Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

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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Presentation: 5 new career paths for journalists

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on February 23, 2010

I’m busy working on a new e-book, to be released in May 2010, which I hope will be a big help to journalists everywhere.

In it, I’m revealing ten new ways for journalists to do what they love and make money, in the face of the digital revolution and the economic downturn. With fewer traditional jobs, and more journalism graduates than ever before, the maths just don’t add up.

So what can the next generation of journalists do? Think laterally and outside the box– which is exactly what the new book will be all about. I’ve delved into entrepreneurship, life design and tech; looked at how other people are exploiting the internet for profit – then applied it all to journalism.

Earlier this month I shared some of my early ideas with journalism students at Kingston University in London. Here’s a shortened version of the presentation I delivered, with five (OK, six!) of the ten new career ideas briefly explained.

The book will be packed with practical step-by-step guides to fulfilling them – make sure you subscribe to the blog (in the right hand sidebar) for updates!

UPDATE: It’s having trouble with slide #2 but the rest of the presentation is fine!

What can the next generation of journalists learn from the Eels?

Posted in Adam, Freelance, Journalism by Adam Westbrook on January 18, 2010

My current bit of non-journalism reading is the autobiography of one of my favourite musicians, the dark, eccentric Mark Oliver Everett, better known as E or The Eels.

It’s a classic coming of age story: before he landed the big time with Beautiful Freak in1996, he spent years and years scratching by as a nobody, making music in his cupboard.

So it is for most artists, musicians, authors….and now journalists. The digital revolution has all but ended the guarantee of a good job after college and a long career ascending gently from cub reporter to editor.

Instead: an unpredictable length of time trying to make it. Making stuff you like as often (and as cheaply) as possible, and showing it to whoever will listen. Then rejection, after rejection after rejection from an industry which d0esn’t really give a fuck about you, no matter how much you spent on J-school.

In the spirit of Les Paul’s lessons for journalists last year, and on the release of The Eel’s latest album End Times today, here’s some snippets from the Eels journey, starting just after Mark was dropped by his first ever record label in the early 90s. It starts on a downer:

I finally had a purpose in life and it was being taken away from me. I could still make my tapes like always, but I wasn’t going to be able to have people hear them now and I wasn’t going to be able to devote all my time to them…I had to keep fighting the urge to take a left off the cliff and into the ocean.

We all know the road to making it as a journalist is full of potholes, as are the roads for many worthwhile jobs. Chances are you’ll have a ‘cliff’ moment; they are inevitable, but it’s how you deal with them which counts. Drive off, or keep going?

I pressed on writing and recording songs in my cold tiny basement. I didn’t know what else to do…I just kept going, blindly.

This is really important. Despite having no audience, no money and little hope, Everett kept on producing. Don’t let unemployment end your productivity. Don’t even let a part-time, or temp job do that either. Sure it means late nights, early mornings and lost weekends, but the important thing is you’re always telling stories, doing interviews, writing blogs. Next:

Then one day during this bleak period in my life, I was driving down the road and heard the English group Portishead on the radio for the first time and it stopped me cold…I was immediately inspired to get back into my old sound-collage world – but apply it to my new songwriting world. The new technology had given the world of sound collage so many new possiblities.

You’ve had this moment right? For me, it was when I realised there were these things called audio slideshows about a year ago. And maybe even again when I learn some more web/data visualisation skills. Create something different by combining two completely different crafts.

I called friends and asked if they had any friends who did music on computers and got a few phone numbers…meanwhile I did about seventy more songs on my own in my basement.

The word is collaboration. Don’t go it alone. Hunt down talented, passionate people. Meet them for a beer, and see if you can work together. Every time I meet a great photographer, VJ, journalist, web jedi, or presenter I jot down a mental note to hook up with them on a project in the future.

Meanwhile,  E is still making more music than he’ll ever need on his own. 68 of those 70 songs were probably crap, but all worth it for the 2 nuggets of awesomeness. Then:

It was an exciting new world world that meant all sorts of limitless possibilities…I started to learn more and develop ideas about production. I stopped using cheesy reverb so much.

