Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

A quick note on innovation in media

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism by Adam Westbrook on September 17, 2012

The first thing to realise is that the secret is not to come up with a new idea.

There is rarely such a thing. Instead, the secret is to look at a space with people, or businesses already established, and see what they’re doing wrong. Then invent something that improves on what they do.

Whether this is blogging, publishing, film-making, business, photography or whatever, you can do this. The “gap in the market” isn’t some big group of people that no-one has thought of targeting before. It’s found in the shortcomings of players already in the market.

Here are some disruptive approaches into any of these fields.

Be the inspirer: use your work to inspire and excite others with new ideas: this is how I have blogged for six years. People love being inspired.

Be the connector: bring people together, either in person, or online, like a good party host. Create a digital space for people to interact (a forum, a social site) or a physical one (start a monthly meetup).

Be the combiner (of new ideas): I’ve written about this before. Combine two disparate ideas to make a new one.

Be the leader: have a vision for how things can be better and actively set out to make it happen. Others will follow.

Be the experimenter: be about lots of ideas, rapid prototyping, quick feedback. Very few people do this openly in any niche (afraid of looking stupid)

Be the doer/maker: get busy building (films, books, events, software) – let your actions speak for you. Probably the best way to go (after all, anyone can talk the talk..)

Be the problem solver: actively look for the problems in a particular area, and create solutions.

Be the UX fixer: any bad (reading, watching, buying, discovery, sharing) experience is an opportunity to own the market, simply by creating a better experience. Instagram wasn’t the first photo-sharing app, but it’s the one that’s the most satisfying to use.

Be the most fun: constantly surprise and delight your users/audience/readers.

Be the most caring: how many magazines or news websites give a damn about their audience? If they really did, would their products be full of adverts? All big organisations and corporations have this human disconnection problem (when was the last time your bank wasn’t an arsehole?)..and they’re all opportunities for smaller, leaner people-driven competition.

Notice the two items that are missing: be the fastest and be the cheapest. They’re races to the bottom and should be avoided at all costs. 

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Meet the Micropublisher: an interview with Thom Chambers

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism by Adam Westbrook on July 16, 2012

You’ll know it’s not often that I do interviews on this blog, despite getting requests from PR folk each week.

Thom Chambers though is someone I think you should meet.

He left a job in marketing to found his own micropublishing business Mountain and Pacific. It publishes two digital magazines: In Treehouses, a free release about freedom lifestyles and The Micropublisher, a subscription based magazine for wannabe publishers. He’s recently joined authors Colin Wright, Joshua Fields Milburn and Ryan Nicodemus in founding Asymmetrical, a community for writers and publishers, which I have had some great fun with in the last month or so.

But what I really like about Thom is his approach. He knows that you don’t need to be big or have a huge audience to be successful, just please a small, loyal crowd. And he knows there are no shortcuts to thriving in the age of the online publisher, just hard work and commitment.

•••

(By the way, if you’re interested in finding out more about how the microbusiness approach can be applied to journalism and publishing, I’m running a workshop at the General Assembly in London on the 24th July 2012.)

Interview with Thom Chambers, founder of Mountain & Pacific

What is the concept behind micropublishing and how is it different to normal publishing?

Self-publishing, as you’ll well know, has changed. It’s no longer a stepping stone or a fallback, but a lucrative destination in its own right. The opportunity for you to make a living with words is greater than ever before. But there’s a problem: in the self-publishing world, without publishing houses to filter out the rubbish, readers are overwhelmed. It’s harder than ever to stand out.

I believe there’s a simple solution: be your own publishing house.

  • A micropublishing house is simply a traditional publishing house shrunk to down to a one-person operation. A micropublisher is the person who runs it.
  • A publishing house distributes to bookstores. Your micropublishing house can sell books through its own website, through an online bookstore like Amazon, or both.
  • A publishing house needs writers. Your micropublishing house only needs one writer: you.
  • A publishing house aims for a large audience. Your micropublishing house finds a small, specific niche audience and aims to delight those happy few.
  • A publishing house publishes a large number of titles. Your micropublishing house publishes a small number – perhaps only one.
  • A publishing house has huge print costs. Your micropublishing house makes digital publications or print-on-demand titles only.
  • A publishing house runs big promotion campaigns. Your micropublishing house talks to fans who’ve given you permission to talk to them.
  • A publishing house has a huge staff and expensive offices. Your micropublishing house can be run by just you and a computer, from anywhere in the world.

