Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

The value of “finishability” in your journalism

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism by Adam Westbrook on July 7, 2011

If you create a news product, say an online magazine, here’s a question for you: is your product finishable?

I recently saw Tom Standage, digital editor at The Economist speak at The Media Briefing’s Mobile Media event in central London. He was quite clear that what the Economist sells is ‘finishability‘: that moment of catharthis when you put down the magazine having completed it.

In a world where the stream of information coming into our minds is non-stop (I never seem to keep my Google Reader empty!), providing a product that is ‘finishable’ could be a simple way to make sure people enjoy it – and therefore come back for more.

Lots of products, such as The Huffington Post’s new UK edition, which launched yesterday, provide you with almost stupid amounts of content everyday – an unending barrage of choice.

But few seem brave enough to offer less: instead making it really remarkable.

Finishability is also a valuable asset among the freelancers, starters and entrepreneurs of the journalism world. Coming up with ideas is not good enough. Starting projects is no good either: none of it means anything unless you finish.

And as a tribute to the value of finishability, I am making this post decidedly…finishable.

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myNewsBiz 2011: what does it tell us about entrepreneurship?

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism by Adam Westbrook on June 24, 2011

So the winners of myNewsBiz have been announced and that wraps up the pilot of our entrepreneurial journalism competition for this year.

The two winning ideas reflected the breadth of entries we received. The winner, Visualist, an idea by City University students Nick Petrie and Ben Whitelaw (of Wannabe Hacks fame) aims to provide journalists in smaller newsrooms with the skills and tools to do data journalism. The judges felt it brought something new to journalism, and targeted a very popular area in journalism today.

The runner up idea was a great idea for a magazine, called Relish, submitted by four students at Kingston University, London. The judges loved the name, but also the fact that it targeted a clear, new and gadget hungry audience – men who like cooking.

Read more about the entries and the judges’ comments here. And there’s more coverage on journalism.co.uk.

What did we learn?

All that’s left to do is give the two winners their £1000 and £500 respectively to spend getting their business ideas off the ground. We announced the competition last November and we wanted to achieve two things (as well as give out cash to good business ideas):

  • we wanted to get more journalism students actively thinking about how business/enterprise works
  • and I personally wanted a snapshot of how the next generation of journalists perceive entrepreneurship, after lots of talk on both sides of the Atlantic.

We achieved the first measure, and then some. As well as a series of online training videos, I visited lots of universities to talk about entrepreneurial journalism and promote the competition. Even those who did not win benefitted from the process of idea generation and asking themselves important business questions, like what is their USP and what are their revenue streams.

And there were some excellent ideas submitted, with a variety of products and services. Among those that the judges highly commended were:

  • a magazine aimed at students
  • Plastik magazine, already doing well in South Wales
  • a magazine for young lesbians
  • an online CV service for journalists

Many of the entries though (understandably!) showed little or no knowledge of what makes a good business idea. Those that scored badly did not have a clear target market identified, or any concept of how or where revenue would be made. Only a small handful of entries had really considered the figures, and were able to say “we’d need to sell 5,000 copies to break even.”

Interestingly (from my perspective, anyway) none of the entries really investigated the potential of launching an intentionally small company with low overheads and exploiting lots of free tools; the majority of entries pitched mainstream-style products (printed magazines) despite the high costs and risks associated with that. Similarly, all but two ideas were for products (even though the idea the judges liked best is a service business).

Five big mistakes lots of first-time entrepreneurs made:

.01 no clear market: lots of entries did not really know who they were trying to target with their idea; great businesses (including publishers) work when they help a specific – easily identifiable – group of people with a specific problem.

.02 choosing a market with little money: those that did know who their audience were had chosen markets where not much money flows – so there was limited chance to sell products, events or services to your audience. By contrast, the judge’s second-favourite entry has a gadget hungry market who are interested in buying.

.03 pitching a product with little value: another common problem was to pitch something that the world doesn’t need. This included blogs, podcasts or magazines that talked about general areas like music, film or sport but didn’t offer anything useful. You have to make peoples’ lives better if they (or advertisers) will part with their cash.

