Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

How to come up with good ideas more often

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism by Adam Westbrook on June 25, 2012

Where do ideas come from?

I’m talking ideas for projects, ideas for stories, ideas for businesses.

By now, you know that “there’s no such thing as an original idea”. That’s true, but it’s only half the story.

Twyla Tharp in her excellent book on creativity describes the “unshakable rule that you don’t have a good idea until you combine two little ideas.” It’s an eye opener because it makes you realise that there’s no lightning strike of inspiration. You realise that a good idea is a simple matter of combining two different ideas together.

Many of  my own projects are the result of this combination.

My popular journalism prediction videos were a combination of the raft of end-of-year predictions which flood the internet each December and stylish video.

Inside the Story, which raised $4400 for Kiva this spring, came about by taking Seth Godin’s book What Matters Now and applying its approach to a completely different field of digital storytelling (you’ll notice Seth gets a nod in the book).

Meanwhile a whole industry of advocacy film-making has developed from the concept of applying a documentary approach to the third-sector market.

To take it a step further the most innovative ideas can come from combining two things which would never ordinarily be put together.

A huge amount of content for this blog, in fact, comes from combining smart things Chris, Amber, Ryan, Seth and Tim say about philosophy, life-design, productivity and marketing and wondering “what happens if we apply that to online publishing and journalism?” It’s the reason the blog’s approach to entrepreneurial journalism stands out, say, from what Jeff Jarvis or Mark Briggs might write.

Similarly, the aesthetic of online video is starting to step away from mimicking television news because videographers, armed with HDSLR cameras are taking their cues now from the disparate world of fictional cinema. They’re combining James Cameron’s style with documentary content.

Wait, isn’t that stealing?

Of course it isn’t. Kirby Ferguson, the brain behind the influential series Everything is a Remix, makes this point brilliantly in his series of films. He argues how we take an idea, transform, remix and combine it to create something new. To flat out copy What Matters Now and pass it on as my own – sure that’s stealing. But to combine it with another idea transforms and remixes it into something new.

“If we’re free from the burden of trying to be completely original, we can stop trying to make something out of nothing, and we can embrace influence instead of running away from it.”

Austin Kleon, Steal Like an Artist

Lots of young journalists, film makers and publishers are told to start blogging, but abandon it because they don’t think they have anything to add to the saturated journalism-naval gazing market. Certainly, no-one wants to read another postgraduate’s opinion of the Leveson Inquiry. So if you’re stuck, start by taking something else you’re passionate about – maybe another industry or another craft – and collide it with journalism.

If you’re lucky and persistant, sparks may fly, and give life to a whole blog, an article, a documentary – even a new business.


8 Responses

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  1. Thankyou

  2. Adam Wells (@escooler) said, on June 25, 2012 at 9:21 am

    50 page book recommendation outlines the technique you talk in very literal steps. –

    These concepts are something I have become fascinated by over the last few years – the more abstract the links the more original the ideas become I find. In animation lots of people look to film and cinematography, which is quite a obvious link – looking to the stage or radio or literature and try build projects from thos reference points and you end up in a very interesting place indeed.

    Your comments of documentary are interesting, and I am sure you would be the first to point out that the purpose of documentary tends to observational and informative, building poetry into that medium (all be it visual poetry) might be considered manipulative (although this depends on what your trying to achieve). Documentary is a unique medium because of what it attempts to achieve, there is still alot of scope for creativity though I am sure.

    • Adam Westbrook said, on June 25, 2012 at 9:40 pm

      I agree with you to a certain extent, although not all documentaries are observational (history or science documentaries for example). Plus ideas are important when coming up with original concepts and also how you tell it visually.

      • Adam Wells (@escooler) said, on June 26, 2012 at 12:59 am

        Yes, that is certainly true, I suppose I am looking at in in terms of Journalism, cameras and editing software is fickle, we all know that, so the less messed with a story is the better.

        I think this american life strike a perfect balance on their journalism. They weave and edit just enough to give it that sensationalist feel without over sentimizing (appart from on the odd occasions). And it never feels artificial. On the flip side of that is radiolab which is a incredibly highly produced show, but because it deals with science as a subject it seems ok, and actually a positive thing (my all time favorite radio show). Getting away from the subject of your blog post now Adam but why not eh.

        Here is one of the best examples I have ever seen of a creativity expressed documentary, by Adam Curtis no less (all the best people are called Adam I think) – but with this piece he did something alot more experimental than ussual. Thats why its never been on TV – Highly recommended.

  3. Adam Westbrook said, on June 26, 2012 at 8:56 am

    Getting away from the subject is just fine!
    Three great examples there (I’ve started watching the Curtis film, really interesting). I think there’s a lot to be said for experimenting and combining in this you say, Curtis’ film has never been shown on TV but on the web the rules are still unwritten, so why not?

  4. Rune Flækøy said, on July 11, 2012 at 8:12 pm

    Great advide .Thank you 🙂

  5. Rune Flækøy said, on July 11, 2012 at 8:13 pm


  6. […] the combiner (of new ideas): I’ve written about this before. Combine two disparate ideas to make a new […]

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