Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

The last post

Posted in Adam by Adam Westbrook on October 4, 2012

After six years, 520 posts and who knows how many words, this is the last thing I’m going to write on this blog. 

It’s a decision I’ve been thinking about for almost a year and I’ve kept putting it off, partly because I still had things I wanted to figure out and share with you, and also because – believe it or not – this blog does make a bit of money!

But 2o12 has been a year of reflection and contemplation for me and ultimately of heading in new directions. Over the last few years my interests and passions have developed to the point where I now no longer think of myself as a journalist, but more of a producer and publisher. What I write about has gradually shifted from news to storytelling, to cinema to entrepreneurship, and I know that’s not what many of you come here for.

At the same time, how I think about creating stuff has changed and I want to focus my energy on building things that matter: films, magazines, books, businesses and more. Sadly a weekly blog post, and hours spent on Twitter don’t fit into that.

Parting gifts

I’ve spent some time bringing together 20 of my favourite pieces from the last few years and written five brand new ones, and put them all into a one-off collection. If you’re here for the first time and want the highlights this is for you, or if you want an intensive burst of ideas and inspiration in one sitting then I recommend it too. It’s completely free:  you can have the pdf right here, no email address or nuthin’.

Everything I’ve written on here will stay forever, for free. You can select just the video and storytelling posts or the entrepreneurship and creativity posts if you like, or just see what’s popular.

What next?

In a few months I’ll be leaving my life in London behind and seeking some new adventures. I’ll be heading to Paris in January and then to wherever the wind takes me. There is no plan or strategy, just embracing uncertainty, putting faith in having no plan.

I’ve got some bold new projects I want to start, some experiments I want to try and I’ll generally be gettin’ busy gettin’ messy. I’m still insanely passionate about creating insightful, intelligent and thought-provoking factual stories so a lot of my projects will be trying to solve this problem.

I’m also crazy about storytelling structure and visual storytelling and still have loads of questions about it. The response to the Inside the Story project earlier this year was awesome, and I have plans to develop it in early 2013, most likely in magazine form. If you’ve downloaded a free copy of the ebook, then you’ll hear about it later this year. Click here to get a copy if you haven’t already.

I’ll be location independent so I’ll still be working with clients in the UK and elsewhere and I’ll continue to be available for film, motion graphics and writing commissions. Click here to contact me about that. I’m also still consulting and training, and there are still a few spaces left on the next video journalism workshop in November. At the same time, if you’re an organisation committed to creating great narrative experiences anywhere in the world then drop me a line too, maybe we could work together one day.

Thank you

Finally, and most importantly, I want to say a huge thank you to you for reading all this over the years. You can double that thanks if you’ve ever left a comment after a post, triple it if you’ve retweeted, reblogged or shared a post, and quadruple it if you’ve ever bothered to send me an email. Knowing that something I’ve written has inspired another person, given them a new idea, or helped them do something awesome always puts a smile on my face.

After all this time blogging about journalism, what advice can I offer? Well, there’s a spot open for someone to share more new ideas about how journalism can be done better. If that appeals to you, then remember: be positive, not critical, share and inspire and above all be immensely generous.

Blogging is a great way to crystallise your own ideas and get feedback, not to mention a great way to learn, build a platform and a reputation. It worked for me and it was great fun, so go on, get busy writing. Here’s a series I wrote a couple of years back with advice on how to start your own blog.

Keep up!

I have honestly no idea what will happen next in my life but here are some ways you can keep up with whatever the hell does happen.

My Journal: I’ve slowly been building a personal online journal. Is it just another blog? Sort of, although it is really a blogazine, with each article individually designed, as a way for me to practice web design. It’s a 100% personal site, so if you’re interested in me as a person then take a look. Inspired by Robin Sloan’s brilliant tap essay I’m going to be making tributes to people, things, places and stuff that I really love.

My homepage: My main website is still there – it’s the best way to contact me.

Twitter: I’ll still be tweeting and tumblring, although a lot less frequently.

