Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

Reacting to a #riot

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on August 9, 2011

On Monday morning I was called up and interviewed by a wire service for my thoughts on the weekend’s riots in London.

“What do you say to the idea that Twitter is a catalyst for all these riots?” he asked, and I explained as best I could how the very idea is bunkum. Safe-to-say my quotes were not picked up elsewhere, and the ‘social-media-is-to-blame’ narrative led the way through the day, from former/wannabe London Mayor Ken Livingstone, to careless reporting on 24-hour news channels.

That was yesterday.

This morning, waking up after an extraordinary night in London’s recent history, my judgement’s a bit clouded. Trying to monitor what is really happening via Twitter is very difficult, and working out what to say – even harder.

The big problems: exaggeration, retweeting of rumour, sharing of unverified photographs and video  – and even ‘all-clear’ tweets posted with the ‘#riot’ hashtag created to confusion.

That last issue has been smartly dealt with by Andy Dickinson here – his conclusion is that ‘nothing is happening here’ tweets do matter to the people in those areas.

I live in Balham in South West London, where there was some looting (I saw, photographed and shared images of T-Mobile and a Carphone Warehouse which had been smashed in around 1030 pm) – but relatively minor. That didn’t stop the #balham hashtag becoming a regular stream of all of the above. People reported the big supermarket had been looted (it hadn’t); there were claims of petrol bombs at the Tesco garage (there were none).

As one local tweeter, @DoktorWatson put it:

In one night, Twitter has gone from the best place for breaking news to the best place for breaking bullshit. #balham tag especially

Such was the confusion, several local tweeters felt compelled to walk the streets to just find out the truth, potentially putting themselves at risk.

Media became a problem. Around 1am, I lazily retweeted footage which I thought showed police clashing with thugs in Liverpool. Quick clarification came that the footage came from London, not Liverpool, and the Youtube uploader was regularly changing the title of the video.

Trying, instead, to focus on the surprising stories, I congratulated a local tweeter who was cleverly noting the licence plate numbers of cars turning up to loot from shops outside her house. I was criticised for drawing attention to her profile which had a clear picture of her face on it (but, of course, she posted the tweet in the first place).

So to sum up…it’s messy.

On the plus side, I do think real-time web’s ability to self correct is extraordinary. My blunderous retweet was corrected within five minutes. If you don’t mind taking stern words from other users, it’s a rock solid facet to the platform.

However, Twitter being used by journalists, who (hopefully!) question sources and try to verify, is one thing. But non-journalists aren’t necessarily as skeptical of information. A rumour to a journalist could be read as fact by someone else, especially people who are scared.

I still stand by the argument that Twitter is not being used to organise or incite violence. But now I wonder whether exaggerating violence in one place, or spreading rumours about violence in another (as innocent/naive as it is) could potentially encourage those who do want to cause damage?

Of course, this morning’s papers are full of graphic, terrifying images of carnage which the looters will no doubt treasure as well – so it’s a problem for the media at large.

How we use social media in events like this is important, but rightly, low on the list this morning as London, and the UK at large has bigger questions to ask itself…but do be careful what you tweet.

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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.

Goodbye mainstream media. It’s been fun.

Posted in Adam, Broadcasting and Media, Journalism, News and that, Next Generation Journalist by Adam Westbrook on December 14, 2010

This is going to be a very personal post, so apologies in advance; it’s something I try to avoid on this blog as much as I can.

The past two weeks has seen the first, sustained, clash between two ages: a new era of complete online freedom and transparency (and all that this entails, good and bad); versus the old world of secrecy, authority and control. And it’s been paralleled in a clash between a new way of doing journalism and the way the traditional, mainstream media does it.

As someone very much straddling both sides of the fence, so to speak, it has given me a huge amount to think about. I have now come to the conclusion that the future of journalism will not come in any shape or form from the current established media – at least in its present form.

I want to state that here and now because it is something I have not said publicly before: the future of journalism does not lie with the mainstream media. I am not suggesting it will get replaced by blogs or news startups – it will continue to exist. But anyone looking to it to breed a strong, sustainable and effective craft in the decades ahead – that genuinely performs a fourth-estate role – is looking in the wrong place.

NOTE: I know that will send many straight down to the comments box – and please do give me your thoughts! Please read the bullet points right at the bottom first – which clarify what I am, and am not saying.

