Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

Ideas 003: event based reporting

Posted in Ideas for the future of news by Adam Westbrook on December 4, 2009

I’ve opened up a new category on the blog. It’s called Ideas for the future of news and here I’m  collating good, tangible, positive, innovative ideas on how journalism can move forward.

Previous articles:

Ideas 002: students as investigators

Ideas 001: the news aggregator

Idea: The Berlin Project

By: Alex Wood, Sheena Rossiter, Marcus Gilroy-Ware, Dominique Van Heerden, Marco Woldt

The five people behind the Berlin Project are the perfect example of young journalists refusing to be battered by economic storms, or waiting for journalism to sort itself out. When many recent graduates would have been preparing themselves for another 3-week unpaid internship at some dodgy music mag, or scouring the papers for PR jobs, these guys decided to go do some journalism instead.

It takes a fair bit of chutzpah to fly yourself out to Germany to cover the Berlin Wall anniversary with no real audience and not much financial backing. But they did, and you can see the results on their website.

Under the banner “journalism like you never thought possible” they went into Berlin under the radar covering the unofficial story. The site is a real multimedia mash too with audio, video packages, mobile video and photographs rolled into one.

Something lots of the big boys talk about all the time, but rarely produce themselves.

This aside, I’ve labelled the Berlin Project as an example of event-based reporting, a different angle on journalism, and one perhaps with commercial possibilities?

The Berlin Project was about one event, and offering in-depth coverage of that time defined moment. It is nothing new of course, we’re all used to ‘special coverage’ of the Olympics, elections, and remembrance services in the mainstream media.

But until now, they’ve been an extension of larger broadcasters or papers.

I think the advantage of the Berlin Project is its size (small, nimble) and therefore flexibility. They were also able to work cheaply, getting footage on iPhones and editing it quickly with iMovie. All told, a valuable alternative to mainstream coverage.

And I wonder for a second whether there’s a business model here too? Imagine being commissioned to cover all sorts of awesome events, because its what you do really well. It’s not a traditional niche, but hey- a niche is a niche right?

The Berlin Project team were able to get backing from Reuters  and do some business with smaller sites and Alex reckons they’ll break even, all told. Not bad for a pilot project. And there could be plans for more events coverage in 2010.

And even if you don’t like the idea, these guys have shown what’s possible when you just get off your ass and do something.

Ideas 002: students as investigators

Posted in Ideas for the future of news by Adam Westbrook on November 18, 2009

Idea: the Innocence Project

By: David Protess & Northwestern University

This idea for the future of news has been around for 10 years, but I had never heard of it.

But when I did, just last week, it blew my socks off with its simplicity, and lateral thinking.

Under the leadership of experienced investigative journalist David Protess, students at Northwestern University rake through criminal convictions in their region. They hone their investigation and data mining skills checking the facts.

“Our goal,” writes Protess,  “is to expose and remedy wrongdoing by the criminal justice system.”

They focus on murder cases where the defendant has been sentenced to execution.

And to this day they’ve freed 11 men. Five of them have been saved from the chair.

Now that beats a 2:1 any day.

One of them was Anthony Porter, exonerated just 50 hours before being executed.

This isn’t so much an idea which has any business revenue potential obviously, although there’s a chance it could get a decent grant here and there. But what a way to get students engaged during their studies! And what a way to teach them the most difficult skill of all: investigation.

J-courses around the world: you don’t have to do cold convictions (in the UK for example, that would be – sadly – particularly hard); you could check council finances, plough through rejected asylum applications, fact-check all the decisions involving wind turbines approvals or rejections; the list is endless.

On top of its legal accomplishments, the Innocence Project has “sparked a debate” about capital punishment, and invoked the rath of lawyers.

Freeing Porter in 1999, the governor of Illinois George Ryan said “a system that depends on young journalism students is flawed”. But if, as some fear, a void will be left by the cutbacks at papers over the next 10 years, then this could be one way to fill some of the holes.

Your chance to get involved in the future of news

Posted in Ideas for the future of news, Journalism by Adam Westbrook on November 10, 2009

There’s lots and lots of talk about the future of journalism at the moment.

