Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

Storytelling: the changing game

Posted in Online Video by Adam Westbrook on August 29, 2011

I.

Traditionally journalism, publishing, film-making, music, photography & broadcasting are one-way processes. We create some content and a mainstream platform of some kind pumps it out for the masses to consume.

They passively receive stories and information, a concept best explained by Peter Horrocks’ End of Fortress Journalism. Attempts to make all this interactive in some way have never got past the “send us your photos” or “you decide!” appeals from our TV sets.

But something extraordinary and unexpected is happening. Audiences are getting involved in our stories – but not how you’d expect. If an audience feel involved in a story, whether it’s The Wire, Mad Men, a movie, they are starting to find their own ways to dive deeper into the world of the story. They set up their own twitter accounts, or start wikis, and develop a story far beyond the control of the author.

This is very new. And journalists shouldn’t think their stories are immune either.

II.

I have, until recently, ignored this trend. I produce online video – an inherently passive medium that cannot really foster interactive engagement. On a selfish level, I don’t want anyone else to get involved in my storytelling, thank you very much. Surely the fun is producing something exceptional and then sharing it for others to enjoy?

Well, my view on this, is shifting a little bit.

A few weeks back I discovered Awkward Silence, the website of a UCLAN multimedia student, who goes by the name of Beans. He’s produced a couple of 90s style platform games (think Commander Keen or Prince of Persia) which you can play online for free.

In One Chance, you become a scientist who’s cure for cancer is threatening to wipe out every living cell on earth. Over the course of six days (15 minutes gameplay time) you must find a cure.

Yes, the graphics (and gameplay) don’t add up to much by our modern Xbox standards, but bear with me. As simple as it looks, it is a very adult game, with a sophisticated story – and it’s the story that sucks you in.  Inevitably, my less than sensible decisions made throughout the game resulted in everyone dying and me sitting alone with my daughter on a park bench, waiting for the end.

Beans also produced another game recently – except, it’s not really a game. The Body takes four minutes and you basically press and hold left in order to complete it. Beans himself describes it as:

“…short, confusing and isn’t technically fun. It’s not a game I’m not particularly proud of. Infact, The body is barely a game at all.”

But beyond the gameplay, The Body offers more. In it, you become a man trying to dispose of a body. Who is the body? How did they die? The backstory is (sort of) revealed in flashbacks – a convention more at home on TV or in the cinema. And despite it being not ‘technically fun’ I engaged with the story.

Beans hasn’t created a game – he’s told a story. And because I was participating in the story I was hooked.

III.

I recently mentioned Frank Rose’s new book on how the internet is changing storytelling. As he sees it, these new ways of telling stories are letting us get more immersed – and therefore more engaged.

“Conventional narratives – books, movies, TV shows – are emotionally engaging, but they engage us as spectators. Games are engaging in a different way. They put us at the centre of the action…Combine the emotional impact of stories with the first person involvement of games and you can create an extremely powerful experience.”

If I’m honest, I’m not sure exactly how this will change factual storytelling and multimedia journalism yet – but I’m almost certain it will. I’ve got some early ideas which I’m chewing over and if they amount to anything I will try and share them. But as content creators we have a responsibility to tell stories which grab people by the collar. All but the very best online video out there right now fails on that first test.

The idea of ‘games journalism’ has also grown in popularity in only the last year: this is very new and the ideas are still quite basic.

I’ll be talking more about connected storytelling and journalism at News:Rewired Connected Journalism on October 6th. Click here to get tickets.

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Introducing: the journalist of the future

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on July 23, 2009

There’s been enough talk about the cancer spreading through modern journalism. The cutting of jobs and money, the shedding of audiences and advertising, the invasion of PR guff and the medium’s failure to reject it; and vitally, the disappearance of time for journalists to do some proper journalism.

I’m tired of talking about the past and want to know what’s coming next. Here’s my picture of a future journalist, based on books, blogs, a couple of talks I’ve given recently and all the noise on Twitter. As always, it’s by no means comprehensive – so let me know what’s right and wrong in the comments box!

Typewriter

 

Introducing: the journalist of the future

This combines the technical skills the new journalist will need (plus the old ones), new ways of collaborating with audiences and journalists across the globe; and most importantly an entrepreneurial edge to create an army of “creative entrepreneurs”.

The Jack of All Trades

Let’s get the obvious ones out of the way first: the journalist of the future is a reporter, a video journalist, a photo-journalist, audio journalist and interactive designer, all-in-one. They shoot and edit films, audio slideshows, podcasts, vodcasts, blogs, and longer articles.  They may have one specialism out of those, but can go somewhere and cover a story in a multitude of platforms.

They may start off hiring the kit, but eventually will become a one-person news operation, with their own cameras, audio recorders and editing equipment.

They don’t just do it because it potentially means more revenue; they do it because they love telling stories in different ways. And let’s get another thing straight: they still live and breathe the key qualities of journalism: curiosity, accuracy and a desire to root out good stories and tell the truth.

