Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

Why being brave with online video pays off

Posted in Online Video by Adam Westbrook on July 18, 2011

About this time every year, universities across the UK prepare for ‘clearing’: a space of  chaos where students who didn’t get the grades they expected hurriedly try to arrange to get onto a different uni course.

It’s big business for some universities because it gives them a chance to snap up students (and therefore cash) who were originally going somewhere else.

Now, the marketing teams spend thousands of pounds producing glossy adverts, like this one and this one, and then spend tens of thousands more to get it on television.

It’s the numbers game that ‘old’ marketing is based on: shout in the face of enough passing strangers and some will buy your product. What an outdated, expensive and arguably ineffectual way of doing things.

Take a look at this lo-fi approach by the University of Lincoln.

The humour speaks directly to the prospective students, and was clearly made by students at Lincoln, rather than a distant production company. It was a very brave decision by the university’s marketing team (especially when you understand all the clearance/bureaucracy that goes with universities) but I think it’s paid off.

No surprise this one’s gone viral, getting the University of Lincoln more attention than a glossy ad on television.

That’s why you should be brave with your online video.

Hattip: Dave Lee

Blogging Week #1: why journalists must blog and how

Posted in 6x6 series, Journalism by Adam Westbrook on August 9, 2010

In this week-long series, I’ll be explaining why you really can’t ignore blogging if you’re a journalist. I’ll guide you through the basics of getting started, and reveal some top tricks for making blogging work for you.

When I wrote my first blog post in October 2004, the word ‘blogging’ was only just being used. It had only just – perish the thought – made it into the Oxford English Dictionary.

And I’d never really heard of it either, until Warwick University, where I was studying, introduced its own in-house blogging platform: Warwick Blogs. If the name wasn’t very imaginative, the idea certainly was – to give every student at the university the opportunity to create their own blog & website and get publishing online.

And thousands of us did. We wrote serious blogs about politics, ones with funny pictures and rude jokes and even some about student union politics. We were the only student body, other than Harvard I’m told, to be doing it.

Fast forward nearly six years and a lot has changed.

Blogging is now part of the media mainstream, a viable source for news stories, opinion and gossip. It’s not just bored students writing now either: single mums in Tyneside, GPs, policemen, prostitutes and yes, even the journalists themselves from Jon Snow to Nick Robinson.

For me, blogging has transformed from a revision-avoiding-hobby into a career changer. It has got me work, training and speaking gigs, and a bit of money. I’ve seen my readers start small, before growing by more than 10,000 visits a month in just twelve months (I’ll explain how this week).

Although it has never made me a penny directly, blogging is a huge part of the work I do, which is why I think almost all journalists need to blog–about something.

What is the point of a blog?

A blog (or web-log to give it its full dues) is sort of like a regular diary entry. Except you put it on the internet. And make it something a specific group of people might actually want to read. The thing that actually makes a blog a blog (and not a normal web page) is its RSS feed, which identifies each individual post as part of a larger series and delivers new posts to peoples’ newsreaders or inboxes.

It usually includes meta-data, like a date, author and tags. Having a single page, where you paste a bit of text on top of older text (like this one) is not a blog (although it may claim to be) – it’s just a web page with text on it.

If you’re running a larger website a blog is a good way to remind people you’re still alive, and publish engaging valuable content which gives them a reason to keep coming back.

6 reasons why you really must have a blog

01. you’re a specialist in your field

Probably the group most in need of a blog are specialists. If your beat is windsurfing, green technologies, Indian politics – whatever – you *must must must* update a regular blog.

Otherwise how is anyone going to know you’re really a specialist? It’s a great place to update new ideas and gives you a platform for research which might not make it to the mainstream. If your paid work is drying up, a blog keeps you in the loop hunting for stories.

I’ve mentioned Angela Saini several times before because she’s got it covered. She uses her blog to promote herself as an expert science journalist (and she now has a book on the way).

The aim: to create a blog which is the ‘homepage’ for your particular niche. If your blog is the first place people go to find news on green technology, you have established yourself as an expert in the field. Cue more work.

02. you’re a freelance journalist

The other group who really need to embrace blogging are freelance journalists. If you’re working for yourself, trying to tout your wares in a crowded marketplace, a blog is one of the best ways to remind people you’re still alive – and prove you know what you’re talking about.

Your blog should sit alongside your own portfolio website (and ideally be connected to it). You can write about whatever really, although a niche expertise is best. Use it as a place to sound out stories, or even just practice your specialism – for example if you’re a freelance photojournalist, make sure you update your blog with new images every week.

The aim: to run a blog so interesting, editors are reading it regularly and approaching you (yes, approaching you!) with work.

03. you’re a foreign correspondent or hyperlocal reporter

For journalists covering an international beat, a blog is a lifeline. You can use a blog in two ways: the simple way, which is to create regular updates about your work in whatever country you are in. “I’ve been researching a piece on the Rwandan elections today…” or “I’m filming a piece for The Times Online this week”; or the cunning way, which is to launch your own one-person news service.

