Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

Video: Deborah Bonello on setting up MexicoReporter.com

Posted in Journalism, Next Generation Journalist by Adam Westbrook on September 29, 2010

Deborah Bonello is the embodiment of the Next Generation Journalist. Faced with the declining journalism industry we all face today, she did what no-one else had done, and created her own ideal job – from scratch.

She flew to Mexico, set up a simple website using WordPress, and single-handedly created a news website for English-speaking expats there. MexicoReporter.com became hugely popular in just a couple of years and got Deborah amazing offers of work.

Here, she talks about how she set up MexicoReporter.com: the challenges and the struggles.

In this video:

  • you will find out how Deborah founded MexicoReporter.com
  • you’ll discover the equipment she used to do it
  • you’ll hear about the challenges of setting up your own online magazine
  • and you’ll find out why it’s a great way to launch a foreign reporting career.

There’s loads more examples of Next Generation Journalists in action, including a comprehensive plan for 10 different awesome career paths in journalism in Next Generation Journalist. Click here to find out how to get a copy.

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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!

Yes, even the old guard get it now!

Posted in Journalism, Next Generation Journalist by Adam Westbrook on July 20, 2010

The exciting potential of the future of journalism is spreading. And gathering fans where you’d least expect it. In the last week two of the biggest and most established names in British journalism have come out and spoken like a true Next Generation Journalist.

Marr gets it

On Wednesday, Andrew Marr posted a superb piece on the BBC News Website called ‘The End of the News Romantics‘.

I’ll spare you the context bits and brief debate about paying for news (you can read it all here) but Marr ends on, amazingly, an optimistic point:

The kit now being sold is truly liberating. Just a few years ago, I was shaking my head and saying I thought I’d had the best of times for journalism, and wouldn’t want my children to join the trade. No longer. I’d like to be 20 and starting out again right now. Only – not the piercings.

Yes, Marr gets it! (One person on Facebook wondered whether he’s read my book; I doubt it, but Andrew if you’re interested here’s the website)

Snow gets it

Then, just last night, another stalwart, none other than Mr Jon Snow spoke equally optimistically at London’s Frontline Club. Video Journalist Deborah Bonello was there and has a great round up on The Video Report, but crucially Jon says:

It’s all out there to be grasped, and we will do it. We’ve got to keep our nerve, we’ve got to keep it all together, we’ve got to keep on producing more young talent, more young people out in Mexico scrambling on their one camera, VJs and the rest of it,  and we can make it. We’ll get the tightrope across, we’ll start making money together, we’ll make music together, we’ll make the world a better place.

Yes, Snow gets it! Deborah Bonello reports his optimism and excitement was ‘contagious’.

So that’s two of the most established and traditionalist of British journalists getting excited about the potential we are sitting on right now.

Are you as excited? Do you get it? Or do you still feel paralysed?


Are you waiting for approval?

Posted in Journalism, Next Generation Journalist by Adam Westbrook on June 28, 2010

Image credit: SleepyNeko on Flickr

A very insightful post from Deborah Bonello at VideoReporter.com today which poses a really important question any next generation journalist should ask themselves.

Comparing the life of an artist with that of a journalist, she makes a salient point about approval – and how it seems we’re all only as good as the establishment say we are.

The seal of approval

Widely speaking, as an artist, you’re as good as the gallery who puts on your show or the client who buys and gushes about your work. Otherwise, you’re an unknown, and your talent is questionable as it has yet to be given the mark of approval of a major art gallery or culture brand. There are of course exceptions to this, but bear with me.

As journalists, we all want to have been published by major media brands that are respected globally, whether as staffers or as freelance contributors. It is the BBC, and major newspapers and broadcasters who give us, as journalists, that stamp that says we have talent, that we’re good, that we can be trusted and should be listened to as reporters and storytellers. In fact, it isn’t until some have that seal of approval that they have the confidence to go off and start freelance careers.

And that’s an interesting point isn’t it? For as much as independent journalists talk about ‘doing something different’ many still crave that job in a big newsroom. They still need that ‘seal of approval’.

Why is that? Why do we need an editor at the BBC to tell us we’re any good? Why does our name have to be a byline in the Boston Globe or LA Times before we’re deemed ‘good enough’? What makes them so important? One thing’s for sure: if they do give your work the ‘seal of approval’ by publishing it, they won’t pay much for it these days.

Who is stopping you?

