Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

Future of News Bootcamp: a market for traditional reportage?

Posted in Ideas for the future of news, Journalism by Adam Westbrook on June 23, 2010

The first ever Future of News Business Bootcamp took place in London last night – 7 journalists, several bottles of wine and one problem: how to make money in journalism.

Each bootcamp will focus on a different area of journalism, and this inaugural event had possibly the biggest challenge of all – how to create a business around human rights & development reportingthat vitally important, but until now, expensive and unprofitable part of journalism.

In the room were half a dozen journalists, pretty much all of whom were interested in being able to travel to different parts of the world and uncover human rights abuses and report on development issues – and get paid to do it. And we were going to do something which has never really been tried in this way before – to take an entrepreneurial mindset and approach to business, and transplant it onto journalism.

Not many journalists dare to stray into this territory, more often than not, simply because they don’t have much entrepreneurial nouse (or don’t think they do). Not us! We bravely strolled into this area to see what sticks.

Product or Service?

Almost all businesses can be divided into two categories – those which provide a product, and those which provide a service. A product is an item you can ship and sell; a service is selling your own time, expertise or knowledge. We looked at both options. Under service, we came up with ideas such as a business which chases every penny of UK development money around the world to check it’s being spent properly; we also looked at providing a reporting service for businesses with Corporate Social Responsibility policies and half a dozen other ideas.

The idea of a product got the group more excited. Is there a gap for a decent human rights reportage magazine? The room felt there was, but it would need to be a massive departure from what little there is out there already. Costs would be another problem; the annual cost estimates for a small business, with maybe six journalists travelling and reporting, ranged from £500,000 ($1m) to £3m ($6m) a year. A lot, yes, but the Times and the Guardian loose hundreds of thousands a day – something new would have a massive advantage…

A market?

A key part of starting any business is thinking ‘who is my customer?’. We spent a fair bit of time coming up with crazy different ideas for who might want this type of journalism in the modern world…NGOs? Students & universities? Schools? The military? Traditional media appeared too, although we all agreed getting money from them was becoming harder and harder.


We made some good headway with the idea of how to package the product. Settling on an idea for an online (and possibly print-on-demand) magazine, we looked at all the other news outlets thriving online: the Financial Times, NPR & Propublica, Techcrunch & Mashable, the, MediaStorm – and looked at what ways of packaging our product we could steal from them: everything from exploiting a sponsored mailing list to running events, to bootstrapping, to branding. A combination of these feeding into multiple revenue streams seemed like an attractive idea.

With all the wine gone and the two hours up, we had a lot of ideas, but nothing hugely concrete. But that’s OK! It was pretty much as much as we could have hoped for. More importantly I think it sewed some seeds in all our minds about what might work and what wouldn’t….that’ll stew in our minds for a while – and I think maybe someone in the room will suddenly get the spark of inspiration not far into the future.

Thanks very much to Deborah, Donnacha, Kat, Rebecca, Adam and Phil for bravely taking part in the experiment! If you like the idea of the bootcamps and would like to come to the next one make sure you’re signed up to the Future of News Meetup Group (it’s free!).


Human Rights: 60 years on

Posted in International Development by Adam Westbrook on September 21, 2008

This year marks 60 years since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was first penned.

The Observer’s Review supplement’s put together an excellent special today on how the rights have ultimately been ignored over the last six decades.

What’s struck me recently is how little any of us know about our human rights. I’m an educated sort of bloke, good upbringing an all that. But ask me any details on what are the fundamental protectors of my free existence, and I can’t answer much.

I know there’s something about freedom of religion, and freedom of expression and freedom from torture. And that Eleanor Roosevelt and World War Two had something to do with it.

But scarily, that’s it.

How, I wonder, are we all supposed to ensure our Human Rights are protected, when we don’t even know what they are?

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Frustration and inspiration

Posted in Uncategorized by Adam Westbrook on November 8, 2006

…all in one day.

Today I’ve been in radio reporter mode, my task: to report for a local station based in North London called EC1 FM.

As part of our training we spend one day newsgathering, and then tomorrow we produce bulletins with our material.

It didn’t look promising as we all rolled in, bleary-eyed, at 9am.  There seemed to be a distinct lack of news in the Islington area: the local rag was already a week old, and council websites were fruitless. But we did manage to scrape together about 20 ideas between us, which ranged from a new CCTV initiative in the area, to a local bikshed being given an award (oh yes.)

Normally days like this are one of complete frustration over stories, rather than anything else. Your best idea falls through when the interviewee pulls out. Or worse still, it turns out not to be a story at all. Not today. This time, I somehow managed to grab 3 different stories: a hard news story about asylum seekers living rough on London’s streets, an interview with a local world record holder and an off diary idea about the lack of poppies on sale ahead of armistace day.

But then the frustrations began.

