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 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? 

Announcement: a new storytelling project

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism, Online Video by Adam Westbrook on March 5, 2012

I don’t really do video blogs, but there are lots of cool projects I’ve started this year I want to keep you in touch about.

One I’m really excited about is this one here – you’re going to love it. It’s a new book which is unlike any other on digital storytelling out there and it’s going to help change lives around the world.

Curious? All is revealed in the video!

If you’re receiving this post in your inbox, click on the link at the top to view the video.

So there you go: a book which will help journalists, producers, students, directors, film makers and more tell better stories plus raise money for Kiva, a brilliant charity, who empower entrepreneurs the world over.

A brief warning: you’ll hear me bang on about this book loads over the next couple of months – apologies in advance!

Oh and you can follow my other works-in-progress over on my Tumblr blog – I’m trying to post something new there every day.

I’m also still looking for a good name for the book: if you’ve got any ideas, then please email me.

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.

11 brilliant books for multimedia producers, journalists and entrepreneurs

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism, Online Video by Adam Westbrook on December 8, 2011

In 2011 I read more books than I probably did at any other time. I picked up The Catcher in the Rye for the first time, and thanks to the ease of downloading books via the Kindle app, I’ve been able to read more titles on a whim. 

My reading interests range from everything from journalism to design, to minimalism, stoicism, film making and business. I’ve picked out the best 10 for anyone making the most of the Age of the Online Publisher.

A quick note: all links to titles are affiliate links. Some titles are only available as Kindle downloads. The prices I’ve listed will probably change.

The best books I read in 2011

Steven Pressfield | War of Art: (£5.87/$9 Kindle Edition) I actually read this last year, but Steven’s follow up Do The Work, came out in 2011. If you work in any creative or business  endeavour, then you owe it to yourself to read War of Art, it is the best book I know on the battle you face to create something new. Anyone who’s launched a new website, made a film, published a book or started a business will know what I mean by the word ‘battle’: War of Art is an essential weapon.

Kurt Lancaster | DSLR Cinema: (£14.64/$22.57) This is one of the best books I know for anyone starting out using DSLR cameras (like the 5D, 7D or 550D) to shoot video. If you’ve been using these cameras for a while, it’s probably not an essential buy, but early chapters clear up any confusion you might have about frame-rates, codecs, and shutter speed.

Jonathan Field | Uncertainty: (£12.10/$14.46) Jonathan’s first book Career Renegade, was the book that made me quit my job and go freelance. About eight weeks after I finished it I was down in London starting a new life. His follow up, focuses on how to deal with uncertainty in life – if you’re self-employed, starting a new business, uncertainty is regular spectre.

Frank Rose | The Art of Immersion: (£12.92/$17.79) Frank’s book is so good, it sparked several blog posts here earlier this year. Frank examines how storytelling, journalism and even movies are being changed by new technology, chiefly by allowing audiences to participate in stories too. I can’t tell you how many ideas I had after reading Frank’s book – so give it a try.

Ira Glass | New Kings of Non-Fiction: (£8.34/$10.88) Speaking of great storytelling, it doesn’t come much better than Ira Glass. He’s compiled a collection of excellent long-form journalism, including Malcolm Gladwell and Jack Hitt. It never hurts to read journalism at its finest.

Derek Sivers | Anything You Want: (£5.73/$5) Another title that sparked a big blog post here in 2011, Derek Sivers has some of the best common sense (or as he would say ‘uncommon sense’) advice for starting a business in the digital world. It got me wondering how newspapers would fare if they were run this way – if you liked that post, then dig deeper with Derek’s book.

Brenda Ueland | If You Want To Write: (£7.99/$7.99)This one came recommended by future of photography expert Miki Johnson this year, and boy is it a game changer. Brenda offers the best no-nonsense advice for anyone wanting to write (fiction or non-fiction) and her style is addictive. A word of note, this book was published in the 1950s so comes with some rather old-school values. See past that and you get some gems.

Darrell Huff | How to Lie with Statistics: (£5.99/$6.83) And sticking with old school, here’s another mid-century treat for any journalist dealing with numbers – a skill very few excel at (if you’ll excuse the pun). Guardian data journalist James Ball recommended this book to me as a great primer for the tricks people try and play with numbers. If you’re into data, infographics or similar this is fun introduction.

Alison Bavistock | The Naked Author: (£10.42/$22.95) Alison’s new book is a beefy guide for anyone thinking of by-passing traditional publishers and joining the likes of John Locke as authors making a mint on Amazon. As well as practical advice, Alison takes a good hard look at where publishers fit in this new world. [Disclosure: Alison is a colleague at Kingston University’s Department of Journalism & Publishing].

