Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

Inside the Story: setting up your story

Posted in Online Video by Adam Westbrook on April 19, 2012

First of all, an exciting announcement.

After three months of work, Inside The Story: a masterclass in digital storytelling by the people who do it best is ready to launch, and will go on sale one-week-today: Thursday 26th April 2012 at 0800 BST. It’s now more important than ever that you’re a fan of the Facebook page or subscribed to the mailing list to make sure you get your copy!

The English version will be available first, with editions in German, Spanish and Catalans on the way in May. This is totally a fundraising exercise, with every penny from each sale being donated to Kiva, the developing world entrepreneurship charity.

But what’s in the book?

I’m really confident you’re going to love Inside The Story. For a start, there’s no other book, or website, like it. It’s a real masterclass in what it takes to create high quality, remarkable stories for the web. If you’re making films, designing graphics, animations, websites or podcasts and struggling to make it as good as you know it can be, you’ll find this book incredibly useful.

The contributors are almost all award-winners, and are behind some of the most popular productions on the web – you can get a sneak at some of the names here. And all their advice is ridiculously practical. To give you a taster, for the next week, I’ll be releasing short previews of some of the contributions.

How to set up your story like a pro

Let’s start at the beginning. How do you set up, research and prepare your stories to give them the best shot at being remarkable? The resounding thought from all our contributors is that preparation is key – and so are people.

Drea Cooper is one half of the team responsible for the quite extraordinary California Is A Place web series, which portrays fascinating characters from the US west coast with beautiful heart-breaking flair. Their latest film, Aquadettes, which tells the story of a group of elderly synchronised swimmers will get an airing at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Drea gives some great advice about finding the right people in Inside The Story, and for him, finding characters is key:

Whether it’s fact or fiction, dynamic people and characters bring stories to life.  Any film, short or long, should have a dynamic person at its center.

But, Drea warns, it’s really not as easy at all. California Is A Place is celebrated for the incredible characters it features – and in Inside the Story Drea reveals how he, and partner Zachary Canepari go about finding them.

A sneak preview at some of the pages in Inside The Story

Once you’ve found the right person you need to make sure your research is up to scratch, says producer Ben Samuel who makes documentaries and history programmes for the BBC, on his page.

“Whatever field of human endeavour your story focuses on, there are experts who – more often than not – will be happy to give you an excellent grounding in the topic. And secondly, if your research isn’t quite up to scratch, there will be people who will clock your mistake, no matter how obscure your subject matter is.”

If you’re stuck for where to start researching, Ben gives some brilliant advice about where to start with your research, and a clue to the best research source of them all (and no, it’s not the internet).

Finally, some great practical advice from Guardian photojournalist and film maker Dan Chung, based in China. Dan’s covered everything from the Japanese Tsunami aftermath to life inside North Korea, stories you can’t just stroll into.

“Prepare yourself physically and mentally if the story requires. Think about the possible scenarios that will unfold and make contingency plans for them – both journalistically and technically.”

He outlines his preparations for each story in more detail in Inside The Story, one of more than two-dozen hand crafted chapters by some of the best digital storytellers on the planet.

So here’s the drill: find out more on the website….join the Facebook group…and tweet out loud: #insidethestory! There’ll be another sneak preview on Monday.

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If newspapers were run like CDBaby.com

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism by Adam Westbrook on November 7, 2011

Image: NS Newspapers on Flickr

Entrepreneurial journalists – if we call them that for now – are rare, despite the opportunities out there. 

When you do find people who are brave enough to start their own news business, many choose to replicate an existing news business model. People who launch an online magazine or website do it just like a newspaper would, right down to the use of terms like ‘editor’ and ‘reporter’, banner ads, the use of TV-style video and even a newspaper layout on the page.

Which is funny because the newspaper model is a failed business model: it just doesn’t work in the 21st century. Even the newspapers know it: their only chance of survival is to change themselves.

Instead: starters, entrepreneurs – whatever you want to to call them – should look at the business models that do work, and apply them to news.

The Guardian famously looses £100,000 every day: what idiot would copy a business model like that?

