Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

How to make money in online video: 3 approaches

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism, Online Video by Adam Westbrook on October 10, 2011

Every week I get emails from readers of the blog asking about online video and entrepreneurial journalism. I try and answer as many of them as I can as promptly as I can.

Since I published Next Generation Journalist: 10 New Ways to make Money in Journalism in May 2010 I’ve received a lot more questions about entrepreneurship, freelancing and making money. A typical one came into my inbox last week, and I’d thought I’d put my reply here so everyone can benefit.

Reporting for radio and video from Iraq in 2009

Nick in Australia got in touch to ask how to make money as a freelance video journalist, and he’s kindly agreed to let me share his question:

I’m about to be a journalism grad and I want to start making video stories. I’ve got lots of ideas, but just got one question that is bugging me. Once I’ve filmed, edited and uploaded my little creations online to my blog/website, how can I build a freelance income from them? i.e. I understand that once they’re online and I’m plugging them on my Twitter, Tumblr and other places with various links with journo folk they will (ideally) create job opportunities. However, I want to be actively sending/selling them to the right sources. Who pays for freelance video journalism, and where do I find these amazing publications? Surely metro papers & mainstream networks wont. Is it possible?

Nick, you’re already doing a few things right here: firstly (and most importantly) you have ideas and you want to start making video stories. I can’t stress how important it is to be prolific in your work. Secondly, you’re smart about using social media to share your content and build up an audience around it.

From here, there are three ways you can approach it: I’ll call the first the traditional approach, and the second the smart approach, and then the smart-er approach.

The traditional approach

The traditional approach is pretty much what you described: find publications who do video and pitch ideas to them. If they like your stuff, they might buy it, it’s as simple as that. You’ll obviously need a body of good work available online to prove you’re good.

As for how to find these ‘amazing publications’: there is no short cut I’m afraid: you just have to look. Print freelancers of this ilk often go into a newsagents and browse the magazine section to discover potential titles. A few might put notices out on Mandy.com or similar sites. From here, the old rules apply: find out the name of the right person to pitch to and know their content inside out.

You might be able to tell by the tone of my writing though that this is not how I build income in my career. Why? Well, for a start, it’s what everyone else does, so the competition is fiercer.  The pay often stinks, even at national titles. You spend a long time chasing ignored emails from editors who are, quite frankly, not interested. Beyond this, a lot of publications prefer to train their own staff to make video content (even though it’s usually awful). There is a lot of rejection.

That said, some people are successful at it, although I hear it takes a long time to get established. Personally, it’s not for me: I’m terrible at networking, brown nosing and cold-calling. Some people are really good at it – so its horses for courses. The key to success? Producing remarkable, high quality video.

The smart approach

The smart approach begins by having faith in this belief: the demand for online video right now is huge. Newspapers and magazines want it, yes, but so do think-tanks, chartered institutes, universities, NGOs, charities and even your local barber if you sold it to him in the right way.  Michael Rosenblum is very good at pointing this out almost every week on his blog.

The smart approach also recognises that in the traditional game, the rules are stacked against you, especially with so many other competitors. Timothy Ferris said once ‘doing the unrealistic thing is easier than doing the realistic thing’. The realistic (traditional) approach is packed with competition.

When I first went freelance two years ago, I knew it would be extremely difficult to get noticed by harried editors, already knee-deep in pitches. So instead I created my own online video production company, video .fu; I built a website in a weekend, got some cheap business cards from Moo.com and started making content (in my own time, for free) to prove what I could do. I made this series of environmental shorts with Matt Walters, portraits and more. All in my own documentary style.

As a result of these films plus, it should be said, this blog, I started to get approached by organisations wanting the sort of films I like making. This year I have been nearly fully booked on projects for think-tanks, charities and online magazines; I’ve worked with celebrities, worked in China and have even started to turn down work too.

You don’t just need faith in the demand – you must also have faith in yourself. Writing it out like this makes my approach sound planned, when in fact it’s been a process of ‘making it up as I go along’ – and still is. The key to success? Producing remarkable, high quality video.

The smart-er approach

This is, I think, a smarter way to go about it, and one with a proven track record of success for the smartest people. It’s what I am trying next. The best way to outflank the rejection of traditional pitching to editors is to become an editor yourself.

You said you want to make video stories – well turn them into a web series about something that people are interested in, create a website and start publishing. That’s what Jesse Thorne and Adam Lisagor have done with Put This On, a fashion web series. Their stylish short films clock 30,000 plus views each. It worked for Kirby Ferguson too, the creator of Everything Is A Remix, which has more viewers than some television documentaries. And of course, it has worked for Jamal Edwards, who founded SB.TV who now hangs out with Jay-Z and Richard Branson. I’ve written about all these guys before, here.

