Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

30 free ideas for multimedia producers and digital storytellers

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism, Online Video by Adam Westbrook on September 3, 2012

One of the first and best bits of advice I’ve ever been given has been this: write everything down.

Writing an idea down – making it physical on the page – engages your brain in imaging how that idea might happen. As the words form on the page, you think about logistics, treatments, audiences.

It also gives you the ability to vocalise and understand a problem. If a film you’re making isn’t working for some reason, try and write down why: if you can put your problem into words, you have power over it.

So for the last three years I’ve written ideas down as a matter of routine. I’ve got notebooks upon notebooks, as well as a 50 page Word document on my hard drive full of them. Many of the ideas are now redundant as I’ve moved onto other things, and following last week’s confessional, I thought I’d give some them away for free.

You never know, one person’s trash might be another person’s treasure.

A couple of disclaimers: I am fully aware most of these ideas are either lame or not original – that’s partly why I never pursued them. So I won’t be taking criticism in the comments about the quality or originality of the ideas, thank you. However, even if you don’t find any directly useful, they might fire off a spark into something else.

I’m publishing these under a Creative Commons Licence I’m calling the Call-Your-Mum-Licence (CYML 1.0). You don’t have to give any credit or anything, but if you do find a use for them, promise you’ll give your mum (or equivalent) a ring.

Right, let’s get on!

30 free ideas for digital producers

  1. Amazing real life stories that emerged solely from data on a spreadsheet
  2. Stories about items (typewriter/kodachrome) going extinct
  3. Stories of the glamour days of air travel (PanAm etc)
  4. Missed connections on Gumtree
  5. Profiles of people who make a living pretending to be someone else
  6. “My first…” directors/writers/painters talk about the pain of getting the first film/book/painting done
  7. “Journeys that almost killed me”
  8. “Scene of the crime” – take people back the place where something major happened in their life
  9. Is Britain tilting? (apparently it is)
  10. Elderly people share one piece of advice they’ve learned in their many years
  11. Investigate how easy it is to plant a tree in a public place (apparently not very)
  12. Run for MP in the next election and make a documentary about it.
  13. Visit every World Heritage Site in the country and document
  14. A website/magazine about people for whom ‘OK isn’t good enough’
  15. A collaborative piece where people across the country find out where their waste goes
  16. A website where people can fill in a box to say sorry for something they’ve done (anonymously)
  17. An app that lets people photograph potholes/graffiti and sends it, plus location, to their local authority. The LA can then text them directly when the problem has been fixed.
  18. Competitions to bring people from around the world together to solve a big problem – crowd sourcing problem solving
  19. A platform to show news packages from around the world..how have different countries covered the same event?
  20. Films about people who do a dying trade (blacksmith/wood turner etc)
  21. If we could build the internet from scratch, with everything we’ve learned, what would it look like?
  22. Repackage out-of-copyright books in a more visual and engaging way
  23. An app that makes it really clear what food is in season and local to you for when you go shopping
  24. Use splitscreen/tallscreen to show two sides to an argument
  25. A simple, non-technical description of how web sites are made
  26. A celebration of unconventional solutions to problems
  27. A visual rundown of all the different types of material and  how long they take to decompose
  28. Take someone who’s in a bad place in their life on a creative journey (How to look good naked but with creativity not clothes)
  29. Get 15 brilliant people from completely different industries together to try and solve a problem in a weekend. Document it.
  30. A repository for unwanted ideas that other people can use and take inspiration from. In fact, let’s start it right now – share yours in the comments box!

UPDATE: Journalist Ben Whitelaw has added some of his spare ideas on his blog. Let me know if you do the same and I’ll link to them too.

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Ideas 003: event based reporting

Posted in Ideas for the future of news by Adam Westbrook on December 4, 2009

I’ve opened up a new category on the blog. It’s called Ideas for the future of news and here I’m  collating good, tangible, positive, innovative ideas on how journalism can move forward.

Previous articles:

Ideas 002: students as investigators

Ideas 001: the news aggregator

Idea: The Berlin Project

By: Alex Wood, Sheena Rossiter, Marcus Gilroy-Ware, Dominique Van Heerden, Marco Woldt

The five people behind the Berlin Project are the perfect example of young journalists refusing to be battered by economic storms, or waiting for journalism to sort itself out. When many recent graduates would have been preparing themselves for another 3-week unpaid internship at some dodgy music mag, or scouring the papers for PR jobs, these guys decided to go do some journalism instead.

