Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

Future of News Bootcamp: a market for traditional reportage?

Posted in Ideas for the future of news, Journalism by Adam Westbrook on June 23, 2010

The first ever Future of News Business Bootcamp took place in London last night – 7 journalists, several bottles of wine and one problem: how to make money in journalism.

Each bootcamp will focus on a different area of journalism, and this inaugural event had possibly the biggest challenge of all – how to create a business around human rights & development reportingthat vitally important, but until now, expensive and unprofitable part of journalism.

In the room were half a dozen journalists, pretty much all of whom were interested in being able to travel to different parts of the world and uncover human rights abuses and report on development issues – and get paid to do it. And we were going to do something which has never really been tried in this way before – to take an entrepreneurial mindset and approach to business, and transplant it onto journalism.

Not many journalists dare to stray into this territory, more often than not, simply because they don’t have much entrepreneurial nouse (or don’t think they do). Not us! We bravely strolled into this area to see what sticks.

Product or Service?

Almost all businesses can be divided into two categories – those which provide a product, and those which provide a service. A product is an item you can ship and sell; a service is selling your own time, expertise or knowledge. We looked at both options. Under service, we came up with ideas such as a business which chases every penny of UK development money around the world to check it’s being spent properly; we also looked at providing a reporting service for businesses with Corporate Social Responsibility policies and half a dozen other ideas.

The idea of a product got the group more excited. Is there a gap for a decent human rights reportage magazine? The room felt there was, but it would need to be a massive departure from what little there is out there already. Costs would be another problem; the annual cost estimates for a small business, with maybe six journalists travelling and reporting, ranged from £500,000 ($1m) to £3m ($6m) a year. A lot, yes, but the Times and the Guardian loose hundreds of thousands a day – something new would have a massive advantage…

A market?

A key part of starting any business is thinking ‘who is my customer?’. We spent a fair bit of time coming up with crazy different ideas for who might want this type of journalism in the modern world…NGOs? Students & universities? Schools? The military? Traditional media appeared too, although we all agreed getting money from them was becoming harder and harder.

Packaging?

We made some good headway with the idea of how to package the product. Settling on an idea for an online (and possibly print-on-demand) magazine, we looked at all the other news outlets thriving online: the Financial Times, NPR & Propublica, Techcrunch & Mashable, the BusinessDesk.com, MediaStorm – and looked at what ways of packaging our product we could steal from them: everything from exploiting a sponsored mailing list to running events, to bootstrapping, to branding. A combination of these feeding into multiple revenue streams seemed like an attractive idea.

With all the wine gone and the two hours up, we had a lot of ideas, but nothing hugely concrete. But that’s OK! It was pretty much as much as we could have hoped for. More importantly I think it sewed some seeds in all our minds about what might work and what wouldn’t….that’ll stew in our minds for a while – and I think maybe someone in the room will suddenly get the spark of inspiration not far into the future.

Thanks very much to Deborah, Donnacha, Kat, Rebecca, Adam and Phil for bravely taking part in the experiment! If you like the idea of the bootcamps and would like to come to the next one make sure you’re signed up to the Future of News Meetup Group (it’s free!).

Online ad revenue: what journalists are getting wrong

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on April 9, 2010

Image credit: DavidDMuir (cc)

How much money has your website made you recently?

For all but the lucky ones, the figure is rarely enough to buy a latte, let alone support a family. And for all but the smart ones, the figure is usually from Google Adwords revenue.

Here’s the crunch: journalists running their own websites, whether they’re hyperlocal blogs,  online magazines or video sites are getting it wrong. They think there’s only one way to make money from a website – advertising. It’s how newspapers do it, so why should they think any different?

Actually, running a website for profit isn’t about building an audience of millions and raking in the ad revenue. For most of us, even the top niche bloggers, your audience will be in the thousands, not the millions. And that just doesn’t pay.

Doing it right

I was kindly invited to speak London’s prestigious Frontline Club this week, on how to make it as a freelancer in the modern age. Speaking alongside me was the inspiring Deborah Bonello, a journalist who actually has made money from her website, without using ad revenue at all.

In 2007, realising she wasn’t doing the journalism she dreamed of, she packed her bags and moved to Mexico, to carry out what she called “an experiment in digital journalism”. She set up MexicoReporter.com, a website which would be the foundation of her business. Starting life as a free wordpress blog (like this one) Deborah spent months filling it with content, covering stories all over the country.