But as Deborah points out, things are changing: ‘The internet offers you the opportunity to build your very own journalism brand, around yourself’ she says. Right on.

You can create and publish journalism that doesn’t need a seal of approval from a mid-ranking editor and build a formidable reputation around your own skills – around a shit hot news product which provides good content to a target audience who needs it. Seems tough? It is – your content will need to be great (which is why I’m not worried about standards). You’re up to that right?

I really think if  more journalists were willing to work to please themselves and not a distant editor, we would get somewhere. If more didn’t view their talent as questionable but as extraordinary and unique.

Deborah didn’t wait to be deemed worthy by a London newspaper before flying to Mexico and starting MexicoReporter.com – she did it anyway, and became, almost single-handedly, an important media player in the region. The mainstream media then came to her.

So next time you’re on the verge of doing something epic, something exciting – but you think you can’t or shouldn’t do, remember a bit of the great Ayn Rand: the question isn’t ‘who is going to let me?’.

It’s ‘who is going to stop me?’

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.

Packaging?

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 BusinessDesk.com, 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!).

Online ad revenue: what journalists are getting wrong

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on April 9, 2010

Image credit: DavidDMuir (cc)

How much money has your website made you recently?

For all but the lucky ones, the figure is rarely enough to buy a latte, let alone support a family. And for all but the smart ones, the figure is usually from Google Adwords revenue.

Here’s the crunch: journalists running their own websites, whether they’re hyperlocal blogs,  online magazines or video sites are getting it wrong. They think there’s only one way to make money from a website – advertising. It’s how newspapers do it, so why should they think any different?

Actually, running a website for profit isn’t about building an audience of millions and raking in the ad revenue. For most of us, even the top niche bloggers, your audience will be in the thousands, not the millions. And that just doesn’t pay.

Doing it right

I was kindly invited to speak London’s prestigious Frontline Club this week, on how to make it as a freelancer in the modern age. Speaking alongside me was the inspiring Deborah Bonello, a journalist who actually has made money from her website, without using ad revenue at all.

In 2007, realising she wasn’t doing the journalism she dreamed of, she packed her bags and moved to Mexico, to carry out what she called “an experiment in digital journalism”. She set up MexicoReporter.com, a website which would be the foundation of her business. Starting life as a free wordpress blog (like this one) Deborah spent months filling it with content, covering stories all over the country.

It became hugely popular with the English speaking expats in Mexico, of which Deborah estimated there are more than a million from the USA alone.

If you ask Deborah how much she made from ad revenue, chances are the amount would be small. But if you ask her how much her website has made her: she’d answer ‘a lot’. By putting loads of free content online she had a strong portfolio to show editors when she approached them with stories. Before long she was getting commissions, and shortly after a retainer from the LA Times.

Now based in London, she’s landed a great gig with the Financial Times. In other words, her website has made her thousands.

And it’s likely she wouldn’t have had the same luck without MexicoReporter.com.

How to really make money from your website

The secret is this: your website is a vehicle for making money elsewhere, not an automatic money making machine on its own.

01. promotion: keep your website regularly updated with examples of your work. And keep producing content, even if it’s without a commission. It pays dividends when you’re offered work or a job off the back of your portfolio. Deborah’s work came because she updated MexicoReporter.com even though she had no-one to pitch to.

02. expertise: maintain a targeted, well promoted, blog which establishes you as an expert in your field. The money comes when you’re offered work because you can prove you know what you’re talking about. I have become both a lecturer and a trainer because of this blog, for example.

03. affiliate: be clever with your links. Affiliate links are dedicated hyperlinks to a product which give you a cut of the money if that product is sold. Reviewing a book, CD or anything else available on Amazon.com? Use an affiliate link to share the revenue. Many companies offer affiliate deals to bloggers.

04. sell: use your website as a vehicle to sell products, targeted around your niche. If you specialise in a certain type of journalism, or Google Analytics tells you your audience are a certain type of person, can you create an online store so they buy direct from you? Tracey Boyer has opened a store on her blog Innovative Interactivity with just that in mind, and Media Storm run a store too.

05. and yes, adverts: but you can be clever with adverts too. The UK based service Addiply created by Rick Waghorn solves some of the problems with Google Ads by offering locally targeted adverts for local based websites. Local bloggers say it’s bringing in results.

A combination of two or more of these things could bring in more money than the Google Ads cheque could. If more journalists looked beyond advertising as their sole business model, we’d move so much faster towards a financial base for the future of journalism.