It’s taken me a long time to come to this conclusion, and it’s the result of a long string of personal events.

Of mice and mephedrone

I’ve described before on this blog how I quit my job in the mainstream media back in September 2009. At the time I was working for a well-established, popular and profitable commercial radio station in Yorkshire, England. I had the privilege of being part of a news team who consistently beat our local rivals in relevancy and quality of our news, despite far smaller resources.

Earlier this year, I found myself back in the newsroom, sitting in the same chair – for a short period of time. I’d returned to do a couple of weeks of freelancing, to see old friends and keep my skills sharp.

My return coincided with one of the big media blowouts of the year (although one which has now almost entirely been forgotten). Two teenage boys had been found dead and Humberside Police suggested it may have been the result of a new, and legal drug, mephedrone. Mephedrone has lots of sexy nicknames, like M-Cat and meow-meow and was instant news-media sugar.

For us, both boys – who I won’t name, but you can find out easily yourself – were from our local patch, just south of the Humber estuary. A big local story then, and we immediately kicked into action. Over the next two weeks we diligently reported all the details of the story: reaction from local health experts, the latest from Humberside Police, growing pressure for the drug to be banned; statements from the Health Secretary Alan Johnson (who, helpfully was also a local MP); and then how Britain’s senior drugs expert Professor David Nutt resigned in protest at that decision.

Finally, on my last day, we reported the funerals of the two boys. I was at the first funeral, and in a superb use of initiative and social media journalism, reporter Jen Grieves was able to contact friends of the two boys via Facebook. We both went out and interviewed them. We asked them about mephedrone and what they thought of it. Within days, the drug had been banned – the one of the quickest changes in legislation in the UK in years.

At the end of the two weeks, I returned to London and we all felt we had done an excellent job – we had done good journalism.

Except, for one thing. The two teenagers did not die from mephedrone. In fact, they had never even taken it. This didn’t emerge until nearly two months later, and when it did, it barely registered in the mainstream media.

And I came to a cold and uncomfortable conclusion: this year I have participated fully in the mainstream media for just two weeks. My only achievement in that fortnight has been to perpetuate a national myth, to compound an echo-chamber, to package more lies and unwittingly sell them as truths.

Here’s the crux: I am not, on the whole, a bad journalist. The journalism we did was exactly the same as every other news outlet in those two weeks. We reported the events in the same way as the most senior BBC, ITV and Guardian journalists. In fact, a lot of our information came from our official news-wire, provided by Sky News.

Looking back, we should have challenged the police press release. We should have actually asked what mephedrone was, instead of going with what our news wires were saying. When the most accepted expert on drugs in the UK resigned, we should perhaps have wondered if he had a point. And we should have waited for the toxicology reports before linking the deaths to it.

Of course, none of these things are possible inside the mainstream news cycle, which is why it has become so distorting and dangerous. The actions of thousands of journalists telling half truths here and there, and passing on unchallenged information as fact from ‘reliable sources’ creates a foghorn for lies on a giant scale.

Iraq and The News You Don’t See

Tonight, ITV in the UK is screening a documentary by the campaigning journalist John Pilger, called The War You Don’t See.

Last night I was at a networked preview screening of the film, followed by a live Q&A with Pilger himself. The film makes this same point, except with far more dangerous lies than legal highs. In fact, he takes on what has become the greatest single lie of the 21st century so far – the reasons for invading Iraq in 2003 – and points the blame squarely at the mainstream media.

His film tries to show how our most respected news outlets: CBS News, The New York Times, Observer, BBC News and ITV News in particular failed to effectively challenge the legitimacy of the war in Iraq. In fact, never mind failed: the mainstream media did not even try to challenge its legitimacy. The film has quite extraordinary confessions from Observer and BBC Journalists (including Rageh Omar) who look back with shame (their words) at their reportage from the time.

But again, they were not doing anything other than follow the cues of their news organisations and the popular narrative of the time. Inside the news machine, they could hardly have done anything else.

The films concludes government propaganda machines have become so fantastically sophisticated – and they are successfully hoodwinking journalists on a regular basis.

Pilger is also very critical of embedding journalists. As a reporter who was embedded in Iraq (albeit very briefly, in 2009) I can see why.

