Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

Twitter as a research tool?

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on February 24, 2009

“Weird and aimless”: that was David Mitchell’s summation of Twitter in his extremely witty must-read column in last Sunday’s Observer.

His brief description went as follows:

‘It’s a website where you express what you’re currently doing in 140 characters or fewer and that gets sent to all your “followers”; similarly, the “tweets” of those you “follow” are relayed to you – and you can do it on your phone, laptop, BlackBerry, iThermos or rape alarm.’

Pretty much sums it up. But the great thing about it, is it keeps coming up with new uses. For example, I discovered this week it provides an excellent living, breathing research tool for journalists.

How? Well, later this week I am flying out to Iraq to spend some time reporting on the work of  British troops in the closing days of Operation Telic; the advent of control being handed to Iraqi troops. Now I’ve only been given short notice of the visit – well 5 days to be precise – and that’s hardly enough time to dig through A. Leo Oppenheim’s Ancient Mesopotamia: Portrait of a Dead Civilisation.

I need the facts and I need them fast. But as well as reading up on the basics of the Iraq occupation, I need to be following the latest news and developments before I head out. That’s where Twitter comes in. With Tweetdeck installed, I have had constant updates on all the chatter involving “iraq” and “basra” for the last 3 days. I know who’s talking about it, and when big news stories happen they appear as news feeds.

Best of all it’s live, it’s fresh.

For those that would come back saying Twitter is not a reliable source – well, actually if the sites it links to like the BBC and CNN are reliable then what’s the problem?

And on that whole “reliability” issue, well let’s go back to David Mitchell – he sums it up perfectly:

‘…readers should always question the veracity of what they read and the motives of whoever wrote it, and in the internet age more than ever. People who allow themselves to be made credulous by stylish typesetting and a serif font are screwed. And if Wikipedia, while being very informative in most cases, teaches a few lessons about questioning sources, then that’s all to the good.’

Let’s not forget Twitter as a good tool for collecting information, as well as publishing it.

—————–

I’m leaving very shortly; in the likely absence of any internet connection in Iraq this will be the last blog for a week or so…

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The Radio Emergency Survival Guide

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on February 16, 2009

They almost always catch you unawares, put your and your newsroom under pressure…but as James Cridland blogged recently, emergency situations are when local radio comes into its own.

In July 2007, drying myself off from the floods, I remember telling myself to put together a guide to how to cope. But I never got round to it, and the next thing the city I was working in was evacuated after a major bomb scare; then there was a plane crash…and in the last few weeks Britain has seen the harshest winter in 18 years.

So how should radio news teams respond? Here’s some tips; journos – feel free to add your own.

floods-generic

Radio Emergency Survival Guide

Have emergency numbers close at hand

Don’t waste valuable time looking up the fire services press officer’s mobile number online. Have it in a book or on a sheet – with all the other emergency numbers you’ll need – for every district of your patch.

Make sure you have numbers for other reporters, presenters etc.

Rope in office staff

During the 2007 floods I couldn’t get out of the office to do my job for hours because so many listeners were calling in with, or asking for, information. If you’re drowning in calls, ask a senior office person to direct sales, admin and programming staff to take all the calls.

It helps if at some point during the year they’re briefed on what details to get from the public.

Use the “drive line”

The other busy phone line, especially in weather emergencies, is the drive-line or traffic line. Ask the on air presenter to save any calls they record. Cut these into a montage to lead your bulletins. It sounds real, edgy and gets listeners on the air (click here for a recent example).

Be prepared for school closures

You’ll also get lots of calls from schools telling you they’re closed or closing imminently. It’s one of local radio’s big jobs to pass on this information,  so make sure you keep an accurate list and pass it on to presenters. Each school should give you a unique DFES number to avoid hoaxers and, in some counties, a password.

Get a good information system going

In large scale weather emergencies/natural disasters it’s easy to drown in the sea of information coming in. So make sure you’re prepared to have a good system to record it all. Keep school closures on a board. Use a map to plot what areas are worst affected.

Use new media

At the very least someone should be putting school and road closures on the website, and any other important info. Have you thought about using Twitter to do it too? What about Google maps?

If possible, don’t network

When the shit hits the fan, now’s not the time to switch to networked programming from another city. Keep a presenter and journalist local to regularly insert information. Your listeners will thank you for it.

Book hotel

If transport is going to be a problem – such with flooding – someone should be booking hotel rooms for key staff. That’s usually the breakfast presenters, producers and newsreaders.