If newspapers were run like CDBaby.com

CDBaby is a well known music retail website, that was both Amazon.com and PayPal before either of them were invented. It was set up by a musician called Derek Sivers, for just $500 in 1998. In 2008, he sold it for $22 million.

Derek’s just published a great book which I encourage any wannabe entrepreneurial journalists to read. It’s called Anything You Want* and it’s the latest release under the innovative Domino Project (which I’ve written about before).  Anything You Want is full of stories of Derek’s process of creating CDBaby and lessons for the entrepreneur: it shows up why you can’t just assume the ‘conventional’ business model will work for you.

And it got me thinking: what if Derek Sivers was a journalist and not a musician? How would his ‘newsbaby’ website look? Here’s how I would run a news business like CDBaby.com.

.01 it would start by helping people

Derek’s founding idea is that creating a business is about creating a “perfect world” for you and your customers, where “you control all the laws”. It starts, he says, with helping people. For him, he was helping musician friends find a new platform to sell their music, and later on, it became a place where music fans could easily find music by independent artists.

Too often, I think journalists forget how and why journalism helps people. Why does it make the world a better place? What perfect world is it creating? This too, takes us to niches, small but passionate audiences, and creating valuable content that makes their lives easier, better, or more informed. It’s not about creating a website for you to show off your video editing skillz.

.02 it would start cheap and wouldn’t get investors

Derek started CDBaby.com for $500 in his spare time. He didn’t get an office for several years and he refused any investment money. Taking investment means you have to please your shareholders, he says, instead of you and your customers. The company grew, organically, with the money it was earning and not through debt or investment.

Online magazines – are virtually free to set up. As I have said many times before, a website, a Youtube/Vimeo account, a blog – they’re all yours for tens of dollars. The equipment is pricey, depending on what you want to do, but not nearly as expensive as it was 10 years ago. You can become an online film maker now for less than $500.

.03 it would proudly exclude people

I’ve heard this advice before, and it makes a lot of sense. Know who your customers/readers/clients are and know who they are not. Online publishing, unlike its mainstream counterpart, is about niche verticals – the smaller the better, in some respects. This way you know who to please and can focus on just helping them. The New York Times can’t do this: it has to write for every American. The BBC has to cover news stories that don’t alienate the average viewer, but also don’t put off the super-smart. This means compromise, and a weaker product.

Instead, I would start a website that aims to help just one group of people, and screw the rest. You can’t please everyone, so why even try?

.04 it would be constantly changing and improving

A news product based on a web model would always be in iteration, always being tested, always being adapted. Derek changed CDBaby as it went along: it started as just a place to sell his own CDs, and soon was a marketplace for thousands of them. He had to change his ideas many times, but always kept the early goal of helping his customers at the core. He tried new ideas often, but scrapped them when they didn’t work, no harm done.

The mainstream media, of course, does the opposite, putting new emphasis on the phrase ‘flogging a dead horse’. Newspapers have had more than a decade to adapt to the internet, but still push their print product like it was 1999. I know big companies steer like oil tankers, but a newspaper run like CDBaby.com would have redesigned itself years ago.

.05 it wouldn’t carry any advertising 

Here’s an interesting one: a news website run like CDBaby.com wouldn’t carry any advertising. I say this, because CDBaby never had advertising on it, while Sivers was running it. It comes down to the “perfect world” reason behind starting your company. In a perfect world, says Sivers, would your customers want to be hassled by pop-ups and flashy banner ads while reading a story? In an ideal world would they want to suffer pre-roll ads on video?

No. So stay true to your perfect world ideal, don’t use them.

How does a news business make money without adverts you ask? Well there are plenty of revenue streams out there: products, events, sponsorships, partnerships, licencing and bespoke creation to name a few: almost all of them less susceptible to economic downturns than advertising.