When you are in the pockets of the military (they house you, transport you, guide you and feed you) objectivity is near impossible. Even if you can emotionally detach yourself from your hosts, on most embeds you see what the military want you to see, how they want you to see it. My very affable Media Ops guide, was prone to pointing out all the positive things the army were doing in his soft friendly tones; it was hard to disbelieve him.

And we went along with it, some more than others. Quite remarkably, one print journalist offered her copy to the Media Ops officer to ‘check it before I email it home’. It must have been like Christmas come early for the MOD.

The new ‘fifth estate?’

And so to Wikileaks, the stateless organisation that has given pretty much everyone something to think about.

Earlier this week I was invited to debate Wikileaks’ impact on the future of traditional journalism on Al-Jazeera English with, among others, journalism heavyweight Robert Fisk, perhaps one of the last remaining old-school war reporters. In our debate he argued that Wikileaks shows mainstream journalists up in a very bad way – he said they’ve become lap dogs, while Assange hands out the scraps.

While I think that sentiment is unfair to the scores of journalists at The Guardian, Der Spiegel, New York Times and others who have been doing good legwork sifting through thousands of documents, I do think it shows how passive the mainstream media has become.

Wikileaks publishing the unsorted data is not journalism – however it is an act of journalism, and the most significant since the MPs expenses scandal and Watergate before that.

And it has not been done by journalists. If anything, the success of Wikileaks represents a milestone failure for the mainstream media in the uncovering of truth and the holding of authority to account.

More worrying, however, has been the response to the cables. I personally feel the actions of the US government to get Julian Assange arrested and to shut down the website is on a par with the behaviour of the Chinese, Burmese and Iranian governments in the face of its own dissidents and websites it does not like. It is an outrageous abuse of power that should set alarm bells ringing in democracies around the world.

Does the mainstream media defend a flag bearer for free speech? Does it stand firm against US government pressure?

The more I am convinced of the need to challenge the authoritarian behaviour of our governments in the years ahead, the less I feel convinced the mainstream media has the capability or willingness to do it.

A new way ahead?

So if not the mainstream media, what?

Speaking after the preview of his documentary, John Pilger put his faith in new independent journalists, free from the legacy costs and attitudes of the big news machine and authority itself. He echoed ideas you will have read on this blog before: the internet has made it faster, cheaper and easier to create and publish content – and that gives these independent reporters a new platform and a new advantage.

It’s a future predicted by Richard Sambrook writing about the future of War Reporters for the Reuters Institute. The days of the khaki-wearing Corkers, working their way from hotel lobby to hotel lobby are numbered, he says; but in their place a new, independent – and younger – generation of multimedia journalists can emerge.

I agree. Brave and creative journalists, willing to take risks and innovate online might just be some future protection from corruption, incompetence and abuse of power, which the Cable leaks have shown are all thriving in our ‘democratic’ governments.

I can’t pretend to know the specifics of this future, or even whether it could do a better job than the current mainstream approach. But I do know we need to support and encourage these independent journalists whatever path they take. Our schools and colleges push journalism students through courses towards full time employment, fodder for the hungry news machine. Instead they need to be encouraging them to make a difference in the years to come.

So…

At first I was unsure about whether Wikileaks was a good thing. Then I watched the footage from the Apache gunship circling over the streets of an Iraqi town, and mowing down more than a dozen people, including two Reuters cameramen, a father and his two children.

The film, made public by Wikileaks – and not by journalists – revealed the value the US military puts on a human life and, in stark black and white, how our governments have lied repeatedly to our faces. And worst of all, how our mainstream media have served but to amplify those lies.

So I’m sorry mainstream media. It’s been fun; but me, I’m done.

Thanks for reading, if you’ve made it this far. More relevant, useful and valuable articles resume later this week!

P.S.

