Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

30 free ideas for multimedia producers and digital storytellers

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism, Online Video by Adam Westbrook on September 3, 2012

One of the first and best bits of advice I’ve ever been given has been this: write everything down.

Writing an idea down – making it physical on the page – engages your brain in imaging how that idea might happen. As the words form on the page, you think about logistics, treatments, audiences.

It also gives you the ability to vocalise and understand a problem. If a film you’re making isn’t working for some reason, try and write down why: if you can put your problem into words, you have power over it.

So for the last three years I’ve written ideas down as a matter of routine. I’ve got notebooks upon notebooks, as well as a 50 page Word document on my hard drive full of them. Many of the ideas are now redundant as I’ve moved onto other things, and following last week’s confessional, I thought I’d give some them away for free.

You never know, one person’s trash might be another person’s treasure.

A couple of disclaimers: I am fully aware most of these ideas are either lame or not original – that’s partly why I never pursued them. So I won’t be taking criticism in the comments about the quality or originality of the ideas, thank you. However, even if you don’t find any directly useful, they might fire off a spark into something else.

I’m publishing these under a Creative Commons Licence I’m calling the Call-Your-Mum-Licence (CYML 1.0). You don’t have to give any credit or anything, but if you do find a use for them, promise you’ll give your mum (or equivalent) a ring.

Right, let’s get on!

30 free ideas for digital producers

  1. Amazing real life stories that emerged solely from data on a spreadsheet
  2. Stories about items (typewriter/kodachrome) going extinct
  3. Stories of the glamour days of air travel (PanAm etc)
  4. Missed connections on Gumtree
  5. Profiles of people who make a living pretending to be someone else
  6. “My first…” directors/writers/painters talk about the pain of getting the first film/book/painting done
  7. “Journeys that almost killed me”
  8. “Scene of the crime” – take people back the place where something major happened in their life
  9. Is Britain tilting? (apparently it is)
  10. Elderly people share one piece of advice they’ve learned in their many years
  11. Investigate how easy it is to plant a tree in a public place (apparently not very)
  12. Run for MP in the next election and make a documentary about it.
  13. Visit every World Heritage Site in the country and document
  14. A website/magazine about people for whom ‘OK isn’t good enough’
  15. A collaborative piece where people across the country find out where their waste goes
  16. A website where people can fill in a box to say sorry for something they’ve done (anonymously)
  17. An app that lets people photograph potholes/graffiti and sends it, plus location, to their local authority. The LA can then text them directly when the problem has been fixed.
  18. Competitions to bring people from around the world together to solve a big problem – crowd sourcing problem solving
  19. A platform to show news packages from around the world..how have different countries covered the same event?
  20. Films about people who do a dying trade (blacksmith/wood turner etc)
  21. If we could build the internet from scratch, with everything we’ve learned, what would it look like?
  22. Repackage out-of-copyright books in a more visual and engaging way
  23. An app that makes it really clear what food is in season and local to you for when you go shopping
  24. Use splitscreen/tallscreen to show two sides to an argument
  25. A simple, non-technical description of how web sites are made
  26. A celebration of unconventional solutions to problems
  27. A visual rundown of all the different types of material and  how long they take to decompose
  28. Take someone who’s in a bad place in their life on a creative journey (How to look good naked but with creativity not clothes)
  29. Get 15 brilliant people from completely different industries together to try and solve a problem in a weekend. Document it.
  30. A repository for unwanted ideas that other people can use and take inspiration from. In fact, let’s start it right now – share yours in the comments box!

UPDATE: Journalist Ben Whitelaw has added some of his spare ideas on his blog. Let me know if you do the same and I’ll link to them too.

Nine myths about publishing books, films and magazines

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism by Adam Westbrook on July 30, 2012

Publishing is changing fast, and so are its rules. This is fantastic opportunity for anyone willing to take it, and a problem for traditional publishing houses (unless they’re willing to adapt, and quickly). 

At the same time, the danger is to walk into this new world carrying the baggage of the old. We’ve seen it happen a lot in video. Whether you’re publishing ebooks, digital magazines, podcasts, a blog or video, here are some “rules” which apply to traditional/mainstream publishers, but not to you.