.04 spending money badly: most people did not have a good idea of how they would spend the £1,000 if they won it, often wanting to spend large chunks on posters, clothing or stationary. This can happen to experienced entrepreneurs too though!

.05 their idea doesn’t replicate or scale: finally, the judges were most keen on business ideas that had the potential to grow, or be replicated elsewhere. Too many of the pitches were reliant on the passion/work of one person.

Some interesting early reflections then, which I will delve into in more detail as part of research I am carrying out for Kingston University this year. Clearly, interest in entrepreneurship is yet to grow beyond a small number; the vast majority of student journalists & graduates would rather pursue the traditional path to work.

I believe though that competitions like this are vital if more students are to equip themselves with entrepreneurial skills. I’m undecided about running it again next year, although if we did, we would look for sponsors to get involved. If that sounds like something you’re interested in, then please do get in touch. 

Can we teach journalists entrepreneurship?

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism by Adam Westbrook on May 16, 2011

I

This is the question I’ll be asking lots over the coming months. I am carrying out research on behalf of Kingston University into entrepreneurial journalism. We want to find out whether we should be teaching it, and if so – how.

Other journalism programs in the UK and US, including UCLAN, BCU, City and CUNY have all introduced (or are planning on introducing) enterpreneurship into their courses, and all in different ways.

Personally, I am very excited by the possibilities and opportunities that entrepreneurship provides – especially to young journalists and creatives.

In a brilliant and inspirational commencement speech at Berkeley this month, the NPR journalist Robert Krulwich summed it up superbly:

It’s not easy. It’s not for everybody. Just something to think about.

Suppose, instead of waiting for a job offer from the New Yorker, suppose next month, you go to your living room, sit down, and just do what you love to do. If you write, you write. You write a blog. If you shoot, find a friend, someone you know and like, and the two of you write a script. You make something. No one will pay you. No one will care, No one will notice, except of course you and the people you’re doing it with. But then you publish, you put it on line, which these days is totally doable, and then… you do it again.

The people in charge, of course, don’t want to change. They like the music they’ve got.  To the newcomers, they say, “Wait your turn”.

But in a world like this… rampant with new technologies, and new ways to do things, the newcomers… that means you… you here today, you have to trust your music… It’s how you talk to people your age, your generation. This is how we change.

II

In the last two years I have dragged myself from a reluctant biz-novice to someone who has produced and sold books and started a business: like Robert says, it’s tough, it’s not for everyone…but it’s addictive.

Thing is, I don’t think its got much to do with the nuts and bolts of business itself (sales, spreadsheets, business plans) – although they play a part.

Entrepreneurship is an attitude: a way of looking at life, perhaps as a playground full of opportunity and not (as most of us do) as an assault course of pitfalls and hazards. I never used to have this attitude but I’ve ‘learned’ it in some way over the last few years.

And the attitude we need to instill in the next generation of journalists is simple: start things. And then finish them. That’s all. Sounds simple, but it requires a lot: the ideas, the initiative to marshall the all the forces to bring the idea to life, and the dogged determination to see it through to something that ‘intersects with the market‘.

Beyond that, you need the thick skin to deal with the inevitable failure of your idea. Then the balls to repeat the whole thing again. And again.

On Wednesday last week I was invited to chair a panel of digital journalists at We Publish in Leeds. The Guardian’s Sarah Hartley, Nigel Barlow from InsidetheM60 and Emma Bearley, founder of The Culture Vulture discussed a whole range of things – and entrepreneurship was a hot topic.

The feeling from the audience, and some of the panel, was that this attitude is rare, especially among young journalists. And blame was placed partly on the education system – at all levels.

III

If you get time, you should watch the marvellous Sir Ken Robinson talk about education in this TED Talk. The education system we use is the same one the Victorians used: and it was designed for a Victorian world – an industrial world.

Schools, says Ken, are like factories: we batch children by age (why age?) put them through a machine, a system, and churn out identikit office and factory workers at the other end. This was fine for our military industrial complex but as offices go digital, and factories go east, we don’t need identikit workers any more.

We need risk takers, creatives and entrepreneurs.

The world has changed. But education hasn’t.