Hotpursuit.co: This is my new publishing venture..it’s just a top co right now, but will develop more in the future. Still you can sign up to the mailing list if you really want.

• • •

And lastly, I’m not stopping this blog because I have lost faith in the future of journalism or the industry. Quite the opposite. In the lifespan of this website we’ve seen journalism hit hard, and its foundations thoroughly shaken. But the last two years have brought an energetic burst of new ideas, platforms and experiments from ordinary people that I’m certain will propel us through to a remarkable new age, where stories are told, ideas are spread and the truth always challenged.

If you ever despair, remember: we are just at the beginning. 

False starts

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism by Adam Westbrook on August 27, 2012

Most of us, either through our upbringing, education or profession, have an aversion to making mistakes. Most of us too are governed in some way by a fear of failure.

Fair enough, but we live in a world, and work in an industry, where change is afoot and where innovation is desperately needed. This comes not from walking the line, but from making mistakes and experimenting.

As I start to wrap things up around here I’ve been looking back over some of the mistakes and false starts I’ve had over the last few years. There are lots of them. I hope that sharing mine will make you feel better about yours.

Here’s a quick list of some of the false starts I’ve had so far:

  • I blew my first potential gig as a film-maker, a commission to make a documentary for an NGO. In my naivety and desperation to get the gig I under-sold myself and gave a very cheap quote. Sensibly, they decided to go with someone more expensive!
  • I wrote an ebook of journalism skills for hyperlocal bloggers – it sold a whopping 15 copies
  • Next Generation Journalist did a bit better – it made enough to justify the time I spent on it – but sold far fewer copies than I thought it would
  • My Future of News Meetups in 2010 started off amazingly, but I was unable to continue them after 6 months (although others carried on the baton)
  • I spent about 5 months developing an idea for a new magazine with a friend, but we both lost motivation when we couldn’t marry it to a demand in the market.
  • I started a video business in January 2011 and it did really well. But when the web domain came up for renewal I decided to cancel it and end the business – not through lack of work, but all my clients were coming through me, not the business.
  • I worked with two great  journalists on ambitious plans to create a multimedia explainer of the Eurozone crisis last winter. The topic was so big and fast changing we had to drop it over Christmas.
  • I started a website called Volcano Love Stories which was going to collect love stories that emerged from the volcanic eruption in 2010. I only got one submission
  • Not to mention more than 20 films that have not made the splash I wanted, a dozen web domains bought and left to rot, and the countless ideas that sit in notebooks.

The point is, every one has false starts and stumbles. Everyone falters and fails, particularly on the way to doing important work. Although each of these were disappointing and painful at the time, I learned something important from each of them.

Don’t be set back by your personal false starts. The people who make it in the end are the ones who pick themselves back up, dust themselves off and get busy again. As long as you learn something from them they haven’t been a waste of time.

What have your false starts been and what did you learn from them?

10 ways to make waves in journalism & publishing

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism by Adam Westbrook on May 14, 2012

Our industry needs innovators, boat rockers, leaders, starters.

If you want to make your mark, get noticed, here are some ideas. These are things you can do as a journalism student, recent graduate, employee – whatever. They’re necessarily big (what’s the point in making small waves?) but manageable if you start small, take baby steps and gain momentum in your spare time.

  • Create a product (that’s a website, magazine, app, film, podcast, experience or book) that challenges how journalism is done right now.
  • Deploy new technology on journalism before anyone else does. Think of Not On the Wires‘ clever use of mobile reporting in 2009, and more recently Codoc’s ideas for layered video journalism.
  • Create a product that strives to do journalism better than the mainstream media (it’s not difficult).
  • Create an in-depth multimedia production that goes deeper into a story or issue than anyone has before. There are plenty of examples, from Powering a Nation, to The Ration.
  • Write a blog that challenges the status quo. Duckrabbit do this really well and everyone loves them for it.
  • Go in-depth into an under-reported community and create a site about them. MA students at City University in London have been doing this with good results.
  • Design products that savour in-depth quality over 400 word posts. This space is wide open right now, but it’s time consuming and hard to do. I’m really looking forward to Kirby Ferguson’s next project This is Not a Conspiracy Theory, but he’s spending months putting it together.
  • Find a gap in the market and go all out to fill it. Think of how Jamal Edwards has become well known in a whole music genre by pushing SB.TV or even how Poppy Dinsey saw a space in social fashion.
  • Be an experimenter and a ‘media inventor’ who’s always creating new things. Robin Sloan is one of my favourite people on the whole internet. Have you read his tap essay? You should.
  • Create something that looks fantastic and ignores the design conventions of the web.
  • Pick a niche and knuckle-down to become an expert in the space. This doesn’t mean getting qualifications, it means being generous with what you know.