It became hugely popular with the English speaking expats in Mexico, of which Deborah estimated there are more than a million from the USA alone.

If you ask Deborah how much she made from ad revenue, chances are the amount would be small. But if you ask her how much her website has made her: she’d answer ‘a lot’. By putting loads of free content online she had a strong portfolio to show editors when she approached them with stories. Before long she was getting commissions, and shortly after a retainer from the LA Times.

Now based in London, she’s landed a great gig with the Financial Times. In other words, her website has made her thousands.

And it’s likely she wouldn’t have had the same luck without MexicoReporter.com.

How to really make money from your website

The secret is this: your website is a vehicle for making money elsewhere, not an automatic money making machine on its own.

01. promotion: keep your website regularly updated with examples of your work. And keep producing content, even if it’s without a commission. It pays dividends when you’re offered work or a job off the back of your portfolio. Deborah’s work came because she updated MexicoReporter.com even though she had no-one to pitch to.

02. expertise: maintain a targeted, well promoted, blog which establishes you as an expert in your field. The money comes when you’re offered work because you can prove you know what you’re talking about. I have become both a lecturer and a trainer because of this blog, for example.

03. affiliate: be clever with your links. Affiliate links are dedicated hyperlinks to a product which give you a cut of the money if that product is sold. Reviewing a book, CD or anything else available on Amazon.com? Use an affiliate link to share the revenue. Many companies offer affiliate deals to bloggers.

04. sell: use your website as a vehicle to sell products, targeted around your niche. If you specialise in a certain type of journalism, or Google Analytics tells you your audience are a certain type of person, can you create an online store so they buy direct from you? Tracey Boyer has opened a store on her blog Innovative Interactivity with just that in mind, and Media Storm run a store too.

05. and yes, adverts: but you can be clever with adverts too. The UK based service Addiply created by Rick Waghorn solves some of the problems with Google Ads by offering locally targeted adverts for local based websites. Local bloggers say it’s bringing in results.

A combination of two or more of these things could bring in more money than the Google Ads cheque could. If more journalists looked beyond advertising as their sole business model, we’d move so much faster towards a financial base for the future of journalism.

Roundup: UK Future of News Meetup 2

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on January 25, 2010

Filming has kept me from putting together a write up of the first proper Future of News Meetup in London, which we held last week…but better late than never!

Since I opened the group in November, numbers have swelled to more than 200, and around 50 made it to the London School of Economics on Wednesday where we were kindly put up by the politics and society thinktank POLIS.

We were lucky to have two excellent speakers, both of whom are leading the way on the ground; two people who you won’t see at any conference.

From Data Visualisation…

First up, Cynthia O’Murchu from the Financial Times opened many peoples’ eyes to the power and potential of data visualisation. In the FT’s business of making complicated city statistics digestible, interactive graphics have played a big role.

She explained how they work with reporters across the FT, and how some took a while to understand the potential of data-viz. It’s an awesome branch of multimedia…but how many young journalists today are learning the design or coding skills needed to produce it?

Do they even need design and coding skills, or can it all be outsourced?

…to Berlin

Cynthia was followed by Alex Wood, a City University graduate who, along with four colleagues, is paving the way – simply by actually making stuff happen. He’s one of the names behind the superb Berlin Projectfeatured here in an earlier Ideas For the Future of News post. Although, that might be simplifying it a bit – Alex’s presentation revealed the technical, logistical and journalistic achievement of the  Project, and he revealed plans for a conference – which made the news right here.

We wrapped the evening up with some brainstorming to get everyone thinking of practical ideas for new news businesses – which is what the group is all about. I’m hoping we’ll fit in more of that in future meetups.

Future of News gets local…

And some fantastic news in the last few days, is the creation of not one, but three local off shoots to the London Future of News group. Judith Townend from Journalism.co.uk is working on a Brighton based group – check out the details from Sarah Booker here. Meanwhile in the West Midlands the venerable Philip John is planning a group, with others l0oking to take up the challenge in South Wales.

With four Future of News Groups now in action, the future is looking brighter indeed.

A rare work update…

Posted in Adam by Adam Westbrook on January 8, 2010

It’s been a busy start to the New Year here at Westbrook towers.