Click to read on Amazon

.06 it wouldn’t be bogged down by formalities

Once CDBaby really started to take off, Derek says he was regularly approached by investors, and by people trying to sell all the legal guff we assume is necessary to running a business. Things like ‘terms and conditions’ and ‘privacy policy’ pages, employee review plans and even sensitivity training. He turned them all down, instead hiring and firing people himself, working out of his apartment, until he had enough to invest in a warehouse, and not even bothering with terms and conditions.

There are so many pointless things that conventional wisdom, and greedy lawyers, will tell us our business needs. But Derek says he never forgets there are “…thousands of businesses like Jim’s Fish Bait Shop in a shack on a beach somewhere, that are doing just fine without corporate formalities.”

.07 as much would be done in house as possible

Finally, a CDBaby news business would be an unashamedly small one. Although it eventually grew to have hundreds of employees, Derek did a lot of the core work himself. In order to make the website work when he first launched, it needed coding from scratch (this was before WordPress, heaven forbid!) Instead of outsourcing it, Derek bought a book about PHP and taught himself.

I’ve also heard good advice that one should know what you’re good at, and delegate the rest, rather than trying to control everything. But there’s certainly no harm in trying to learn new skills and keep the costs and company small. I believe there’s nothing you can’t learn – and there’s certainly no excuse for technophobia these days.

So there you go, a news business that is small, nimble, free from adverts, legal jargon, overheads, shareholders and debt, focused on making its audience’s lives better. Does it sound all pie-in-the-sky? I’d agree with you, if there wasn’t the CDBaby story to prove you wrong. 

*affiliate link

Improving online video journalism with layers

Posted in Online Video by Adam Westbrook on May 31, 2011

Mozilla Jam at Guardian HQ

I had a brief rest from thinking about creating online video this weekend and thought about how we consume it instead.

I spent Saturday at the Guardian HQ taking part in an ideas-jam organised by Mozilla (yes, those guys who make the web browser) in London.

Mozilla have teamed up with the Knight Foundation in the US to offer year long fellowships at big news organisations to some innovative journalists, developers and designers. Their idea-jams, taking place worldwide, invited hacks and hackers to  get together and come up with ways to make journalism better:  in particular, how do we make online video more awesome, and how to we make comments better?

It was a great chance to throw ideas around with non-journalists (very few journalists turned up, actually), and meet the other types of people innovating journalism.

Get in line

The challenge set up for online video was an interesting one: almost all other types of journalism (from articles, to data visualisations, to interactive timelines to games) are non-linear: you can jump in at any paragraph, any statistic, any year, any level and explore the story in your own way. And that’s very exciting.

But video can’t be like that can it? With its predetermined flow of 24 still pictures passing our eyes every second, video is inherently linear. You can’t jump in halfway through a documentary, then skip to the beginning, and then to the end.

I thought about whether that linearisation can be broken, but then remembered the crafting of a linear narrative is one of the most satisfying things about making video. Why lose that?

From lines to layers

The discussion in our group turned to layers instead. Can we improve video by, rather than messing with the video itself, adding translucent layers above it? It’s a bit like augmented reality, but also (in my mind) like putting sheets of OHP paper together on an overhead projector.

The idea we put together was for a layer called ‘Transparency’ which tells viewers how the video story they are watching has been made, as they are watching it. It tells you whether the video you’re watching has come from an agency, or from an in-house camera team; it also tells you where the facts you’re seeing/hearing have come from.

This diagram I drew at the event explains it a bit better.

Drawing: Adam Westbrook Photo: Henrick Mitsch

We submitted the idea to Mozilla at the end of the day (you can read more here) and there are lots of other interesting ideas up there too. I think the layers idea can be developed more though. Those of you who shoot film, photography or animate motion graphics as I do, will know the importance of building layers upon layers to create complex images.

Can we do the same to make video more useful for people?

If you have an idea for improving online video, commenting, or people-powered news and are interested in entering the Knight Mozilla News Technology Partnership, you have until June 6th 2011 to enter your ideas. 

Blogging Week #1: why journalists must blog and how

Posted in 6x6 series, Journalism by Adam Westbrook on August 9, 2010

In this week-long series, I’ll be explaining why you really can’t ignore blogging if you’re a journalist. I’ll guide you through the basics of getting started, and reveal some top tricks for making blogging work for you.