Whatever you do, aim big and take no shortcuts.

The industry already has more reporters, subs, producers, editors and designers than it needs, and you’re up against thousands of others to become one of them. What the industry sorely lacks are people who come up with big boat-rocking ideas and execute on them.

Be one of those people and your career could take you to remarkable places. But you’ve got to make waves first.

Speaking of boat-rocking ideas, Inside the Story has already raised more than $2500 for charity and helped hundreds of people get better at storytelling. Have you got your copy yet? It’s only available for another 12 days.

The active way to start your journalism career

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism by Adam Westbrook on May 7, 2012
image SeanRogers1 on Flickr

First a quick update on Inside the Story, which has been on sale for 10 days now. It is selling extremely well, and has raised around $1700 for Kiva so far. I want to double this by the time the book goes off sale at the end of May though, so please tell everyone who’ll listen to get a copy!

If you’re not sure about it, then there have been some good reviews of the book so far on Innovative Interactivity, plus from other journalists.

The active way  to start your journalism career

One of the most popular posts on this blog in the last six or so months was a response to a query from Nick, a young Australian journalist. He wanted to know how to use the age of the online publisher to start his journalism career in the best way.

My main advice was to get to work, making high quality video stories, even with nobody to pitch to. Take the initiative, make a bold move, and create good content.

Well, I recently received a follow-up from Nick, which again, he’s kindly agreed to let me share with you.

Hi Adam,

Believe it or not, this morning I got offered my first real job in the journalism industry. It’s just as a Production Assistant at a TV news network, but most importantly it’s my foot in the door. Honestly, after three rounds of interviews it hasn’t sunk in yet.

The reason I’m telling you is because at the beginning of this year I decided to take some initiative, get out there and start creating stories. At the time I drew a lot of inspiration and advice from your blog and links. I bought a Canon 60D (with 50mm f1.4) on credit, found ‘free’ software, created a simple blog and began making videos. My videos are very amateur, but I’m convinced that the reason I got the job this morning was because of taking that initiative. And in part – that initiative was a result of reading your stuff.

First of all that’s fantastic news and congratulations Nick. I’ve shared this, partly to show that fortune really does favour the bold, but also to highlight some of the specifics of Nick’s approach that you can apply yourself.

The key is Nick’s decision to take the initiative, start a project, and get to work making videos. There is literally no excuse not to really, and if you’re a beginner, like Nick, then it is the only way to improve your craft.

Now, Nick says his videos are “very amateur” although I would beg to differ. Take a look:

First of all, I love the concept: give people an ice lolly in exchange for their opinion? Brilliant! If you don’t mind Nick, I will be borrowing that idea myself one day.  (Vox popsicle anyone?). His videos are creatively cut, perhaps inspired by the famous 50 people 1 question series, and he uses his DSLR camera and lens well.

The important thing is this: he has designed a project to channel his creativity and force him to create a series of content, just like some of the video producers I mentioned in the post before. I cannot stress the importance of this enough. It’s a clever idea, but not so ambitious it would take a long time to do (and cause enthusiasm to eventually fizzle out).

Secondly, Nick smartly doesn’t make a big financial investment where possible. He uses free editing and publishing software to get his content made. The music in his films are creative commons licensed. The only thing I’d advise is to avoid buying anything on credit as far as you can. From painful experience, borrowing money is not  a route to go down, especially early in your career.