It takes a fair bit of chutzpah to fly yourself out to Germany to cover the Berlin Wall anniversary with no real audience and not much financial backing. But they did, and you can see the results on their website.

Under the banner “journalism like you never thought possible” they went into Berlin under the radar covering the unofficial story. The site is a real multimedia mash too with audio, video packages, mobile video and photographs rolled into one.

Something lots of the big boys talk about all the time, but rarely produce themselves.

This aside, I’ve labelled the Berlin Project as an example of event-based reporting, a different angle on journalism, and one perhaps with commercial possibilities?

The Berlin Project was about one event, and offering in-depth coverage of that time defined moment. It is nothing new of course, we’re all used to ‘special coverage’ of the Olympics, elections, and remembrance services in the mainstream media.

But until now, they’ve been an extension of larger broadcasters or papers.

I think the advantage of the Berlin Project is its size (small, nimble) and therefore flexibility. They were also able to work cheaply, getting footage on iPhones and editing it quickly with iMovie. All told, a valuable alternative to mainstream coverage.

And I wonder for a second whether there’s a business model here too? Imagine being commissioned to cover all sorts of awesome events, because its what you do really well. It’s not a traditional niche, but hey- a niche is a niche right?

The Berlin Project team were able to get backing from Reuters  and do some business with smaller sites and Alex reckons they’ll break even, all told. Not bad for a pilot project. And there could be plans for more events coverage in 2010.

And even if you don’t like the idea, these guys have shown what’s possible when you just get off your ass and do something.

Ideas 002: students as investigators

Posted in Ideas for the future of news by Adam Westbrook on November 18, 2009

Idea: the Innocence Project

By: David Protess & Northwestern University

This idea for the future of news has been around for 10 years, but I had never heard of it.

But when I did, just last week, it blew my socks off with its simplicity, and lateral thinking.

Under the leadership of experienced investigative journalist David Protess, students at Northwestern University rake through criminal convictions in their region. They hone their investigation and data mining skills checking the facts.

“Our goal,” writes Protess,  “is to expose and remedy wrongdoing by the criminal justice system.”

They focus on murder cases where the defendant has been sentenced to execution.

And to this day they’ve freed 11 men. Five of them have been saved from the chair.

Now that beats a 2:1 any day.

One of them was Anthony Porter, exonerated just 50 hours before being executed.

This isn’t so much an idea which has any business revenue potential obviously, although there’s a chance it could get a decent grant here and there. But what a way to get students engaged during their studies! And what a way to teach them the most difficult skill of all: investigation.

J-courses around the world: you don’t have to do cold convictions (in the UK for example, that would be – sadly – particularly hard); you could check council finances, plough through rejected asylum applications, fact-check all the decisions involving wind turbines approvals or rejections; the list is endless.

On top of its legal accomplishments, the Innocence Project has “sparked a debate” about capital punishment, and invoked the rath of lawyers.

Freeing Porter in 1999, the governor of Illinois George Ryan said “a system that depends on young journalism students is flawed”. But if, as some fear, a void will be left by the cutbacks at papers over the next 10 years, then this could be one way to fill some of the holes.

Ideas 001: the news aggregator

Posted in Ideas for the future of news by Adam Westbrook on November 4, 2009

I’ve opened up a new category on the blog today. It’s called Ideas for the future of news and here I’m going to start collating good, tangible, positive, innovative ideas on how journalism can move forward. With ‘entrepreneurial’ the hot-word of the week in #futureofnews circles, more people are starting to put some great ideas out there.

I’ll report on as many as I can. And here is number 001:

Idea: Climate Pulse, the news aggregator

By: Headshift & evectors

I was very excited earlier to read about a new venture, currently in alpha-testing, which promises to put theories on the clash between journalism, social media and user generated content into practice.

London based developers Headshift have teamed up with Italian company Evectors, and produced a new form of content management.

It’s best left to Headshift’s Robin Hamman to explain more:

…[it] basically monitors and aggregates blog posts, news websites, twitter tweets and a wide range of other sources we’ve configured in the backend. An editor can then curate this content and display it as they wish – for example letting the flow appear as a raw feed, tagging or geo-tagging content, featuring the best stuff, etc.

In other words, content is aggregated around a single topicbut then edited by a professional. They decide what is quality and what isn’t.

