Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

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?

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.

“This is not the internet!” What Robinson Crusoe tells us about the future of news

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism by Adam Westbrook on August 8, 2011

I

Enough talk and conferences and experimentation about the future of journalism! We want answers right!? I mean, how long has it been already?

For all the talk by people like me about experimentation and enterprise, the number of jobs in the industry aren’t getting any larger. If you’re a journalism graduate looking for a job your prospects haven’t gotten any better since reading my blog a year ago, have they?

Well, yes and no.

II

I’m currently reading Frank Rose’s The Art of Immersion: how the digital generation is remaking Hollywood, Madison Avenue and the way we tell stories.

In it, he quotes the introduction to Daniel Defoe’s novel Robinson Crusoe, it goes like this:

“If ever the Story of any private Man’s Adventures in the World were worth making Pvblick, and were acceptable when Publish’d, the Editor of this Account thinks this will be so….The Editor believes the thing to be just a History of Fact; neither is there any appearance of Fiction in it…”

To decifer the 18th Century parlance, Daniel Defoe is saying – before you read his fiction novel – “this is not a fiction novel.”

Why? Well, with a few exceptions, Robinson Crusoe is one of first novels ever written. Up until then, it had been poems, plays, myths and The Bible. As hard to imagine as it is, the idea of a novel was so new, it was risky to publish it.

Rose notices a common trend in all the major mediums since (movies, television and the Internet): when they first begin, they try to convince you they are not new.

The earliest films were basically filmed like a theatre performance: a stage and a stationary camera – the first movie makers were saying “this is not a movie!

Television did the same thing, up until the 1950s producing shows that resembled theatre – the first TV producers were saying “this is not television!

You can argue TV News still does the same thing, sticking presenters behind desks to mimic the radio announcers of the 1930s.

And the early attempts at online publishing have tried so hard to mimic print and television that it’s almost laughable. From the front page of the New York Times website, to the format of all online video stories, these digital producers are busting their nuts to convince you “this is not the internet!”

III

And it was ever thus.

But Frank Rose’s other point is what’s really important for any digital publishers, journalism entrepreneurs and video journalists: we are only at the beginning – and the answers won’t come for years.

Frank Rose sold me on his book with his tidy use of online video to publicise it (beats a crappy blurb, right?) He makes the point quietly (about 3’20” in) that whenever a new technology arrives, it takes pioneers 20 or 30 years to figure out what to do it with it.

Cinema was invented in the 1890s, but it wasn’t until the mid 1920s that Pudovkin’s five principles of editing were laid down. It took decades for someone to say ‘hey, what if we edit two different scenes together to make it look like they’re happening at the same time!’

TV was born in 1925, but as Rose points out it was another 25 years before it came into its own with the sitcom format, game shows and the like.

So, by the same logic, this marvellous new medium we’ve created for ourselves – the internet – is 20 years old this month. But you could argue, its true power (web 2.0) wasn’t born until 10 years ago. Either way, it’ll be another decade before we really figure out what the hell this thing can do.

However far we think we’ve come, we’re just at the beginning. 

And us? We’re the pioneers. Anyone who’s produced online video (specifically for the internet), created a podcast, launched an online magazine, started a social network or written a blog: you are the internet’s pioneers, marching determinedly into the frontier.

And that’s a generational privilege we should relish.