That said, Nick’s investment in his camera does demonstrate one important thing: commitment. In buying a camera Nick is saying to himself, to the universe and of course, to potential employers, he is serious about this. He is committed.

From experience I can tell you that big projects often require a public demonstration of commitment, as if you are telling the Gods ‘I am serious about this shit‘. Once you make that commitment, you find things start to shift in your favour somehow: people start getting in touch, offers start coming through, inspiration takes hold.

Finally, and most importantly, Nick shipped. He started the Icy Poll project – and he finished it. That proves stamina, determination and an understanding of when something is done.

So, if you are sitting across the table from Nick at this TV News Network you see a young journalist with initiative, creativity, commitment, determination and leadership. Cool fact: they are five skills they don’t teach you at j-school and are therefore rare.

Prove you’ve got those skills too – through action, not words – and you’ve got a much better chance of standing out. The jobs market is not going to get easier: you have to get tougher.

The truth about entrepreneurship and journalism

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism by Adam Westbrook on April 2, 2012

Photo: KelBailey on Flickr

Why are there not as many entrepreneurial ventures in journalism and publishing as there could be? 

It’s a well rehearsed argument that it costs virtually nothing to start a web based business: you can start it from home, in your own time.  Meanwhile the potential to reach niche audiences with well crafted content about your own passions in life continues to grow.

It has nothing to do with the economy and education, or with business or journalism, or with the question about whether it is possible to pursue both of those things.

Instead it has everything to do with us.

Embracing the new age of publishing, however you do it, is essentially promising to start and finish something. Starting something (a book, website, new magazine, documentary, Kickstarter project etc) is an act of breathing life into an ephemeral concept that exists purely inside your own head. Taking a tiny spark of an internal idea and converting it into something solid and real with its own website, readers, fans, collaborators and maybe even its own company registration is relentlessly difficult.

Top tip #1: there is no scenario where it is not difficult.

In fact, I’d go a step further and say it is a fight, a daily punch-up with both your own demons and the apathy of everyone else. Look at the boxer in the banner above: are you interested in a life of stepping into the ring and getting the shit kicked out of you every day?

I’ve been doing a lot of hard thinking over recent weeks and months and I’ve decided that, personally, I am up for the fight. Not everyone is of course, and fair enough.

But if you are attracted to embracing these exciting digital opportunities, don’t be under any illusions about just how hard it is. The trick is to accept the fact it is going to hurt – and do it anyway

Top tip #2:the Inside the Story Facebook page is now live – make sure you give it a thumbs up!

The beauty of beta mode

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism by Adam Westbrook on March 19, 2012

Everyone should have the word ‘beta’ after their name. In fact, I’m thinking of putting it on my website when I give it a redesign.

It’s a reference you’ll probably recognise to new websites and businesses which often first go public in ‘beta mode’. It denotes that fact that they are still in a  a process of testing, experimenting, failing and debugging. Gmail was famously in beta mode for more than five years.

Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn says the startup approach can be applied to real people: their lives and careers ought to be in ‘permanent beta’. “We are all works in progress” he says.

Thing is, many people try to get out of the beta version of their lives as soon as possible, and into ‘finished’ mode: the complete career, the complete marriage, the complete house.

And us creative types: online publishers, designers, film makers and journalists do the same thing when we make something new. We rush to get it into perfect mode as swiftly as possible.

The problem with this approach to anything is it is extremely limiting.

Firstly, it limits ideation and iteration: two important parts of any creative process. If you aim for a perfect first shoot, it means your first idea has to be the best. Therefore you ignore all other ideas. You’re also less open to changing from that idea when something better comes along.

Quick tip#1: your first idea is never the best one.

Some say a good approach is a 10:3:1 ratio. You come up with at least 10 ideas, whittle down to the top three, and then pick the best. I used a similar idea with the Future of News mini-meetups in 2010, where I got people to brainstorm a large number of ideas around a problem, aiming for quantity over quality.

