Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

10 new years resolutions to make you a better multimedia journalist

Posted in 6x6 series, Journalism by Adam Westbrook on January 1, 2010

What will 2010 bring?

It’s sure to be an eventful year in journalism and multimedia and I’ve already spelled out a few of my predictions for the year. But how can you prepare yourself for all the twists and turns? If you’ve already given up smoking, joined the gym and don’t need to loose any weight, here are 10 resolutions to make you a better multimedia journalist in 2010.

01. Learn a new web skill

You can’t live in fear of code, CMS, templates ‘and all that geeky stuff’ any longer: if you don’t know a bit of HTML the other 50 people going for your dream job will. Or maybe only one of them will, it doesn’t matter, they’ll still probably get the job.

There are two myths about learning web languages: 01. it’s really difficult; 02. it costs money. They’re both false.

Learning any of the basic web languages is both relatively easy and free. You can fork out £40/$60 on “HTML for Dummies” if you want but it’s not necessary. I’ve just spent a few hours over Christmas lounging on the sofa teaching myself Javascript on my laptop.

If you’re still not convinced, think about this: society is moving increasingly online and news definitely is. How much of a handicap is it to be unable to speak the language of the web? It’s like moving to France without knowing a jot of French. And then trying to get a job on Le Monde.

Four things you can learn:

  1. HTML/XHTML
  2. CSS
  3. Javascript
  4. J-Query

02. Read up on business

I’ve said several times in recent articles and videos, as have many others, there is potential for journalists to employ business skills to create small, nimble journalistic ventures which return a profit. Even if most balk at that idea, multimedia journalists – especially freelancers – should tool up on business skills to maximise their profits.

Again, don’t be scared off by the unfamiliarity of the subject. Use the New Year to grasp the nettle and dive straight in. I’ve been reading lots of business books over the last three months, investigating how journalists can employ business knowledge in a news environment. The results will appear in a new e-book here in the spring.

In the meantime, study successful business people and find out how they made it work. And remember this, the most successful businesspeople often come from non-business backgrounds:

  • Richard Branson (him off Virgin) left school with few qualifications. Despite being  dyslexic, he set up his own magazine.
  • Duncan Bannatyne (off that there Dragons Den) was a beach bum until he turned 30, when he started selling ice-cream, now he’s worth more than £100m.

03. Make audio slideshows

If you haven’t made any audio slideshows yet, pledge to make at least one in 2010. They’re great because they’re relatively quick and cheap to make (a second-hand SLR and audio recorder could set you back perhaps £300; Soundslide software is just £50) and the results can be stunning.

They’re also removed of the production distractions of shooting videos, so you can focus on telling a great story.

The weekend audio slideshow challenge:

  1. Got a free weekend on the horizon? Start thinking of story ideas near you. All you need is one or more people to interview, and a setting with the opportunity for great photographs and great sounds. Set it up. On Saturday morning go and record the story and take lots of pics.
  2. On Sunday morning go through your material and craft it into a story on paper. Then edit the audio together using Audacity (free software) and create a slideshow in Soundslide.
  3. Sleep on the results, and after making changes, upload the final piece on Monday morning. Use social networks like LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook to share it. And you could even try to pitch it to a paper.
  4. Repeat as many weekends as possible.

04. Learn a new design skill

I think New Years Resolutions should be about learning new things, not prohibiting things (can you tell?). Here’s another.

A journalist with a great visual eye makes for a good multimedia storyteller. Composition, colour are really important, especially if you’re working in video or photography. But there will be more calls for interactive designers in the future. People who can create stunning data visualisations using Java and design software.

If none of the resolutions appeal to you so far, think about learning how to use Photoshop (or even cheaper, its open source equivalent GIMP); of how about Illustrator or DreamWeaver? And start bringing in some design blogs into your blog reader. I gave some suggestions in my best of the blogs post.

Join a network like Deviant Art or Behance to show off your work.

05. Pick up a microphone

This is an appeal to make 2010 the year you take audio seriously. If you’re shooting video or audio slideshows, audio is half of the magic, and coming back with poor sound quality shouldn’t be acceptable.

Spend some money on a decent microphone and spend some time learning how to use it properly.

6×6: audio

In my e-book “6×6 skills for multimedia journalists” I devote a chapter to getting good audio. Click here to download it.

06. Have personal projects

Life shouldn’t be all work, work, work – even if we are lucky enough to call journalism our job. Devote time to personal creative projects. They’re a fantastic way to keep your creativity vitalised.

Make it the part of journalism you love the most – writing maybe, or shooting video, or designing graphics…and give yourself a project just for the hell of it. It’ll keep you in a happy place I promise.

Ideas for personal projects

  • Create a tumblr account and use it to post your own creative bits and pieces
  • Start writing that novel or screenplay. Go on, just write the thing!
  • Design a new range of awesome posters
  • Create an audio portrait of an interesting area or neighbourhood over the space of 6 months
  • Start creating blogazines instead of boring old blog posts

07. Aim to double your blog readership or website hit rate

Challenge yourself to create a website that really sells you and gives value to readers. The key, as all the blogging mavens tell you, is creating great content. Make 2010 the year you stop posting funny videos or rants about something you read in the paper, and focus your content.

What value can you share with other people? What do you know about that other people will want to know about it? If you’re a journalist, there’s a good chance there’s something you can share.

This very post is a good example. I was close to writing a “my goals for 2010” post, and bore you all with my plans for next year. Then I thought I could add much more value to your day by coming up with this list.

