Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

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?

10 things I wish I knew about freelancing a year ago

Posted in Adam, Entrepreneurial Journalism, Journalism, Next Generation Journalist by Adam Westbrook on October 27, 2010

I’ve been freelancing for a little over a year now, and I’ve learned lots of lessons along the way – most of them the hard way.

It got me thinking about the tips and tricks I wish someone had told me before I started; so I put together a list of 10 things every freelancer should know.

Owni.fr have put into a neat little Freelance Journalism Survival Guide click here to have a read.

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The “Pr” approach to being a freelance journalist

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism, Freelance, Journalism, Next Generation Journalist by Adam Westbrook on October 21, 2010

Image credit: jm3 on Flickr

What are the qualities of a successful freelance journalist in the 21st century?

Of course, there are all the obvious ones (curiosity, good writing skills, tech knowledge etc) which have been laid out many times by far more experienced and talented hacks than me. But I want to introduce four new qualities, perhaps four you would never have thought of before.

And in this brave new world where the opportunities for the enterprising young journalist are limitless, it’s important to approach it in the right way. So I’ve come up with this ‘Pr’ list of qualities which every journalist should aim for – and they’re one’s every journalist can.

Four ‘Pr’ qualities for freelance journalists

.01 Prolific

First of all, to be good at any form of journalism (writing, blogging, filming, podcasting, info-graphics) you must be prolific. You must create content at a rate of knots, and share it with the world. There’s only one way you get good at something: and that’s practice. Practice = proliferation.

Mark McGuinness (a must read if you want to make money doing something creative) makes this point very eloquently. He points out how one of the great creative geniuses of history, Bach, was prolific beyond belief. We only associate a few extraordinary pieces of work to his name, and assume he was of such unrepeatable talent that the rare tunes he touched turned to gold. But it was not so.

Bach spent his career as an employee, composing music to order on a punishing schedule. One such appointment was as Cantor of St Thomas’s Church in Leipzig, a prestigious but demanding role, where he produced a cantata (a musical setting for sacred texts) every week of the year and extra ones for holidays — a total of 60 every year. He held that position for five years.

Most of Bach’s music was mediocre and disappeared into history. But the very fact his was prolific meant he got so extraordinarily good at his craft he became an unforgettable name in history.

Image: Marxchivist on Flickr

When I read Mark’s article I looked elsewhere in history for a pattern. It didn’t take me long. Let’s take perhaps the most exalted band of the 20th Century, The Beatles. A quick check at their discography proves their success could be down to sheer proliferation: between 1963 and 1969 they produced two albums every yeara total of 307 songs before they split.

Coldplay, by comparison have produced four albums in 13 years, and just a third of the songs. Sure, who can name all 307 Beatles tracks? And sure, many of them are mediocre – but they needed to produce all the mediocre in order to get good.

So if you’re set on being a kick-ass video journalist, you won’t get good sitting around reading video journalism blogs and polishing the lens of your DSLR. Get off your arse, and make a film. Every week. Week in, week out.

. 02 Productive

Being productive is vital for your success as a freelance journalist. In some cases, when you’re being paid a day-rate, that is literally so. But even if not, your time is money, so you have to start using it properly.

This goes beyond just opening the laptop at 9 and closing it at 5pm sharp. It’s about elimating the stuff in your day that doesn’t contribute to your income. It’s also about understanding your own personal productivity: what time of the day are you most productive? What’s the point of starting work at 9, when you’re at your best between 6pm and midnight?

A lot of people use the 80/20 rule too, so it’s worth thinking about. It goes like this: 20% of your time spent, generates 80% of your revenue and visa versa. So you need to identify the 20% of work that actually brings in the cash (that includes sales/pitching) and make sure you do it without fail. And know what the 80% of non-revenue generating stuff is (tweaking your website, filing tax returns, coming up with ideas) and don’t let it overrun your schedule.

If you’re going to be prolific and profitable you need to be productive with your time. So ring fence certain times of your day, compartmentalise and use something like Google Calendar to control it all.

. 03 Profound

Thing is, there are plenty of other voices out there in the digital landscape – maybe too many. And there are plenty more journalists vying for attention. How do you stand out from the crowd? How do you make your blog more clickable than the next?