Secondly, and with more serious consequences, aiming for perfect limits your mindset. Rushing out of beta mode into finished mode makes you do dangerous things:

  • avoid taking big risks
  • avoid starting projects you don’t know for certain will work
  • discard projects you don’t think will make any money
  • delay or discard big dreams and plans for the future
  • settle

What if you were always in beta?

Imagine how your life would be if, instead of aiming to get out of beta-mode, you relished being in it.

Imagine relishing experimentation, failure, uncertainty, being scared and unprepared. Think of the things it would make you do. The projects you would start for the hell-of-it, and the serendipity that would create. The places you would travel to just to see what it was like, the events you would go to just because.

We would be more bold and more varied in our careers. Young people wouldn’t feel pressured into a specific career early on, or feel like they couldn’t move on to something completely different. More risky innovative projects would get started and finished, which in turn would affect and inspire more people. People wouldn’t wait for permission or the ‘right time’ to get going with something.

Quick tip #2: you don’t need anyone’s permission and the ‘right time’ never comes.

More people would get their hands dirty. We would stop trying to plan and prepare for things we can’t control. And if things don’t work out it’s not a deal-breaking catastrophe, just an opportunity to take stock, change-up and pivot to something new.

That’s what good startups do when they’re in beta mode, because it’s the best way to deal with the uncertainty of entrepreneurship. Isn’t it time we accepted our lives & careers today are filled with just the same uncertainty? 

Conventional wisdom and what it says about journalism

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism by Adam Westbrook on October 31, 2011

Image: saaleha on Flickr

I’ve overcome lots of hurdles to survive two years of freelancing in one of Europe’s most expensive cities, in the middle of a recession.

The biggest challenge though was the one I faced before I even started. Back in the summer of 2009 I wanted to go it alone and have some digital adventures, but in my mind I couldn’t see how it could work.

All the opportunities to make films, teach, train, write and start exciting new projects that now make up every working day were invisible to me, because I was looking at it through the eyes of conventional wisdom.

What is conventional wisdom?

These are the rules, made up by conservative types, and silently adopted by society, that say how things should be. Most crucially, they make assumptions about the present based on the past, and not the present or the future, which is where the problem lies.

Why am I writing about conventional wisdom? Because its rules and beliefs stop even the most ardent potential innovator or entrepreneur before they’ve even begun. Now is the best time and place to start new projects, take risks and make big ideas happen in our industry, but I worry that the best ideas never happen because conventional wisdom stops their creators before they even begin.

Here are some things conventional wisdom might be telling you: do any of them sound familiar?

  • You need to ‘do your time’ before you can do any of the fun stuff in journalism
  • You need decades of experience in journalism to train other people how to do it
  • The economy is too weak to launch a new magazine
  • You’re too old to change career
  • You need an MBA to start your own business
  • You need a degree to become a journalist
  • It’s easier/more realistic to make £40k a year than £1million
  • It’s impossible to make money from blogging
  • You need an office to run a business
  • You need to wait until you’re 40+ to become a foreign correspondent
  • Getting a ‘proper job’ (no matter how poorly paid) is more secure than going it alone
  • You need to be talented in order to achieve great things (as opposed to just working damn hard)
  • You need to be good at maths/science to be able to understand coding
  • If you can’t get a good job you need to get another qualification

I have proven most of these wrong in the last two years; the others I have watched friends and colleagues disprove.

Conventional wisdom is dangerous because it stops us doing the things we know we really want to. It stops people who ought to do great things, stretch their abilities on ambitious work and ultimately shape the future of journalism and publishing.

On the flip side, of course, conventional wisdom does have one advantage, according to Jonathan Fields, author of Career Renegade*: it “thins the herd of competition” and makes it easier for those who are bold enough to forge their own path.

Is conventional wisdom affecting the choices you’re making in your career?

*Affiliate link

Online video and entrepreneurial journalism: a round up

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism, Online Video by Adam Westbrook on October 3, 2011

It’s time for another roundup of the most popular posts from this blog from the last quarter. I put these together every three months to put the most interesting stuff together in one place – and show up some posts which might be harder to find. 