I believe that micropublishing is the best way to make a living with words. By taking up the professional attitude of a traditional publishing house, you help readers, turning them into fans and customers. A micropublishing house is a publishing house for the self-publishing world. It’s a combination of the intimacy of blogging with the professionalism of traditional publishing houses.

How did the Mountain & Pacific business develop over its first year? Was it a slow start and was it hard to get going? How did you build momentum?

Mountain & Pacific only came about after I’d been publishing online for a little while. I started out with In Treehouses, which was a standalone magazine. When I started publishing other work as well, I wanted an umbrella under which to gather it all, rather than have it scattered across different websites. Starting a micropublishing house was a good way to accomplish that.

By taking up the professional attitude of a traditional publishing house, you help readers, turning them into fans and customers.

As a result, Mountain & Pacific had a kind of running start – there was the audience for In Treehouses who came over and read the other things I was writing as well.

With everything I’ve started, though – whether the micropublishing house or the individual magazines – they’ve grown slowly and steadily. I’ve never ‘gone viral’ nor have I made work that was designed to. Instead, I’ve tried to make things that delight those readers I do have. They’re then generous enough to spread the word, and so my readership grows.

That’s the real ‘secret’. However much you want there to be a nice easy shortcut, the only way you’re guaranteed to succeed is by doing great work that delights your existing readers, over and over. Do that, grow slowly, and set aside the gimmicks.

You recently launched Magazines for the Rest of Us – can anyone become a micropublisher these days? 

Sure – but whether you’re able to be a successful micropublisher is a different matter.

All those things it takes to succeed in any other career or discipline – dedication, practice, focus, effort, time – all apply to micropublishing as well. While anyone can publish to the web, not everyone will make a living out of it.

You’ve got a very disciplined strategy which impressed me straight away: your blog posts are short and to the point, you don’t seem interested in having lots of followers or making a big noise. And heaven forbid, you don’t live in London, New York or San Francisco! What are the benefits of doing it this way?

You know, the biggest shift in my entire philosophy came when I realised that most online publishing works best as a means to an end, rather than an end in itself.

There was this little period in time, and I think it’s already gone – when you could make a living as a ‘pro blogger’. Really, though, a blog is just a communication channel. It’s a wonderful one, but that’s all it is – a way of spreading your message, connecting with readers, generating new business. It’s not a business in itself, it’s a platform from which to build your business.

However much you want there to be a nice easy shortcut, the only way you’re guaranteed to succeed is by doing great work that delights your existing readers, over and over. Do that, grow slowly, and set aside the gimmicks.

When you realise this, you also realise that you don’t need to be ‘that guy’ if you don’t want to be. That guy who’s guest-posting everywhere, trying to scrape other writer’s readers. That guy who’s podcasting because a blogging guru told him he should. That guy who writes provocative ’30 things you don’t know about me’ posts that include some naughty swear words, because he’s seen it succeed elsewhere.

I’m not writing to get traffic, or make a big splash. I’m writing to make a connection with people who share my values and philosophy, and to build a reputation of which I can be proud. It’s still important to entertain, be interesting, and so forth – but there’s a difference between doing that and pandering to the lowest common denominator.

It’s becoming clear that success in online publishing comes from building a loyal audience around consistently high quality content – the hardest thing to do! Is that good news for micropublishers or bad?

Well, it’s bad news if you see micropublishing as the next ‘get rich quick’ tactic – if you’re looking at Amazon or the Kindle as ways to make a fast buck. Yes, some people will succeed with that – but most won’t.

The good news is that, if you’re willing to work hard to become the best you can be and you’re willing to do valuable work (rather than simply imitate others), then you can find a bigger, stronger, more vocal audience than ever before. Yes, there’s a lot of noise with which you have to compete, but if you’re able to cut through that then the audience is ready and waiting.

What’s the biggest challenge you’ve overcome in building up the Mountain & Pacific?