Use your resources

Small news teams, and hubbed news teams, covering a big, unprecedented event, is a stretch. It’s tempting to send reporters out into the patch, but be sensible. You need more people at base, making phone calls, check information and getting interviews to air quickly. While it’s important to get quality and colour audio on air, this really only massages ego in the battle with the competition. Bring in any local work experience people-now could be their time to shine.

Remember safety

If you’re out in a difficult situation remember your safety. Apparently the BBC advises reporters to keep away from flood water. Don’t cross police lines unless you have permission.

Get names and numbers

Anyone you interview while you’re out – get their name, get their phone number. You’ll want to go back to them in a week, a month, a year to follow their story.

Think big

Although resources are stretched and you’re all under pressure, now’s the time to think big. I’m talking two-ways, extended bulletins, ambitious packages, music montages – anything to show you’re listener this is a unique event and you’re pulling out all the stops. In the 2007 floods, Touch Radio ran extended programmes at 1 and 6. With just an hours notice I was asked to record a 2-way and cut a package from the waters edge. It was a race, but it sounded great.

Work as a team

Share information with presenters and visa versa. You’re all in it together.

Give 110%

In March 2008, an unexploded WW2 bomb was found right in the centre of Coventry. It was very close to our studios, which was initially great- I was the first radio reporter on the scene. But within minutes, police had set up a corden, and when it widened, our studios were closed.

The station – 96.2 Touch Radio – was put to network and special programming came from our sister station in Stratford. However it closed the region’s newshub – and news bulletins for all 6 stations in the group had to go on hold.

It left 4 journalists with not much to do. We could have all gone home; but we stayed, conducted interviews, filed live phone reports to the network. Late in the evening it appeared the cordon would remain overnight, and could even mean we wouldn’t be allowed back into the building in time to produce breakfast news bulletins.

We crashed at the closest home to the city centre, finally getting to sleep at about 1am. At 4am we got up and checked with the police – the cordon was finally being lifted. 2 of us headed back and joined 2 breakfast readers who’d just gotten in.  And somehow, with just 90 minutes and no preparation, we produced news bulletins for 6 radio stations, including a special report for the Coventry station.

For 3 of us, it worked out as a 30 hour day. There’s no room for slackers on days like these.

Have I missed anything? Covered a story like this yourself? The comments box is right down here…

My TV manifesto

Posted in Adam, Broadcasting and Media, International Development, News and that by Adam Westbrook on November 11, 2008

I’ve been working in broadcast news for two years now, and I’ve been following it, I guess for five. And well, I think I’m just a bit tired with it all. With the formats, with the delivery, with the writing, with the style, with the editorial choices.

Surely there must be something different?

Here’s thing: I don’t think there is. We all know radio is in a state, and as for TV? Well I could write a long diatribe, but it’s been done already, far more succintly and wittily, and then put on television by Charlie Brooker:

Watch part one here:

Then part two here

And part three here:

Whether you like it or not, or whether you think it’s the way it’s always going to be or not, I am convinced there is room for something different.

Something aimed at a younger audience; with a journalistic transparency, a complete fluid harmony with digital and web technology, delivered differently, cheaply, eco-friendily, telling different stories, off the agenda, breaking the rules, offering something new.

To avoid sounding like the Alistair Darling when he gave his speech about how to fix the economy the other week (and didn’t actually announce anything), here is – for what its worth – my own TV news manifesto. Just some ideas; debate them, slate them!

a new news manifesto

This is my own idea for an online based alternative news platform. At its heart is a daily studio news programme, uploaded to the website and to Youtube. It is of no fixed length – only dictated by the content.

Content

Ignore the stories of the mainstream media. That means crime stories are out. Court stories with no lasting impact are out. Surveys, unless by major bodies are out, so is the sort of PR pollster rubbish that fills the airwaves. If people want that they have no end of sources. This will be different.

Solution journalism?

Rather than just reporting on a problem and ending with the cliche “whether this problem will be solved is yet to be seen” there’s a good argument for solution journalism. Jake Lynch and Anna McGoldrick suggest it as part of their own ideas on Peace Journalism (could it be adapted to non-conflict reporting?)  Reports which examine how a problem might be solved rather than just reminding us there’s a problem.