You can read it on blogs like this one, this one and this one.

You can occasionally read something new in one of the papers, like this one.

You can even pay some money and go to conferences.

And while they are all fantastic hotbeds for debate, they’re not really regular enough to be good forums for that most crucial currency of all: new ideas.

That’s why I’ve set up a new meet-up group to get things moving.

Futureofnews-meet1

It’s called the UK Future of News Group. If you are in the UK, or even better, in London then please think about joining and coming along to an informal meet up. It’s free, and you don’t even need to be a journalist- just interested about the future of journalism.

It’s perfect for bloggers, J-students, young journalists, J-entrepreneurs, hyper-locallers, lecturers not to mention seasoned old hacks. You could be working online, in print, on radio or with a camera.

The first meet-ups going to be in a bar near Waterloo, on the 7th December.

(hopefully avoiding any early Christmas parties)

What it isn’t, is an arena to repeatedly lament the death of print, or the end of quality journalism, or to go around saying  “paywalls must be the answer, journalists have got to eat!”

What it is, is a place where people can think positively, about tangible new ideas to determine the future of journalism. I hope someone will pitch a few ideas which we can all thrash out and stew over.

And maybe one of them will come up with the next big thing.

But most of all, I want it to be a forum where we can all have a say on the future of our craft, without having to pay hundreds in conference fees.

Interested? Sign up now!

Thinking of a journalism start-up? Here’s a checklist

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on November 5, 2009

If the future of journalism is indeed entrepreneurial, we have to start thinking with a business hat on.

It’s a big change in mentality for some journalists. I’ve been to several events and meetings recently where hacks have insisted people will have to pay for news “because journalists have to eat”.

This is upside-down thinking. People don’t buy iPhones because Steve Jobs needs to eat. They buy them because they are an innovative product which satisfies a demand people are willing to pay for.

And so it must be if journalists are to be entrepreneurs. I’ve put together a list of criteria a new business idea might need to satisfy to see it become successful. I don’t think a successful business will need to satisfy all of them, or maybe even 50%. But ignoring these questions means another financial failure…

News start-up checklist

  1. Is it a new idea?

  2. Does it have a defined target audience?

  3. Does it provide niche (i.e. hyperlocal) content?

  4. Does it satisfy a desire that is not being fulfilled by someone else?

  5. Or does it do something better (faster, cheaper, more effectively) than someone else?

  6. Does it actually have income potential, or will it rely on funding?

  7. Does it use the power of crowd-sourcing/community?

  8. Would it be fulfilling for journalists to work for?

  9. Does it publish/exist on more than one platform?

  10. If it has content, is it sharable?

  11. Does it require a lot of money to run?

  12. Does it have boot-strapping potential?

  13. Does it scale?

  14. Does it fulfill a public service?

  15. Is it a legally sound idea? What about copyright?

  16. Would it appeal to venture capitalists, angel investors?

  17. And…does it have a cool name?

That’s what I’ve come up with so far. I think if you answer these questions at the early stages, you’ll have a greater chance of your start up succeeding. What it says is a sustainable business – journalism or otherwise – begins with a solid well-defined customer base.

You need to know who these customers are, and be really clear about why you are providing something they can’t get elsewhere. Innocent Smoothies was begun by three British students in 1999 who realised there was a demand for healthy fruit smoothies, which wasn’t being satisfied by anyone else. It now has a revenue of £128m.

US start-up “incubator” Y-Combinator is looking for new media business ideas which embrace this form of thinking:

What would a content site look like if you started from how to make money—as print media once did—instead of taking a particular form of journalism as a given and treating how to make money from it as an afterthought?

Add more to the list in the comments below if you have any. And while you’re here, read the comments of one reader on an earlier blog entry. Some interesting criticism of the notion journalism is entrepreneurial at all…

What should we teach tomorrow’s Journalism students?

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on November 4, 2009

I was invited yesterday to join other journalism lecturers from Kingston University and advise them about the future of journalism.

Wisely, they’re getting together now to think about what the media landscape might look like in five years time, and working out how to adjust their teaching accordingly.