They’ve created a test site, called Climate Pulse, to try this out ahead of the COP Copenhagen meeting. Check out this diagram:

What’s particularly fantastic, is their method of sharing content, through 3rd party widgets:

we can easily build widgets of the flow from the page, and enable site owners interested in a particular issue, for example deforestation, to create a widget that displays, on their own site, that content. Social features could then be made available, meaning that the audience on third party sites could participate on the sites they choose to visit, rather than visiting Climate Pulse itself…

They see it as a move away from the journalist as moderator of UGC, to a curator.

Pros:

  • it uses the power of crowd sourcing around a topic
  • it shares the results through a widget
  • potential for multimedia, mashups, interactives
  • has potential to satisfy niche groups

Cons:

  • is it fulfilling for the ‘curating’ journalist?
  • if paywalls go up, mainstream news content may be limited
  • revenue generation not mentioned

I’d like these idea posts to be a place for constructive positive feedback on innovative new ideas. Many might not be completely thought out yet, but everyone gets top marks for actually putting new ideas out there. Stick your comments about Climate Pulse in the box below!

Welcome

Posted in by Adam Westbrook on October 8, 2012

Hello! I’m Adam Westbrook, digital publisher and maker of things on the internet. In all my publishing projects I’m on a mission to help people understand this fast-changing world by making high quality books, films, magazines and more, with storytelling at its core.

In the past I’ve been known as a journalist, presenter, lecturer and a blogger. After six years I’ve decided to hangup my blog-boots to focus full-time on publishing. All my past articles are on here to read, forever, for free. I’ve also collected 20 of the best, and written four new ones in this short anthology.

Comments Off on Welcome

Inside the Story: how to structure your stories

Posted in Online Video by Adam Westbrook on April 23, 2012

There are just four days to go until Inside The Story: a masterclass in digital storytelling by the people who do it best goes out to the world, in a bid to raise as much cash for charity as possible.

And today I’m psyched to reveal what the front cover of the ebook will look like, thanks to the brilliant people on the Inside The Story Facebook page. Last week I threw up three front page design ideas and over the weekend, they’ve all been voting on which one they like best. And here’s the winner!

Front cover of Inside the Story

It features a mesmerising image taken by visual journalist and contributor to the book Jonah Kessel.

On Friday, I let you have a peek at what advice the book has about how to prepare your stories. Today I’ll show you what the best digital storytellers in the world have to say about how to structure a story properly.

How to structure your stories like a pro

When it comes to creating a narrative in the most effective way, no-one knows more than the contributors to the book, who all have scores of stories under their belt. Amy O’Leary is one of them: she’s a reporter on the New York Times and has been a producer of This American Life.

For Amy, it’s all about the start.

“Don’t be afraid to confuse your audience; suck them in with one gorgeous moment and use the rest of your piece to explain what the heck it was they just saw.”

I’ve written before about those vital 10 seconds at the start of every piece – something Amy echoes on her page in the book. She’s got some great advice on other ways to hook your audience right off the bat and reel them in. Many digital stories I see suffer from a boring, irrelevant opens so it’s important to make sure that doesn’t happen to you.

Amy, Poul and Claudio's pages from Inside the Story

So you’ve hooked them in. Now what? Poul Madsen is the founder of the Bombay Flying Club, a multimedia collective based in Denmark, but usually found in all corners of the globe. For him, it’s vital every moment of a film, article or multimedia story has drive.

“From the very first frame, everything in your story – audio and/or visual elements – must point in some direction that makes sense to your viewers. Usually this means forward!”

How to you achieve forward drive in digital storytelling? Poul goes into the details in the book. And once you’ve propelled your viewer through your story it’s time to wrap it up, and according to director Claudio Von Planta that is where resolution comes in. Claudio’s been making films for 20 years, including the hugely popular documentary The Long Way Round which followed Ewan McGregor biking through Africa. Claudio’s page is crammed with nuggets like this:

“It’s always wise to develop a human-interest angle as a secondary focus where you explore how the characters in your story deal with adversity. This approach can offer an exit if you miss the primary goal.”

Claudio also offers advice for storytellers developing investigative films, and longer feature films – all of which require a strong resolution.

There’ll be another preview tomorrow, and in the meantime get on board the Facebook page and the mailing list!