Seth Godin

The answer lies in being profound: having something to say that matters to other people. A lot of blogs – hell, a lot of journalists – rely on rehashing other people’s content, aggregating it, just blindly reporting what is being said or done.

But in the fragmented, digital, niche world, that is not enough. If you want to stand out within your area of specialty then you need to be profound. We turn to the most popular bloggers in journalism, for example, because they say profound things. Jeff Jarvis tells us the business models are all wrong and suggests alternatives; Mark Luckie shows us how to use awesome technology in new ways; Tracy Boyer shows us how great multimedia can be; and almost everything Seth Godin says is profound…and they are all leaders.

In this scary new world, people don’t just want consumers, aggregators or reporters, they want leaders. Are you willing to step up to the plate? By being profound, you almost instantly place yourself at a higher level above the rest of the pack.

. 04 Provocative

And finally be provactive too. Stir things up. Cause an argument.

Someone who does that very well are British multimedia producers Duckrabbit, who, if you read their blog (and you should)* it appears they’re always getting into arguments with the photojournalism establishment (for example, this spat with the organiser of an international photography festival).

But Duckrabbit aren’t being argumentative for the sake of it. They have established a strong, authentic, moral, position – on the side of exploited people in developing countries, and photographers exploited by the industry they work for. This forms Duckrabbit’s story, and we, as the audience (and their potential customers) understand where they’re coming from.

And because they stand up for exploited photographers wherever they can, the audience respect them for it. It makes their presence go beyond that of another multimedia company.

It’s a risky strategy perhaps, but there are a lot of multimedia production companies out there now – what will make yours stand out? Stand up for something, believe it it, and mean something. If you’re authentic then it’s all good.

*disclaimer: I occasionally write for Duckrabbit

So – prolific, productive, profound and provocative: four easy to remember words, which if you use them as a guide, they’ll help elevate you beyond all the others in this ever crowded field. Have I missed any off? I could add ‘profitable’ but that’s for another time…

A year of freelancing & the benefits of a portfolio career

Posted in Adam, Entrepreneurial Journalism, Freelance, Journalism by Adam Westbrook on October 19, 2010

Photo credit: Theresa Thompson on Flickr

It’s a bit of a red-letter day for me.

This month marks exactly one year since I quit my full-time job in radio, moved down to the big city to make a break of it. In an attempt to measure success & failure, I’ve just been looking back through all the different things I’ve been paid to do in the last year, from making films to writing books.

The big question: has this whole thing been worthwhile, or did I make a massive mistake? Should I have just stayed where I was, kept my head down and hoped for a pay-rise?

The measure I gave myself when I quit was this: ‘just aim to make as much (or more) than you would have done if you’d kept your full time job’. The good news is I made more than I would have done staying put (phewf!)

A portfolio income

What looking back over the last year has really highlighted for me has been the benefits of having what some people are now calling a Portfolio Career:  several revenue streams all contributing to a net income. To make that point, and hopefully to encourage more journalists to think about this as a valid career option, I’ve decided to publish my first year finances to the world…

…well sort of.

Here’s a pie-chart showing the rough percentages of everything I’ve earned since going freelance. Naturally, I’m not going to tell you what the percentages financially add up too! 😉

As you can see teaching & academic research makes up the most significant chunk, but documentary work, broadcasting and print contribute roughly a third. This pie chart shows 9 of the different things I’ve been doing this year, although there have probably been around a dozen.

Sales of Next Generation Journalist and Newsgathering for Hyperlocal Websites have been healthy too, as have things like training, everywhere from Madrid to Glasgow.

Why have lots of jobs?

I guess the point is this: I love doing every single one of these things: the writing, the teaching, the filming, the directing, the radio…but none of them would I want to do every single day. I’ve learned that having this sort of portfolio income gives me a really exciting variety, and also protects me against the loss of a single revenue stream.

I really think more journalists, writers, presenters, and film makers should consider this way of doing work. And it’s more suited to the 21st century work environment too, with growing numbers becoming self-employed and working from home. The internet is slowly making the office (and maybe even the dreaded commute) more and more redundant.

And even though it’s been a success, I still catch myself thinking, sometimes, even if it had failed – even if I had gone bust and had to go and live with my mum or something – I would still look back at this year and be glad I did it. I have had more adventures, opportunities and excitement than even a top reporter gig on a big radio station could give me, and that’s what matters.

So here’s to year two!