We went through lots of different scenarios, and I highlighted some of the following, which I think will be important skills for the J-students of the future:

Entrepreneurial skills

Jeff Jarvis, Hannah Waldram and others have already written much more about this, and I put myself firmly in this camp. Jarvis says it plainly: “The future of news is entrepreneurial.”

The monetisation of journalism will come from journalists, young or otherwise, launching their own enterprises serving a demand from a specific audience. It might be hyperlocal, or it might be niche.

But to achieve this, students will need to be taught these business basics: how to launch a start-up, how to manage money, where to get investment. And even: what is a good business idea?

The future media landscape won’t consist of a few big giants, but many, far smaller, enterprises. And tomorrow’s journalists must be prepared for this.

Social-network skills

Next, I pushed journalism students need to be social-media mavens. It is not good enough to be aware of blogs and Twitter. Or even to have a rarely used account. Journalism students must be fully immersed in these platforms (and what follows them).

They need to understand how they can create a community around a specific topic.

They must have experienced the exhilarating feeling of getting a spike in blog readers when they publish good content.

And they must know how social media markets their work.

New technical skills

I’m talking video shooting and editing, basic photography and photo editing and website design. HTML and CSS would be ideal. Simply because other journalists will have these skills – and you can’t afford to be left behind.

Old journo skills

And here I mean good writing, good storytelling. We talked a lot about what separates a journalist from a citizen journalist. I think the answer is the ability to identify news, to source it, to find people…and to publish it into good content.

…and the drive

You can’t teach this to kids, but you can try to instill some enthusiasm. It is no longer good enough (in any walk of life, save I dunno, chemistry, engineering etc) to walk into a degree and hope to walk into a job. That attitude will earn you a McDonald’s badge and not much else. Students themselves must crave success, and as Hannah Waldram puts it: “get-up-and-go to take them through the difficulties and pressures of doing something on their own…”

The fact journalism course are looking to the future now is a small, but important step in the right direction. What skills would you put on the curriculum?

Disclaimer: I am a part-time lecturer in Video & Photojournalism at Kingston University.

What Simon Cowell can teach you about the future of news

Posted in Broadcasting and Media, Freelance, Journalism by Adam Westbrook on October 26, 2009

Wanna big life? A big successful career? Wanna create something that makes a difference in the world? Maybe reinvent news?

The answer, we’re all told, is to think big.

“Your vision of who or where you want to be is your greatest asset” wrote Paul Arden, himself a successful advertising guru. For proof, look no further than two sheets of paper published by the Guardian newspaper today.

Named “the scribbled note that changed TV“, it is the result of a meeting between three people in 2001: TV executive Alan Boyd, and two music producers, Simon Cowell and Simon Fuller. Over an hour they discussed an idea for a new TV show, initially called Your Idol.

Image & Graphic from GNMIt’s a fascinating document for those of us who’ve followed Your Idol, into what became Pop Idol, American Idol, and now X-Factor. But it’s more interesting because it teaches us something about the power of thinking big.

Look at some of their notes:

“Gone With The Wind…never before have 50,000 people been auditioned”

“Arena, big space…multi camera”

“Nation’s No. 1 show”

These guys could have just pitched another reality show to be made in the style of Come Dine With Me or Celebrity Masterchef; and it would have had all the cultural resonance of those forgettable formats.

But they had an ambitious dream to create a product so big, it rivaled Gone With The Wind.

Their success shows the power of having an almost overwhelming dream to change the world. I once sat in on a talk with Alan Boyd in 2006 at City University: he claimed American Idol had introduced the concept of text messaging to the entire US, who until then just phoned each other.

When you have goals and a positive outlook, you have something to aim for. Having goals which get your heart racing is key to building momentum – because then you can’t imagine not achieving it…and you’ll do whatever it takes to get there. Cowell & Fuller had not met Boyd before this session, but somehow they got themselves in front of him.

So, as much as I’m loathed to hand something to him, take a leaf out of Simon Cowell’s book. Think big.

With the future of news & journalism still uncertain, this attitude is so vital in making sure we create an exciting future for it. I like to think someone reading this blog might have just the idea which will blaze the trail for the next 50-100 years: if that’s you, don’t settle for second best. Aim high!