Here are the summary posts from earlier this summer, and the spring, in case you want  delve deeper into this year’s archives.

Don’t forget – to make sure you never miss a new post, subscribe to the email newsletter on the right hand side of this screen. And you can keep track of me online on Twitter, Tumblr, Audioboo and Vimeo.

Online video

Six new ways to use online video: six ideas on how publishers, organisations and businesses can be more creative with video.

How a university took a risk with video – and it paid off  : a brilliant example of why being brave with video pays dividends for those with the foresight to do it.

Storytelling – the changing game: audiences are getting involved in the storytelling process – find out why that matters for journalists.

Reacting to a riot: the hard lessons I learned during the summer riots in London.

Lessons from the first ever novel for the first online video producers: what do novels, cinema, radio, television and now, online video, have in common? Find out here.

The value of making your journalism ‘finishable’ : the Economist prides itself on being ‘finishable’ – why doesn’t more journalism do the same?

Entrepreneurial Journalism

Lessons I’ve learned as a freelance journalist with a portfolio career : six tips on how to manage a busy portfolio of work and keep your head above the water.

10 myths which will stop you innovating in journalism: journalism needs innovators, but here’s why no-one dares tread on new ground.

Lessons from Monty Python for digital publishers: if Terry Gilliam were a 17 year old today he’d be a prolific online publisher – here’s why.

10 ways to make the most of your journalism course: starting a journalism course this autumn? Make sure you read this before you begin.

How to always have good ideas: ideas are the building blocks of journalism and publishing. But how do you stop yourself running out of them?

The age of the new media pioneer – and how you can become one: this is the most exciting time to be in journalism – but you have to make the most of it.

10 things you’ll hear at every journalism conference: a little bit of fun from me – the 10 cliches of every conference out there.

My call for transparency in journalism: it’s time for transparency in journalism – find out why.

10 things you’ll hear at every journalism conference

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism by Adam Westbrook on September 5, 2011

The 2011 conference season is almost over, with just a few events left to go.

After a busy 2010 attending these things I promised myself to go to less of them in 2011. That is a resolution I have profoundly failed to do. Oh well.

You have been spared the sight of me presenting at many though, so far at least. I am looking forward to talking about storytelling and journalism at the next News:Rewired conference in London on the 6th October. There’s an excellent line-up so far, so if you’re in London, make sure you get a ticket. Also in London, the Wannabe Hacks folks are organising an interesting alternative conference for younger hacks too.

10 things you hear at every journalism conference

1. Twitter/Facebook/Live-blogging is “just a platform”

2. We need to remember what journalism is “all about”

3. “…but where’s the money?”

4. “Is anyone else having trouble with the wifi?”

5. “…we’re all about ‘engaging with users'”

6. A reference to Andy Carvin or Neal Mann

7. News is “fragmenting” (whatever that means)

8. Journalism students must blog/tweet/do video or they won’t get a job

9. An obvious statement about what journalism is (i.e: ‘a journalist’s role is to sift through mass of info to find out ‘what is important’ & ‘what is true”)

10. And, usually from someone afterwards “there’s too much talking and not enough doing*”, followed by “so are you going to the next conference?**”

*This is usually me.

** So is this

There are many more, of course – add your own suggestions in the comments below! 🙂

10 myths that will stop you innovating in journalism

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism by Adam Westbrook on August 15, 2011

If there’s anything I’d ever wish you to take away from reading this blog over the years, it would be the following ten points. 

They underline everything I’ve learned in two years of searching for new ways to do journalism, and the four years of reporting before that. Please share with anyone you think wants to do big things – but is holding back.

10 myths that will stop you innovating in journalism

.01 you don’t have enough time

Truth: you will never have enough time, so just get on with it.

.02 you don’t have enough money

Truth: you will never have enough money, so just get on with it.