Al Tompkins | Aim for the Heart (2nd Ed) (£18.99/$29.35) US TV news journalist Al Tompkins has updated his guide to video storytelling and has techniques on interviews, graphics and ethics. It’s aimed at the US local news reporter, so is a bit focused on quick soundbites and writing leads – but Al’s core message is an invaluable one: tell human stories.

Scott Belsky | Making Ideas Happen: (£6.06/$17.79) the founder of 37 Signals (one of the most successful web businesses out there) published this book early in 2010, but I had to wait patiently until this spring to get a copy in the UK. It’s worth the wait though: and guides you through the 99% of perspiration that goes into creating great stuff, with neat advice on time management and motivation.

What great books have you read in 2011?

If newspapers were run like CDBaby.com

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

Image: NS Newspapers on Flickr

Entrepreneurial journalists – if we call them that for now – are rare, despite the opportunities out there. 

When you do find people who are brave enough to start their own news business, many choose to replicate an existing news business model. People who launch an online magazine or website do it just like a newspaper would, right down to the use of terms like ‘editor’ and ‘reporter’, banner ads, the use of TV-style video and even a newspaper layout on the page.

Which is funny because the newspaper model is a failed business model: it just doesn’t work in the 21st century. Even the newspapers know it: their only chance of survival is to change themselves.

Instead: starters, entrepreneurs – whatever you want to to call them – should look at the business models that do work, and apply them to news.

The Guardian famously looses £100,000 every day: what idiot would copy a business model like that?

If newspapers were run like CDBaby.com

CDBaby is a well known music retail website, that was both Amazon.com and PayPal before either of them were invented. It was set up by a musician called Derek Sivers, for just $500 in 1998. In 2008, he sold it for $22 million.

Derek’s just published a great book which I encourage any wannabe entrepreneurial journalists to read. It’s called Anything You Want* and it’s the latest release under the innovative Domino Project (which I’ve written about before).  Anything You Want is full of stories of Derek’s process of creating CDBaby and lessons for the entrepreneur: it shows up why you can’t just assume the ‘conventional’ business model will work for you.

And it got me thinking: what if Derek Sivers was a journalist and not a musician? How would his ‘newsbaby’ website look? Here’s how I would run a news business like CDBaby.com.

.01 it would start by helping people

Derek’s founding idea is that creating a business is about creating a “perfect world” for you and your customers, where “you control all the laws”. It starts, he says, with helping people. For him, he was helping musician friends find a new platform to sell their music, and later on, it became a place where music fans could easily find music by independent artists.

Too often, I think journalists forget how and why journalism helps people. Why does it make the world a better place? What perfect world is it creating? This too, takes us to niches, small but passionate audiences, and creating valuable content that makes their lives easier, better, or more informed. It’s not about creating a website for you to show off your video editing skillz.

.02 it would start cheap and wouldn’t get investors

Derek started CDBaby.com for $500 in his spare time. He didn’t get an office for several years and he refused any investment money. Taking investment means you have to please your shareholders, he says, instead of you and your customers. The company grew, organically, with the money it was earning and not through debt or investment.

Online magazines – are virtually free to set up. As I have said many times before, a website, a Youtube/Vimeo account, a blog – they’re all yours for tens of dollars. The equipment is pricey, depending on what you want to do, but not nearly as expensive as it was 10 years ago. You can become an online film maker now for less than $500.

.03 it would proudly exclude people

I’ve heard this advice before, and it makes a lot of sense. Know who your customers/readers/clients are and know who they are not. Online publishing, unlike its mainstream counterpart, is about niche verticals – the smaller the better, in some respects. This way you know who to please and can focus on just helping them. The New York Times can’t do this: it has to write for every American. The BBC has to cover news stories that don’t alienate the average viewer, but also don’t put off the super-smart. This means compromise, and a weaker product.

Instead, I would start a website that aims to help just one group of people, and screw the rest. You can’t please everyone, so why even try?

.04 it would be constantly changing and improving

A news product based on a web model would always be in iteration, always being tested, always being adapted. Derek changed CDBaby as it went along: it started as just a place to sell his own CDs, and soon was a marketplace for thousands of them. He had to change his ideas many times, but always kept the early goal of helping his customers at the core. He tried new ideas often, but scrapped them when they didn’t work, no harm done.

The mainstream media, of course, does the opposite, putting new emphasis on the phrase ‘flogging a dead horse’. Newspapers have had more than a decade to adapt to the internet, but still push their print product like it was 1999. I know big companies steer like oil tankers, but a newspaper run like CDBaby.com would have redesigned itself years ago.

.05 it wouldn’t carry any advertising 

Here’s an interesting one: a news website run like CDBaby.com wouldn’t carry any advertising. I say this, because CDBaby never had advertising on it, while Sivers was running it. It comes down to the “perfect world” reason behind starting your company. In a perfect world, says Sivers, would your customers want to be hassled by pop-ups and flashy banner ads while reading a story? In an ideal world would they want to suffer pre-roll ads on video?

