Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

Why charities need multimedia journalists

Posted in Ideas for the future of news, Journalism by Adam Westbrook on November 30, 2009

Last week I showed my journalism students an audio slideshow by multimedia producers Duckrabbit. Sat in silence, they watched Francoise’ story and got into a healthy debate afterwards about the piece.

They loved the text on the screen, and the images; but most of all,  as one student put it “I like how she tells he own story without any reporter’s voice”.

Duckrabbit have just launched a powerful new series with Medicins Sans Frontiers, and if you speak to Ben Chesterton from Duckrabbit you’ll quickly learn letting people tell their own story is what he’s all about.

Told only in their own voices all the website asks you is to send a message of support. At first that might seem a bit daft…Surely what they need is cash right? Well if you watch their videos you can find out about their lives, you can find out they’re not much different to you and me…secondly your messages of support do make a difference. I worked in camps in Kenya and the thing that people were most frightened of was being forgotten, the sense that no-one cares.

A debate on this blog earlier this year asked the question: do people need to care in order to act?

Journalists realised a few years ago there is good work available telling the powerful stories of NGOs, charities and the people they help.

More NGOs though need to come round to that idea, and understand the journalist’s storytelling skills will add a punch that no black and white footage with dreary voice over ever could.


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“for people to act, they must truly believe”: the charity message debate

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on August 14, 2009

How should charities, non-profits and NGOs get their message across?

It’s a question which has been passionately debated today, after Ben and David at the excellent DuckRabbit blog invited Pete Masters from Medecins Sans Frontiers UK web team to share the thinking behind a cinema ad, which to describe as hard-hitting, doesn’t even come close.

First, you have to see the ad:

See what I mean?

It is a short, simple and stungun method of storytelling: it sucks you in, and spits you out. Great. But does it actually get the MSF message out there? After all, where is this happening and why? You’ll no doubt have opinions on this, so make sure you share them with Duckrabbit.

They are just the small questions though, because Duckrabbit and MSF have inspired a far more significant debate: should charities be forking out for PR spin when they have real stories to tell?

You can argue after all, spending tens of thousands on a glossy ad is the media equivalent of paying “charity muggers” £10 an hour to harangue people in the  street.

I think the future lies in the aftermath of the revolution in journalism. It is already shedding jobs…and leaving scores of creative freelance journalists (many with multimedia skills) passionate about storytelling and passionate about social justice and fighting poverty.

Don’t think it’ll work? Lets look at some examples of journalists working for NGOs.


Launched by two photojournalists in Virginia, Weyo brands itself as “storytellers to the non-profit world”. They’ve worked with the Edmarc Childrens Foundation and Physicians for Peace.  Founder Chris Tyree told the Resolve blog this week: “Nonprofits need us more than ever to tell their stories, and we have been able to attract people with not only great talent, but also great souls.”

WeyoPDN Online reckon this kind of work pays: “Weyo just finished one job that paid $10,000 for a 7-minute video and a Web site with “20-some” linked pages. Another recent job for a women’s shelter paid $15,000 for similar work.”

Chris Tyree: “for people to act, they must truly believe”.

Story 4

Born out of job losses at the Mercury News, Story 4 makes multimedia for non-profits from its base on the West Coast of the US. On their website they say: “We specialise in constructing vibrant visual stories. We partner with organisations to create rich multimedia content and collaborate to bring the clients mission and acheivements to life.”

David Walker in PDN Online says: “So far, Story4 has landed its present work and other projects by word of mouth. The company is currently finishing up post-production on a multimedia project for the Women’s Foundation of California.”


They sparked this debate today but they have also produced some stunning multimedia for charities, including Internews andthis piece on Sri Lanka:

There are others too, like Media Storm and the Bombay Flying Club.

At the heart of this lies the important question of how charities choose to spread their word. The public generally are now far less trusting of spin and PR. We want true stories, and we want them as gritty as the real world is. But we also want balance – and we recognise a third-world-cliche when we see it.

So to the non-profits of the world: who do you want to tell your story? A marketing firm, or a journalist?

Life after newspapers?

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on June 8, 2009

Here’s another inspiring article doing the rounds: detailing how multimedia journalists in America are re-inventing themselves and forging new business working for NGOs and non-profit groups.

…in Norfolk, Virginia, former Virginian-Pilot staff photographer Chris Tyree has launched a multimedia production company called Weyo with Stephen Katz, who is still a staff photographer at the paper and won POYi Newspaper Photographer of the Year honors in 2008. “We’re trying to brand ourselves as storytellers to the non-profit world,” Tyree says. Clients so far include Physicians for Peace, and the Samaritan’s Purse Canada, among others.

Tyree quit his job last August, right before a wave of layoffs hit The Virginian-Pilot. “It became obvious that stories I was interested in—about social justice and social responsibility—weren’t getting [published] as much” because of budget pressures and cutbacks, Tyree explains.

And they reckon their background in frontline news gives them the edge over more established competition.

One challenge for would-be freelance multimedia producers is competition from established video production companies that are chasing corporate and non-profit PR work. Migielicz argues that producers with newspaper backgrounds are better storytellers by training, and can work faster and leaner.

Leeson says, “One thing you learn as a still photojournalist is how to get in and out and produce something with high quality. We know how to tell a story. We don’t have to story board it, and go through all these pre-production meetings. All I need is a grasp of what the client is hoping for. In newspapers, you get an assignment with a basic outline of the story, and beyond that you’re expected to find it.”

As a couple of other inspiring pieces (like this one and this one) are showing, maybe now is the time to to take the plunge and advertise your talents to more people. But the risks and challenges of starting your own business are still pretty intimidating.

The money though isn’t bad, according to the article:

Weyo just finished one job that paid $10,000 for a 7-minute video and a Web site with “20-some” linked pages. Another recent job for a women’s shelter paid $15,000 for similar work, “with some branding as well,” Tyree says. Another shelter in Maryland paid Weyo $4,000 for a video and some still photography. “I was definitely paid better at the newspaper, but that’s because we’re just starting out,” he says.

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