Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

My first video journalism shoot with the Canon550D

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on May 7, 2010

I was recently commissioned to produce a five minute video package ahead of this week’s General Election in the UK, on the controversial ban on prisoners being able to vote.

It was a commission for the VJ Movement, and has since been featured on Radio Netherlands Worldwide.

It was also the first test for my new Canon 550D DSLR camera and related paraphernalia which I introduced here.

Click here to watch it.

The story

We spent a fair amount of time thrashing out the story arc for the piece, something VJ Movement take very seriously.

Together we’re trying to produce video journalism which doesn’t conform to the old rules of a TV news piece. This first commission doesn’t quite go the whole way with that, but the opening sequences and the atmospheric introduction of the main character attempt to try a few different things.

We used John as the main character to drive the narrative forward, rather than flipping between talking heads, which works well, and he lent himself well to colourful soundbites and nice sequences.

The story is limited though by its complex and legal nature; there’s a lot of elements to it not just John’s personal story which all need to be included – a challenge to both shoot and write to.

The gear

For the most part the 550D performed well, and produced some excellent images. I have the most basic 18-55mm lens but it’s a good all-rounded for most shots. Importantly it performs very well in low light, which helped in the darker locations I was filming in for this piece.

It also produces a nice colour for the images. Some limitations with recording time though: you can only record for a maximum of 12 minutes at a time, regardless of the size of your SD card (I have absolutely no idea why). You might also spot a couple of out of focus shots too, a result of not being able to focus properly on the LCD screen.

The rough edit contained a few handheld shots but we removed them as they were too shaky. Being an SLR it’s not an easy camera to keep steady…more support, if anything, for always using a tripod where you can.

The biggest challenge, as with all the DSLRs is audio. As well as a Rode VideoMic attached to the camera, I recorded all the interviews separately onto a Tascam DR-07 and synched it in Final Cut Pro.

I am very happy with the quality of the audio – but ran into trouble with frame rates. If, for example, I changed the shutter speed down to 25fps to brighten the image, the audio recording was not recorded at the same speed.

All minor problems to iron out with more practice, and I personally don’t find it too much of a hassle to sync the audio in post – if it means the sound is good quality.

No grading was done to this film – more out of a lack of time rather than anything else. I’m hoping to get more aquainted with Apple’s Color in later edits.

The DSLR debate

I’ve enjoyed working the 550D: very happy with what I got for the price and also glad to have the flexibility to take photographs and produce audio slideshows with a single camera.

Meanwhile the debate over whether video journalists should use DSLR cameras continues; the detractors – for example Cliff Etzel in this post – label it a “fad” and accuse users of a “lazy” obsession with shallow depth-of-field:

There are many who have become enamoured with the so called uber cool extreme shallow depth of field flavor of the moment, equating it to creative license and thus making it their top priority, and in the process, losing sight of the first rule of solo video journalism:  It’s the story, not the gear.

And of course Cliff is right, it’s the story not how the pictures look…but personally, I think it’s possible to care about both.

What do you think?

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In London? Get to the Future of News meetups!

Posted in Ideas for the future of news by Adam Westbrook on May 5, 2010

As you may remember, last year I founded the Future of News meetup group; a monthly gathering of journalists, entrepreneurs, students, academics and web geeks to thrash out solutions to journalism’s problems.

The rules of the meetup are simple:

  • it’s free
  • anyone can rock up
  • negativity of any kind is banned
  • as are phrases like “news is dead” and “that’s a crap idea”

Four meetups later and the group is going strong with nearly 300 members, and three local spin off groups in Brighton, Birmingham and Cardiff.

After the UK general election is out of the way on Thursday, we’re having no fewer than two meetup events this month – if you are in or near London please come along!

01. what can we learn from social media & the general election?

Thursday 13th May – details here.

This election is the first where a fully developed social media landscape has been present. How has that affected the campaign, the outcome and how people voted?

More importantly, what can journalists learn from how social media was used during the election campaign? What can we apply to new business ideas and big events in the future?

We’ll be hearing some as yet unpublished figures from UK startup UltraKnowledge who are monitoring social media activity as we speak. The information, including data on what days, parties, events were most popular, won’t have been seen before, so it’s worth heading along to get your eyes on that alone.