No. So stay true to your perfect world ideal, don’t use them.

How does a news business make money without adverts you ask? Well there are plenty of revenue streams out there: products, events, sponsorships, partnerships, licencing and bespoke creation to name a few: almost all of them less susceptible to economic downturns than advertising.

Click to read on Amazon

.06 it wouldn’t be bogged down by formalities

Once CDBaby really started to take off, Derek says he was regularly approached by investors, and by people trying to sell all the legal guff we assume is necessary to running a business. Things like ‘terms and conditions’ and ‘privacy policy’ pages, employee review plans and even sensitivity training. He turned them all down, instead hiring and firing people himself, working out of his apartment, until he had enough to invest in a warehouse, and not even bothering with terms and conditions.

There are so many pointless things that conventional wisdom, and greedy lawyers, will tell us our business needs. But Derek says he never forgets there are “…thousands of businesses like Jim’s Fish Bait Shop in a shack on a beach somewhere, that are doing just fine without corporate formalities.”

.07 as much would be done in house as possible

Finally, a CDBaby news business would be an unashamedly small one. Although it eventually grew to have hundreds of employees, Derek did a lot of the core work himself. In order to make the website work when he first launched, it needed coding from scratch (this was before WordPress, heaven forbid!) Instead of outsourcing it, Derek bought a book about PHP and taught himself.

I’ve also heard good advice that one should know what you’re good at, and delegate the rest, rather than trying to control everything. But there’s certainly no harm in trying to learn new skills and keep the costs and company small. I believe there’s nothing you can’t learn – and there’s certainly no excuse for technophobia these days.

So there you go, a news business that is small, nimble, free from adverts, legal jargon, overheads, shareholders and debt, focused on making its audience’s lives better. Does it sound all pie-in-the-sky? I’d agree with you, if there wasn’t the CDBaby story to prove you wrong. 

*affiliate link

10 myths that will stop you innovating in journalism

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism by Adam Westbrook on August 15, 2011

If there’s anything I’d ever wish you to take away from reading this blog over the years, it would be the following ten points. 

They underline everything I’ve learned in two years of searching for new ways to do journalism, and the four years of reporting before that. Please share with anyone you think wants to do big things – but is holding back.

10 myths that will stop you innovating in journalism

.01 you don’t have enough time

Truth: you will never have enough time, so just get on with it.

.02 you don’t have enough money

Truth: you will never have enough money, so just get on with it.

.03 you don’t have a good idea

Truth: everyone has good ideas; they just don’t write them down – so start writing every one down.

.04 you don’t know video/web design/HTML/CSS – it’s too complicated

Truth: Nothing is too complicated so buy a book and teach yourself

.05 your idea will never work

Truth: Most ideas don’t work. But they often create opportunities for better ones, if you start them

#6 It’s safer/more secure to get a ‘proper’ job

Truth: the recession has proven that job security does not exist.

.07 If you take a risk and fail you’ll go bankrupt/get in trouble/will never be employed again

Truth: obviously it’s up for you to weigh up your own personal risks; most people find though that fears of bankruptcy/bailiffs/divorce and homelessness are mere phantoms.

.08 There’s no point in going out to write an article/shoot a film if no-one’s going to pay for it

Truth: then you’re denying yourself great opportunity to practice and master your craft (unless you’re the greatest journalist/writer/film maker the world has ever seen)

.09 You’re the greatest journalist/writer/film maker the world has ever seen – and as soon as people realise, you’ll get the job you deserve

Truth: you’re not, so just get on with it.

.10 This is too difficult and too much like hard work.

Truth: Life is difficult for everyone, so just get on with it.

Six tips to help you upgrade your freelance career

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

Image: nurpax on Flickr

The portfolio career – one where you are self-employed, and have revenue from not one but several different activities – is growing in popularity.

There are now books about it, including this excellent one by former ITN journalist Kate Ledger (affiliate link)…and for journalists, photographers, multimedia producers and other creatives I think it often beats freelancing alone.

I personally have found it an exciting, fulfilling and logical way to run my career – full of lots of variety and a more secure income. They come and go, but my different ‘revenue streams’ so far have included:

After doing it for nearly two years I feel I’m on a more stable track, with fewer wobbles along the way. I’ve learned some important lessons – vital for anyone embarking on the same path.

Six ways to manage your portfolio career

.01 Compartmentalise

You have to be able to mentally compartmentalise all the different things you do, and focus on one thing at a time. For example, I lecture one day a week at Kingston University’s journalism department, most recently on Tuesdays. It’s really important (although not always possible) to make sure my university work doesn’t intrude on any other days.