5 reasons why UK newspapers still don’t get multimedia

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on September 24, 2009

I wrote last week about the growing gap between the US and Europe in the quantity and originality of multimedia journalism.

But as well as lacking style, originality, interactivity, some UK papers still have a worrying lack of quality.

I’ve put together some general examples so show what I mean. A couple of disclaimers though:

  • they’ve been collected from two local papers owned by one group, but the same issues seem to  exist in other groups in other parts of the country.
  • these are local/regional papers and it must be noted they have smaller budgets and prefer to give their print journalists a camera, rather than bringing in multimedia expertise
  • the following is not a criticism of the journalism, the quality of which is exceptional; rather the way it is presented

5 reasons why UK papers still don’t get multimedia

01. poor pictures

HDM-slideshow

Newspapers have a big advantage with pictures: they have professional photographers to take them. So why are the photographs on this website compressed so much? And why can’t we click on them to get a really big high quality version? (the answer I suspect lies in the fear of copyright)

02. weird web domains

HDM-web

My website is not called http://www.amalemultimediajournalistbasedinlondon.co.uk. Let’s call a spade a spade and maybe more people will be able to find the website. It’s a strange choice too, because the “This is…” brand, although used on all the local websites owned by this group, does not relate to the print version’s brand at all.

03. bizarre breaking news

HDM

This example shows three “breaking news” updates, on the same page, on the same story. As well as filling up the page with repetitive stories, it also diminishes the value of using “breaking news”. The solution: just update the single page – that way your readers can find all they need on a story in one click. (Again I suspect it’s designed to get more clicks rather than benefit the reader).

grimsbytel3

And I don’t need to explain why this “breaking news” is anything but.

04. uncontrolled comments

HDMtributes

This particular newspaper seems to have no problem with allowing comments on every story, including some legally contentious ones. I have read the likes of ‘the scumbag should rot in hell’ on coverage of murder trials, where the verdict is yet to be reached, as well as the quite frankly tasteless and upsetting comments allowed on the above example.

Notice too, how small and out-of-the-way the photograph is. It tells the story more than the words, and should be full size and central.

05. virtually invisible video

HDM-video2

This newspaper group takes its online video seriously and was one of the first in the UK to get its hacks trained. I have seen their small lightweight cameras appear at many crime scenes and press conferences. And while it is rarely cinematographic, it does deserve to be more prominent than the banner adverts which surround it. Shouldn’t it be in the central column?

It may seem otherwise, but I am really not trying to single out one paper or one group. These papers as you can see on some of the mastheads, actually won multimedia awards two years in a row! But we have to start recognising poor use of multimedia, discussing it, and improving it. The longer it remains amateurish, the fewer eyeballs it gets and ultimately advertisers/subscribers cash.

And as much as it may pain the wallets upstairs, these five examples will only get better with more cash, more investment and some multimedia trained journalists.

6×6: branding

Posted in 6x6 series, Journalism by Adam Westbrook on August 17, 2009

6x6 advice for multimedia journalists

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

branding

Even as far back as 2006, the likes of Andrew Neil appreciated the journalists of the future will need to brand themselves well. “The journalist of the future…will have more than one employer and become a brand in his own right” he wrote.  With full time jobs in well staffed newsrooms becoming more sparse, but opportunities outside traditional/mainstream journalism becoming more plenty, this prediction is coming true. So, what can you do to boost your brand?

01. own your name

The first thing to overcome is the embarassment or discomfort of ‘blowing your own trumpet’. For some people the idea of self branding is for cocky self promoters. Well guess what: if you’re going to succeed as a freelancer, some self promotion has gotta be done. Oh, and aim for confident, not cocky.

As a freelancer especially, your brand is your name. Therefore you need to own your name, especially in cyberspace. You should try and own your domain name (www.yourname.com or http://www.yourname.net or http://www.yourname.co.uk).  If you’re running yourself as a business with its own name that’s OK too.

Lisa Barone at Outspoken Media agrees: “It’s always better to have the username and not use it, then need to wait and kick yourself later when someone else grabs it. Having a unified social media username is very important in establishing trust with other members.”