.03 you don’t have a good idea

Truth: everyone has good ideas; they just don’t write them down – so start writing every one down.

.04 you don’t know video/web design/HTML/CSS – it’s too complicated

Truth: Nothing is too complicated so buy a book and teach yourself

.05 your idea will never work

Truth: Most ideas don’t work. But they often create opportunities for better ones, if you start them

#6 It’s safer/more secure to get a ‘proper’ job

Truth: the recession has proven that job security does not exist.

.07 If you take a risk and fail you’ll go bankrupt/get in trouble/will never be employed again

Truth: obviously it’s up for you to weigh up your own personal risks; most people find though that fears of bankruptcy/bailiffs/divorce and homelessness are mere phantoms.

.08 There’s no point in going out to write an article/shoot a film if no-one’s going to pay for it

Truth: then you’re denying yourself great opportunity to practice and master your craft (unless you’re the greatest journalist/writer/film maker the world has ever seen)

.09 You’re the greatest journalist/writer/film maker the world has ever seen – and as soon as people realise, you’ll get the job you deserve

Truth: you’re not, so just get on with it.

.10 This is too difficult and too much like hard work.

Truth: Life is difficult for everyone, so just get on with it.

The hacking of Rome: it’s time for transparency in journalism

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism, Journalism by Adam Westbrook on July 14, 2011

Image: TheSun/SkyNews/Twitpic

The Sun newspaper runs a front page article today in which big-rival the Guardian apologises to the tabloid for claiming they hacked the phone of former Prime Minister Gordon Brown. 

The Guardian said the Sun got its exclusive about Brown’s son’s battle with Cystic Fibrosis by reading confidential medical records.

Of course, this comes amid a plague on the House of Murdoch as allegation after allegation about News International’s hacking exploits swarms through all the press – a lot of it after dogged investigation by The Guardian (and in particular, investigative journalist Nick Davies). The News of the World’s sudden Mubarak-like fall has put the other media sultans in a nervous position.

Now you could view The Guardian’s apology as embarrassing for the paper who has led the charge against hacking.

But there’s something else at play. Slowly (painfully, unwillingly) – but surely, we are seeing a long overdue process appear in journalism: transparency.

II

Say what you like about journalism today – it is not in any way transparent. As consumers (and in the case of the BBC, funders) we are never told where our news comes from: we aren’t told if it’s from a private briefing, a press release, in exchange for cash – or even copy and pasted from the wires.

We have no way of understanding who “sources close to David Beckham” might be. Stories ripped from agencies are often bylined with a fictional name (I’m told this is true in major broadsheets, not just tabloids).

And it’s not just something endemic in the press: I’ve written before about the lack of transparency in mainstream broadcast media too. The BBC, Sky and ITN use agency footage as if they shot it themselves.

This is something that really, really bugs me. I’ve tried to counter it, by publishing full source lists & data in my own journalism, and by pitching ideas for how technology can add layers of transparency to current journalism.

And you know what? It’s not about being right all the time. What a stupid pedestal to position yourself upon. The world is not a clear-cut, yes-and-no place. A fact today is not necessarily a fact tomorrow. If journalism accepted the uncertainty in the world as readily as most of its readers & viewers it wouldn’t get itself into such a mess.

III

The quite fantastic thing about all this terrible hacking business is that it’s forcing journalists – like those working for The Sun and The Guardian – to be accountable for their work, on their own front page! This was inconceivable a few months ago.

Now, imagine a future where all media is transparent by nature. Where journalists are properly accountable, but also more accepting of the random unpredictability of life, celebrating it instead of trying to control it. A future where mistakes are made – but acknowledged without embarrassment or shame. We all make mistakes don’t we?

The Guardian though has its own correction/apology f0r the Gordon Brown story buried at the bottom of the online article; is it embarrassed a mistake was made, or afraid of transparency as much as everyone else?

For transparency to really happen, a lot of shit has to be cleaned out of a lot of media stables. The media-vine is alive with claims many other organisations will be exposed for hacking, and before long will be forced into their own humble mea culpa.