I recorded some vox pops with students about whether they’d been able to get hold of poppies. Great stuff, but the battery on my Minidisc recorder died halfway through.

Then I went to Highbury, North London, and got a good interview with the record holder (she irons clothes under water). Then to Shoreditch to Amnesty International HQ to record an interesting asylum seeker interview.

I’m a happy man, but when I get back to Uni, I discover the MD has mysteriously erased my interviews. Aaargh!

It’s the worst feeling ever, but at least it’s happened now rather than when I’m getting paid. Definitely going to be more careful from now on.

So I ended the day feeling immensely frustrated. After work, we headed for a talk by some of the team behind Channel 4’s excellent Unreported World. The reporter of last Friday’s programme about gang warfare in Guatemala is Ramita Navai, an ex-City student, who amazingly only graduated from here 3 years ago. Alongside her was David Lloyd, renowned producer, behind Dispatches and Unreported World on Channel 4.

It was a totally inspiring two hours – Unreported World is a brilliant, unique piece of journalism, that goes to the places we never hear about. And Ramita’s story of how she got to where she is, gave us all the real get-up-and-go to do great stuff.  It takes time, perseverance and, it would seem, luck to make it far in television journalism, but I felt far more motivated than ever before.

If you’re in the UK, watch the programme: Friday’s 19:30 on Channel 4. If not, you can listen to the programme in radio, by clicking here.

So a bit of a mix today, but far better than any day at the office!

Darfur audio

Posted in Uncategorized by Adam Westbrook on September 9, 2006

About a year ago I produced a couple of reports on the Darfur crisis for Radio Warwick, the student radio station at Warwick University where I was studying. It was the summer of 2005 and the run up to Live8; Africa was getting due prominence in the media, if only for a short time. Although most of the reports are a year old and out of date, I still thought it would be worth putting them out there; if anything, they have some interviews with some very interesting people.

Audio buttonBackground to Darfur :: first broadcast May 2005
A brief introduction to the situation as it was in summer 2005, including an eyewitness account from Adrian McIntyre, an Oxfam aid worker who had just returned from Sudan.

Audio buttonNo lessons learned :: first broadcast June 2005
An interview with the amazingly brave Beata Uwazaninka-Smith, a Rwandan woman who was just 13 when the genocide happened in Rwanda. She tells me her story outside 10 Downing Street (the Prime Minister’s residence in London) where she was joining a rally to raise awareness about Darfur. Find out more about her campaign here.

Audio buttonA student in Sudan :: first broadcast May 2006
In April 2006 I interviewed Guiseppe Papalia, an Italian student who had spent his summer holidays working in Sudan. He was there when the peace deal collapsed and joy turned to despair.
Whether any of our reports on RaW News raised awareness of the Darfur crisis in 2005 is debatable, and student radio never has the highest audience figures at the best of times, but it would still be interesting to hear what you think of them. Let me know!

Sudan: why “never again” means nothing (II)

Posted in Uncategorized by Adam Westbrook on September 7, 2006

I recently wrote on the failings the UN, US and UK in intervening and preventing the genocide which is occuring in Darfur. A UN report recently declared that killings in Sudan were not genocide, conflicting with Colin Powell’s initial description. But if Rwanda 1994 tought us anything, it’s not to piss about deciding what counts as genocide and what doesn’t; 500,000 people from the Fur and other tribes have been systematically and brutally wiped out, because of their ethnicity. That is genocide.

I decided though that although the international community hasn’t dealt with Darfur well, lessons have been learned from Rwanda. The UN passed a resolution for 17,000 troops to enter as a peacekeeping force, which, although stalled by President Bashir, is still better than trying to get the hell out of there, which was what happened in April 1994.

The news media, however, has not learned its lesson.

Rwanda again

The Rwandan genocide and its coverage was one of the biggest failings of journalism in the last 30 years. A report by a scholar at MIT narrowed the media’s failings to four distinct problems:

  1. The press didn’t realise genocide was happening until long after it had started.
  2. They reported violence was waning when in fact it was getting worse.
  3. Mortality estimates were gross underestimates – the NYT suggesting 8,000 on the 10th April.
  4. Most western journalists got the hell out as soon as they could (April 14th)

The result of the last point was that coverage virtually stopped and the world didn’t realised it was happening. I was only 10 at the time of the Rwandan genocide, but my mother, then in her mid-thirties, said she was barely aware of the events.

So, major flaws, and flaws which should have been addressed. But they haven’t.

A whole decade later, I am seeing the same mistakes being repeated by a news media that should know better.

No coverage

On a humanitarian level, is the situation in Darfur not the worst on the planet? Are there not more people dying unneccessarily in horrible ways than anywhere at the present time? If you watch the news in Europe or the US, you wouldn’t think so. Steve Irwin’s untimely death this week received 1000 times more coverage than the 500,000 thousand Sudanese who died shortly before he did.