To save the breathe of commenters – here’s what I am not saying:

  • that I will stop consuming mainstream media news. (To clarify: I won’t, at least not right away. If I do, it’s with healthy scepticism)
  • that I think mainstream media journalists as individuals are incapable of doing good journalism. (To clarify: I know scores of talented, experienced and dedicated journalists working in all sectors of print and broadcast. They are good journalists, just working in a broken system)
  • that the mainstream media does no good acts of journalism. (To clarify: it does all the time, but the overall narrative it creates is dangerous)
  • that I will never set foot in a mainstream media office again. (To clarify, I work on a freelance/contractual basis for a range of outlets in the mainstream media, but I have no ambitions to work full-time for anyone)
  • that there is some kind of mainstream media conspiracy. (To clarify: there isn’t)

myNewsBiz: a great new opportunity for UK journalism students

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism, Journalism by Adam Westbrook on December 8, 2010

If the future of news is entrepreneurial, then it’s not as easy as saying “it is so”. Thousands of journalists won’t head straight to Companies House the next morning to register their new business.

If more journalists and other creatives are to create their own careers, build innovative new businesses and spark employment for thousands of others, their entrepreneurial spirit needs fostering early on.

If journalism in the future is powered by entrepreneurs they must be comfortable with business – and excited by it.

Well, I’m really excited to announce the launch of a new nationwide competition I have been working on, alongside Kingston University’s Journalism department in London.

We’re inviting journalism students from any UK university to come up with ideas for new news businesses – whether it’s a platform, a product or a service. We’re putting together a panel of industry judges and the business idea they like the most will win £1000 in cold hard cash to turn it into reality.

A 2nd place runner up will also get £500 to invest in their idea too.

It could be a hyperlocal website, a new smartphone app, an iPad magazine, a production company, an online video platform, a magazine, or even the next social media platform…almost anything!

It’s a great chance to get the next generation of journalists thinking about what makes a good business, how to find a unique selling point and identify a target market. This quick film we made explains the rest:

Training

In the new year we’ll also be unveiling some extensive online training materials to introduce students to the idea of business and enterprise, and help them develop their ideas before sending in their submissions.

How to enter

Entry to the competition is free for groups and individuals – you just need to head over to mynewsbiz.org and download an application form, which you can email back to us by the deadline: 1st April 2011.

With just a handful of journalism courses in the UK touching on the idea of entrepreneurial journalism, this is an unrivalled opportunity to find out what being entrepreneurial really means – and maybe get the cash you need to start your own company!

What’s your journalism prediction for 2011?

Posted in Adam, Journalism by Adam Westbrook on November 29, 2010

It’s nearly December and already it feels like the New Year is nearly upon us!

Time to prepare for the usual barrage of “best of 2010” and “predictions of 2011” posts from every blogger and every magazine in the land. And right here, it’s no different!

Except, as fans of the blog will know, I like to do it in video.

Last year’s film went down a storm, so I’m busy putting together my top trends for 2011. This time, though, I’m looking for your help.

What’s your prediction for what will happen in journalism in 2011?

Last year we talked about paywalls, hyperlocals and new startups. Next year – who knows? Data visualisation? Kinetic Typography? More whistleblowing?

After running through my top 10 predictions at lightning pace, I will select the 11th prediction from the comments in this blog post. So get thinking, and get suggesting. Surprise me! Intrigue me!

You have until Friday 10th December 2010 to post your ideas in the comments section below. I’ll select the most interesting, unusual or clever prediction to end this year’s film!

A birthday treat (for you!)

Posted in Journalism, Next Generation Journalist by Adam Westbrook on November 28, 2010

A bit of an off-piste topic for this post, but today is my birthday!

And as I try desperately to negotiate that 26 is still my mid-twenties, I’ve got a special treat (for you guys): Next Generation Journalist is on another 50% offer – right now it’s priced at just £5 for the UK edition and $8 for the US/Canada edition.

But this one only lasts for today! As soon as I’m no longer the birthday boy, the US and UK editions jump straight back up to £10/$15.

This will probably be the last offer now until the 2011 edition comes out in the summer, so if you’ve been umming-and-ahhing, it’s decision time. Don’t forget, there’s also two chapters available for free, if you want a sneak peak at the inside.

UK Edition

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US Edition

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Who do you think you’re not?

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism, Freelance, Journalism, Next Generation Journalist by Adam Westbrook on November 26, 2010

Image credit: Dano on Flickr

“So, what do you do?”

It’s the question I dread at parties, bars and any social gathering.

“I’m a journalist” I say.

“And who do you write for?” is almost always the first response. The fact that I don’t write for many people (I make films or do training and consulting) plus the fact those I do write for are online publications immediately makes it all too difficult to explain.