Afterwards we’ll be asking how journalists can apply social media for more profitable ways in the future. It’ll be one of our regular big ideas sessions, so if you want to come along, click here to sign up.

02. the entrepreneurship special

Tuesday 18th May – details here

Lots of commentators including Clay Shirky and Jeff Jarvis have been saying the future of journalism is entrepreneurial for some time. But becoming one is easier said than done. What makes a good idea for a news business and how do you even go about starting one up?

We’ve got three speakers lined up who can answer all those questions, including the CEO of a TechCrunch rated startup.

If you would like to launch your own news business (an online magazine, sharing site, social media platform etc.) but don’t know where to start then this event is a must. Spaces are already filling up fast. Click here to sign up & get a place.

There’ll be more future of news meetups over the summer, so make sure you register to get all the information.

Meet the man making money from his blog

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on May 3, 2010

This is John Hirst. You might recognise him if you have read any of my articles or seen any of my multimedia on the prison votes case.

While serving 30 years for manslaughter he taught himself law and is hounding the government for its slow action on giving inmates the vote.

As you can see, John has a new widescreen flat screen TV in his living room.

He’s  also got a brand new vacuum cleaner and he’s bought his girlfriend a ring.  John told me, when I popped round to his house in Hull last week, that it’s all been paid for…by his blog.

Yes after I wrote here that journalists need to move away from ad revenue as a the way to monetise a website, John has sort of proved me wrong, as one of the few bloggers I can think of making money from pure advertising alone. It’s not Google Adwords though; John’s been approached by insurance companies who he charges a flat annual fee to put banners on his blog.

John’s site, the Jailhouse Lawyer get’s around 500 hits a day, but it can go up to 2,000 when he writes something controversial about Guido Fawkes or Madeleine McCann.

I say sort of proves me wrong: imagine how much extra John could get if he leveraged his blog to publish other products…

Idea 006: using geo-data during elections

Posted in Ideas for the future of news by Adam Westbrook on February 12, 2010

Apologies for the break in compiling Ideas for the Future of News. The hiatus is over! Over the next week, I’ll report on several other innovative, practical new concepts which could move journalism forward. To see previous ideas, check out the Ideas For The Future Of News page.

Idea 006: the MP candidate tracker

By: Jo Wadsworth, Steve Bustin, Sarah Marshall and others; Brighton Argus Newspaper

This idea, I am very happy to say, emerged at one of the new Future of News Meetup events which have sprung up across the UK since the first London event back in December.

The idea is pretty much as it says on the tin,  allowing web users to report and track the locations and activities of the various parliamenary candidates in the run up to the fiercely contested UK General Election in Spring 2010. According to Journalism.co.uk:

“The map allows Google account users to mark where they have seen candidates for the Brighton Pavilion constituency – Green Party candidate Caroline Lucas, Labour’s Nancy Platts and the Conservative’s Charlotte Vere – and upload additional information about what they said.

“The MP candidate tracker page also displays tweets sent out by each candidate.”

This is a great example of new technology and lateral thinking being applied to really provide the public service journalism is all about. Although the project is in its infancy, you can imagine it having some influence, if voters are able to see which candidates have been sitting on their backsides during the campaign.

It is also a good example of the potential of crowdsourcing, and involving the public in newsgathering. Are there some issues around privacy and the accuracy of the information provided though?

The concept isn’t entirely new either. Radio stations have been using map mashups to plot traffic delays for at least 18 months; Viking FM in Hull used a map mashup to add colour to coverage of the disappearance of Claudia Lawrence in 2009.

A business model?

This idea’s real value is in its public service; enough hits and perhaps there are some advertising or sponsorship possibilities for the Brighton Argus, just as radio news has sponsors for its sport or weather bulletins.

And perhaps there’s a model to outsource this idea too. A company, perhaps, who specialise in geo-tagging and data mashups, who could then sell innovative packages to newspapers, magazines and other websites?

The General Election should really fuel innovative new ideas like this, as we saw in the US during the 2008 election campaign. Will journalists, broadcasters and papers live up to this challenge?

What do you think? And if you’ve got an innovative idea for the Future of News yourself, drop me a line!