And so, as great as it is that more journalism educators introduce entreprise as a part of their training, they’re still very much rooted in the Victorian tenets of education: failure is bad, risk leads to failure, so stick to the rules and do as you’re told.

How do we make people less risk averse? Can we? Should we? I’d love your thoughts.

Five reasons to enter myNewsBiz

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism by Adam Westbrook on April 4, 2011

The countdown to the closing of entries to myNewsBiz has begun – there’s now just four days left to enter your business idea with the chance of winning £1000.

The competition is open to:

  • any student studying at a UK university
  • any recent gradate from a UK university (summer 2010)

Five reasons to enter myNewsBiz – now!

.01 You’ll get feedback from four of the UK’s most experienced journalist-entrepreneurs: have you seen our panel of judges? We’ve got a group of journalists with decades of collective experience starting businesses. They know what makes a good business, and they’ll be able to give you some sharp feedback on your idea.

.02 It’s a reason to start thinking… use myNewsBiz as an excuse to sit down with a pen, and draw up some business ideas. You just won’t do it otherwise, will you? If you don’t know where to start, the application form gets you asking all the right questions.

.03 .…and a reason to start doing but more importantly, this is a unique opportunity to actually turn an idea – a vague, scribbled down apparition – into something real, something tangible. Your idea for a hyperlocal website means jack until you publish your first article on the completed website.

.04 It’ll make you more employable yes, you heard right! Never mind being an entrepreneur for the rest of your life. Drawing up a business idea, entering myNewsBiz, and making it a reality, will actually make you more employable. Why? Because there are plenty of other journalism students & graduates like you. Very few have used their initiative to start a magazine, design an iPhone app or start a photojournalism business on the side. This initiative is rare, and therefore valuable.

.05 It’s free…oh and did I mention the £1000 cash prize? Yes, entry is free. Click here to get hold of a form.

We’ve already had a good chunk of applications, but there’s room for more.

If you’re a student at a UK university, or you graduated last summer you have no excuse not to enter. And you have just four days left to do it.

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Why your news business idea doesn’t have to be original

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism by Adam Westbrook on February 24, 2011

OK, so you’re busy thinking of ideas for a journalism startup – hopefully, so you can enter myNewsBiz and win £1000. Or maybe because you’re being brave and want to create your own business.

You’ve read lots of blogs about the future of news, multimedia, startups and tech. And you’re buzzing around with ideas like “innovative” “unique” “remarkable” “world-changing”, “the next big thing”. In other words, you’re searching for an original idea.

That puts a lot of pressure on the grey matter doesn’t it. The good news is there’s really no such thing as an original idea – nor indeed is there a need for one.

Inventions invented many times

There’s a famous (untrue) myth that the Commissioner for the US Patent Office Charles Duell back in 1902 said “everything that can be invented, has been invented.” A look back through the history books shows, firstly, that inventions have come thick and fast since then; but secondly, that some of the greatest inventions were actually invented several times.

The typewriter was invented more than 50 times, the first time way back in 1714. The lightbulb was famously patented by nearly a dozen scientists, before Thomas Edison’s lamp took hold. Even audio recording, originally invented by a Frenchman Charles Cros, was made famous by Thomas Edison in 1877, a year before Cros could get his idea to the patent office.

So: don’t worry about creating something new out of thin air.

The foundation of a great business idea is that it serves a need, fills a gap or cures a pain. For example, someone’s already come up with the idea of starting a multimedia production company in New York. Doesn’t mean I can’t do the same in London, right?

In fact, some of the most successful businesses come from improving on a product or service that already exists. James Dyson didn’t invent the vacuum cleaner, but he made it a whole lot better.

We all thought Mark Zuckerberg had social networking all sown-up; but then along came Twitter.

Four ways to improve on someone else’s idea*

  1. Do something old in a new way which saves your customer time or money.
  2. Do something better or faster than the competition.
  3. Do the same thing but with better quality of service or more promises (‘or your money back!’)
  4. Do the same thing but cheaper…although top tip: you don’t want to compete on price.

To find out more about what makes a good business idea, check out these videos – and then make sure you enter myNewsBiz!

*adapted from The Beermat Entrepreneur by Mike Southon & Chris West

The first question every entrepreneurial journalist should ask

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism by Adam Westbrook on February 21, 2011

So you want to create a news business? Awesome, you’ve arrived at just the right time.