“Oh, no-one you’ve heard of” ends up being my stock response, which makes me sound either unsuccessful or like a dick.

My problem is I haven’t really worked out what I do.  My first year in the freelance jungle and I’ve pretty much done everything that’s come my way: speaking, lecturing, films, audio slideshows, articles, copy writing, blog posts, consulting, writing books, photography; it’s difficult to tie that all into one job.

It’s not what you do – it’s what you don’t do.

It’s a similar headache when starting a new enterprise or freelance career. You think of all the things you love doing, and come up with markets to sell your markets or products to. And you end up with a list of several strings to your bow.

It’s hard when trying to establish yourself as a journalist, freelance or otherwise, to really understand what you’re about. That’s bad because it makes it almost impossible to market yourself properly. Take a look at my portfolio website for an example. What the hell am I? A film maker? A multimedia storyteller? An online video consultant?

I’m sure most people who see my site leave dazed and confused.

How to nail down what you do

Here’s a really effective way to hammer down to what you’re about: do the opposite. Write down all the things you don’t do.

You don’t make a great museum by putting all the art in the world into a single room. That’s a warehouse. What makes a museum great is the stuff that’s not on the walls.

Quoted in Rework by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson (affiliate link)

Instead of thinking of all the people you could work for, identify the people you don’t work for. For example, you might be photojournalist and you want to specialise in doing shoots for high end lifestyle magazines. That means you don’t do shoots for companies, charities or local newspapers. It means you are not a paparazzi or a hard news photographer – so don’t pursue work in these fields.

Having fewer products or offerings means you can specialise in making them great.

If you do audio slideshows, then you don’t do video. Just focus on the slideshows and make them the best slideshows around. Become known for how good your slideshows are, so people identify you and your work with excellence and quality.

Apple know what they do, but they also know what they don’t do: you won’t get customisable, cheap and cheerful computers from them. RyanAir know they don’t do luxury flights, so they don’t even try in that market.

It’s not so black and white of course. If you can do video and you get offered a great commission then don’t stubbornly turn it down. And when you’re young or just starting out, it’s hard to know who you are, let alone who you aren’t. By all means play the field a little bit.

But working out what you don’t do is sometimes the best way to figuring out what you do do.


What Blackadder can teach you about video journalism

Posted in Journalism, Online Video, studio .fu by Adam Westbrook on November 24, 2010

Some films are just a struggle to bring into this world.

I’ve found you can spot them early on: you can’t quite nail the story, or your character’s not willing to really get involved; or it starts to get runaway-complicated. These problem films affect novice video journalists and film makers more often. It damages morale and we think: ‘this film-making malarky isn’t nearly as fun as it looks.’

What do you do in those situations? 90% of people give up.

But the actual solution, to borrow from the brilliant Steven Pressfield, is to ‘shut up and keep humping’. Keep working away at that film, regardless of how miserable the trench warfare is. Turn up every day until it’s done. It isn’t fun. It’s hard. But don’t you dare give up.

And every film can be rescued. If you don’t believe me, take inspiration from one of the most famous scenes in British television history – which very nearly never happened.

The original footage shot, the producers realised they had a flop on their hands….but through creative thinking, team work and sheer bloody minded determination they worked this last scene until it came kicking and screaming into the world.

And it came out as an iconic piece of television.

Multimedia workshops in Siberia

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism, Freelance, Next Generation Journalist, Online Video by Adam Westbrook on November 22, 2010

Charles Maynes (US) and Ksenia (Russia) work on audio slideshows

I’ve spent the last week working with young radio & print journalists from all over Russia. We’d all converged in the city of Abakan, which if you check it out on Google Maps sits somewhere in the heart of Siberia, not far from the Mongolian border, in a landscape surrounded by vast mountains and dark icy rivers.

It was part of a festival organised by the Eurasia Foundation, and I’d been invited to speak about Next Generation Journalism, new business models for journalism and help out with a multimedia workshop.

It was great to speak with journalists with different perspectives about the future of news. Although ad revenues are down and the internet is fragmenting audiences, the impression I gathered was that job losses haven’t been as severe as in the UK and the US.

A freelance-free country?