Mainstream editors now approach them with offers (and, I imagine, so do some video journalists taking the traditional approach to making money).

The smart-er approach requires faith, passion and a set of squirrel-sized balls to pull it off. But the key to success? Producing remarkable, high quality video. 

My advice to Nick is to start making these video stories now – without anyone to pitch to. If you start worrying about how to make money from the start you’ll never produce anything – and that’s a vicious circle towards giving up. Make a film, publish it – and then make another one. And keep going. Get a staff job on a newsdesk to pay the bills – or work in a bar if you have to.

These approaches aren’t for everyone though and it’s really down to the sort of person you are. But the opportunities to do something amazing are out there – and they won’t exist forever.

What Monty Python can teach the next generation of publishers

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism by Adam Westbrook on August 22, 2011

If Terry Gilliam were a 20-year-old nobody today, I have little doubt he would be all over the internet, with a Youtube, Audioboo and Tumblr account, creating mashups, animations, films and the like.

He’d be one of the many people creating shareable stuff, probably using music without permission…and probably getting some of it taken down by Youtube!

Instead, he was lucky enough to be part of Monty Python in the 1960s and 70s, creating their instantly recognisable cut-out animations. I stumbled across this video recently, where Terry appears on what looks like a brilliant 70s children’s art show on the BBC, the likes of which just aren’t made any more.

After a rather odd title sequence which offers to teach you “something to your advantage” he explains how he produces his animations – and there’s lots for the new generation of digital publishers to learn.

It’s all about the idea and the message

Very early on in the video, Terry says “the whole point of animation is to tell a story, tell a joke, express an idea. The technique itself doesn’t really matter, whatever works is the thing to use.”

Terry is not animating for animation’s sake, nor his own vanity. Each time, he has a story or a joke to tell, or an idea to share. The takeaway: make sure your own work, whether it is making a documentary, writing a blog or launching a podcast is more than just for the sake of it – you must have a meaning you want to express, somehow.

Everything is a remix

In a sequence that might shock many of us today, especially those versed in copyright,  Terry confesses – well, he really just states – to using whatever he can find to create is now famous collages. He steals from magazines, books, paintings-  literally whatever he can get his hands on. He says he loves old photographs because the faces are so expressive.

This is – I think – a wonderful attitude to have to creating content, and one that, luckily, enough amateur online publishers still have. Obviously, there are (often crossed) legal boundaries, but without their willingness to use other peoples’ content we wouldn’t have Newport State of Mind, these great Brian Cox spoofs, nor much of the expanded Star Wars expanded universe, now a big industry.

Use whatever you can

Terry uses felt-tip pens, sellotape and perspex to get the job done. Not very glamorous but it did the trick. He doesn’t invest in expensive paper, or professional ink he just uses what’s cheap. If you want to create multimedia stories – video, audio slideshows, photographs and the like – you don’t need to blow £2k on the priciest camera, when a Flipcam will do the job for you. People take extraordinary pictures with their iPhones too: Richard Koci Hernandez creates wonderful images on his phone.

Work quick

Wherever Terry could save time he did – even to the extent of replacing legs with wheels. In the surreal Monty Python universe that worked, but there are lessons for young publishers too: don’t fret about creating perfection. Instead create a quantity of work – the more you make, the better you become.

If so, create a platform or a vehicle which forces you to create content regularly. I’m currently collaborating with Dave Lee to launch a new video magazine later this year: it’s a platform which demands new stories on a regular basis – and I’m shooting and editing far more often because of it.

So there you go: even an old bit of BBC archive floating on Youtube holds lessons for new digital producers in the 21st century. Work fast, with whatever you can find, remix (within reason) and above all: do it to tell a story, make a point or express some kind of meaning.

The age of the online publisher – and why you should embrace it

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism by Adam Westbrook on June 28, 2011

 That’s the ultimate irony, no? That in the midst of remarkable and unprecedented change, in the midst of the greatest stories to happen all century, we are paralyzed by some changes in the delivery system.

Carey Tennis

Far from being a terrible time to be in journalism, publishing or the like, I genuinely believe this is an extraordinary period: unexpected, exciting and packed with new opportunities to create amazing things.

The internet has put awesome publishing platforms at our feet, for free. What great opportunity! Yet, so many are paralysed by fear of change, or fear of the unknown. And of course, fear of failure.