When I wrote my first blog post in October 2004, the word ‘blogging’ was only just being used. It had only just – perish the thought – made it into the Oxford English Dictionary.

And I’d never really heard of it either, until Warwick University, where I was studying, introduced its own in-house blogging platform: Warwick Blogs. If the name wasn’t very imaginative, the idea certainly was – to give every student at the university the opportunity to create their own blog & website and get publishing online.

And thousands of us did. We wrote serious blogs about politics, ones with funny pictures and rude jokes and even some about student union politics. We were the only student body, other than Harvard I’m told, to be doing it.

Fast forward nearly six years and a lot has changed.

Blogging is now part of the media mainstream, a viable source for news stories, opinion and gossip. It’s not just bored students writing now either: single mums in Tyneside, GPs, policemen, prostitutes and yes, even the journalists themselves from Jon Snow to Nick Robinson.

For me, blogging has transformed from a revision-avoiding-hobby into a career changer. It has got me work, training and speaking gigs, and a bit of money. I’ve seen my readers start small, before growing by more than 10,000 visits a month in just twelve months (I’ll explain how this week).

Although it has never made me a penny directly, blogging is a huge part of the work I do, which is why I think almost all journalists need to blog–about something.

What is the point of a blog?

A blog (or web-log to give it its full dues) is sort of like a regular diary entry. Except you put it on the internet. And make it something a specific group of people might actually want to read. The thing that actually makes a blog a blog (and not a normal web page) is its RSS feed, which identifies each individual post as part of a larger series and delivers new posts to peoples’ newsreaders or inboxes.

It usually includes meta-data, like a date, author and tags. Having a single page, where you paste a bit of text on top of older text (like this one) is not a blog (although it may claim to be) – it’s just a web page with text on it.

If you’re running a larger website a blog is a good way to remind people you’re still alive, and publish engaging valuable content which gives them a reason to keep coming back.

6 reasons why you really must have a blog

01. you’re a specialist in your field

Probably the group most in need of a blog are specialists. If your beat is windsurfing, green technologies, Indian politics – whatever – you *must must must* update a regular blog.

Otherwise how is anyone going to know you’re really a specialist? It’s a great place to update new ideas and gives you a platform for research which might not make it to the mainstream. If your paid work is drying up, a blog keeps you in the loop hunting for stories.

I’ve mentioned Angela Saini several times before because she’s got it covered. She uses her blog to promote herself as an expert science journalist (and she now has a book on the way).

The aim: to create a blog which is the ‘homepage’ for your particular niche. If your blog is the first place people go to find news on green technology, you have established yourself as an expert in the field. Cue more work.

02. you’re a freelance journalist

The other group who really need to embrace blogging are freelance journalists. If you’re working for yourself, trying to tout your wares in a crowded marketplace, a blog is one of the best ways to remind people you’re still alive – and prove you know what you’re talking about.

Your blog should sit alongside your own portfolio website (and ideally be connected to it). You can write about whatever really, although a niche expertise is best. Use it as a place to sound out stories, or even just practice your specialism – for example if you’re a freelance photojournalist, make sure you update your blog with new images every week.

The aim: to run a blog so interesting, editors are reading it regularly and approaching you (yes, approaching you!) with work.

03. you’re a foreign correspondent or hyperlocal reporter

For journalists covering an international beat, a blog is a lifeline. You can use a blog in two ways: the simple way, which is to create regular updates about your work in whatever country you are in. “I’ve been researching a piece on the Rwandan elections today…” or “I’m filming a piece for The Times Online this week”; or the cunning way, which is to launch your own one-person news service.

In this instance, the blog actually becomes a stream of articles, video, audio you are producing in your patch. You make it whether it gets bought or not, and the blog becomes a regular platform. And there’s proof this works. Deborah Bonello used her website MexicoReporter.com to boost her profile in Mexico; Graham Holliday‘s Kigali Wire covers his beat in the Rwandan capital in the same way.