One of the first lessons I learned was to make an important distinction early on – and I think it is the first question you should ask before you start your entrepreneurial adventure:

Are you creating a product or a service?

They are two different, but equally valid, types of business – both of which offer great opportunities for journalists. A product is something tangible – something you make and sell, which is distinct from you. A service on the other hand, is something you specifically offer yourself, in exchange for money.

Products

The world of journalism has a limited (but growing) number of products. A newspaper is a product. So is a magazine. In fact, you’ll often get the more managerial types of journalists often talking about ‘the product’.

The types of products have grown a lot in the digital age, and with that so have the opportunities. A book is a product, as is an ebook. A podcast, vodcast, blog, online magazine, smartphone app are also products. A TV programme is a product. A hyperlocal website is a product, so is a DVD, event and photobook.

In short, it is something you create and then try to make money from. And the people who buy your product are customers, or readers, or viewers.

When we think of business and enterprise, products are probably the first things that come to mind. The Dyson, the Macbook, the Prius: they’re all products. But, according to journalist and entrepreneur Nick Saalfeld, the service sector accounts for more than 70% of the UK economy, and in terms of the work and opportunities around, it’s a lot more varied.

Services

A service is a skill or craft you offer to someone, in exchange for money. Often, but not always, you charge for your time.

This is the most natural type of business for journalists, because essentially it is doing anything freelance: a copy writer, photojournalist, video journalist, blogger, infographic designer, SEO bod, sub-editor…they are all services.

You as the service provider are intricately bound to the success of the business. The people who pay for your service are clients.

Now you might say because of that, entrepreneurial journalism has been around for a long time. But it’s not quite like that. You see, only recently have people started to create full businesses out of their services – packaging their services into products.

For example, take this video production company in the US, called TVKevin. They are a service business: people hire them to make short films about their company or business etc. But take a look at their website, and you can see how they have packaged their service into products: they offer something called BizShorts, and something else called MyStory.

Scale it up, and throw in some hardcore journalism, and you have MediaStorm, one of the most successful multimedia production companies out there. They offer a service to clients: high quality multimedia documentaries; but they package their services into product type solutions: films, audio slideshows and infographics. MediaStorm also have a lot of by-products: training, DVDs, and even t-shirts.

So which should you do?

Before you start thinking of business ideas, or even if you already have one, you should work out whether you are offering a product or a service. Knowing this early on saves any confusion later on. And there’s nothing to say you can’t do both, or be clever and mix them up like TVKevin & MediaStorm.

To find out about the pros and cons of both Products and Services head on to myNewsBiz, where there’s more training in entrepreneurial journalism in video.

Five things that make a great news business idea

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism by Adam Westbrook on January 31, 2011

Entries for myNewsBiz, the student journalism enterprise competition are open and we are starting to get early entries through.

If you haven’t heard of it, myNewsBiz is open to any undergraduate or postgraduate journalism student at a UK university. There’s a prize of £1000 for the best new idea for a journalism business, be it a product, like a magazine, or a service. A runner up gets £500.

But what makes a good business idea?

That’s a difficult question, if you’ve never thought about starting a business until now. If you don’t know where to begin, here are five different starting places for your search for that winning business idea.

.01 Fill a gap

Any concept (entrepreneurial or otherwise) has to service a need that a large enough group of people have, in order to survive and thrive. So a good place to start is to ask ‘is there a product or service which is not being provided right now?

Murdoch’s much anticipated iPad only newspaper The Daily can be viewed in these terms. The iPad’s been around for just over a year, and yes, there are plenty of magazines and publishers with their own iPad apps…but there is no single dedicated iPad news product. It’s a gap. And News International appear to be trying to fill it.

.02 Scratch an itch

Image credit: corrieb on Flickr

Great business ideas ‘scratch an itch’, by which we mean solving a problem that a group of people have. The best place to identify an itch is on your own body. What’s bugging you right now? What do you see which can be done faster? Cheaper? More accurately? More locally or more beautifully?