Well, I think I’m still overcoming most of the challenges. I’m still teaching myself to be more focused, to do better work, to put in the hours. I haven’t scratched the surface of what I want to achieve – with Mountain & Pacific or with other aspects of my work.

Perhaps that’s the biggest challenge of all – overcoming complacency. Reminding yourself that ‘good enough’ isn’t good enough.

The good news is that, if you’re willing to work hard to become the best you can be and you’re willing to do valuable work (rather than simply imitate others), then you can find a bigger, stronger, more vocal audience than ever before.

The rise of the microbusiness and why journalists should embrace it

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism by Adam Westbrook on May 21, 2012

First off, an important announcement about Inside the Story: the book will go off-sale at 23:59 on Thursday 24th May London time, so this is your last chance to get a copy. I have no plans at the moment to re-release the book, so if you want it, don’t waste time. 

• • •

I write a lot about entrepreneurial journalism round here, and get to talk a lot about it too (see below). It’s the Age of the Online Publisher and an incredibly exciting time to be exploring this space.

But I see a lot of people make a big mistake when attempting an entrepreneurial venture in journalism: they think like a traditional business.That either puts them off starting in the first place, or leads to fatal errors, such as relying solely on an ad-based revenue model for a hyperlocal website, or measuring of success in terms of hits and not loyalty.

Enter the Microbusiness: the smart way to think about entrepreneurial journalism.

What is a microbusiness?

A microbusiness is, in some ways, a unique by-product of the internet age, although of course they existed before then. Generally, a microbusiness is one that is intentionally small. It usually consists of one or two people, working from home or from a shared workspace, being frugal, minimising overheads, concentrating on pleasing a small but loyal customer base and, as a result, being impressively profitable. But we’re not talking about Facebook money; one of the defining characteristics of a microbusiness is the owner aims to make ‘enough’.

In his excellent book Rework*, Jason Fried says you shouldn’t be ashamed to run an intentionally small business.

“Don’t be insecure about aiming to be a small business. Anyone who runs a business that’s sustainable and profitable, whether it’s big or small, should be proud.”

I started a video production micro-business in early 2011. I had all the equipment I needed, after saving up over the previous year. All I needed was a website which I made using WordPress over Christmas of 2010. I challenged myself to launch it in 30 days…in the end it took me only 10. I had a target for the business to make a certain amount of money every month by the end of the year…it reached that goal after just two months and continued to be busy throughout the year.

No office, no investors, no employees and all the associated baggage. It also carries less risk, so you can see why it’s a popular option for the first-time entrepreneur, and in particular journalists and publishers looking for new opportunities.

In fact, the micropublisher is already a thing: to see someone really smart building something great in this field you would be wise to check out Thom Chambers, the founder of Mountain & Pacific, a micropublishing house. It’s just him, making very well designed magazines, and working hard at building a loyal audience.

The space is beginning to get populated by more and more success stories. I’ve mentioned many before: people like Kirby Ferguson of Everything is a Remix fame and even successful hyperlocal blogs (when done well) work best as microbusinesses. Many bigger beasts in the industry started out in someone’s living room, a passion project for one or two driven creatives.

How do you set up a microbusiness?

Well, a lot of it depends on your own design – and therefore having a willingness to ignore conventional wisdom, and really create something that fits around your life and your passions. But if you are looking for a guide, you’re lucky because one has just come on the scene, courtesy of one of my favourite authors.

Chris Guillebeau is the founder of The Art of Non-Conformity and the author of a 2010 book by the same name*. It’s a must read for anyone leading unconventional careers like I do. He’s just published a follow up all about microbusiness called The $100 Startup*. (Disclosure: I get a very brief mention in the book, alongside lots of successful microbusiness owners).

It’s not specifically about journalism or publishing (there is a small section on it) but the lessons are universal. Moreover Chris talks in detail about how he has launched his own information-based products, and there’s some great advice about how to launch a new website, book, or other digital product. A lot of his advice actually helped launch Inside the Story last month with such success.

Courage and Commitment

Last month I was invited to Perugia in Italy to talk about entrepreneurial journalism for Media140, and my talk focused on microbusinesses. You can watch a video of the talk (in English) here, and the presentation itself is below. Check out the “microbusiness challenge” slide which gives you a rough run-down of what you need to do.