In this instance, the blog actually becomes a stream of articles, video, audio you are producing in your patch. You make it whether it gets bought or not, and the blog becomes a regular platform. And there’s proof this works. Deborah Bonello used her website MexicoReporter.com to boost her profile in Mexico; Graham Holliday‘s Kigali Wire covers his beat in the Rwandan capital in the same way.

The aim: to run a blog which establishes you as an expert in your particular location. It should get you work both in the mainstream media, but also create revenue streams within the local/expat community too.

03. you work for a big organisation

Even if you’re not a freelancer, running a blog about your beat is a great way to connect to your audience on a new level. Jon Snow’s popularity has increased because of his frank writing in his regular SnowBlog. People check Robert Peston‘s blog for business news and for a bit of personal comment. People like to read Nick Robinson‘s blog to find out what corridors of power he’s been snooping around today.

Not only can a blog help you connect with your audience, it can build you a community of fans, and even turn into a source for stories and case studies.

The aim: to create a blog which makes you look less like a corporate machine and more like a human.

04. you love something outside journalism

Yes, it’s possible! Some people have interests which have nothing to do with journalism!

If you can’t muster the energy to blog about your work, then your hobby is just as good. Why? Because if you’re into something then chances are thousands of other people are too. A lot of lucky people (like Lauren Luke) have turned their hobby into full time work by using a blog in the right way.

The aim: to create a blog and build a community around a passion. It keeps you writing and helps you practice audience engagement (vital skills for journalists) – as well as helping you pursue your personal interests.

05. you’re a student

Last but not least – the student journalists.

You have no excuse. Get a blog. Get writing. Get used to it. Blog about what you’re learning, or what you want to learn. Use it to get involved in the debate about the future of journalism.

Or even better, if you know your future niche, get writing about it straightaway. It takes at least 18 months of awesome content to really build a following and reputation so use your student time to do that.

The aim: to either become the next Josh Halliday, Michelle Minkoff or Dave Lee and have your blog catapult you into a job at the Guardian, Washington Post or BBC; or have established yourself as a leading expert in your field of interest by the time you graduate, so you can power straight into independent work.

If you know any other cool ways for journalists to use a blog, you know where the comments box is!

Journo-blogger of the day: Paul Balcerak

American journalist Paul Balcerak (@paulbalcerak) works for Sound Publishing and runs a personal blog on practical journalism which the perfect mix of new ideas, tips and analysis.

It’s a WordPress hosted blog which he cleverly uses alongside a tumblr blog, on which he shares briefer observations.

Paul writes several times a week, but has always stood out in my Google Reader because of the quality of his ideas and analysis – good proof well thought out ideas and content wins the day.

Tomorrow: from WordPress to Posterous – the different platforms available and how to use them!

Inspirational online journalism things

Posted in Broadcasting and Media, Journalism by Adam Westbrook on February 12, 2009

Two things: one video, one text; view them right after each other and you almost want to go out and become an online journalism mogul still dressed in your pyjamas.

First, watch this

And then watch part 2 and part 3 if you can. (HT @paulbradshaw)

Most inspiring thing: Michael runs a hyper-local video journalism station in Washington DC for an annual TOTAL cost of $600,000. They can charge just $5 per 30 sec ad slot and break even.

Then read this:

@Dave Lee on creating an online news site while in New Zealand.

Most inspiring thing: how cheap and easy it is to create a fully multimedia news service.

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End of BBC Local TV…is it problem solved for local newspapers?

Posted in Broadcasting and Media by Adam Westbrook on November 22, 2008

The Newspaper Society hailed the cancelling of BBC Local TV plans as a great victory yesterday for local newpapers who’d foreseen their ruin if the Beeb popped up in their area.

The RadioCentre, representing local commercial radio stations, called it a “sensible decision.”

Ofcom had reckoned local newspapers and radio stations could have seen their revenue fall by 4% if BBC Local had happened.

So is it problem solved? No way.

According to an article in today’s Guardian:

While newspapers have seen off the threat of the BBC’s £68m local video websites, their problems remain immense. Against a backdrop of falling advertising revenues and economic downturn, dozens of local papers have closed this year and many more are vulnerable. The BBC’s plans were a concern – the Newspaper Society said the 65 proposed sites would have competed with about 100 websites of some of the UK’s best-known papers. However, Richard Hitchcock, an analyst at Numis, said publishers were not as worried about the BBC plan as they were about the “bigger picture” of a “sustained cyclical consumer downturn on top of the major structural problems of the online migration of audiences and advertising”. Enders Analysis estimates that UK newspaper ad revenues could fall by up to 21% next year and remain in decline for the “foreseeable future”.

Elsewhere in the blogosphere:

Dave Lee issues a challenge for the papers to up their game and match the quality of the BBC threat. Quite rightly he says the papers were just scared – really – that the BBC might be better than them.

David Dunkley Gyimah agrees – and says they must do it soon – because the next threat might not be so easy to fend off. Or, even, from the BBC.

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