In introducing my book Next Generation Journalist, and the concept of a portfolio career to audiences in Abakan, I got an interesting reaction. It turns out that in Russia, freelancing just isn’t an established way of earning a living.

There are all sorts of valid economical and historical reasons for this but it left many asking me how they’d actually start life as a freelancer. How do you pitch work? Do companies come to you, or the other way around?

What is similar though is the commitment to using multimedia to tell stories online. Home to mail.ru, one of the most valuable companies on the stock exchange right now, Russia is no internet backwater. Journalists there are experimenting with video and audio slideshows and working out how to incorporate it with their more traditional practice.

One group of young radio reporters from the Urals were able to turn around a wonderful slideshow, combining text, audio and music with photography to tell a powerful story about a tram accident. They used free software to make the whole thing work. (Reaper for audio editing – a new one on me; and Windows Movie Maker to assemble the photo sequence.)

But the big question of the week was: how do we juggle all these different mediums and still report accurately what is happening? As I wrote, after my own work in Iraq last year, the answer is ‘with great difficulty…but it gets easier with practice.’

And it sounds like these talented Russian journalists, not always working in the safest or easiest of conditions, are committed to practicing their new skills as much as possible.

Editing with Final Cut Pro and Reaper

Stuck on what to do? Here’s a simple solution

Posted in Freelance, Journalism, Next Generation Journalist by Adam Westbrook on November 12, 2010

Image: Matt Jones

Last month I blogged about the importance of being prolific in order to get good at anything.

If you want to be a successful print journalist you need to write prolifically; if radio is your bag, you must be podcasting and audiobooing like a mutha. No excuses.

I still think it’s worth emphasising because I know as a busy journalist myself, a former student, and now a lecturer in journalism, that motivating yourself to invest in getting better at something is really hard.

If you’re a full time journalist or freelancer, you’re probably tired, poor, or can’t justify the time spent on going out and shooting some photographs without the commission. If you’re a student, you’re probably hungover.

But it isn’t any of these.

What you’re actually lacking is a project: some kind of framework, an organised challenge, bounded in time. It doesn’t have to be a big project, with a deadline years down the line – in fact, aim for the opposite: something you can achieve quickly and regularly.

They can take many forms. Documentary film maker Gail Mooney describes in a recent blog post how ‘passion projects‘ help her get films made. She’s just launched a new one, and is raising money for it on the crowd-funding website Kickstarter.

…as my career took hold and I became busier with work, I didn’t have time for sharing or personal projects.  But for someone like me who is a dreamer, I was starting to burn out.

There have been other passion projects since these first two and my head is usually full of ideas that are rumbling around, just waiting for the right time to surface.

Author Gretchen Rubin, currently undergoing a year-long and inspiring Happiness Project, calls it a Creativity Boot-camp. She wrote a novel in a month (it was terrible, she admits, but improved her writing massively); and there’s even a cool website which encourages people to draw a comic book in just 24 hours. No planning, no thinking, just drawing.

You lower your standards. If you’re producing a page a week, or one blog post a week, or one sketch a week, you expect it to be pretty darned good, and you fret about quality. Often, however, folks achieve their best work from grinding out the product.

When I’m having trouble getting work done on a big project, my impulse sometimes is to take smaller, easier steps. Sometimes that helps, but sometimes it helps more to take bigger, more ambitious steps instead. By doing more instead of less, I get a boost of energy and focus.

And author and career coach John Williams describes how a Play Project can get you out of rut and let you practice doing the work you really love, without having to get paid for it.

The process feels completely counter-intuitive at first because it requires that you stop fretting about your ideal work or how you could ever get paid – and start doing something. If you are stuck on that very first question “What would I enjoy?” you will benefit hugely from this. At a later stage, you can create further play projects to move you towards getting paid.

If you’re a journalist, young or old, you should be taking note of this. The shift in the industry has created a unique opportunity: to do the journalism we love, and get paid for it. There is a (slowly closing) window of opportunity to turn your journalism into something which provides income and makes you happy. You can’t just leap into it – you need to work out what your passion really is first.

My projects

I first hit on the idea of “projects” over Christmas 2009, when I read a blog post of good new years resolutions. One clever guy suggested writing an ebook in a weekend as a quick hit project. Inspired, I sat down on the first weekend of 2010, and wrote Newsgathering for Hyperlocal Journalists. I started on Saturday morning, and stopped on Sunday evening. A week or so later, I put the book on sale, and people started buying it.