It’s pretty self explanatory, but I ended on a note about courage and commitment. These are the two essential ingredients that, above all others, make successful businesses. But they are often misunderstood.

We often think courage involves being fearless in our pursuit of something. Courage is nothing of the sort. Courage is feeling shit-scared, but acting anyway. I can’t stress how important this is. The only people who genuinely don’t feel fear have a pathological condition. The rest of us get on with our work despite how scared we are. You need to do this too if you’re going to start any project that makes waves.

The second is even more underestimated. To be a starter, an innovator, a leader of any kind requires total commitment. This means making a leap of faith, and betting the farm on your idea, not doing it half-heartedly or half-arsed. It means committing to late nights, often working alongside a normal job, working weekends and more. It means at the moment you feel like taking a break you push yourself to work an extra half-hour. At the moment you feel like giving up, you force yourself to give it one more try.

Do you have that commitment? 

*Affiliate links

10 ways to make waves in journalism & publishing

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism by Adam Westbrook on May 14, 2012

Our industry needs innovators, boat rockers, leaders, starters.

If you want to make your mark, get noticed, here are some ideas. These are things you can do as a journalism student, recent graduate, employee – whatever. They’re necessarily big (what’s the point in making small waves?) but manageable if you start small, take baby steps and gain momentum in your spare time.

  • Create a product (that’s a website, magazine, app, film, podcast, experience or book) that challenges how journalism is done right now.
  • Deploy new technology on journalism before anyone else does. Think of Not On the Wires‘ clever use of mobile reporting in 2009, and more recently Codoc’s ideas for layered video journalism.
  • Create a product that strives to do journalism better than the mainstream media (it’s not difficult).
  • Create an in-depth multimedia production that goes deeper into a story or issue than anyone has before. There are plenty of examples, from Powering a Nation, to The Ration.
  • Write a blog that challenges the status quo. Duckrabbit do this really well and everyone loves them for it.
  • Go in-depth into an under-reported community and create a site about them. MA students at City University in London have been doing this with good results.
  • Design products that savour in-depth quality over 400 word posts. This space is wide open right now, but it’s time consuming and hard to do. I’m really looking forward to Kirby Ferguson’s next project This is Not a Conspiracy Theory, but he’s spending months putting it together.
  • Find a gap in the market and go all out to fill it. Think of how Jamal Edwards has become well known in a whole music genre by pushing SB.TV or even how Poppy Dinsey saw a space in social fashion.
  • Be an experimenter and a ‘media inventor’ who’s always creating new things. Robin Sloan is one of my favourite people on the whole internet. Have you read his tap essay? You should.
  • Create something that looks fantastic and ignores the design conventions of the web.
  • Pick a niche and knuckle-down to become an expert in the space. This doesn’t mean getting qualifications, it means being generous with what you know.

Whatever you do, aim big and take no shortcuts.

The industry already has more reporters, subs, producers, editors and designers than it needs, and you’re up against thousands of others to become one of them. What the industry sorely lacks are people who come up with big boat-rocking ideas and execute on them.

Be one of those people and your career could take you to remarkable places. But you’ve got to make waves first.

Speaking of boat-rocking ideas, Inside the Story has already raised more than $2500 for charity and helped hundreds of people get better at storytelling. Have you got your copy yet? It’s only available for another 12 days.

The active way to start your journalism career

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism by Adam Westbrook on May 7, 2012
image SeanRogers1 on Flickr

First a quick update on Inside the Story, which has been on sale for 10 days now. It is selling extremely well, and has raised around $1700 for Kiva so far. I want to double this by the time the book goes off sale at the end of May though, so please tell everyone who’ll listen to get a copy!

If you’re not sure about it, then there have been some good reviews of the book so far on Innovative Interactivity, plus from other journalists.

The active way  to start your journalism career

One of the most popular posts on this blog in the last six or so months was a response to a query from Nick, a young Australian journalist. He wanted to know how to use the age of the online publisher to start his journalism career in the best way.

My main advice was to get to work, making high quality video stories, even with nobody to pitch to. Take the initiative, make a bold move, and create good content.