Last year, Darfur was the crisis du jour. But as soon as Bob Geldof shut his trap, the western media has simply forgotten about Sudan. This week the crisis has elicited 1 or 2 articles in each of the major papers in Britain plus the odd commentary – an improvement on the past 11 months. The broadcast media meanwhile has been silent, bar Focus on Africa etc. There are few reporters posted in Sudan and even fewer venture into Darfur.

Not all bad

There are shimmering stars of exception. Nima Elbagir has reported several times from Darfur for the UK’s More4 News (which only gets a few 100,000 viewers). In May 2006, she revealed accusations that AU soldiers had been raping refugees under their protection. She is an exceptional journalist and of Sudanese origin which makes things easier. But she is alone in the journalists willing to spend long in camps or villages in Western Sudan.

The BBC’s stringer currently in Sudan is Jonah Fisher. He’s currently holed up in Khartoum, and I haven’t seen or heard of him covering Darfur itself. Can anyone name another European or American journalist currently out in Darfur bringing attention to the pregnant genocide? Have they all forgotten what happened before?

Of course, Darfur is a difficult place to report from. Jonah Fisher received a roughing up at the hands of Sudanese police not long ago, and of course this week, thousands flocked to the funeral of a Sudanese newspaper editor brutally beheaded. But let’s not forget that there were more than enough journalists willing to brave the elements in the race to Baghdad.

So what?

This really matters. If you’re wondering why the world has not stepped into stop a genocide it knows is happening, the answer is simple. People don’t care. They don’t care, because they don’t understand.

This is why we need news media coverage of the Sudan crisis more than ever before.

And this doesn’t just mean reporting events – journalists must show us we need to give a damn about Sudan. This is a country the size of western Europe, on the brink of splintering into a hundred bloody pieces. This is a country that borders some of Africa’s most fragile states – Chad, Dr Congo, Somalia.

There is still a detatchment between western journalism and Africa – an “us and them” complex that relegates African and other developing world news to the Coca-Cola league of news, rarely getting an audience. But in 10 years time people will look back at Darfur and wonder how the hell we let it happen – and the reason? Because we didn’t know it was happening.

More links

Here’s some more interesting links:

“Less Valuable Lives?” : an original Adam Meets World blog about racism in the British media

Darfur: An Unforgivable Hell On Earth – an excellent blog I just discovered today

Why Darfur was left to it’s pitiful state – an opinion piece by David Blair of the Daily Telegraph.

Sudan: why “never again” means nothing (I)

Posted in Uncategorized by Adam Westbrook on September 5, 2006

Map of Darfur in SudanSudan 2006. A government sponsored genocide has left an estimated 500,000 people dead. Two and a half million people have lost their homes, their livlihoods, and are living in camps. A peace-deal between Khartoum and rebels in the south in May was supposed to end all this.

But the government’s launched a new offensive against the people in Darfur this week. Government sponsored soldiers are back, attacking villages, killing people. And the African Union, the force in place to maintain the peace, are leaving at the end of September; the Sudanese leaders have rejected furter intervention from the U.N.

We can’t mince words about how serious this is. Amnesty International joined in with several other major organisations last week to warn of a “human rights crisis” looming in Darfur. The U.S. government has condemned the situation along with the International Rescue Committee.

Many observers have said that the Sudanese government, after killing half a million Darfurian people, are waiting for the African Union to leave – and then moving in for a terrible “final solution.” Sudan is on the brink of genocide once again, and once again the world is looking on and doing nothing.


What’s frustrating is that 12 years ago it was exactly the same in Rwanda. The mass killings between April and July 1994 were, in my opinion, the most shameful moments for the United Nations, the U.S. and U.K. governments and the world media – in all their histories.

While people were being killed in horrific ways in Kigali and beyond, the Security Council was busy discussing what to do about the ‘civil war’ in Rwanda. The systematic murders were not discussed in any way until late April 1994, despite repeated reports from the U.N.’s general in Rwanda, Romeo Dallaire.

When the horrific realisation came that genocide had occured under their noses, they watered down statements and resolutions, refusing to use the “g” word for fear of embarassment. All the while, the U.S. and U.K. governments were blocking any resolutions for military intervention to protect civilians – it was too expensive they said.

Death in Darfur - from Darfur: A Genocide We Can Stop“Never Again”

The U.N. and world leaders have, to some extent, learned their lessons. Clinton apologised to the Rwandan people in 1998, and since, the U.S. and U.K. governments have been more outspoken about Sudan. The U.N. as well fears a repeat and Jan Egeland’s regular criticism of the humanitarian situation in Darfur has kept awareness up.

And yet, here we are again. Genocide all but inevitable. The U.N. has tried to get in, but been pushed aside by President Bashir. The AU, with just 7,000 poorly equipped and under paid soldiers is ready to get out.

And again, the world is about to turn its back and let it happen.