TheBusinessDesk, a successful online news startup in the UK, clearly scratched an itch its founders had: there was no good source for regional business & finance news. They scratched their own itch, and in doing so created a thriving business.

Scratching your own itch has a big advantage: because it’s your itch, you are best placed to tell whether your solution is scratching it properly.

.03 Improve something

If that doesn’t work, why not try improving on someone else’s idea?

There are plenty of magazines, websites, services we all use which get us grumbling. “This coverage stinks!” “Their infographics are rubbish” “They could have done that website so much better!”

If there’s something out there which is not up to scratch – make your own, improved, version.

That’s part of the thinking behind studio .fu, my online video production company. There are lots of independent video producers out there, but I could see lots of things they were doing wrong.

I improved their offering by just focusing on online video, and by steering clear of an office or (any) staff, I can offer the same thing at a much more affordable rate.

.04 Begin with you

Instead of looking for a business idea straight away, start with you and your strengths and passions.

What do you love doing? If you could wake up tomorrow morning and commit one act of journalism, what would it be? Designing? Writing? Data interrogation?

Once you’ve identified that, you want to wrap a business around it. Look for markets for your passion, and build a business from there. This philosophy sums up the approach taken in my book Next Generation Journalist, which starts with a look at your real interests.

After all, there’s no point in pursuing a business idea you’re not interested in, just because it looks like a workable idea. I have a brilliant idea for an environmentally friendly kettle. But am I going to make it? No. Because manufacturing, retail and, err, kettles, don’t do it for me right now.

.05 Start making something – right now

Image credit: David Haygarth on Flickr

Finally, once you’ve got an idea – or maybe if you still don’t – start creating, right away.

Ideas are one-a-penny, but they don’t count for anything until you’ve turned it into something tangible. So if you’ve got an idea for an online magazine, get the webspace and domain, upload a WordPress theme and get creating.

Why? Because you’ll only know if your idea is any good once it’s real.

If you don’t have an idea yet, then start creating anyway. Whatever it is you feel like. If you think you’d like to start a business making infographics but aren’t sure what gap it would fill or itch it would scratch, keep going. Start designing infographics and put them online. See what the feedback is. Are people biting? This way you can develop your business idea organically.

Only once you’re making something can you know whether it’s got legs.

Remember the deadline for entries for myNewsBiz is the 1st of April 2011 – so you’ve still got plenty of time to put something together.

And in February we’re publishing awesome interviews with some of the top journalist-entrepreneurs out there, packed with advice on how to get your news business off the ground!

myNewsBiz: a great new opportunity for UK journalism students

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism, Journalism by Adam Westbrook on December 8, 2010

If the future of news is entrepreneurial, then it’s not as easy as saying “it is so”. Thousands of journalists won’t head straight to Companies House the next morning to register their new business.

If more journalists and other creatives are to create their own careers, build innovative new businesses and spark employment for thousands of others, their entrepreneurial spirit needs fostering early on.

If journalism in the future is powered by entrepreneurs they must be comfortable with business – and excited by it.

Well, I’m really excited to announce the launch of a new nationwide competition I have been working on, alongside Kingston University’s Journalism department in London.

We’re inviting journalism students from any UK university to come up with ideas for new news businesses – whether it’s a platform, a product or a service. We’re putting together a panel of industry judges and the business idea they like the most will win £1000 in cold hard cash to turn it into reality.

A 2nd place runner up will also get £500 to invest in their idea too.

It could be a hyperlocal website, a new smartphone app, an iPad magazine, a production company, an online video platform, a magazine, or even the next social media platform…almost anything!

It’s a great chance to get the next generation of journalists thinking about what makes a good business, how to find a unique selling point and identify a target market. This quick film we made explains the rest:

Training

In the new year we’ll also be unveiling some extensive online training materials to introduce students to the idea of business and enterprise, and help them develop their ideas before sending in their submissions.

How to enter

Entry to the competition is free for groups and individuals – you just need to head over to mynewsbiz.org and download an application form, which you can email back to us by the deadline: 1st April 2011.

With just a handful of journalism courses in the UK touching on the idea of entrepreneurial journalism, this is an unrivalled opportunity to find out what being entrepreneurial really means – and maybe get the cash you need to start your own company!