The upside down rhino rule of great video storytelling

Posted in Online Video by Adam Westbrook on January 9, 2012

What does it take to make a story stick? To make the audience care enough to click “share”?

It’s not uncommon for clients to ask video producers or their PR agencies to “do them a viral”. But to even try to predict such a thing is to misunderstand its very nature.

Speaking of  ‘sharing’ things around, nearly 200,000 people have shared this short film about WWF’s work transporting rhinos around South Africa. If you haven’t seen it yet, it’s worth a look, and of course it’s in the video .fu library of extraordinary video storytelling.

© Green Renaissance/WWF

You might think the way it is shot is impressive (it is), marvel at the high quality lenses used, or the style of editing. But there’s one thing this video has, that no other does, and it’s the reason it has gone viral: an upside-down rhino, flying in the air.

The ‘upside-down rhino rule’ of video storytelling

In all my days I never thought I’d ever see a rhino being suspended, upside-down, beneath a helicopter. But there you have it, right there before your very eyes.

And this is what video is for.

Video is there to take us places we’ve never been, show us things we never thought we’d get to see. It gives us access to people we’ll never get to speak to, close-ups of things our own eyes can’t see, it lets people share ideas we would never normally hear, and see what it’s like to be someone living in poverty on the opposite side of the world.

It is not there for long interviews with CEOs, or coverage of conferences, or – dare I say it – vox pops.

Tell that to all the newspapers, charities, businesses and the like jumping into the video game to churn out more of just this kind of stuff, and then wondering why no-one watches it.

The upside-down-rhino, though, means different things to different people. To a small community, seeing a politician apologise for embezzling their tax dollar, as opposed to reading about it, has the rhino-factor. So does a video tutorial in using HTML to people who need to see it to understand it.

The next time you commission, or start to make a video, ask yourself this: for your audience, will it have the equivalent of a frickkin’ upside-down rhino being suspended from a helicopter?

No? Then put the camera down and go find a story that does.

The multimedia journalist’s Christmas list

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism, Online Video by Adam Westbrook on December 12, 2011

What to buy a multimedia journalist for Christmas?

On Monday I published a book list of great titles for any journalist, producer or publishing entrepreneur. If you’re still looking for festive ideas, here are ten gadgets and gifts perfect for any next generation journalist. Enjoy!

Field Notes Set: ($9.95/£7) Moleskins are so last year. These days, the chic journalist jots their thoughts down in a Field Notes book, currently on sale in handy three-pack sets. If you don’t already, always carry a notebook with you, and always write everything down!

Redhead windscreen: ($35/£22) a quirky essential for any multimedia producer recording audio in the field. These hand made windshields are designed specifically for the Zoom and Tascam audio recorders and if the video on the website’s anything to go by, they do an amazing job of ensuring crisp audio in windy conditions. Added bonus: your audio recorder will look like a robot troll.

Adobe After Effects: ($1,320/£850) The ability to design and animate motion graphics is becoming a popular extra string to any multimedia journalists bow. The most popular (but not necessarily the best) suite is Adobe’s After Effects. Get this with a good guide book, and you’ll be creating knockout animations in months.

External hard drive: ($290/£180) Just like no-one is disappointed to receive some Amazon vouchers for Christmas, some extra terabytes always come in handy. This 2TB beast from G-Tech is both reliable and lovely lookin’.

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaccson: ($18/£12) this is on everyone’s Christmas list this year, and if it’s anything like the man’s speeches, talks and writing, it’ll be full of wisdom on creativity and business. Not to mention an insight into what it takes to revolutionise an industry.

Kindle Fire: ($199 US Only) People who have upgraded their original Kindle are raving about the Kindle Fire. The new one comes in colour and allows more iPad style user experience, but without the iPad price tag.

Plug bug: ($34.99 – US Only) A downside of all this 21st century gadgetry is it tends to hog all the plug sockets in the house. Well, TwelveSouth have come up with a neat solution: ‘one plug, two chargers, tres cool’.

Vimeo Plus subscription: ($59.99/£38) A year long subscription to Vimeo’s plus service gives you unlimited HD uploads, better viewing stats and a pass to the front of the encoding queue. Well worth it for any serious online video producer.

Glidetrack MobiSlider: ($129/£99 opening offer, December 2011) Yes, the inevitable has happened – someone’s brought out a camera slider specifically for iPhones and other small HD cameras. If you can get past the garish neon green design, this the most affordable way to add some elegant tracking to your smartphone footage.