Well, I recently received a follow-up from Nick, which again, he’s kindly agreed to let me share with you.

Hi Adam,

Believe it or not, this morning I got offered my first real job in the journalism industry. It’s just as a Production Assistant at a TV news network, but most importantly it’s my foot in the door. Honestly, after three rounds of interviews it hasn’t sunk in yet.

The reason I’m telling you is because at the beginning of this year I decided to take some initiative, get out there and start creating stories. At the time I drew a lot of inspiration and advice from your blog and links. I bought a Canon 60D (with 50mm f1.4) on credit, found ‘free’ software, created a simple blog and began making videos. My videos are very amateur, but I’m convinced that the reason I got the job this morning was because of taking that initiative. And in part – that initiative was a result of reading your stuff.

First of all that’s fantastic news and congratulations Nick. I’ve shared this, partly to show that fortune really does favour the bold, but also to highlight some of the specifics of Nick’s approach that you can apply yourself.

The key is Nick’s decision to take the initiative, start a project, and get to work making videos. There is literally no excuse not to really, and if you’re a beginner, like Nick, then it is the only way to improve your craft.

Now, Nick says his videos are “very amateur” although I would beg to differ. Take a look:

First of all, I love the concept: give people an ice lolly in exchange for their opinion? Brilliant! If you don’t mind Nick, I will be borrowing that idea myself one day.  (Vox popsicle anyone?). His videos are creatively cut, perhaps inspired by the famous 50 people 1 question series, and he uses his DSLR camera and lens well.

The important thing is this: he has designed a project to channel his creativity and force him to create a series of content, just like some of the video producers I mentioned in the post before. I cannot stress the importance of this enough. It’s a clever idea, but not so ambitious it would take a long time to do (and cause enthusiasm to eventually fizzle out).

Secondly, Nick smartly doesn’t make a big financial investment where possible. He uses free editing and publishing software to get his content made. The music in his films are creative commons licensed. The only thing I’d advise is to avoid buying anything on credit as far as you can. From painful experience, borrowing money is not  a route to go down, especially early in your career.

That said, Nick’s investment in his camera does demonstrate one important thing: commitment. In buying a camera Nick is saying to himself, to the universe and of course, to potential employers, he is serious about this. He is committed.

From experience I can tell you that big projects often require a public demonstration of commitment, as if you are telling the Gods ‘I am serious about this shit‘. Once you make that commitment, you find things start to shift in your favour somehow: people start getting in touch, offers start coming through, inspiration takes hold.

Finally, and most importantly, Nick shipped. He started the Icy Poll project – and he finished it. That proves stamina, determination and an understanding of when something is done.

So, if you are sitting across the table from Nick at this TV News Network you see a young journalist with initiative, creativity, commitment, determination and leadership. Cool fact: they are five skills they don’t teach you at j-school and are therefore rare.

Prove you’ve got those skills too – through action, not words – and you’ve got a much better chance of standing out. The jobs market is not going to get easier: you have to get tougher.

The truth about entrepreneurship and journalism

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism by Adam Westbrook on April 2, 2012

Photo: KelBailey on Flickr

Why are there not as many entrepreneurial ventures in journalism and publishing as there could be? 

It’s a well rehearsed argument that it costs virtually nothing to start a web based business: you can start it from home, in your own time.  Meanwhile the potential to reach niche audiences with well crafted content about your own passions in life continues to grow.

It has nothing to do with the economy and education, or with business or journalism, or with the question about whether it is possible to pursue both of those things.

Instead it has everything to do with us.

Embracing the new age of publishing, however you do it, is essentially promising to start and finish something. Starting something (a book, website, new magazine, documentary, Kickstarter project etc) is an act of breathing life into an ephemeral concept that exists purely inside your own head. Taking a tiny spark of an internal idea and converting it into something solid and real with its own website, readers, fans, collaborators and maybe even its own company registration is relentlessly difficult.

Top tip #1: there is no scenario where it is not difficult.

In fact, I’d go a step further and say it is a fight, a daily punch-up with both your own demons and the apathy of everyone else. Look at the boxer in the banner above: are you interested in a life of stepping into the ring and getting the shit kicked out of you every day?

