Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

You can learn anything, and why you should

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism by Adam Westbrook on February 6, 2012

It was late on a Friday night and we were all drunk. 

My flatmate Rob picked up some juggling balls and offered me a challenge. “I bet I can teach you to juggle in 10 minutes” he said.

I remember trying to learn how to juggle when I was about 12 years old: a short lived experience full of frustration and ultimately failure. But now seemed as good a time as any to try again.

Over the next 10 minutes, Rob showed me the basic technique, starting with one ball, then two, and finally three. When the 10 minutes were up, I had managed to juggle all three balls about once or maybe twice before I dropped them – but I got the general technique.

Then something interesting happened. As everyone else went to bed, I stayed up and kept practicing. I tried juggling the three balls, and dropped them. Then I picked them up, and tried again. I practiced this over and over and over – until four in the morning. Silently throwing the balls up in the air, dropping them, picking them back up.

As I was doing it, I could almost feel my brain making new connections. Arm movements which seemed awkward an hour before were beginning to feel more natural. Soon I could juggle for two rotations, and then three, before dropping the balls.

II

This was the moment I realised something: I absolutely love learning new things. And I realised that learning something new is as simple as picking up the technique, and then working at it, silently, humbly, unflinchingly, until it sticks. They say your brain is like a muscle – you can train it new habits and build strength by regular repetition.

Of course, most people give up before then. Learning French seems pretty romantic until you factor in the hours of repeating irregular verbs over and over in your head. Every boy dreams of becoming a footballer, until it comes to the moment he has to practice hundreds of penalty kicks over and over in the rain. Everyone signs up to a new gym membership after Christmas with dreams of toning up, until they realise this involves dozens of painful press-ups, over and over again.

III

I’ve decided to make 2012 a year where I learn relentlessly with machine-line procedure: first I study the key points and then I practice, putting in the repetitive legwork until the muscle is strong. I won’t ever make it to Malcolm Gladwell good, but good enough. So far this year, I’ve been teaching myself some new web design skills: HTML 5, CSS3 and Jquery, building on my French, and hopefully a new musical instrument too.

This attitude to learning is essential in this modern world where technology seems to continually create new platforms, new workflows and new disciplines. In 2010 I taught myself how to animate motion graphics following this idea, something which soon became a source of income.

How to learn anything

So what’s the best way to learn? Luckily for us journalists, producers and publishers access to knowledge we need is pretty easy. But there are things you can do make it easier on yourself.

.01 Find free or cheap resources:  if you need video skills, hit the Vimeo Video School. Anything code related, tap up the Code Academy. You can even learn how to code your own iPhone app at Stanford University – for free! For everything in between I highly recommend Lynda.com*. They’ve got a huge range of courses on design, coding and other key software, and a month subscription costs $25 (£16).

.02 Learn on a need-to-know basis: you need to be smart about this sort of learning. There are no exams, no coursework: you decide the curriculum. So don’t waste your time learning something if it’s not going to be useful to you. What I mean is, if you want to learn how to make small styling adjustments to your WordPress blog, there’s no need to delve in to the history, syntax and ins and outs of  CSS. Just get what you need.

.03 Allocate regular practice time: this is where the legwork comes in – the regular practice, the bit where you create those grey matter connections. Depending on how intense you want to make it, somewhere between an hour a day and an hour a week will do it. Keeping motivation going is tough though, which is where the next tip is the killer…

.04 Give yourself a project: quite simply, the best way to learn something new is to turn your learning into an exciting creative project. In the education world it’s called experiential, or work-based learning, and experts are sure that people learn better when they’re excited by a particular goal. I haven’t been learning HTML step-by-step in factory fashion. Instead, I challenged myself to redesign my personal website from scratch and learnt on the job.

At the heart of all this, is the belief that there is nothing you can’t learn, regardless of age, income, background or education. Director David Mamet puts it well:

“…you get someone who knows how to take a picture, or you learn to how take a picture; you get someone who knows how to light or you learn how to light. There’s no magic to it. Some people will be able to do some tasks better than others – depending upon the degree of their technical mastery and their aptitude for the task. Just like playing the piano. Anybody can learn how to play the piano…There’s almost no-one who can’t learn to play the piano…The same thing is true of cinematography and sound mixing. Just technical skills.”

Finally, an important note about learning. Too often, we use education as a procrastination tool. Someone who wants to make a documentary (or says they want to) will go out and buy a big book about documentary making for beginners. What they should do instead is pick up a camera and start filming. Learning is best done by  doing.

Nobel Laureate Niels Bohr said “An expert is a person who has made every possible mistake within his or her field”. And nobody made any mistakes while reading a book.

*affiliate link

Wanna be a journalist? Get writing!

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on October 5, 2009

It’s a call that’s been made many times before, so I’ll keep it brief.

calendar

If you’re a journalism student, or thinking about becoming a journalist one day in the distant future, don’t wait for the work to come to you: get writing. Now.