.01 you need to publish to a regular schedule

Traditional magazines publish weekly or monthly and it’s easy to fall straight into that mindset if you’re publishing digitally. But remember magazine schedules are based on the cost and systems of printing paper. Publishing digital products, like ebooks, magazines and apps online you are free from those constraints.

Think for example of California Is A Place: it’s a video web series, but new episodes appear only when they’re good and ready. That hasn’t stopped each video racking up tens of thousands of views.

.02 you must make advertising revenue

Again it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that the only way to make your journalism pay is to stick adverts all over it. GQ and Grazia might be 60% advertisement but your digital publication doesn’t need to be.

How come? Well, firstly your overheads are lower so you don’t need big contracts to keep going. Secondly, the web opens up a whole host of other revenue streams from subscription, to events and other products.

Here’s the thing about advertising: in an ideal world, does your audience want to consume adverts? No. So do a good thing and spare them the pain.

NOTE: by coincidence, the New York Times has just revealed it is starting to rely less on advertising, in the face of big slumps in revenue.

.03 you need to publish a certain quantity every month

Isn’t it funny how a newspaper is always the same size no matter how much news there’s been that day? How the evening news is always 30 minutes long no matter what? Again, these are constraints created by those specific platforms.

And yes, publishing online frees you from this too. So, if you’re publishing a digital magazine don’t feel you need to fluff it out with more pages just to fit a quota. And don’t feel your ebook must be at least 100 pages to make it valuable. If you’ve got 20 pages of fried gold your readers will appreciate the quick read.

Incidentally, I read somewhere once that physical books often need to have a certain number of pages in them, so their spine is thick enough to get noticed on a bookshelf!

.04 you need to publish forever

Again the overheads associated with magazine production make it necessary to aim to publish indefinitely. While it’s impressive to build a formidable brand over many decades of publishing, it doesn’t have to be so.

The Domino Project was a publishing business that ran for a year with great success and published 12 titles before Seth Godin decided to wrap it up. “Projects are fun to start,” he said “but part of the deal is that they don’t last forever.”

If that feels a bit futile, don’t forget you can start a company that runs short projects, each one temporary but contributing to a larger brand.

.05 people won’t pay for digital products

This is being proven wrong all over the shop. While a couple of years ago it seemed consumers were hesitant, ebooks now generate $2billion of revenue a year; meanwhile iTunes and Spotify are the biggest forms of income for record labels.

Furthermore, it’s not the cheapness of digital projects that appeals. Don’t get fooled into pricing your next book at 79p. Instead try charging £5 – and making it worth all five pounds.

.06 you need to reach a large audience

The mainstream media and mass communication is about just that: the masses. Traditional books, movies, magazines and TV shows are judged solely on numbers and can’t survive unless they have big audiences.

It’s a relief to see the debate around online publishing moving away from its obsession with hits. The internet is designed for niches: slim, deep verticals where people are small in number but big in passion and engagement.

You only need 2,000 passionate readers willing to pay $100 a year to subscribe to your work and you’re making a tidy $200,000.

.07 you need to control your content

TED know this very well. For years they’ve released their talks, completely for free, on Youtube, and they’ve garnered hundreds of millions of views. Everyone wins when you do this.

Audiences are grateful for your act of generosity, and your idea and brand are spread far and wide. So don’t try and own your content so hard; make it easy to share, let other people remix, transform and copy it, let it spread far and wide.

Acts of generosity always come back to you in the future.

.08 you need to be short, snappy and controversial to get attention

While “50 pictures of cats wearing sweaters” and their ilk may be around forever, the debate about journalism and content is finally appreciating deep, high quality – if less regular – journalism. I’ve written about Matter before, it’s the science magazine launching in September, aiming to publish one long-form article a month.

They’ll be specially commissioned in-depth pieces, with their own bespoke illustrations. This is clever because rather than trying to get lots of eyeballs and attention, they’re setting a standard for quality: something worth paying for.

.09 you have to have a consistent price

We slip into this mindset of commerce without even thinking about it: when one charges for a product, one must choose a single price. 