I’ve been doing a lot of hard thinking over recent weeks and months and I’ve decided that, personally, I am up for the fight. Not everyone is of course, and fair enough.

But if you are attracted to embracing these exciting digital opportunities, don’t be under any illusions about just how hard it is. The trick is to accept the fact it is going to hurt – and do it anyway

Top tip #2:the Inside the Story Facebook page is now live – make sure you give it a thumbs up!

The beauty of beta mode

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism by Adam Westbrook on March 19, 2012

Everyone should have the word ‘beta’ after their name. In fact, I’m thinking of putting it on my website when I give it a redesign.

It’s a reference you’ll probably recognise to new websites and businesses which often first go public in ‘beta mode’. It denotes that fact that they are still in a  a process of testing, experimenting, failing and debugging. Gmail was famously in beta mode for more than five years.

Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn says the startup approach can be applied to real people: their lives and careers ought to be in ‘permanent beta’. “We are all works in progress” he says.

Thing is, many people try to get out of the beta version of their lives as soon as possible, and into ‘finished’ mode: the complete career, the complete marriage, the complete house.

And us creative types: online publishers, designers, film makers and journalists do the same thing when we make something new. We rush to get it into perfect mode as swiftly as possible.

The problem with this approach to anything is it is extremely limiting.

Firstly, it limits ideation and iteration: two important parts of any creative process. If you aim for a perfect first shoot, it means your first idea has to be the best. Therefore you ignore all other ideas. You’re also less open to changing from that idea when something better comes along.

Quick tip#1: your first idea is never the best one.

Some say a good approach is a 10:3:1 ratio. You come up with at least 10 ideas, whittle down to the top three, and then pick the best. I used a similar idea with the Future of News mini-meetups in 2010, where I got people to brainstorm a large number of ideas around a problem, aiming for quantity over quality.

Secondly, and with more serious consequences, aiming for perfect limits your mindset. Rushing out of beta mode into finished mode makes you do dangerous things:

  • avoid taking big risks
  • avoid starting projects you don’t know for certain will work
  • discard projects you don’t think will make any money
  • delay or discard big dreams and plans for the future
  • settle

What if you were always in beta?

Imagine how your life would be if, instead of aiming to get out of beta-mode, you relished being in it.

Imagine relishing experimentation, failure, uncertainty, being scared and unprepared. Think of the things it would make you do. The projects you would start for the hell-of-it, and the serendipity that would create. The places you would travel to just to see what it was like, the events you would go to just because.

We would be more bold and more varied in our careers. Young people wouldn’t feel pressured into a specific career early on, or feel like they couldn’t move on to something completely different. More risky innovative projects would get started and finished, which in turn would affect and inspire more people. People wouldn’t wait for permission or the ‘right time’ to get going with something.

Quick tip #2: you don’t need anyone’s permission and the ‘right time’ never comes.

More people would get their hands dirty. We would stop trying to plan and prepare for things we can’t control. And if things don’t work out it’s not a deal-breaking catastrophe, just an opportunity to take stock, change-up and pivot to something new.

That’s what good startups do when they’re in beta mode, because it’s the best way to deal with the uncertainty of entrepreneurship. Isn’t it time we accepted our lives & careers today are filled with just the same uncertainty? 

The alternative to your journalism CV

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism by Adam Westbrook on February 27, 2012

The journalism jobs market is still difficult and likely to stay that way for some time. What that means is every time you apply for a job, you’re competing against a large number of people. 

You’ve been to university, got a journalism qualification of some kind and done some work placements. The problem: so has everyone else.

The common solution is to spend more time tweaking the CV: adding new things, rearranging the layout, sticking it on LinkedIn. But this is a 20th century solution to a 21st century problem.

Everyone else has a CV, but not everyone has the initiative to see the new publishing opportunities in front of us all, and to start something. Launching an online magazine, for example, and building a small, loyal community around great content. Or running a series of talks or events, or making that documentary.

Projects like these demonstrate things a CV just can’t: leadership, initiative, problem solving, social-media prowess and technical ability.