The aim: to run a blog which establishes you as an expert in your particular location. It should get you work both in the mainstream media, but also create revenue streams within the local/expat community too.

03. you work for a big organisation

Even if you’re not a freelancer, running a blog about your beat is a great way to connect to your audience on a new level. Jon Snow’s popularity has increased because of his frank writing in his regular SnowBlog. People check Robert Peston‘s blog for business news and for a bit of personal comment. People like to read Nick Robinson‘s blog to find out what corridors of power he’s been snooping around today.

Not only can a blog help you connect with your audience, it can build you a community of fans, and even turn into a source for stories and case studies.

The aim: to create a blog which makes you look less like a corporate machine and more like a human.

04. you love something outside journalism

Yes, it’s possible! Some people have interests which have nothing to do with journalism!

If you can’t muster the energy to blog about your work, then your hobby is just as good. Why? Because if you’re into something then chances are thousands of other people are too. A lot of lucky people (like Lauren Luke) have turned their hobby into full time work by using a blog in the right way.

The aim: to create a blog and build a community around a passion. It keeps you writing and helps you practice audience engagement (vital skills for journalists) – as well as helping you pursue your personal interests.

05. you’re a student

Last but not least – the student journalists.

You have no excuse. Get a blog. Get writing. Get used to it. Blog about what you’re learning, or what you want to learn. Use it to get involved in the debate about the future of journalism.

Or even better, if you know your future niche, get writing about it straightaway. It takes at least 18 months of awesome content to really build a following and reputation so use your student time to do that.

The aim: to either become the next Josh Halliday, Michelle Minkoff or Dave Lee and have your blog catapult you into a job at the Guardian, Washington Post or BBC; or have established yourself as a leading expert in your field of interest by the time you graduate, so you can power straight into independent work.

If you know any other cool ways for journalists to use a blog, you know where the comments box is!

Journo-blogger of the day: Paul Balcerak

American journalist Paul Balcerak (@paulbalcerak) works for Sound Publishing and runs a personal blog on practical journalism which the perfect mix of new ideas, tips and analysis.

It’s a WordPress hosted blog which he cleverly uses alongside a tumblr blog, on which he shares briefer observations.

Paul writes several times a week, but has always stood out in my Google Reader because of the quality of his ideas and analysis – good proof well thought out ideas and content wins the day.

Tomorrow: from WordPress to Posterous – the different platforms available and how to use them!

‘Hold the front page, I haven’t got a clue’

Posted in Next Generation Journalist by Adam Westbrook on May 17, 2010

Image: Chris(UK) on Flickr (cc)

Thanks to Claire Wardle of Media140 for pointing me in the direction of a Sunday Times article yesterday, which shows how much has got to change in our ideas of journalism.

Hold the Frontpage, I want to be on it‘ by Ed Caeser made it into the Times’ Education section, and paints a predictably bleak picture for journalism students graduating this summer.

“…almost every week I receive an email from some poor sap wanting to know how to break into the business” he says. And what advice can said poor sap expect to receive from Mr. Caeser?

“Today, you’ll need luck, flair, an alternative source of income, endless patience, an optimistic disposition, sharp elbows and a place to stay in London.”

Charming.

The article then goes on to interview five or six people who have had the luck, flair, patience, trust fund and London pad necessary to get a job on the Mirror, Daily Mail, Telegraph etc. And what advice can they give?

“Patrick Foster worked at The Times during Oxford University vacations, and stayed after graduation. Kate Mansey came in through the Liverpool Echo trainee scheme — one of the few local-newspaper training schemes still in operation — and began on the nationals by working temporary shifts.

“Many graduates simply turn up on work experience and refuse to leave. It worked for me.”

So, just to sum up: have an Oxbridge degree, and turn up to your work experience placement with a sleeping bag and a three months supply of tinned meats.

How to actually survive in the new age of journalism

Caeser gets one thing right: he realises journalism is changing. The advice he has sought, however, is for an era in the industry heading towards the grave.