With his eyes open for new possibilities, E is finally excited about his work again. When you hit this lovely zone, you can hardly be kept from working. Make sure you make time in your schedule to make the most of this – even if it means taking a day or two off from your boring day job.

Secondly, he’s mastering the technical skills he needs to learn. There’s this principle, which states that things must become complex before they become profound. In other words, you’ve got to get lots of stuff wrong before you get amazing at it. Malcolm Gladwell calls it the ‘10,000 hours rule’. Constantly learning new skills and hacking away at them, without fear of failure, is the only way to get good. Next:

…my friend Jon Brion came over to my house one night…he suggested, as an exercise, that he would go upstairs for thirty minutes to write a song while I went downstairs for thirty minutes to write a song. He was always coming up with ideas like this. “Write a song about something on this table…” and so forth.

This is an amazing example of the power of giving yourself productivity challenges – see my weekend audio slideshow challenge for a journalistic one. Create games and challenges which force you to make something in a limited time frame. That way you focus on getting it done, rather than getting it perfect. Not everything will be great, but you’ll be making a lot more stuff.

And after that, you just got to keep going.

It’s easy to give up, and it was easy for Mark Oliver Everett to give up. The only reason we have such great albums as Beautiful Freak, Daisies of the Galaxy and Blinking Lights and Other Revelations is he didn’t.

Thanks to Holly for the book.

Taking the plunge…

Posted in Adam, Freelance, Journalism by Adam Westbrook on September 11, 2009

I’ve been writing about it for weeks, thinking about it for months: and now I am very happy to announce at the end of September I will be going freelance.

Yes that’s right I’m jumping: I’ve quit a great, steady job….in the middle of a recession.

Madness you might say.

But while commentators everywhere see decline, cutbacks, redundancies, dropping standards and the end of journalism as we know it Jim…I see opportunity. Everywhere.

And it’s opportunity to be grasped with both hands.

I’ve written plenty about what I think the journalist of the future will be like, and what skills they’ll need: now I’m on a mission to find out if I’m right. I’m moving back down to London, where I’ll hopefully be contributing to a range of outlets in a range of media.

So there’ll be some changes round here in the next week or so, as I get my branding & portfolio sorted out.

In the meantime there’s a job going in arguably one of the best independent radio newsrooms around.

Image: Max Haibane

Image: Max Haibane

6×6: making things happen

Posted in 6x6 series, Journalism by Adam Westbrook on August 28, 2009

6x6 advice for multimedia journalists

The sixth in a series of 6 blogs, each with 6 tips for the next generation of freelance multimedia journalists.

making things happen

When 900 years old you reach, pithy phrases will you come up with.

OK, so a bit of hammy self-help from Master Yoda there, but he makes a good point. We’ve looked at branding and business, and the craft skills like audio and video, but they all mean nothing in the scary and ever shifting new world of journalism if you’re not prepared to do something with it.

If you’re trying to get your first job particularly, or going freelance especially, you have to be able to make things happen for yourself. This final post has little to do with journalism, but might be the difference between getting your vital first commission and spending your day in the company of Jeremy Kyle crying into your supernoodles.

01. have goals – big ones

We’ve all got goals, right? Clear that debt, get that promotion, get that payrise.

But what about dreams? They’re the goals which set your sex on fire. They get your heart racing with excitement and have you muttering to yourself ‘that would be awesome…but I could never do that’. It’s the novel you’ve had in the back of your mind to write one day, the photo essay you’d love to go and make in Chad, the media start-up you’d love to get going…

Point is, dismiss them as you may, big goals are what really get us going; once we’re on the track to doing them, they get us out of bed in the morning.

Life Coach Jeff Archer says choosing big goals is vital: “Creating a future that excites you is of vital importance. If your future doesn’t excite you, then why go to all the time and trouble of making things happen?”

And Lindsey Agness at the Change Corporation agrees the goals must be “compelling”. She also says they must be all of the following:

  • Specific: “clearly define what you are going to do
  • Measurable: “if you can’t measure it you can’t manage it”
  • Achievable: “they should be within the bounds of possibility for you”
  • Realistic: “set the bar high enough to find out what you are capable of, but not so high you get frustrated”
  • Timed: “set a clear time frame for the goal”

So in practice this means avoiding goals like: “I will get a couple of articles published before Christmas” and instead going with “I will pitch 2 written articles and one photo-essay every month”.