A younger audience; a digital existence

A programme for the ‘web 2.0 generation’. That’s the people who blog, use facebook and myspace and exist in a digital online world. It’ll be up front and direct, but not patronising like Newsbeat‘s “something bad has happened in a place called abroad” style. VJ pieces will be created for web use not to mimic TV styles.

Video Journalism

At its heart will be the ethos of video journalism. David Dunkley-Gyimah laid out his own manifesto on this here. As well as staffing young creative VJs for firefighting stories and assignments, this brand would tap from a huge source of international freelance sources as well as other existing solutions like Demotix and Vimeo. Stylistically it would take its cues from already successful projects like Current TV. Packages are edited fast and with attitude -they know the rules of conventional film, but aren’t afraid to break them.

Focus

It would have an international focus, remembering the unreported stories. It believes the phrase “if your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough”. It would focus on unreported issues and people with the story tellers getting right into the story. Creativity is the norm, and the packages do not try to emulate TV news in content or form.

But what about the main agenda?

This wouldn’t be ignored – but would be wrapped in each show in a “newsbelt” form – “the stories the other shows are talking about” It would need to feel connected to the national agenda but not neccessarily following it.

Transparent

A key element to this type of journalism would be transparency in reporting and editing. Packages would be VJ produced – from the root to the fruit – and VJ led. In other words the viewer follows the VJ as they investigate and tell the story. If it’s from a press release the audience deserves to know that. There would also be an openness in editing with misleading cutaways, noddies and GVs removed, and edits to interviews clearly signposted (for example through a flash wipe). Agency footage labelled as such so viewers know it’s not inhouse. Images of reporters can appear on screen as they cover the story.

Delivery

The platform is digital – through an accessible, well designed fluid website. Viewers can watch whole shows or individual reports. Each show would have no time requirements as broadcasters do. It would need to host an online community of viewers who watch, comment, submit and review. They are reflected in the content. The people at 4iP lay it out quite nicely right here.

Attitude

The journalism would have attitude, and would be not afraid to take risks. At its heart is good story telling and brilliant writing. Creative treatments would set the standard mainstream broadcasters will adopt months later.

Cheap and green

The video journalism model is cheap and green. One man bands on assignment, sourcing, shooting and cutting themselves. No need for live satellite link ups or expensive foreign trips housing 5 people in big hotels (what’s wrong with a hostel?) The central programme itself would be studio based but avoiding the “absurdist cathedrals of light” preferred by the mainstream. Solar powered lighting? Light cameras on light peds?

Presentation

The central programme is relaxed, young and doesn’t appear to be trying too hard. The team have the mind set of the Daily Buzz and create great moments even when they’re not trying too. Stylistically the presentation takes its cues from a more fluid version of C4 News in the UK, with almost constant (but not distracting) camera movements.

This news platform doesn’t need to report the mainstream stores – because there is a plethora of media to do that already. It avoids the distorting pressures of the other networks, like the need for live pictures from the scene, uninformed 2-ways and time pressures. It focusses on bringing something new, but allowing analysis too. It’s VJ packages are well produced – but do not try to emulate the style of TV news.

That’s pretty much all I got. As i mentioned I strongly feel there is a demand for a new way of doing things-we just don’t know what that is yet.

And just a quick disclaimer: I’m just a young broadcast journalist with only 2 years under my belt. I certainly don’t suggest this any good a solution, or that I should have anything to do with it. But for what it’s worth I thought it was worth jotting down.

You might agree, or you might disagree…stick your thoughts in the comments box!

And so it begins…

Posted in Broadcasting and Media by Adam Westbrook on September 29, 2008

Has it been 18 months since I wrote this?

‘….broadcasting on an analogue signal, all of the terrestrial channels have a certain public service remit. They’re all using large amounts of airwaves which belong to the public and in return they’re expected to provide us all with some news….

‘…But hark, on the horizon, the looming spectre of the digital switchover…and…a channel’s news remit will expire too.  Some channels – likely ITV and Five – may well say “screw news – why should I waste my money on that?”’

Last week of course we had the sad announcement ITV’s local output was becoming regional.

And today, ITV boss Michael Grade says “we risk loosing national news bulletins.

‘Grade voiced his concerns that national news might ultimately not be financially viable at a Royal Television Society London conference on Friday.

He said: “In a PSB world, you get guarantees in terms of privileges. In a non-PSB world you do things for as long as you [commercially] can.”‘

Well, news never was financially viable. I can’t believe that’s a surprise to Mr Grade.

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