When I tell people what I’m up to at the moment, a common response is “That’ll be good for your CV”. I don’t have a CV. No-one has asked for one in more than two years – but I’m busier than ever.

So stop spending your time filling out your CV and asking for recommendations on your LinkedIn profile. For God’s sake get out there and do something. Create. Make a film. Start a business. Write a book. Launch a website. You don’t need anyone’s permission.

Do it with commitment and persistence and the opportunities will start to come to you that a resume simply cannot bring.

It’s harder and scarier than filling your CV with internships and diplomas, which is why still – 10 years into this web 2.0 malarky – not many people try it. Happily that increases the chances of success for those who do.

We’re entering a world that rewards guts, action, execution, total commitment, responsibility and initiative over work placements and qualifications.

Want to be a journalist? Actions speak louder than words.

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

What’s holding you back? Trust me, it’s not the money

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism by Adam Westbrook on January 23, 2012

This is my contribution to January’s Carnival of Journalism, this month asking:  “Can a journalist be a capitalist?”

Michael Rosenblum, sometimes controversial and always worth a read, is leading the discussion with his post “How to make millions as a journalist“. He argues that journalists today should make being rich a goal instead of pursuing a myth of martyrdom, sacrificing wealth for the pursuit of the ‘truth’.

I can testify to Michael’s point that without money “you are a perpetual victim, a perpetual employee” – a difficult cycle to escape without a big break or some big balls.  As someone wise once told me, in the last ‘proper’ job I ever had: “you’ll never become a millionaire working for someone else”.

It’s not for everyone I know, but personally, I would love to see more journalists & publishers – especially young ones – breaking free while they can, simply because so many of the hurdles have been removed. And as I’ve said before this window of opportunity won’t last forever. 

Michael is right in lots of ways – but he misses an important point. Yes, journalists shouldn’t shy away from making big bucks. But to do so, you have to be motivated by something more than money.

Taking flight

There’s a well-known story around the invention of the first flying machine 110 years ago. In 1902 there was a race of sorts to build the first ever plane. If you were alive then, you would have put your bets on Samuel Pierpont Langley – he had years of experience, a huge grant from the US War Department and good connections with the most important people in the country. Meanwhile deep in Ohio were Orville and Wilbur Wright, with no money, no contacts and just a few friends to help them out in a small shed.

But they were famously driven by the dream of flight and its potential to change the world. Langley, on the other hand, was in it for the money and the fame. Despite his huge budget he was beaten to the prize in December 1903 when the Wright Brothers made their historic flight. Langley apparently gave up just a short time later.

Wanting to making millions for the sake of it is not a goal.

Journalists shouldn’t be shackled into a lifetime of looking and dressing like Columbo, but in order to break from that we must be driven by something bigger than money. Remember, Steve Jobs wanted to revolutionise the technology industry and even ‘make a dent in the universe’ – that was what got him out of bed, not the money.

You won’t get rich from a hyperlocal blog if your plan is just to sell ads on the site. But if you’re driven by an ambitious dream to make lasting change in your local community and make it a better place to live (and you can inspire others to follow you in that pursuit) …then you’re onto something.

You also won’t make much money setting up a multimedia production company if your plan is just to hire yourself out to whoever needs a video made. But if you get out of bed every day because you really think the industry needs storytellers that give a voice to the voiceless & challenge the mainstream media’s myopic view of the world…then you can achieve big change.

It’s not a fear of making money us lowly hacks suffer from, it’s a fear of big ideas – of what we could really achieve. 

NOTE: Michael has rounded up all the comments from this month’s discussion – there’s a variety of opinions about journalism and business, so it’s worth a read.

Your unique route into journalism

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism by Adam Westbrook on January 16, 2012

How do you get into journalism?

The route above will be familiar to anyone working in broadcast journalism today as a typical career path into the industry. The sad thing is most people who want to be a correspondent will do their best to follow this track, because they assume it is the only way. And they’ll spend a career in a never ending race with all the other people trying to do the same thing, full of the stress, envy and critical comparison that comes with it.

10 years ago that was the only way to do it. But of course, everything has changed…including this.

Whatever it is you want to do with your life: be a BBC News foreign correspondent, edit a magazine, make a documentary about climate change, write a book, be an NPR producer, and every other job in our industry in-between, remember there is no single route. There is no right way.