The Web Designer

It goes without saying the journalist of the future should know several languages, two of which should be XHTML and CSS (and the more spoken ones the better). Their ability to design interactive online experiences will give them an advantage over competitors and a chance to charge more for their work.

They have an amazing portfolio website which shows off their wares.

They understand audio and video for the web does not follow the rules of radio and TV. They know what works online and what doesn’t. They can use social media to drum up interest and audiences in what they do, and are members of LinkedIn, Wired Journalists, Twitter to name just a few.

And it also goes without saying the journalist of the future has been a blogger for a long time.

The collaborator

The journalist of the future doesn’t belong to the world of “fortress journalism“. They don’t sit at their desk in a newsroom all day – in fact, they work from home.

They use Noded Working techniques to find collaborators for different digital projects; picking the most talented people from around the world. There are no office politics or long meetings. They market their work well enough to get chosen to take part in other projects.

And the journalist of the future aspires to the ideals of Networked Journalism set out by Charlie Beckett. They are not a closed book obsessed by the final product. Their journalism is as much about the process as the final product and they use social media technologies to get reaction to stories, find contributors, experts and even money. To top it off, they share their final product under the ethos of creative commons so others can build on it.

The Specialist

The internet has shown we’re just not prepared to pay for general news, especially when someone else is giving it away for free. The decline in newsrooms killed off many correspondents and specialists, but the journalist of the future knows there’s more money and more audiences in a niche. So they become more of a specialist in some areas, or use a current specialism to build an audience around what they do.

Science journalist Angela Saini, for example, uses her qualifications in the subject to get her work with a whole host of TV and radio science programmes.

Business, showbiz and sports news I think have a paid-for future – but so do other specialisms.

The Flexible Adapter

The journalist of the future will be born out of this recession and the death of traditional journalism. They’ll succeed now because they adapted, re-trained and were prepared to change their ways. And that is what will help them survive the next downturn too, and the next media revolution. They are flexible, creative and not stuck in their ways.

Mark Luckie, writing over at 10,000 Words says this ability to reinvent is really important:

…being a Jack of all trades is only the starting point. Journalism and its associated technologies are changing at a rapid pace and to learn one skill set is to be left in the dust. Sadly some of the technologies…will be obsolete in just a few years time. To survive in this industry means continuously evolving along with it.

They embrace new technologies, rather than view them as a threat. When a new social media tool or technology comes along, they ask themselves how can I use this?

And they are prepared to live light for a bit. They can live cheap, which means they can charge less and get more business. As David Westphal writes, describing journalist Jason Motlagh:

He lives modestly and accepts that there may be periods in his work where he’ll have to do something besides journalism to pay the bills.

The Entrepreneur

The journalist of the future is a Creative Entrepreneur. Their business is their talent, creativity and knowledge. They are a freelancer, yes, but not a slave to the odd newsroom shift or rubbish PR story; instead they are in command of their destiny by creating content people will pay for. They discover stories and generate new ideas and sell them.

Back to Charlie Beckett in Networked Journalism:

“Entrepreneurship must be part of the process because every journalist will have to be more “business creative”…Journalism and business schools should work more closely together as information becomes more important to the economy…”

Their multiple skills means they can pitch countless ideas in several formats, for a wide variety of clients. They run their new start-ups in the get-rich-slow mentality described by Time Magazine as Li-Lo business:

It means that your start-up is self-sustaining and can eke out enough profit to keep you alive on instant noodles while your business gains traction.

And they think outside the small journo bubble: their clients aren’t just Cosmo or Radio 4, but B2B publications, charities, NGOs. They get grants from journalism funds to pursue important and under-reported stories.

Evidence has shown several sacked newspaper journalists have made a new career by remembering newsrooms aren’t the only people who pay for content. Brian Storm, from MediaStorm, quoted in PDN Online says:

“NGOs and corporations are just now starting to see the power of multimedia stories…A pr message has no authenticity. It won’t go viral. Organizations are looking for a new way to get their message out, and journalists can play a role in that.”

The Storyteller

And most importantly they do the thing all journalists have ever done: tell stories. But they do it better than traditional journalists because they are not so constrained by time or house styles or formulas. They understand what makes a good story and aren’t afraid to break some rules.

And they have the time to tell the stories properly: truthfully, accurately and responsibly.

I think these make up an exciting future for journalism, but also for the people who try this form of journalism out. Is there anything more exciting than being such a creative entrepreneur?

There’s never been a better time, I tell students, to be a journalistic entrepreneur — to invent your own job, to become part of the generation that figures out how to produce and, yes, sell the journalism we desperately need as a society and as citizens of a shrinking planet. The young journalists who are striking out on their own today, experimenting with techniques and business models, will invent what’s coming.

Most experiments will fail. That’s not a bug in the system, but a feature. It’s how we get better.

Dan Gilmore, Centre for Citizen Media