He is stuck in the mindset that to have any career worth having in journalism it has to be working on a national newspaper or big broadcaster, and it has to be earned through unpaid work, desperate pleas to those already inside, a lot of luck, and presumably some sexual favours too.

But the crux is this: as Claire Wardle said when she threw this article my way, there is no mention of entrepreneurial journalism.

Caeser hasn’t even thought about it.

The very concept that the next generation of journalists might take control of their careers, become the chess player and not the chess piece seems alien to him; that these ‘poor saps’ might see opportunity where he only sees despair.

So here’s my advice: if you’re just starting out in journalism don’t read this article.* While you’re at it, don’t make yourself ill eating nothing but Supernoodles for a month (as I once had to) just to afford a shitty flat in Clapham. Don’t spend hours squeezing the desperation out of a desperate email to that sub on the Guardian you chatted to briefly at some conference somewhere. And don’t think you should give up just because you live in the North of England, or you’re poor, or because Ed Caeser says you should.

Instead, do this:

Start looking for the brave, exciting new opportunities presented by this wonderful digital age we now live in.

Start thinking about what new niches are evolving which you can exploit with a savvy, bootstrapped new startup. Start thinking of ideas for profitable online magazines or mailing lists which you can leap straight to being the editor of.

Teach yourself how to film and edit simple video, and how to make basic audio slideshows so you can do as much of it as possible without having to hire expensive outside companies. Learn how to build a simple website using WordPress which could one day be the platform for a news business.

If you know how to, start developing a new iPhone or Android app which people will pay you to download. Or leverage social media and blogs to pitch yourself as a go-to expert on a profitable niche, then sell your knowledge in products. Or start making multimedia for non-profits and NGOs, and tell those stories and do the sort of reporting the New York Times or the Guardian would never let you do.

(For more suggestions click here and here)

The Next Generation Journalist is emerging, to whom, Caeser’s advice is completely redundant. It’s up to you which path you chose.

Caeser’s conclusion is, again, predictably bleak.

Just as belts are tightened and we are attempting to map our future in the internet age, the legions of graduates keep coming — arts degrees and journalism diplomas in hand — to join the party. Are they, by attempting to start their journalism careers in 2010, making what the hero of Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland calls “a historic mistake”?

The only ‘”historic mistake'” to make is to ignore the fantastic opportunity to reshape journalism we now face. And it’s an opportunity which won’t last forever.

Are you a Next Generation Journalist?

*in fact do, if only to spot the subbing errors. On Sunday afternoon I found six.

The future of news belongs to those who…kiss

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on April 16, 2010

Image credit: Okinawa Soba

The traditional news organisations: the BBC, CNN, New York Times, the Guardian, Sky News – and all the others – have got a problem.

Up until recently I thought the problem was revenue and the lack thereof; but that will solve itself organically over time.

And then I realised they’ve got another problem:  it’s one they’ll never be able to solve – and it threatens their place in the future of journalism.

They’re too big.

Sounds strange doesn’t it (after all, size is usually good for a news organisation with a big remit). The insight comes from Clay Shirky, whose blog posts are rare, but always near revolutionary. He talks about the collapse of the great empires of the past: the Mayans, the Romans. They collapsed because they got too big, too complex and couldn’t adapt to a new world.

His modern case in point: the Times paywall. He interprets Rupert Murdoch’s justification for charging online content as this:

“Web users will have to pay for what they watch and use, or else we will have to stop making content in the costly and complex way we have grown accustomed to making it. And we don’t know how to do that.”

In other words, News International is so big, so complex, so addicted to the exuberant and wasteful systems which it consumed in the 20th century, it just can’t change. So it has to charge customers to help sustain its lifestyle.

Shirky goes on:

“In a bureaucracy, it’s easier to make a process more complex than to make it simpler, and easier to create a new burden than kill an old one….Some video still has to be complex to be valuable, but the logic of the old media ecoystem, where video had to be complex simply to be video, is broken.”

That last point about video is important. Think how many TV production companies are addicted to $20,000 cameras, big rigs, professional lighting, large crews and plush offices in the centre of major cities. They don’t know how to do anything different, and so they charge their clients thousands upon thousands to cover their secret addiction to luxury.