There is only your way.

That’ll be news to some because most of us think there is a career path of some kind, as if getting your foot on the ladder with an internship is the only way to becoming an editor. But actually there are countless ways – ways that no-one has tried before, because they were too busy working on their CV, slogging it out as a junior reporter, and all of the other things we think we have to do to make it.

It’s the same reason people wear suits to work for decades, pull long hours for days on end and work for free when they really shouldn’t. What it boils down to is not living your life on your terms.

I haven’t worn a suit for near on three years now, and I don’t intend to start anytime soon. In the last two and a half years I’ve left the race to run my career on my terms – at my own speed. I know roughly where I want to get to, and I come up with plans to make that happen. Then I arrange my schedule for the week or month to suit that plan.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not easy, and there have been lots of hiccups, false starts and outright failures along the way. But when I look back on my career so far, I know one thing: I’ve done it in a way that is uniquely me – and no-one could ever do it exactly the same way.

Most of us would probably prefer to follow the path well-trodden, because it seems safer and more sensible. But the real challenges, and the real rewards, lie in straying off the path, exploring your career on your own terms.

Whether you decide to do this is up to you. But whatever direction you take, don’t waste time competing in a race with others. Run/sprint/jog/walk your own race, at your own speed.

2011 in online video projects

Posted in Online Video by Adam Westbrook on December 22, 2011

Continuing my look back at work I’ve done in 2011, here’s some of video I’m most proud of this year.

I’ve been busy all year working on some interesting commissions for lots of clients; I’ve made short documentaries, produced interviews, made 10 minute long features and more. Although the clients have always been happy with the final pieces as I’ve delivered them, looking at this collection, I can see room for lots of improvements in 2012.

[NOTE: If you’re reading this in an email, click on the link to view the videos on the website!]

EcoMattic 3: home-made methane

The third film in a web series following Matt and his over-the-top attempts to cut back on his carbon emissions. He’s had his car crushed, tried recycling everything he owns. In this film, shot on the last sunny day of the year, he tries building a methane converter to power his house.

Attribution/ShareAlike

You can read a behind-the-scenes Storify of this project here.

Green Alliance: Bringing It Home

UK environmental think-tank The Green Alliance asked me to produce a film to support the launch of a major piece of research into peoples’ attitudes towards going green. It found some fascinating insight into what makes us tick when it comes to things like recycling and using plastic bags. I combined research footage, motion graphics and interviews for this piece which was shown to MPs at a launch in Westminster, as well as going online.

© 2011 Green Alliance/Adam Westbrook

MediaTrust: Untold Stories

This was the only piece of video which I produced for television this year (I work almost exclusively in online video). I spent some time with a British charity MENTER who support asylum seekers, and other minorities in the East of England.

© 2011 MediaTrust/MENTER/Adam Westbrook

Global Business Challenge China

A highlight of 2011 was traveling to Chengdu in southern China to produce a documentary about the Global Business Challenge. Nearly 100 students from around the world came together to battle for the crown and tensions ran high.

It was pretty inspiring to see such young ambitious people from places like Sri Lanka, South Africa and China showing their mettle with a determination young people in the UK don’t really seem to have: it makes you realise where the power in the future will lie.

© 2011 CIMA/Adam Westbrook

myNewsBiz: can journalists be entrepreneurs?

To promote our nationwide entrepreneurial journalism competition in 2011 we produced a short series of features, where some of the UK’s best entrepreneurial publishers shared their secrets.

Attribution/ShareAlike

And just for fun…the Absolute Radio Mobility Scooter Grandprix

Probably one of the more bizarre commissions I had in 2011. UK national radio station Absolute asked me to join their grand prix race through Central London …on mobility scooters for their breakfast show. It was one of the earliest shoots too: we had to do the race at 5am to avoid the police, and Buckingham Palace security.

© 2011 Absolute Radio/Adam Westbrook

Next week I’ll be looking at what went well and not so well for me in business terms, and thinking about my big plans for 2012. If you’re serious about doing great stuff and making a difference – whatever your field – then I highly recommend taking a good bit of time out to reflect.

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