02. write things down

Things start happening when you write them down. Apparently this has been proved by researchers at Harvard, who split a graduate class into those that had written down their plans for the future and those that hadn’t. And revisiting them 10 years later, the ones who had achieved what they wanted were those who put a pen to paper.

Mechanically, writing down ideas, dreams, plans on paper gets your mental juices flowing. You start to visualise what it might look and feel like to achieve them. And then you start doodling how to get there. The next thing you know you’ve got a list of steps to take to get you on your way.

And other people recommend keeping a journal, if you don’t already. Back to Jeff Archer: “Once you make yourself consciously aware of the highs and lows of each day you decide specifically what changes you’d like to make to make sure you can increase the positive and decrease the negative.”

On a practical level it means a quick post-mortem of your day or week and it keeps you focused on why you set out to do this all anyway.

03. visualise the process – and the result

Rehearse doing things and rehearse them going well.

The first part is as simple as going through the things you need to do (not plan) the next day: the phone calls you need to make, the film you need to edit, the blog you need to write; picture yourself in your head, sitting down at your desk making those things happen. Alternatively you can write down the steps and describe what it’s like to carry them out. Rehearsing those steps makes them easier to do the next day.

The second part is all about visualising success. Athlete’s vividly visualise winning the 100m sprint until they can almost taste the sweat and feel the flag in their hands. Career coach Jonathan Fields, who’s written Career Renegade: How to Make a Great Living Doing What You Love says this part is very important in overcoming any self-doubt:

Repeatedly visualising a deeply sought after goal, seeing, feeling, hearing yourself accomplish this goal, over and over, has a profound effect. It conditions you slowly away from self-doubt and disbelief and moves you increasingly towards belief.

04. the Dr Pepper test

This is asking yourself the question: what’s the worst that can happen? Taking the plunge, quitting your job, starting a company, even cold-calling some editors they’re all scary obstacles. If you’ve thought about going freelance, or retraining, no-doubt you’ve thought quite hard about failing:

  • running out of money
  • not getting a job interview
  • not getting any commissions
  • getting kicked out of your flat
  • defaulting on your mortage
  • giving up

These are the classic scenarios played out by a part of our mentality the NLP lot call the “limiting mind”. It’s the voice in your head which says “naahh, that’s too difficult“, “it’ll never work” “you? a novelist? give over“. Sadly for many people the limiting mind wins and we talk ourselves out of doing something risky.

How to overcome it? The answer, suggests Jonathan Fields, is to visualise and quantify failure – but only once. Sit down and write out exactly how failure would happen – if the worst came to the worst how long would you keep going? What would happen when you ran out of money? Where would you go?

You should (hopefully) realise that in fact you will always have a place to stay, you can always get another job, and failure isn’t that bad at all. When you stop being afraid of failing, you are unstoppable.

And accept: you will fail. So fail fast, and learn from it.

05. get messy

Right to business. If there’s one thing I’ve learned the best thing you can do to get started is…to get started. Sounds stupid I know, but my idea of ‘getting started’ was writing lots of to-do lists, creating a financial spreadsheet, reading books on freelancing. Surprise, surprise, nothing happened.

Then I realised I needed to start doing stuff. Ready or not, start contacting editors, start filming, start editing, start writing. Go out there, and do it now! The sooner you start doing things the sooner you get results. And the sooner you fail, so you can get over it.

Too many of us spend time being the proverbial think-tank, when we should be a do-tank.

06. don’t give up

And for the love of God don’t give up. This is going to be really hard, but as Corey Tennis pointed out it is supposed to be. Being hard done by is what makes us great writers. Pursuing this new world of multimedia journalism – which is right in its infant stages – means an uncertain future.

But any more uncertain than full time jobs and pensions? The recession has dispelled that myth.

When times get tough, read this inspirational piece of gold by freelance writer Tumblenoose:

Do not give up. Don’t you dare. You’re going to want to. You’re going to think that the security of a paycheck every two weeks is really worth the trade off for working for someone else. Don’t do it, you hear?