It never made much money, and looking back, was full of spelling mistakes – but it was a finished project. And it gave me the confidence to write Next Generation Journalist a few months later, which has been infinitely more successful.

Now I’m looking for a new passion project to keep me occupied before Christmas. It’ll be a multimedia film project of some kind – and will get me making films every single week.

Have you got a project? Or an idea for one? Share it down in the comments!


Next Generation Journalist: free giveaway!

Posted in Next Generation Journalist by Adam Westbrook on November 8, 2010

Amazingly it’s somehow six months since Next Generation Journalist: 10 New Ways to Make Money in Journalism was published.

It’s been selling incredibly well, and judging by comments, emails and tweets, it’s been making a difference in peoples’ lives too. All round awesome.

But I want more people to benefit from the ideas in the book.

Economically, the situation hasn’t gotten any easier for journalists anywhere in the west in the last six months. And arguably, with tens of thousands more journalism graduates entering the jobs market over the summer, the maths have gotten even more impossible.

So I think more people need a book like this – and for that reason, I have decided to give a chunk of it away – completely free.

From today you can get two of the most useful and practical chapters of the book without paying a penny. One of the giveaway chapters is a workbook with key questions you need to ask yourself about your career. Loads of people have found it very useful. The other shows you all about taking freelance journalism to the next level. And as an added bonus, you’ll also get a step-by-step guide to building a portfolio website to taut your wares.

Pretty sweet right?

Add to Cart

To get your hands on the free copy, just click on the button above and a .pdf will be on your hard drive in moments. If you want to get even more involved, you can also now join a new Facebook group, especially for Next Generation Journalists like you. Click here to get a look-in!

And that’s not the end of it – there’s another uber discount offer on the way before the end of the month…

Has the DSLR come of age?

Posted in Journalism, Online Video, studio .fu by Adam Westbrook on November 3, 2010

*Apologies to email subscribers who may have received an unfinished draft version of this article when I published it by mistake!

DSLR cameras with HD video capabilities have been on the market for a couple of years and have been making a significant impression for pretty much as long.

I spent part of last week nerding out big time at the annual Canon Expo in London (my write up of last years event is right here).

It’s mostly targeting stills photographers, with the majority of demos, products and talks aimed at the traditional DSLR user. But this year, there was a significantly higher number of videographers attending, and more and more products designed for their needs.

For example, the Steadicam Merlin (a lightweight stabiliser that gives you steadicam smoothness on moving shots) was one of the most popular items. There was more paraphernalia including handheld rigs, LCD monitors, matte boxes and ring lights – all designed for the filmmaker. You can now even rig up DSLR cameras to shoot in 3D!

So, has the DSLR come of age?

That’s what Dan Chung, one of the real pioneers in the cinematic aesthetic of video journalism, told attendees on Tuesday.

He says DSLR cameras offer a flexibility and portability that a camcorder alternative just can’t. For him, the most important thing is being able to fit all of his gear into a backpack, and the size of DSLRs means he can bring as many as four cameras with him, plus lenses, filters and the like, on any assignment.

That’s a huge amount more video power than one, more expensive camcorder.

Why you should think about the Canon 550D

Currently the cheapest popular version of the video DSLR is the Canon 550D. I have been shooting with it since the spring, and have made films for editorial and commercial clients.

At £600 it is a sliver of the cost of its daddy, the 5D Mark II, and because of that, you would imagine – less good.

But here’s what I really took away from the Canon Expo: the 550D was getting applause from many quarters – as a better alternative to the more expensive 5D Mark II.

For example, James Tonkin, head of the multimedia production company Hangman said he would choose the 550D over a 5D, and Dan said if he could buy 1 5D Mark II, or 3 550D cameras, he would choose the 550D. Their affordability means he’s prepared to take risks with them to get more unique and dramatic shots.

The only other cameras in this price range are realistically, the Canon Legria camcorder, which has no aperture or focus control, the Lumix FZ100 or a much older camera. Either side you could pay £100 for a flip cam, or £2,000 for a broadcast camera.

I’m sure we’ll start to see more remarkable stuff being shot on the 550D entering the mainstream soon.