Perhaps then journalism won’t take such a gloating view over other peoples’ failings, and be more willing to acknowledge its own.

myNewsBiz 2011: what does it tell us about entrepreneurship?

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism by Adam Westbrook on June 24, 2011

So the winners of myNewsBiz have been announced and that wraps up the pilot of our entrepreneurial journalism competition for this year.

The two winning ideas reflected the breadth of entries we received. The winner, Visualist, an idea by City University students Nick Petrie and Ben Whitelaw (of Wannabe Hacks fame) aims to provide journalists in smaller newsrooms with the skills and tools to do data journalism. The judges felt it brought something new to journalism, and targeted a very popular area in journalism today.

The runner up idea was a great idea for a magazine, called Relish, submitted by four students at Kingston University, London. The judges loved the name, but also the fact that it targeted a clear, new and gadget hungry audience – men who like cooking.

Read more about the entries and the judges’ comments here. And there’s more coverage on journalism.co.uk.

What did we learn?

All that’s left to do is give the two winners their £1000 and £500 respectively to spend getting their business ideas off the ground. We announced the competition last November and we wanted to achieve two things (as well as give out cash to good business ideas):

  • we wanted to get more journalism students actively thinking about how business/enterprise works
  • and I personally wanted a snapshot of how the next generation of journalists perceive entrepreneurship, after lots of talk on both sides of the Atlantic.

We achieved the first measure, and then some. As well as a series of online training videos, I visited lots of universities to talk about entrepreneurial journalism and promote the competition. Even those who did not win benefitted from the process of idea generation and asking themselves important business questions, like what is their USP and what are their revenue streams.

And there were some excellent ideas submitted, with a variety of products and services. Among those that the judges highly commended were:

  • a magazine aimed at students
  • Plastik magazine, already doing well in South Wales
  • a magazine for young lesbians
  • an online CV service for journalists

Many of the entries though (understandably!) showed little or no knowledge of what makes a good business idea. Those that scored badly did not have a clear target market identified, or any concept of how or where revenue would be made. Only a small handful of entries had really considered the figures, and were able to say “we’d need to sell 5,000 copies to break even.”

Interestingly (from my perspective, anyway) none of the entries really investigated the potential of launching an intentionally small company with low overheads and exploiting lots of free tools; the majority of entries pitched mainstream-style products (printed magazines) despite the high costs and risks associated with that. Similarly, all but two ideas were for products (even though the idea the judges liked best is a service business).

Five big mistakes lots of first-time entrepreneurs made:

.01 no clear market: lots of entries did not really know who they were trying to target with their idea; great businesses (including publishers) work when they help a specific – easily identifiable – group of people with a specific problem.

.02 choosing a market with little money: those that did know who their audience were had chosen markets where not much money flows – so there was limited chance to sell products, events or services to your audience. By contrast, the judge’s second-favourite entry has a gadget hungry market who are interested in buying.

.03 pitching a product with little value: another common problem was to pitch something that the world doesn’t need. This included blogs, podcasts or magazines that talked about general areas like music, film or sport but didn’t offer anything useful. You have to make peoples’ lives better if they (or advertisers) will part with their cash.

.04 spending money badly: most people did not have a good idea of how they would spend the £1,000 if they won it, often wanting to spend large chunks on posters, clothing or stationary. This can happen to experienced entrepreneurs too though!

.05 their idea doesn’t replicate or scale: finally, the judges were most keen on business ideas that had the potential to grow, or be replicated elsewhere. Too many of the pitches were reliant on the passion/work of one person.

Some interesting early reflections then, which I will delve into in more detail as part of research I am carrying out for Kingston University this year. Clearly, interest in entrepreneurship is yet to grow beyond a small number; the vast majority of student journalists & graduates would rather pursue the traditional path to work.

I believe though that competitions like this are vital if more students are to equip themselves with entrepreneurial skills. I’m undecided about running it again next year, although if we did, we would look for sponsors to get involved. If that sounds like something you’re interested in, then please do get in touch.