Another unpopular thing to do: Google your own name. How far up does it come? If an editor or potential client needs to find you, you must be high up the rankings. You don’t need to pay for this (although you could); instead you should be putting up authoratitive quality content which gets you those all important links, diggs and retweets from readers.

Brian Clark, in his excellent Authority Rules e-book, makes the point that if “people think you’re important, so will Google.”

02. define your niche

The branding experts tell you if you’re going to have a brand, people need to know what you’re about. And you need to be able to give someone the elevator pitch about yourself too. A niche will give you a vital advantage over general-news journalists. Freelance science journalist Angela Saini for example knows what she’s good at (science) and has successfully built herself a reputation as a science journalist around that, in less than a year.

If you don’t have a niche, don’t worry too much. But just be able to sum up what you’re about: not only will it define your branding, it’ll help keep you focussed on what projects you pursue.

03. have a good great website and blog

As a multimedia journalist your content exists for the web. And so to not have your own web presence is ludicrous. But your website must be great (not just good). It must stand out and most importantly be designed to show off what you’re good at.

So:

  • if your selling point is the great photographs you take, make sure your website has a huge single column on the front page, with a flash platform displaying your best photos at their best
  • if you’re a video journalist, your front page should have an equally large single column splash video showreel
  • if you’re about the audio, think about getting a visually exciting audio player, again at the top of the front page

Here are three original, striking and inspiring portfolio websites to get you going:

6x6-portfolio-carmichaelx

6x6-portfolio-maisiex6x6-portfolio-monicax

A blog is another crucial element for the multimedia journalist, for several reasons. It keeps your website current and up to date; it allows you to build on your brand and show off your expertise with some well written authoratitive blogs; and allows you to build and engage with a community of other journalists and even clients.

Back to Brian Clark at Authority Rules: “Your content actually demonstrates your expertise, compared with a website or bio page that claims expertise.”

04. have a fresh CV and showreel

After your blog and front page portfolio, the most important thing visitors will need to be able to find is your CV/resume and showreel. Have it in the top navigation bar and in one of your sidebars.

Your CV must be in pdf format (or a Google Doc) and up to date. You can chose to have it typed up in the page as well.  Create an image button to make it more attractive. Mindy McAdams says your CV is  vital to prove your claims, so “your real work experience should be easy to find and easy to scan quickly. People will want to check this for verification, so dates should be clear, not obfuscated.”

Your showreel must also be up to date, especially if you are pitching for daily news work. Radio journalists especially: make sure your uploaded bulletin is only a few weeks old.

Upload your showreel and embed it into your web page. That way potential editors and clients don’t need to download large files to be able to see what you do. Vimeo is ideal for video. Soundslides does the job for photographs and audio slideshows. And I use Soundcloud for embedding audio. If you can, use flash to give your showreel some animation. Freelance radio journalist and web designer Katie Hall does this to good effect on her site.

05. keep your networks consistent

An important part of brand management is consistency. The internet is a hugely powerful tool for connecting with people, so it is important you spread yourself across as many social networks as possible: Twitter, LinkedIn, Wired Journalists, Demotix, Current TV and Facebook to name just a few.

But keep them all consistent. Have the same username for each – and make it your name. My Twitter name is AdamWestbrook, as is my Vimeo and LinkedIn profile. My Facebook URL is facebook.com/AdamWestbrook.

And do the same with images. Have one image of yourself (it’s called a Gravatar) and use that for your profile images. One name, one image, one brand.

06. get business cards

All these tips so far have been for branding yourself in the online world. Amazingly the real world hasn’t given up the ghost through lack of attention just yet, and it’s equally important to promote yourself at networking events, conferences and other shindigs.

Business cards are a neccessity. There are many sites offering this service, not to mention high street stores, but UK born website Moo.com has been recommended to me far too many times for it not to be good. They’ll even give you 50 free business cards as a trial.

The final word…

Now I know I’ve pushed for you to brand yourself as your own name as a multimedia journalist. It’s a lot quicker, cheaper and easier than creating an actual stand alone business. But a wise word of warning comes from James Chartand at Freelance Switch:

A personal brand traps you into always being present in your business. You will be at the mercy of your clients and your career…your personal reputation is at stake. One bad day, one slip, a job gone sour, an unhappy client spreading rumors, and your reputation is tarnished.