First off my article about prisoner votes campaigner John Hirst is featured in this week’s Big Issue In The North. It follows this audio slideshow I produced in 2009. If you’re in the north of the UK, I’m sure a (very) cold Big Issue vendor would appreciate your custom. Meanwhile some of the images from this slideshow are appearing in a documentary, The Fear Factor, due for release in March.

My new e-book, Newsgathering for Hyperlocal Websites is due for release next week. It’s a practical manual packed with advice on how to turn your hyperlocal blog into a solid newsgathering operation, holding powers to account where the mainstream media have failed. It’s got a discounted opening price, so make sure you subscribe to the blog for details!

Elsewhere the lecturing work carries on, with dozens of short films my students have made due for marking by the end of this month. I hope to be returning to Kingston University’s journalism department for other events in 2010.

And I’m being kept busy with various conferences. I’m looking forward to speaking at Journalism.co.uk‘s News: Rewired event in London on the 14th January; tickets for that have now sold out. I’m also due to speak at a couple of planned events in London, and I’ve been invited to take part in some exciting international festivals in the spring as well (more details soon).

All the while January’s Future of News Meetup in association with POLIS is now full, with a waiting list building. We’ll be hearing from journalists at the Financial Times and one of the team behind the Berlin Project about innovation  in multimedia. If you would like to sign up to future meetups or try to make January’s event, click here to get involved.

Right here there’s lots of plans for the blog, with lots more practical advice and analysis of developments in journalism due in 2010. You’ll find me contributing to a host of excellent blogs and websites in 2010, including Duckrabbit, A Developing Story and Journalism 2.0.

And ahead, I some exciting multimedia plans stewing, and I’ll be looking for collaborators in the near future – keep your ears to the ground! In the meantime, I’m always available for various freelancing work, so just click on Contact Adam to get in touch!

The “do” economy (or: why I’m glad Murdoch’s charging for content)

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on August 10, 2009

So Rupert Murdoch’s announced he’s going to start charging for content for the Times newspapers in the UK. This guy thinks it’ll work. This guy doesn’t.

For me, it doesn’t really matter either way, I’m just glad he’s doing it.

Do I support pay walls? No.

Do I think it’ll work? No.

But it’s good because someone, somewhere is doing something.


I’ve used this illustration a couple of times when I’ve given presentations about the future of journalism. It sums up the fact as an industry we’re at a crossroads. Lots of different directions ahead, and the only road we know we can’t take is the one we’ve all just walked up.

But all we’re doing is standing in the middle like a huge flock of sheep arguing about which road to take. And going nowhere.

Murdoch’s announcement marks a positive step forward: someone is walking down one of the roads. Will it work? Who knows. The important thing is he’s trying – and only by actually doing something – something different to what we did before – will change happen.

Lindsey Agness at The Change Corporation sums it up:

“The important thing [is to take] action – sometimes it felt like two steps forward and one step back, but it doesn’t matter as long as you are moving ahead.”

Richard Branson built his empire on the “screw it, let’s do it” mindset

“If something is what you really want to do, just do it. Whatever your goal is you will never succeed unless you let you of your fears and fly.”

And now really is the time.  Multimedia journalist Henkrik Kastenskov over at the Bombay Flying Club summed up the crossroads perfectly this weekend:

“No such thing as the aftermath of an Extinction Level Event to fertilise the ground for new things to come. And the global economic recession was exactly that: an extinction level event.

“The impact of an almost overnight disappearing commercial print market in traditional media have had some profound consequences for the evolution of online media as the great meteor impact on the Yucatan Peninsula had on the off’ing of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, preparing the ground for the rise of mammals.

“…nobody gets ahead by following in the footsteps of others! That…new thing is still lingering somewhere off stage. And right now is the defining moment for that new set of rules to be written. It’s Year Zero, it’s come to Jesus time, and you guys out there are the authors of the new manifest. And frankly: at this point, anything goes.”

Sure, somethings will fail. But what have we got to lose? Anything goes. Just do it differently.
In fact, just do it.

We Live in Financial Times

Posted in Journalism, News and that by Adam Westbrook on February 5, 2009

This is an amazing piece of flash art from the people at the Financial Times.

We Live in Financial Times

We Live in Financial Times

It’s a useful way to get world headlines – but it’s the fact it’s so beautiful to look at (and hear) that makes me want to go back again.

More please! HT: David Dunkley-Gyimah