Video Journalism has been around as a cheap alternative to traditional TV news gathering since the 1980s. Why do all the big news organisations still send 2 or even 3 person crews to stories? Michael Rosenblum points out dryly, ABC News’ move to VJing should have been news in the 90s.

Bad times for them. Good times for the next generation of journalists and producers.

How to survive in the future of journalism

Keep It Simple, Stupid.


Next generation journalists have a big advantage: we’re not addicted to expensive gear, offices, full time employment or bureaucracy. We know we can do things quick, cheap and simple. We can get impressive results with DSLRs, open source software, a laptop and creative commons media. We’re not ashamed to interview someone on a FlipCam, or embed our video with Youtube.

Do not underestimate the advantage that gives us in the market.

Someone who gets it is media commentator and lecturer Jeff Jarvis. Here’s what he wrote for the Guardian, when the Times paywall was announced:

“…in Murdoch’s folly, I see opportunity….As a teacher of entrepreneurial journalism at the City University of New York, I see openings for my students to compete with the dying relics by starting highly targeted, ruthlessly relevant new news businesses at incredibly low cost and low risk.”

And that’s precisely it. Go in lean, mean and ruthless and start tearing stuff up. But know this: if your career takes you into the fold of the giants, you too will become addicted to their opium. It’s a tough drug to get over. I’ve been lucky in some ways. I’ve only ever worked for tiny, struggling commercial outlets. I thought it sucked at the time, but it meant I always had to do things cheap, and quick – and I never got hooked on the luxurious journalism of the BBC or anyone else.

But the future is bright: here’s Clay Shirkey to wrap it up:

“It’s easy to see the ways in which collapse to simplicity wrecks the glories of old. But there is one compensating advantage for the people who escape the old system: when the ecosystem stops rewarding complexity, it is the people who figure out how to work simply in the present, rather than the people who mastered the complexities of the past, who get to say what happens in the future.”

Three examples of great online video stories

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on April 14, 2010

Regular readers will know how much I like to bang on about storytelling. It’s the oldest craft the journalist uses, yet still one of the least well understood (including by me).

Stunningly well told stories are so rare to come by, I think it’s worth highlighting them when they do.

Here then are three examples of how to weave a gripping narrative in video. These haven’t been chosen for how good they look, or how well they’re edited, or necessarily any journalistic rigour. But they all take a story and don’t just tell it in a linear way. There’s a lot to learn from them.

Soul mate Stories by Guardian Video

Expertly directed by Sonali Fernando to tell the stories of people who’ve met via the paper’s online dating service Soulmates.

What to take away: what makes this special is the visual narrative devices weaved in to tell the story. Most of the story we hear from the two characters, but rather than just having talking heads, Sonali has one paint the other. That’s a narrative device with the visuals firmly in mind. It leaves you with this wonderful reveal when she’s describing meeting the love of her life online, and we see his face appear in the painting.

Just about subtle enough to still pack a punch, it’s a great device and used very well. When making your own video stories, what ways can you get your subjects to show, rather than tell?

16:moments by RadioLab

This is a concept rather than a story – but there’s no doubting there’s a story in here. Directed by New York filmmaker Will Hoffman the film plays around the idea of a single moment.

What to take away: The opening fast cut montage of pictures, matched with some enticing audio builds suspense. The voices we hear pull us into the story, and reveal the talent of a film maker with passions for radio too.

Putting moments together, and visually connecting certain visual cues packs a powerful punch. Notice how he matches the first steps of a toddler with the strides of a grave digger – it instantly tells a great story about birth and death. The music is important: as it builds it pushes the story towards a climax.

50 people 1 question by Deltree

Directed by Benjamin Reece, the 50 people 1 question videos have been shared around the web a lot in the last year. Post Secret takes the same concept but the question is ‘what’s your biggest secret?’