Remember your dream. Remember your bright-eyed, take the world by storm vision that sent you down the path. Yes, the journey is hard. Yes, you will be discouraged when you feel like nothing is happening, like you aren’t moving forward.  Hold your nose and stick through those tough times. Keep working your plan. Keep putting yourself out there. Keep making the connections. Keep building your community.  Do      not     give     up.

The final word

Life is either a daring adventure or nothing. To keep our  faces toward change and behave like free spirits in the presence of fate is strength undefeatable.

Helen Keller

The full 6×6 series is available here!

6×6: business

Posted in 6x6 series, Journalism by Adam Westbrook on August 24, 2009

6x6 advice for multimedia journalists

The fourth in a series of 6 blogs, each with 6 tips for the next generation of freelance multimedia journalists.

business

While the news industry is still in an uncertain and uncomfortable state of flux, one certainty has already emerged: journalists can no-longer just be journalists – they must be entrepreneurs too. It’s the difference between the ‘passive’ freelancer who writes to a few editors and waits for the work to come to them, and the ‘active’ freelancer who run themselves as a mini-business.

Until J-schools start adding business skills to the curriculum this will be something we’re all going to have to teach ourselves.

01. diversify

If you went into journalism to become a TV news reporter, and just a TV news reporter, the sad news is those days are over. As are the days of being paid to stay in nice hotels in foreign lands drinking cocktails.

In order to maximise your income, you will need to diversify your skills base. That means selling a range of skills and service, and not just journalism related ones. I know radio journalists who have a nice sideline designing websites, video journalists who run training courses, and photojournalists who work for non-profits.

Training can often be the most lucrative of these – but only consider this if you really know what you’re doing!

Diversify too in your client base. Pity the news-snob who just pitches to the New York Times and The Guardian! The digital revolution means there are more online-only news outfits, but they can be easier to pitch to.

Freelance science journalist Angela Saini offered me this advice recently: “I think it’s almost impossible to survive right now unless you freelance in more than one medium – so as well as doing VJ work, you may have to do radio and print too.”

If you’re a radio journalist you won’t survive as a just a radio journalist. Pitch for video, online, print…everything! Profiling multimedia journalist Jason Motlagh, David Westphal notes:

Motlagh doesn’t just write stories. He shoots still photos. He shoots and edits video. He does audio. He blogs. He narrates slide shows. And because he does all of those things, he says, he has a huge advantage over free-lance foreign correspondents working in a single medium.

Having multiple media skills is “still unusual,” he said. “There aren’t a whole lot of people yet who have gotten up to speed. If you are, you can make clients an offer they can’t refuse.”

02. find new markets

The entrepreneur, although a business profession, requires a lot of creativity. Just ask Richard Branson. From what I’ve gauged you have to be constantly brainstorming new markets and potential clients. And thinking outside the box reaps rewards.

Career evangelist and author of the popular new book Career Renegade: How to Make a Great Living Doing What You Love Jonathan Fields explores how to sidestep traditional career paths to forge your own unique way. He talks about “moving beyond the mainstream” and finding new markets in 6 different places:

  1. finding a hungrier market
  2. finding the most lucrative micro-markets
  3. exploiting gaps in information
  4. exploiting gaps in education
  5. exploiting gaps in gear or merchandise
  6. exploiting gaps in community

The first two are about digging deeper into the industry and possibly connecting two unrelated ones. A great example comes from a friend of mine, film maker Oliver Harrison. He loves cooking, and loves making films but couldn’t find a way to make any money out of either. After a lot of searching, he and business partner Simon Horniblow started talking to universities – and combined the two. They now run studentcooking.tv a very successful online cookery website for students. Would you think to do that? Think outside the box!

To Jonathan Fields:

“In thinking about potential alternative markets, or trying to find smaller, more lucrative submarkets, think about fields, careers, jobs, or paths where the elements of what you love to do are valued, but in short supply. You are looking for a market where your passion leads to: differentiation, hunger [and] price availability.”

Be practical and realistic though: is there really a demand for your new idea?