Camera Table Dolly: ($90/£58 via PhotoJojo) But if wheels are more your thing, then why not try this new Table Camera Dolly – smooth camera moves with a greater variety of angles – a cheap option for any DSLR film-maker.

Holstee Manifesto: ($25/£16) This modest little poster has hit the internet like wildfire in 2011. I’ve had a copy on my wall for more than a year and it makes an inspiring reminder to go do epic shit. If you’re a freelancer or entrepreneur, this is good piece of decoration.

The gift of knowledge

Cheesy I know, but if you’d rather give someone’s brain a present for 2012, then here are three unrelentingly practical ideas guaranteed to make the recipients life better.

A good book: Easy to wrap as well! Here are 10 ideas from my other blog post this week.

Lynda.com ($25/£16 per month) There’s Google of course, but then there’s Lynda.com – the best online tutorial place I can think of. If you want to learn InDesign, Final Cut Pro, even HTML then Lynda’s got it all. A month’s subscription (enough to pick up a new skill) is in that perfect price range too.

RosettaStone ($240/£150+) Want a sure-fire way to beat the competition in a job interview? Knowing your Bună dimineaţa from your Guten Morgen is a sure fire way. Personally I’m trying to improve my French, but Rosetta Stone offers a range of languages to learn at home.

11 brilliant books for multimedia producers, journalists and entrepreneurs

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism, Online Video by Adam Westbrook on December 8, 2011

In 2011 I read more books than I probably did at any other time. I picked up The Catcher in the Rye for the first time, and thanks to the ease of downloading books via the Kindle app, I’ve been able to read more titles on a whim. 

My reading interests range from everything from journalism to design, to minimalism, stoicism, film making and business. I’ve picked out the best 10 for anyone making the most of the Age of the Online Publisher.

A quick note: all links to titles are affiliate links. Some titles are only available as Kindle downloads. The prices I’ve listed will probably change.

The best books I read in 2011

Steven Pressfield | War of Art: (£5.87/$9 Kindle Edition) I actually read this last year, but Steven’s follow up Do The Work, came out in 2011. If you work in any creative or business  endeavour, then you owe it to yourself to read War of Art, it is the best book I know on the battle you face to create something new. Anyone who’s launched a new website, made a film, published a book or started a business will know what I mean by the word ‘battle’: War of Art is an essential weapon.

Kurt Lancaster | DSLR Cinema: (£14.64/$22.57) This is one of the best books I know for anyone starting out using DSLR cameras (like the 5D, 7D or 550D) to shoot video. If you’ve been using these cameras for a while, it’s probably not an essential buy, but early chapters clear up any confusion you might have about frame-rates, codecs, and shutter speed.

Jonathan Field | Uncertainty: (£12.10/$14.46) Jonathan’s first book Career Renegade, was the book that made me quit my job and go freelance. About eight weeks after I finished it I was down in London starting a new life. His follow up, focuses on how to deal with uncertainty in life – if you’re self-employed, starting a new business, uncertainty is regular spectre.

Frank Rose | The Art of Immersion: (£12.92/$17.79) Frank’s book is so good, it sparked several blog posts here earlier this year. Frank examines how storytelling, journalism and even movies are being changed by new technology, chiefly by allowing audiences to participate in stories too. I can’t tell you how many ideas I had after reading Frank’s book – so give it a try.

Ira Glass | New Kings of Non-Fiction: (£8.34/$10.88) Speaking of great storytelling, it doesn’t come much better than Ira Glass. He’s compiled a collection of excellent long-form journalism, including Malcolm Gladwell and Jack Hitt. It never hurts to read journalism at its finest.

Derek Sivers | Anything You Want: (£5.73/$5) Another title that sparked a big blog post here in 2011, Derek Sivers has some of the best common sense (or as he would say ‘uncommon sense’) advice for starting a business in the digital world. It got me wondering how newspapers would fare if they were run this way – if you liked that post, then dig deeper with Derek’s book.

Brenda Ueland | If You Want To Write: (£7.99/$7.99)This one came recommended by future of photography expert Miki Johnson this year, and boy is it a game changer. Brenda offers the best no-nonsense advice for anyone wanting to write (fiction or non-fiction) and her style is addictive. A word of note, this book was published in the 1950s so comes with some rather old-school values. See past that and you get some gems.