Video Journalism pioneer David Dunkley-Gyimah‘s been urging J-students to get writing again, listing 12 reasons why blogging is so important:

1. The blog gives you visibility
2. Your blog allows you to hone your writing
3. Your blog allows you to try out new ideas
4. Your blog demonstrates your power of research
5. Your blog tells an editor how serious you are at writing
6. Your blog is a marketing tool. Your de facto CV
7. Your blog is a forum. Less a magic wand, but a space to experiment
8. Your blog revolves around ideas such as crowd sourcing, twitter, social networking et al
9. Your blog allows you to blog
10. Your blog could, at that interview, be the difference between getting that job.
11. Your blog says things about you not immediately apparent: time management, critical analyses and prioritising.
12 Your blog is you. It is the identikit used to judged you, form an opinion of yourself. Use it; keep it and nurture it wisely.

I know people who have been offered work, just because they run a decent blog.

The look of ‘eugh’ on the faces of some journalists-to-be when I try and implore the importance of blogging suggests it’s still seen as a chore.

But it should be pleasure: your chance to write, publish, research, connect, tell a story…if you consider any of those five things a chore, maybe it’s time to ask yourself what you really want.

Ghana @ 50: a leading light?

Posted in International Development by Adam Westbrook on March 5, 2007

Kids in AccraThe oldest independent nation in Africa, Ghana is – in my not very important opinion – a model for the rest of the continent to follow. A sound leadership, but backed by tangible credible democracy, and because of that a strong economy.

And best of all, peace. Whatever people say about the “gentle giant” John Kufour, he’s helped lead Ghana into an enviable lack of violence, discrimination or intimidation. And that’s in spite of sitting between two rather less peaceful neighbours – Togo and Cote D’Ivoire – and the ramblings of the old dictator Jerry Rawlings, who it still amazes me gets at least one newspaper front page a week. And this is backed up by some promising figures.

I was contacted this week by the World Bank believe it or not, who gave me some of their latest research on Ghana as she turns a golden fifty. They’ve concluded the following:

  • There’s been strong improvements in the business climate, political stability and press freedom.
  • Inflation’s decreased from 40% to 10% and the economy’s growing by around 6% a year, compared to 4% over the past 20 years.
  • Poverty’s down to 33.4%, from nearly 40% in 2000 and over fifty percent in 1990.

And most amazing of all:

  • Ghana may be able to halve poverty by 2015.

That would be a phenomenal acheivement – even Britain’s pretty poor on poverty, especially among children. The World Bank says it thinks the chances of Ghana becoming a middle-class country in the next few years as “high”. Accra street

That, I think, is down to the reasons above, but also many others. Not least the fact people in Ghana seem pretty unhappy unless they’re aiming big and changes are happening.

Check this article from BBC News’ Alexis Akwagyiram in Accra. It’s a report about a debate held between a government minister Frank Agyekum and a group of young Ghanaians. “Despite the air conditioning,” Alexis writes, “the minister is sweating”.

“Sitting amongst hundreds of young Ghanaians, the government spokesman is being forced to defend his administration’s record against a barrage of criticism. Issues ranging from corruption and economic mismanagement to the country’s education system are being held up as examples of failure.”

So despite amazing and unrivalled improvements over the past ten years, people aren’t satisfied. And that’s so important because it means complacancy will never set in. And the fact that a government minister can be held to account to without fear is almost unrivalled too:

“…most of the crowd, which consists almost entirely of people aged between 20 and 30, make it clear they disagree by murmuring and heckling.”

Ghana kings …there are some country’s where that kind of behaviour gets you in trouble.

The crowd were worried most about corruption and I seem to remember from my time in Ghana that was a problem – but tiny compared to corruption in Burkina Faso and Mali.

There are 25 heads of state plus delegates from 60 countries arriving for tomorrows jubilee celebrations. And I hope everyone else joins in as well…Ghana has a lot to celebrate!

Discrimination in the media: it’s not race – it’s money

Posted in Broadcasting and Media by Adam Westbrook on February 27, 2007

Is radio racist?

That was the question asked at a Radio Academy event I went to last week. Arguments went round in a circles a little bit, with nobody actually producing even anecdotal evidence of any prejudice or discrimination in the line of their work.

Then my friend Jimmy, who works at the Radio Centre, produced some yet-to-be-published statistics from Skillset, which poured a bit more fuel on the fire:

  • Averaged out, about 6% of the UK population are non-white.
  • 10.9% of the BBC’s staff are non-white
  • 3.1% of staff in the commercial radio sector are non-white.

A bit embarassing for commercial radio really, but you do have to mention that the majority of local radio staff work in regions and small towns. Compare that to the Beeb’s mainly London based staff. And in London nearer 30% of people are from ethnic minority backgrounds.

My own personal conclusion was (in regards to employment) the media industry is possibly the least racist industry there is. But it does discriminate still – against people, of all races, without money.