Here’s 3 examples of journalists who digged a bit deeper to find new markets:

Weyo found a new market in non-profits looking for quality storytelling

Weyo found a new market in non-profits looking for quality storytelling

Journalist Martin Lewis exploited a gap in the market for impartial financial advice

Journalist Martin Lewis exploited a gap in the market for impartial financial advice

Duckrabbit ex[ploited a gap in education and produce training courses in photography and audio design

Duckrabbit exploited a gap in education and produce training courses in photography and audio design

03. bootstrapping

Bootstrapping means starting your freelance business with little or no cash. It means learning how to get things done for free – and most valuable of all – learning to be careful with money.

The great news is you don’t need any money to start out and market yourself. A website domain name will cost you a small amount. But social media means you can market your talents absolutely free (see the previous 6×6 on branding).

Josh Quittner, writing in Time Magazine uses the term LILO – to mean ‘a little in, a lot out’: “At no other time in recent history has it been easier or cheaper to start a new kind of company. Possibly a very profitable company” he says. “[bootstrapping] means your start-up is self-sustaining and can eke out enough profit to keep you alive on instant noodles while your business gains traction.”

If this recession has taught us anything, it’s that the best business is built from the bottom up, on the funds available (not borrowed).

04. dealing with inflexible income

The biggest fear of starting a freelance career is money. Oh, and failure. ‘What if I don’t get any business?’ ‘How will I be sure I’ll always pay the rent?’ Truth is you won’t ever be sure, but that’s part of the thrill, right?

Still there are some things you can do to make the ebb and flow of freelance income a little more stable.

A good tip is to open up a separate bank account for your business earnings. Get Rich Slowly offers this advice: “Every month as you earn income, receive it (and leave it) in your business account. This is where you accumulate your cash. Because it’s in a high-yield account, it earns interest as it waits for you to use it.”

They recommend paying yourself a monthly salary from that business accountand leaving the rest for tax and other investments. The worst thing is to use the profits from a bumper month to pay for a bumper holiday, only to return to slim pickings.

But the best advice for living on an irregular income? Learn to live lite. Cut back on unnecessary spending wherever you can. Back to David Westphal profiling 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.”

05. find your creative time

Sure, for some freelancers the appeal of being your own boss is getting up at 10, watching some TV, doing some work, heading out on a night out without the guilt…and that might work for some. But the creative entrepreneur’s life is most likely to be a different one.

Just ask Mark McGuinness. He coaches creative freelancers and says for the successful ones, it ain’t no bohemian life:

After scanning my diary and surveying the tasks in hand, I was faced with a depressing conclusion. I was going to have to get up early.

He’s up at 6 in the morning, every morning, getting the crap out the way, like emails and the like.  He then says he has several hours free to work solidly on creative tasks, before the rest of the world gets up and the phone starts ringing. Know when you are at your creative best and ring fence it, so you can’t get disturbed. It might be 6am, it might be midnight. Whatever, just make sure it’s protected.

…when I look back over the last couple of years, the time when I’ve created most value, for myself and my clients, has been those first hours of the day I’ve spent writing blog posts, essays, seminars and poems. It’s the creative wellspring that feeds into all the coaching, training, presenting and consulting I do when I’m face-to-face with clients.

Treat it like a full time job too. If you can, work somewhere where you can commute to, or have some ringfenced office space at home. I recommend Mark’s excellent (and free) ebook “Time Management for Creative People“.

06. be lean, but don’t be mean

If you’re dreaming of going freelance, you might be thinking about holding off until after the recession. No need, says Leo Babauta 0f Zenhabits fame:

This is the best time to start. This is a time when job security is low, so risks are actually lower. This is a time to be lean, which is the best idea for starting a business. This is the time when others are quitting — so you’ll have more room to succeed.

And with social media and networking taking off, this is the easiest time to start a business, the easiest time to spread the word, the easiest time to distribute information and products and services.

Starting now though won’t be easy – and you’ll need to be lean. But that is such an important skill to keep things afloat later on. Be sensible with your money, don’t overspend. It’s the thing the big companies can’t do, and the reason they lose money hand over fist. And don’t be mean: journalism is a small village – make friends and keep ’em!

The final word:

Journalism.co.uk offer some great practical advice for freelancers, which cover things like registering as self-employed, pitching for new work and managing finances. And if you’re still unsure of taking the entrepreneurial route, just watch this:

Next: audio for multimedia journalist!