Darrell Huff | How to Lie with Statistics: (£5.99/$6.83) And sticking with old school, here’s another mid-century treat for any journalist dealing with numbers – a skill very few excel at (if you’ll excuse the pun). Guardian data journalist James Ball recommended this book to me as a great primer for the tricks people try and play with numbers. If you’re into data, infographics or similar this is fun introduction.

Alison Bavistock | The Naked Author: (£10.42/$22.95) Alison’s new book is a beefy guide for anyone thinking of by-passing traditional publishers and joining the likes of John Locke as authors making a mint on Amazon. As well as practical advice, Alison takes a good hard look at where publishers fit in this new world. [Disclosure: Alison is a colleague at Kingston University’s Department of Journalism & Publishing].

Al Tompkins | Aim for the Heart (2nd Ed) (£18.99/$29.35) US TV news journalist Al Tompkins has updated his guide to video storytelling and has techniques on interviews, graphics and ethics. It’s aimed at the US local news reporter, so is a bit focused on quick soundbites and writing leads – but Al’s core message is an invaluable one: tell human stories.

Scott Belsky | Making Ideas Happen: (£6.06/$17.79) the founder of 37 Signals (one of the most successful web businesses out there) published this book early in 2010, but I had to wait patiently until this spring to get a copy in the UK. It’s worth the wait though: and guides you through the 99% of perspiration that goes into creating great stuff, with neat advice on time management and motivation.

What great books have you read in 2011?

If newspapers were run like CDBaby.com

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism by Adam Westbrook on November 7, 2011

Image: NS Newspapers on Flickr

Entrepreneurial journalists – if we call them that for now – are rare, despite the opportunities out there. 

When you do find people who are brave enough to start their own news business, many choose to replicate an existing news business model. People who launch an online magazine or website do it just like a newspaper would, right down to the use of terms like ‘editor’ and ‘reporter’, banner ads, the use of TV-style video and even a newspaper layout on the page.

Which is funny because the newspaper model is a failed business model: it just doesn’t work in the 21st century. Even the newspapers know it: their only chance of survival is to change themselves.

Instead: starters, entrepreneurs – whatever you want to to call them – should look at the business models that do work, and apply them to news.

The Guardian famously looses £100,000 every day: what idiot would copy a business model like that?

If newspapers were run like CDBaby.com

CDBaby is a well known music retail website, that was both Amazon.com and PayPal before either of them were invented. It was set up by a musician called Derek Sivers, for just $500 in 1998. In 2008, he sold it for $22 million.

Derek’s just published a great book which I encourage any wannabe entrepreneurial journalists to read. It’s called Anything You Want* and it’s the latest release under the innovative Domino Project (which I’ve written about before).  Anything You Want is full of stories of Derek’s process of creating CDBaby and lessons for the entrepreneur: it shows up why you can’t just assume the ‘conventional’ business model will work for you.

And it got me thinking: what if Derek Sivers was a journalist and not a musician? How would his ‘newsbaby’ website look? Here’s how I would run a news business like CDBaby.com.

.01 it would start by helping people

Derek’s founding idea is that creating a business is about creating a “perfect world” for you and your customers, where “you control all the laws”. It starts, he says, with helping people. For him, he was helping musician friends find a new platform to sell their music, and later on, it became a place where music fans could easily find music by independent artists.

Too often, I think journalists forget how and why journalism helps people. Why does it make the world a better place? What perfect world is it creating? This too, takes us to niches, small but passionate audiences, and creating valuable content that makes their lives easier, better, or more informed. It’s not about creating a website for you to show off your video editing skillz.

.02 it would start cheap and wouldn’t get investors

Derek started CDBaby.com for $500 in his spare time. He didn’t get an office for several years and he refused any investment money. Taking investment means you have to please your shareholders, he says, instead of you and your customers. The company grew, organically, with the money it was earning and not through debt or investment.

Online magazines – are virtually free to set up. As I have said many times before, a website, a Youtube/Vimeo account, a blog – they’re all yours for tens of dollars. The equipment is pricey, depending on what you want to do, but not nearly as expensive as it was 10 years ago. You can become an online film maker now for less than $500.