Says who? Here’s two ways you can mess with that idea: firstly, scaled pricing where you offer a bronze version, a silver price and a platinum edition. Each layer gives you more stuff. Kickstarter has proven how well people respond to tiered pricing levels.

Secondly (and I love this idea): have a dynamic price for your product that increases by one-penny every time a new copy is sold. In other words, the book gets more expensive the more people buy it. If you’re a customer, that injects an urgency in buying the book.

It bears repeating: this really is the time to get into this game. Choose to be a creator, not just a consumer. Make great stuff and build a crowd around it. And forget how publishing has been done, and instead think about how it could be done. 

Inside the Story is back (and free!)

Posted in Online Video by Adam Westbrook on July 23, 2012

It’s a short post this week and it comes in two parts.

Firstly, get the book

Yes, as suggested a few weeks ago we have re-released Inside the Story, after lots of demand from people who didn’t manage to get a copy in the first run. Frankly, the advice in the book is too good to be kept away forever, and we want as many people to benefit from it as possible. So, not only is the book back – and permanently – it’s also free.

The first run raised a more than $4,000 for the developing world charity Kiva, which blew our socks off. It’s more than we could have hoped for and so now the book is yours to keep for free. There is, however, an option of a voluntary loan or donation should you want to support the charity.

And finally, thanks to the hard work of some talented journalists/translators, the book is now available in three new languages: German (translated by Dieter Hoogestraat); Spanish and Catalan (translated by Alba Falcó and David Domingo).

So if you haven’t got yourself a copy yet, now’s the time. Just head over to Inside the Story and follow the download instructions.

Secondly, take the quiz

If you’ve already read Inside the Story, I need your help. The response was better than we had expected and many of you got in touch to say how useful it was to you.

That’s awesome, and we want to make more stuff like this that you’ll find just as helpful and inspirational.

So what’s missing in your digital storytelling world?

We’ve designed a very short survey to find out what you would find most useful. It’s anonymous and quick – filling it in will help make sure our next big project is as useful to you as possible.

Click here to take the survey.

And a bonus tip!

If you’re interested in starting your own innovative publishing projects and building a business around it, I’m running a workshop with the General Assembly in London tomorrow night. Tickets are still available – click here to get one.

Every day.

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism, Online Video by Adam Westbrook on July 9, 2012

You’re probably a reader of this blog because you work in, or want to work in, digital publishing.

There are dozens of sub categories in this space like blogger, video journalist, web designer, fashion photographer, that you’ll identify yourself with, but they all boil down to a few broad skills: you want to be a writer, or a film maker, or a designer, a photographer, an audio producer, or perhaps the publisher yourself (and if you’re a tortured soul like me, all of them!)

Here’s the best advice I can give you about succeeding in these areas, and it is very simple. Whatever it is you want to do, you must produce it and consume it every day.

Produce and consume

Stephen King’s popular book about the craft of writing On Writing makes this point very clearly:

“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot”

Stephen King, On Writing

If you want to write, you must write every day and you must read every day. If you want to be a web designer you must design something every day and you must study good web design every day. If you want to be a film maker, you must find time to make films every day and watch films every day.

You don’t have to finish a film or a design a day, but you must devote a solid block of time to working on it.

Note there’s a difference between ‘simple’ and ‘easy’ and this isn’t easy. For many people, myself included, it involves getting up an hour or two before everyone else to put the work in before heading out to do the stuff that pays the bills. Or it means staying up late, or working on weekends (when I am writing this post, incidentally). It’s not easy. But it is simple.

There are things to help you. I recently started using 750words – a clever little platform which nudges you to write 750 words of something every day. It doesn’t matter what, it just has to be written.

If you have passion for your craft then this should come a little more easily. But even passionate people lose motivation and direction occasionally. These are the days where it is even more vital you keep producing and consuming. If you do it every day, even for just an hour, it becomes a habit (in other words: automatic). When you achieve this, your day won’t feel right until you’ve done your thing. Stephen King admits he writes 365 days a year – even on Christmas Day – and for him “not working is the real work.”

It doesn’t have to be for long, and it doesn’t even have to be productive or successful.

But it does have to be every day.