08. Devote time to storytelling

One of the things I learned in 2009 was about the importance of storytelling, how most storytelling nowadays is crap, how many of us think it’s something we’re born with or that it’s easy.

Storytelling is in fact a craft in itself: choosing the characters, developing a narrative, conflict and climax. Take time in 2010 to learn more about this mysterious and under-appreciated art. A good place to start would be to get hold of a copy of Robert McKee’s excellent book Story. He’s been quoted all over this blog in 2009.

09. Collaborate and hookup

One of my aims for 2010 is to collaborate more. Teaming up with other people, especially those who have strengths where you have weaknesses is really fulfilling. Collaborating also gives projects a better chance of getting funding and of getting finished. So don’t go it alone in 2010.

At the same time, talk to more journalists, and collaborate on ideas for the future of news. More than 150 people have joined the Future of News Meetup Group I created in 2009, and in 2010 we’ll be meeting every month to thrash out new, positive, tangible ideas on what the news landscape will look like.

If you’re in London, make sure you sign up and get involved. If you’re not in London, then create your own for your area!

10. Be audacious

2009 was a rough year. And the signs are 2010 won’t be any easier, especially if you’re a journalist. But make a decision now not to get battered around by the waves of the economic storm. Your future doesn’t have to be shaped by events around you, just you, your ideas, and whether you’re prepared to turn them into reality.

“If you don’t find what you’re looking for, be it, create it.”

S. Dawns

Whatever your resolutions and goals are for next year, make them audacious. Make them big and make them exciting. If they don’t excite you or scare you a little bit, what hope do you have of making them happen?

And a final resolution for you….keep reading this blog!  It’s been great to have all your comments and feedback in 2009; there will be lots more practical advice about multimedia journalism in 2010, including two ebooks before February.  To make sure you don’t miss out, use the form to the right to subscribe to future posts.

Whatever you have planned for 2010, I hope it’s awesome. Happy New Year!

Idea 004: the rise of the blogazine

Posted in Ideas for the future of news by Adam Westbrook on December 7, 2009

In this series I’m compiling a list of creative, tangible, practical ideas for journalism which will emerge from the digital revolution. If you have any suggestions for future features, contact me. Previous entries include:

003: events based reporting

002: students as investigators

001: the news aggregator

Idea: Powering a Green Planet

By: Mark Z Jacobson, Mark A Delluci & Scientific American

An apt subject as the COP15 meeting gets underway in Copenhagen this week. Powering A Green Planet, featured in the Scientific American in November, explains a radical idea on how to stop global warming, put forward by two scientists.

They reckon if we embraced renewable energy head on, we could power the planet on 100% clean energy, in just 20 years. That’s a bit better than the current targets, right?

Powering a Green Planet, Scientific America

It’s an enjoyable, interesting and convincing read. But let’s get down to the future of journalism nitty-gritty.

The Scientific American utilised multimedia platform Flyp to produce the piece. It is arranged and designed as an attractive magazine, so you can literally turn the page, with lots of video, graphics and text moving on the screen.

It is beautifully designed, with lots of space on the page. Crucially, this piece never feels too cluttered: it always feels like there’s just enough information on the page…but not too much.

It’s interactive too, with lots of buttons to click on, video to watch and audio to hear. The complicated science bit is explained in colourful graphics.

This is challenging scientific information made digestible and accessible. And there is value for the consumer in this too, perhaps one they’d pay for.

The blogazine

The idea of the interactive magazine is still in the embryonic stages. It has a blog counterpart too, the blog-azine, a small but growing trend of bloggers who chose to make every single blog entry a unique design masterpiece, tailored to the particular subject of the blog.

For example, British web designer Gregory Wood designs each blog post individually, creating stunning pages like this:

gregorywood.co.uk: Top 5 reasons to learn to dive

In a recent feature, Smashing Magazine said blogazines were great because they stopped you:

“Slipping into the habit of typing up your thoughts and clicking “Post,” without thinking about the layout of each article… By taking a little extra time for the art of blogging, your creativity will increase with your efforts”

but also admitted:

“…building a custom layout requires some experience with CSS and HTML…style borrows many elements from print design, anyone who has worked only in Web design may find it difficult to change their way of thinking. Rules of typography and white space, for example, may throw you off. But practice makes perfect, and an endless supply of inspiration can be found in creative magazines.”

A business model?

This is a surprisingly new way of delivering content. It’s amazing isn’t it, that this far into the web 2.0 world, this far since the development of flash, CSS, J-Query and easy to deliver multimedia, 98% of online news is delivered just like this blog: there’s a title, some text, if you’re lucky- a picture or some video embedded. Which leads us to the big question: can making your content stand out make any money?

This has yet to be proved, but I really think it has potential….but its future lies in mobile. In the advent of the Kindle and other OLED readers these interactive experiences could really kick off, because they gain so much value from a touch screen. Imagine being able to sit on the subway with a newly downloaded copy of your favourite magazine, in exciting interactive form! You can flip the pages, click to watch video, audio and drag graphics around.

And if they’re produced as well as the Scientific American, your sleepy commuter eyes won’t skip over long drawn out paragraphs of text, because it would have been made so accessible.

In the meantime there could be room for an ambitious start-up willing to combine magazine design with innovative content. Again if it looks like nothing else on the internet it could soon grow an audience.

This technical sublime I firmly believe the consumer will pay for. But it relies on a visual sublime too – it has to look good. Style over substance? Maybe.

The sooner designers and journalists start talking to each other, the better.