.03 it would proudly exclude people

I’ve heard this advice before, and it makes a lot of sense. Know who your customers/readers/clients are and know who they are not. Online publishing, unlike its mainstream counterpart, is about niche verticals – the smaller the better, in some respects. This way you know who to please and can focus on just helping them. The New York Times can’t do this: it has to write for every American. The BBC has to cover news stories that don’t alienate the average viewer, but also don’t put off the super-smart. This means compromise, and a weaker product.

Instead, I would start a website that aims to help just one group of people, and screw the rest. You can’t please everyone, so why even try?

.04 it would be constantly changing and improving

A news product based on a web model would always be in iteration, always being tested, always being adapted. Derek changed CDBaby as it went along: it started as just a place to sell his own CDs, and soon was a marketplace for thousands of them. He had to change his ideas many times, but always kept the early goal of helping his customers at the core. He tried new ideas often, but scrapped them when they didn’t work, no harm done.

The mainstream media, of course, does the opposite, putting new emphasis on the phrase ‘flogging a dead horse’. Newspapers have had more than a decade to adapt to the internet, but still push their print product like it was 1999. I know big companies steer like oil tankers, but a newspaper run like CDBaby.com would have redesigned itself years ago.

.05 it wouldn’t carry any advertising 

Here’s an interesting one: a news website run like CDBaby.com wouldn’t carry any advertising. I say this, because CDBaby never had advertising on it, while Sivers was running it. It comes down to the “perfect world” reason behind starting your company. In a perfect world, says Sivers, would your customers want to be hassled by pop-ups and flashy banner ads while reading a story? In an ideal world would they want to suffer pre-roll ads on video?

No. So stay true to your perfect world ideal, don’t use them.

How does a news business make money without adverts you ask? Well there are plenty of revenue streams out there: products, events, sponsorships, partnerships, licencing and bespoke creation to name a few: almost all of them less susceptible to economic downturns than advertising.

Click to read on Amazon

.06 it wouldn’t be bogged down by formalities

Once CDBaby really started to take off, Derek says he was regularly approached by investors, and by people trying to sell all the legal guff we assume is necessary to running a business. Things like ‘terms and conditions’ and ‘privacy policy’ pages, employee review plans and even sensitivity training. He turned them all down, instead hiring and firing people himself, working out of his apartment, until he had enough to invest in a warehouse, and not even bothering with terms and conditions.

There are so many pointless things that conventional wisdom, and greedy lawyers, will tell us our business needs. But Derek says he never forgets there are “…thousands of businesses like Jim’s Fish Bait Shop in a shack on a beach somewhere, that are doing just fine without corporate formalities.”

.07 as much would be done in house as possible

Finally, a CDBaby news business would be an unashamedly small one. Although it eventually grew to have hundreds of employees, Derek did a lot of the core work himself. In order to make the website work when he first launched, it needed coding from scratch (this was before WordPress, heaven forbid!) Instead of outsourcing it, Derek bought a book about PHP and taught himself.

I’ve also heard good advice that one should know what you’re good at, and delegate the rest, rather than trying to control everything. But there’s certainly no harm in trying to learn new skills and keep the costs and company small. I believe there’s nothing you can’t learn – and there’s certainly no excuse for technophobia these days.

So there you go, a news business that is small, nimble, free from adverts, legal jargon, overheads, shareholders and debt, focused on making its audience’s lives better. Does it sound all pie-in-the-sky? I’d agree with you, if there wasn’t the CDBaby story to prove you wrong. 

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How to make money in online video: 3 approaches

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism, Online Video by Adam Westbrook on October 10, 2011

Every week I get emails from readers of the blog asking about online video and entrepreneurial journalism. I try and answer as many of them as I can as promptly as I can.

Since I published Next Generation Journalist: 10 New Ways to make Money in Journalism in May 2010 I’ve received a lot more questions about entrepreneurship, freelancing and making money. A typical one came into my inbox last week, and I’d thought I’d put my reply here so everyone can benefit.

Reporting for radio and video from Iraq in 2009

Nick in Australia got in touch to ask how to make money as a freelance video journalist, and he’s kindly agreed to let me share his question:

I’m about to be a journalism grad and I want to start making video stories. I’ve got lots of ideas, but just got one question that is bugging me. Once I’ve filmed, edited and uploaded my little creations online to my blog/website, how can I build a freelance income from them? i.e. I understand that once they’re online and I’m plugging them on my Twitter, Tumblr and other places with various links with journo folk they will (ideally) create job opportunities. However, I want to be actively sending/selling them to the right sources. Who pays for freelance video journalism, and where do I find these amazing publications? Surely metro papers & mainstream networks wont. Is it possible?

