New York Times. The rest are new to me.

    Since I grew up on a dairy farm, I can help you with your cow analogy. It takes 5 gallons of water to produce one gallon of milk. A cow also has four stomachs because it is a ruminant: A cow’s diet is much harder to digest than that of an omnivore’s or carnivore’s diet. Thus it requires several steps in order for a cow (being a ruminant) to fully digest and absorb the nutrients from the plant matter that she eats. A simple stomach that secretes hydrochloric acid and peptidases just doesn’t cut the mustard when it comes to having to digest a 100% forage/roughage diet. An animal, like humans, with only a simple stomach with no cecum would starve to death on coarse roughage like dried grasses and hay. Thus, a ruminant is more adapt and efficient at breaking down and utilizing the nutrients from such fodder sources as grass, clover, alfalfa, or even leaves from trees. The multiple chambers and the ability to regurgitate and rechew partly digested matter make it all the easier for that animal to efficiently digest and use the nutrients from the grass a bovine eats.

    Read more:

  3. Frances Uku (@missuku) said, on September 25, 2011 at 12:23 am

    Really fab compilation, Adam – thanks so much! Just so you know though, Kickstarter’s now open to funders from anywhere good credit cards are accepted (, so let the fun & funding continue!

    -Fran xo

    • Frances Uku (@missuku on Twitter) said, on September 29, 2011 at 1:35 am

      Hiya Adam, left the following comment days ago but it never showed so I thought I’d try again – feel free to delete either (or both!)

      Frances Uku (@missuku) said, on September 25, 2011 at 12:23 am
      Your comment is awaiting moderation.

      Really fab compilation, Adam – thanks so much! Just so you know though, Kickstarter’s now open to funders from anywhere good credit cards are accepted (, so let the fun & funding continue!

      -Fran xo

      • Adam Westbrook said, on September 29, 2011 at 8:48 pm

        Hi Frances, thanks for your comment. Yes, Kickstarter is open to all funders, but unfortunately if you want to *start* a project you still have to be a US resident:

        “To be eligible to start a Kickstarter project, you need to satisfy the requirements of Amazon Payments:
        Be a US resident and at least 18 years of age with a social security number (or EIN), a US bank account, US address, US state-issued ID (driver’s license), and major US credit or debit card.
        Please note that anyone, anywhere (with a major credit card) can pledge to Kickstarter projects.
        We’re working hard to open up to more countries. If you’ve been waiting, we really appreciate your patience.”

        I’m waiting patiently! 🙂

  4. Pamela Lear said, on September 26, 2011 at 2:04 pm

    Love this article and all the ideas; I had heard of some of them … but discovered new ones as well. I have shared this with a number of friends. Thank you for all the inspiration!!

  5. Adam Westbrook said, on September 26, 2011 at 3:44 pm

    Thanks for all the extra suggestions guys; I now know more about cow’s digestion than I ever thought I would 😉

  6. Hope said, on September 27, 2011 at 8:16 pm

    I like “feed the cow.” It’s a pastoral take on something I’ve encountered in my researches on success. Julia Cameron’s “filling the well,” or Noah St. John’s “goal-free zones.” I just love being granted the freedom to renew my brain fodder.

  7. […] How to always have good ideas: ideas are the building blocks of journalism and publishing. But how do you stop yourself running out of them? […]

  8. […] How to feed your journalism cow UK journalist Adam Westbrook suggests a number of idea-sparking sources for writers of nonfiction and those in associated genres (filmmaking, photography, design). I’m most interested in exploring Adam’s own Video.fu film library, which focuses on nonfiction films that tackle their topics in a story-based way, and using the crowdfunding site Kickstarter as a source of ideas that their owners are trying to make viable. […]

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