Greasy poles and NUJ polls

Take my course for example. To train to be a journalist at City University will set you back £5,995. Its equivalent at Westminster is £4,700 and £5,391 at Cardiff.

And on top of that we, plus anyone wanting to go into any branch of the industry, usually do at least a couple of months worth of unpaid work experience. And on rare occasions we get our travel expenses paid. That’s happened to me once.

I’m not for one second trying to moan about this or get above my station. I know I’m one of thousands clambering at the bottom of a great whopping dirty greasy pole; if I didn’t work for free, there are hundreds behind me who will. It’s part of the process.
But it’s worried the National Union of Journalists who today handed a survey to Her Majesty’s Custom and Exise highlighting the exploitation of people on work experience by certain companies. An early day motion’s also been tabled in parliament to discuss the NUJ’s findings.

They say some companies are bringing in unpaid students on work experience to fill HR gaps and sick leave. Here’s one example from the NUJ’s survey:

“At my local paper – I was given several by-lines including a front page exclusive and was not even offered payment for my travel expenses.”

Money, money, money

Again, I’m not here to moan, and a lot of the case studies in the NUJ survey seem to be just general “I didn’t get to do anything” rants. One person even complains I really had to push to get work and used my own initiative to get stuff on air”…well done mate – that’s how it works.

But they do raise a good point about the cost of going into this industry. And if you’re doing the work that a freelancer could be brought in to do, then by rights you should be paid the rates.

It’s a hugely rewarding industry when you get in and – I dearly hope – my six grand will have more than paid for itself this time next year.

But it’s cold and wet on the outside looking in. Is it surprising that people get turned off from the media when they have to sacrifice so much to get in? You need extraordinary amounts of money to get started, and it’s sad fact that most of the people who can’t afford fees or unpaid work happen to be from BME backgrounds.

But that’s a socio-economic problem for Britain as a whole – it’s not something the media industry (as powerful as it is) is not equipped to deal with.

The toughest degree there is

Posted in International Development by Adam Westbrook on February 25, 2007

Students like to moan a fair bit. The course is too expensive, the work’s too hard, the lectures are too boring, the exams are badly organised…it goes on.

But imagine trying to study in Baghdad.

Having been a student since the Iraq conflict began I’m ashamed I haven’t even considered what it’s like to study in one of the most dangerous country’s on earth. Perhaps it’s because I just assumed education has been cancelled amid the daily carnage of market bombings and kidnappings.

But it goes on. And for Iraqi students this week is the start of their mid term exams.

According to Correspondent Sahar, writing for the fascinating Inside Iraq blog, the scariest part of the exams for the students is not the pressure of the exams, the last minute revision or the panic of a topic overlooked…it’s the fact that the exams have to have a fixed timetable.

That means they’re effectively “sitting ducks” for the next ten days.

Usually, lecturers are forced to adopt a random timetable that’s never the same for more than a week, to avoid the kidnappers, the snipers and the bombers.

As Sahar says, it’s something the students are sadly used to as an unimaginable addition to the stress of study:

Snipers pick inhabitants and students walking from college to hospital or back. One car stops in front of the entrance, lets out one handcuffed young man, waits for him to take a few steps away … and then he is shot, bait, it turned out. Naïve students run to his aid only to be shot at by snipers on a rooftop of a high building in Haifa Street.

The million dollar question (literally)

Posted in News and that by Adam Westbrook on February 5, 2007

Dollar signThe big story of the day for all Claphams yummy mummys is undoubtedly the news that the education system for 11-14 year old’s to be shaken up.

“Useless” EU languages are going to be scrapped in favour of economically more fruitful ones like Arabic, Urdu and Mandarin.

Brilliant. I’ve always wanted to learn Mandarin, and besides I never use my French anyway.

But seeing as we’re on the topic of economically useful subjects, here’s one that really gets me:

Why were we never taught money at school?

As I flounder in a panic-stricken state, smothered by the giant pillow of £22,000 debt beneath a 13-tog* duvet of rising interest rates and an exploding property market I’m wishing I got told how to manage my money instead of being taught William Blake was a mentalist.

I have little idea of loans, APR, taxes and I only discovered there was such a thing as a credit rating and that failing one is bad news….when I failed one. Cheers for that one education.

And clearly I’m not the only one. Personal insolvency in the UK went up by a whopping 59% last year. In 2006 a record 107,000 thousand people were declared bankrupt and probably now live on a diet of cat food and cardboard, like me.

The government moans and blames the banks. But successive education ministers have been too proud to look at themselves – schools are to blame, not banks. Well, banks are a little too.

So great, teach kids Mandarin, and Urdu and Elvish, whatever. But why the hell aren’t we taught how to manage our money in a world where money’s everything?

It’s the million dollar question.

* you need to have worked a summer selling people duvets to know that 13 tog is a really thick duvet that you have when its cold.