Nick, you’re already doing a few things right here: firstly (and most importantly) you have ideas and you want to start making video stories. I can’t stress how important it is to be prolific in your work. Secondly, you’re smart about using social media to share your content and build up an audience around it.

From here, there are three ways you can approach it: I’ll call the first the traditional approach, and the second the smart approach, and then the smart-er approach.

The traditional approach

The traditional approach is pretty much what you described: find publications who do video and pitch ideas to them. If they like your stuff, they might buy it, it’s as simple as that. You’ll obviously need a body of good work available online to prove you’re good.

As for how to find these ‘amazing publications’: there is no short cut I’m afraid: you just have to look. Print freelancers of this ilk often go into a newsagents and browse the magazine section to discover potential titles. A few might put notices out on Mandy.com or similar sites. From here, the old rules apply: find out the name of the right person to pitch to and know their content inside out.

You might be able to tell by the tone of my writing though that this is not how I build income in my career. Why? Well, for a start, it’s what everyone else does, so the competition is fiercer.  The pay often stinks, even at national titles. You spend a long time chasing ignored emails from editors who are, quite frankly, not interested. Beyond this, a lot of publications prefer to train their own staff to make video content (even though it’s usually awful). There is a lot of rejection.

That said, some people are successful at it, although I hear it takes a long time to get established. Personally, it’s not for me: I’m terrible at networking, brown nosing and cold-calling. Some people are really good at it – so its horses for courses. The key to success? Producing remarkable, high quality video.

The smart approach

The smart approach begins by having faith in this belief: the demand for online video right now is huge. Newspapers and magazines want it, yes, but so do think-tanks, chartered institutes, universities, NGOs, charities and even your local barber if you sold it to him in the right way.  Michael Rosenblum is very good at pointing this out almost every week on his blog.

The smart approach also recognises that in the traditional game, the rules are stacked against you, especially with so many other competitors. Timothy Ferris said once ‘doing the unrealistic thing is easier than doing the realistic thing’. The realistic (traditional) approach is packed with competition.

When I first went freelance two years ago, I knew it would be extremely difficult to get noticed by harried editors, already knee-deep in pitches. So instead I created my own online video production company, video .fu; I built a website in a weekend, got some cheap business cards from Moo.com and started making content (in my own time, for free) to prove what I could do. I made this series of environmental shorts with Matt Walters, portraits and more. All in my own documentary style.

As a result of these films plus, it should be said, this blog, I started to get approached by organisations wanting the sort of films I like making. This year I have been nearly fully booked on projects for think-tanks, charities and online magazines; I’ve worked with celebrities, worked in China and have even started to turn down work too.

You don’t just need faith in the demand – you must also have faith in yourself. Writing it out like this makes my approach sound planned, when in fact it’s been a process of ‘making it up as I go along’ – and still is. The key to success? Producing remarkable, high quality video.

The smart-er approach

This is, I think, a smarter way to go about it, and one with a proven track record of success for the smartest people. It’s what I am trying next. The best way to outflank the rejection of traditional pitching to editors is to become an editor yourself.

You said you want to make video stories – well turn them into a web series about something that people are interested in, create a website and start publishing. That’s what Jesse Thorne and Adam Lisagor have done with Put This On, a fashion web series. Their stylish short films clock 30,000 plus views each. It worked for Kirby Ferguson too, the creator of Everything Is A Remix, which has more viewers than some television documentaries. And of course, it has worked for Jamal Edwards, who founded SB.TV who now hangs out with Jay-Z and Richard Branson. I’ve written about all these guys before, here.

Mainstream editors now approach them with offers (and, I imagine, so do some video journalists taking the traditional approach to making money).

The smart-er approach requires faith, passion and a set of squirrel-sized balls to pull it off. But the key to success? Producing remarkable, high quality video. 

My advice to Nick is to start making these video stories now – without anyone to pitch to. If you start worrying about how to make money from the start you’ll never produce anything – and that’s a vicious circle towards giving up. Make a film, publish it – and then make another one. And keep going. Get a staff job on a newsdesk to pay the bills – or work in a bar if you have to.

These approaches aren’t for everyone though and it’s really down to the sort of person you are. But the opportunities to do something amazing are out there – and they won’t exist forever.