Next: video for multimedia journalists!

“for people to act, they must truly believe”: the charity message debate

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on August 14, 2009

How should charities, non-profits and NGOs get their message across?

It’s a question which has been passionately debated today, after Ben and David at the excellent DuckRabbit blog invited Pete Masters from Medecins Sans Frontiers UK web team to share the thinking behind a cinema ad, which to describe as hard-hitting, doesn’t even come close.

First, you have to see the ad:

See what I mean?

It is a short, simple and stungun method of storytelling: it sucks you in, and spits you out. Great. But does it actually get the MSF message out there? After all, where is this happening and why? You’ll no doubt have opinions on this, so make sure you share them with Duckrabbit.

They are just the small questions though, because Duckrabbit and MSF have inspired a far more significant debate: should charities be forking out for PR spin when they have real stories to tell?

You can argue after all, spending tens of thousands on a glossy ad is the media equivalent of paying “charity muggers” £10 an hour to harangue people in the  street.

I think the future lies in the aftermath of the revolution in journalism. It is already shedding jobs…and leaving scores of creative freelance journalists (many with multimedia skills) passionate about storytelling and passionate about social justice and fighting poverty.

Don’t think it’ll work? Lets look at some examples of journalists working for NGOs.

Weyo

Launched by two photojournalists in Virginia, Weyo brands itself as “storytellers to the non-profit world”. They’ve worked with the Edmarc Childrens Foundation and Physicians for Peace.  Founder Chris Tyree told the Resolve blog this week: “Nonprofits need us more than ever to tell their stories, and we have been able to attract people with not only great talent, but also great souls.”

WeyoPDN Online reckon this kind of work pays: “Weyo just finished one job that paid $10,000 for a 7-minute video and a Web site with “20-some” linked pages. Another recent job for a women’s shelter paid $15,000 for similar work.”

Chris Tyree: “for people to act, they must truly believe”.

Story 4

Born out of job losses at the Mercury News, Story 4 makes multimedia for non-profits from its base on the West Coast of the US. On their website they say: “We specialise in constructing vibrant visual stories. We partner with organisations to create rich multimedia content and collaborate to bring the clients mission and acheivements to life.”

David Walker in PDN Online says: “So far, Story4 has landed its present work and other projects by word of mouth. The company is currently finishing up post-production on a multimedia project for the Women’s Foundation of California.”

Duckrabbit

They sparked this debate today but they have also produced some stunning multimedia for charities, including Internews andthis piece on Sri Lanka:

There are others too, like Media Storm and the Bombay Flying Club.

At the heart of this lies the important question of how charities choose to spread their word. The public generally are now far less trusting of spin and PR. We want true stories, and we want them as gritty as the real world is. But we also want balance – and we recognise a third-world-cliche when we see it.

So to the non-profits of the world: who do you want to tell your story? A marketing firm, or a journalist?

6×6: starting next week

Posted in 6x6 series, Journalism by Adam Westbrook on August 14, 2009

The walls of the debate are shifting. People don’t want to be reminded how bad the newspaper/journalism sector is right now; they don’t want to read more introductions to articles reeling off the various nails in the coffin.

In the last couple of months we’ve started to see more articles looking forward. And that’s a positive thing.

A piece I wrote last month on what the journalist of the future might look like sparked a lot of debate – and got me working on something which I’m launching on Monday:

6x6 advice for multimedia journalists

Six articles, each with six tips for the journalist of the future. They’re going to be focused on the down to earth practical stuff, and cover six broad areas the next generation freelance journalist will need to be familiar with:

  1. Video
  2. Branding
  3. Storytelling
  4. Audio
  5. Business skills
  6. Making things happen

Some of them are new skills, which are just emerging; others are some of the oldest. And that last one isn’t a journalism skill, but I think it’s vital for freelancers if they’re not to end up sitting at home staring at their computer screen.

It starts on Monday with Branding – and as always, it’s never a complete list so feel free to add your advice in the comments!

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 10,225 other followers