Other than checking my uni email once a day, I don’t think about that work except on Tuesdays. By the same token, on Tuesday, I focus solely on that work and leave all my other commitments until the following day.

.02 Use good online tools

Your big ally in this type of career is Google Calendar (or any other type of online calendar) which is vital for organising my week. I use its colour-coded calendars to separate all my different streams of income, and ensure they all get the right amount of time. As well as being editable, and viewable on your mobile, colouring calendars allows you to see, at a glance, whether you’ve got your priorities straight.

I’ve currently got mine coded in two ways: the red/orangey calendars are current paid commissions on the go; the blue and green ones are the longer term – and personally more important – projects I need to make sure don’t get overshadowed.

I have recently brought in Evernote to help manage my projects too, with a different notebook for each project. It’s great because you can add ideas, tasks and links from anywhere, even on the bus.

.03 learn how to describe yourself

The worst question for anyone with a portfolio career is ‘So, what do you do?’

I still haven’t got this right, and at house parties end up stumbling through a vague description of my various roles in an utterly unconvincing way that leaves most people suspicious that I might actually be unemployed.

So, find a compelling and memorable way to describe what you do. Even though you might have lots of various income streams, we usually find they are connected some way. Katie Ledger describes this as looking for the ‘red string‘ that draws all these together. So, looking at my roles (above) there’s a common theme amongst all of them, of storytelling, communication and education.

Make sure your website reflects your varied career in a positive way too.

.04 start your own projects

Lots of us go freelance to be the master of our own time. If you’re lucky enough to have made this work, don’t waste this power filling your time on paid work alone (as tempting as this is).

I try and ring-fence as much time as I can for personal projects – the ones that really excite me, and might one day make money. At the moment this includes developing a concept for multimedia explainers and starting an online magazine. If you’re scared of the commitment, the 30-day-challenge concept by John Williams is a great place to start.

Why bother? These ambitious, risky projects are the ones that really stretch you, and have the potential to push your career much further than client-based work could do. Sadly, this important work is the stuff that most often gets pushed aside to finish a last-minute story or commission for a client.

.05 keep on top of your finances

When you’ve got lots of revenue streams on the go, it’s vital you keep on top of your finances. The first thing I did when I went freelance in 2009 was register as a sole-trader (a legal requirement in the UK) and set up a separate business bank account. All my work related income comes into this account, and from it, I pay myself a monthly salary.

This really helps deal with the feast-and-famine nature of freelancing.

You need to ring-fence time to deal with the necessary paperwork – that includes sending (and often chasing) invoices, paying bills and taxes and dealing with invoices from others. I often hire camera kit from suppliers for certain gigs, so I need to make sure there’s a paper trail for clients.

.06 take a break!

Finally – and most importantly – give yourself breaks.

If there is one thing I have failed to do in my freelance career so far, it is this, with a total of about 10 days off in the last 18 months. I almost always do some work on weekends; when you work from home, like I do, separating work from play is even harder. I’m writing this blog post at 9.30 on a Thursday night, having started my day at 8 this morning.

Holidays are tempting to postpone if the money is irregular, but they are vital for your work – and I mean vital. Your brain – the fountain of the creativity that gives you ideas, inspiration and drives your career – needs ‘down-time’ to function. If you don’t top it up (with rest) you’ll soon find yourself running on empty: the result is a depressing drought of ideas which really affected me in the early months of this year.

But a brain-break need not be on a beach in Cyprus. It can be as little as an hour long walk round the park: if you do it often enough. I often take an afternoon off to meander around Wandsworth Common, usually twice a week. It’s hard to stomach, especially when there is no money coming in, but those two hours spent staring at a screen will do you little good either. The best ideas come to you in those moments of ‘creative idleness’ so give yourself lots of opportunities to have them.

These six principles have really made a different to me over the last two years, so much so, they are ingrained into my routine now.

I’ve written about portfolio careers before: you can take a look at the finances here, and see an interview with Nick Williams here.

It’s different for everyone though – so how do you manage your portfolio career?

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. 

5 ways join in with the future of news

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism, Online Video by Adam Westbrook on January 20, 2011

A quick post today, sandwiched in between some pretty hefty ones. Here’s five quick ways to make sure you don’t miss a trick with the Future of News.

.01 subscribe to this blog – just put your email address in the box to the right of this page for more ideas and advice on online video & enterprise.

.02 join the Future of News Group on Facebookclick here: more than 250 people have already joined!

.03 follow me on Twitter – I’m @AdamWestbrook

.04 read this postand stick the recommended blogs into your Google Reader

.05 if you’re on Vimeo, subscribe to the video .fu channel, a growing collection of the best online video in the world

Sit back, relax, and let the future of journalism come to you!

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