Thankfully, more and more overcome this as time goes on. Every month, new shoots break through the soil, small (for now) but with great potential to be the publishing powerhouses of the future. Here’s a few examples, which I hope inspire.

Five online publishers who create great stuff – and make money

.01 John Locke

If you’ve never heard of John Locke before, you soon will. The US author shot from obscurity this year to become the first person to sell 1 million ebooks using Amazon’s direct publishing service. British authors, such as Louise Voss, are following suit.

The Kindle service negates the need for publishing houses entirely, and allows authors to publish direct, taking 35% of the revenue (much more than most mainstream book deals); ebook sales jumped in the UK last year from £4m to £16m and it’s becoming big business.

I’ve said before that ebooks are a much overlooked publishing platform for journalists: zero costs, and if your content is quality then you can make decent revenues. I’ve done it twice myself, publishing two e-books in 2010 (and another on the way at the end of 2011). The great thing is once they’re up and online, they provide a great source of passive income: there’s nothing cooler than waking up on a Sunday morning and finding out you made money while you were asleep.

.02 Fleet Street Scandal/Yuki7

Fleet Street Scandal is the work of two US designers Kevin Dart and Chris Turnam who have the aim of making “art that looks great on a wall”. There are plenty of design agencies mind, so why are they here?

Well, this year they created something pretty unique and remarkable: an animated character called Yuki7 who has stylish 1960s-esque adventures. I saw this little film, and liked it so much I bought the t-shirt.

There’s clearly been some investment in making these films, and they’re recuperating that through products – posters, books, t-shirts and DVDs – which are now on sale. The point is, it takes balls to make something as big and complicated as this: something that we expect to see done by television studios. Fleet Street Scandal prove you don’t need be in the mainstream media to publish great stuff.

.03 Put This On

A video web series now, from Jesse Thorn and Adam Lisagor – all about men’s fashion, with the tagline “a web series about dressing like a grown up”. As well as a regularly updated website, which is actually just a Tumblr blog, PTO also contains regular, high quality short films focusing on different areas of mens fashion, including shoes, grooming and denim.

I love this series because it targets a clear and easily identifiable group of people (men, interested in fashion) of which there are a lot. You just have to see the popularity of sites like Fashion Beans to see that.

Each episode is getting 20,000+ views; it’s funded by sponsorship (a season one deal with Instapaper) plus donations from viewers. Make something that draws people to you and the money will follow.

.04 Pictory

Laura Brunow-Miner’s photo-series was instantly popular when it launched a year ago. It’s a very simple premise: each month, a different theme with story and photo submissions from readers.

Pictory/PhotographyBlog.com

Laura’s made it work by keeping it a small operation (she runs it alone) and through sponsored themes including partnerships with Levi’s and NPR. She also takes advertising on the site, with the rather charming idea of making adverts “big and beautiful” unashamedly 1000 pixels wide.

More importantly, Laura’s established herself as a big name in tech and media, with speaking work and a place in Fast Company’s Most Influential Women in Tech list.

.05 Everything is a remix

Kirby Ferguson’s documentary project started modestly nine months ago, with the publishing of part one of  ‘Everything Is A Remix’, a short Adam-Curtis style documentary which makes the point that nothing is new, everything is influenced by something else.

The third instalment went online in June to much fanfare, and collectively the three videos have been viewed more than a million times across Vimeo and Youtube, with one more on the way in the Autumn.

Kirby asks for donations to keep the project going, but watching his appeal at the end of the latest film, you realise it’s launched a career as an in-demand speaker and commentator. All down to publishing something remarkable.

These are all just ordinary people with the sort of skills journalists today have: good writing, design, filmmaking or photography. What makes them different is they had the initiative to take an idea and keep working at it until it became real – and through a little bit of social media promotion, they’ve become disproportionately popular.

So what’s the takeaway? There are jobs out there, yes, but the barrier to entry is set high; the barrier (and cost) to becoming your own publisher and editor meanwhile is now nearly non-existent. The question is, do you have the balls to start something, and the guts to finish it?

This is the age of the online publisher. So go, publish. 

NOTE: just as I published this, science writer Ed Yong (who blogs over at It’s Not Rocket Science) made this excellent point, which I think wraps my argument up perfectly:

I care very deeply about journalism, but there are few things more boring than journalists arguing over what counts as journalism. We live in a world full of stories, about amazing people doing amazing things and terrible people doing terrible things. I will use every medium I can to tell those stories. I will try to tell them accurately so people aren’t misled. I will try to tell them well so people will listen. If people want to argue about what to call that, that’s fine for them.

I would rather just do it.