What to take away: It’s a simple concept, but leaves the director with the problem of having a random collection of vox-pops to turn into a narrative. He does it skillfully, however, inter cutting half answered voxes to build tension, and making excellent use of the reactions, pauses, recollections and silent regrets. He makes use of all his shots, even when he’s framing up or pulling focus.

The climax comes half way through when we see a couple tell each other their biggest secrets. Putting them together, facing each other on screen, is a wonderful idea. Similarly, watch out for the skeptical girl who appears near the beginning (01’00) and says “why would I tell a secret to a bunch of strangers?”: she appears right at the end, revealing the most intimate secret of them all. It’s known as book-ending – an old trick, but a good’un.

As with 16:moments above, the piece makes use of music, this time to change narrative direction.

So there you go, three pieces of multimedia which show us how in the right hands cameras are powerful tools. Hopefully it’s inspired you to aim for something as powerful in your own films. And I’m always on the look out for amazingly well told stories – if you’ve seen any, please recommend them in the comments section!

Why the DSLR is changing video journalism

Posted in Broadcasting and Media, Journalism by Adam Westbrook on March 15, 2010

Photo: Dan Chung

This isn’t the first time I’ve harped on about the need for video journalism to break away from the rules and conventions of TV news. Other, smarter, people have done it too.

Thing is, where are we seeing this happen? Video journalists working with traditional (albeit smaller) cameras are generally producing “TV” news, solo.

Flipcams, like the Kodak Zi8, are proving they can compete with the big boys in some instances…although still mimicking the old guard.

One camera is threatening to give the rules the rewriting they deserve.

A new range of digital SLR cameras are now capable of shooting HD video, through the most awesome quality photographic lenses. And it’s getting photographers and videographers very excited.

At the top of the pile is Canon’s 5D MkII which comes in at a hefty £2,5000. Cheaper, but still very high quality is the Canon 7D, roughly just over £1,000. And now Canon have brought out their cheapest one yet – the 550D. It shoots HD video at either 25 frames per second or up to 60 frames per second at a lower quality. It’s got an external microphone input, so you’ll get good quality sound, and you can attach any Canon lens onto it to get a wide range of gorgeous images…it’ll set you back £700.

In the right hands these cameras are bringing a cinematic feel to video journalism. There are no hands better than Beijing based photojournalist and VJ Dan Chung. Check out this film he shot for the Guardian. He trialled the 550D, and put it on some cheap movable rigs to add motion to the shots. Used subtly it doesn’t distract from the story, but adds a wonderful texture to it.

I am hoping to invest in the 550D in the very near future. I hope DSLRs, in whatever form or price inspire a real visual revolution. It’s about time.

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!

Journalism & the environment

Posted in Broadcasting and Media, International Development by Adam Westbrook on October 15, 2009

On the weekend dozens of climate change protesters climbed onto the roof of parliament in the latest stunt to get public attention for the cause. They used ropes and ladders to scale perimeter fencing before climbing up onto the roof of Westminster Hall.

The purpose: to ask MPs to sign a climate manifesto on Monday morning.

I write about journalism and multimedia for most of the time, but because it’s Blog Action Day today, I’ve been thinking about where the two meet. And the answer, it seems, is not in many places.

Let’s think about how the mainstream media cover the issue of climate change. It is of course well documented in broadcast news, with reports every few weeks (for example, from the BBC’s David Shukman). Big newspapers like the Guardian and Times have their own ‘environment’ sections online, featuring the calls of action of Bibi Van Der Zee among others.

And of course there have been landmark cinema releases including Al Gore’s glorified powerpoint presentation, Inconvenient Truth and Franny Armstrong’s Age of Stupid.

As for new media, when I checked 63,000 climate change related websites had been bookmarked by delicious. 69,000 videos are on Youtube with the similar tags.

Are we more informed as a result?

It’s an important question because there is little argument climate change is the most significant and global threat facing us today, and tomorrow. And for the next century.

It deserves more than 90 seconds in the 6 o’clock news every few weeks, and a feature in the G2.

The mainstream media, I think, have missed a massive opportunity to really inform the public on a regular basis. It affects us all, there is an appetite for news, analysis, advice on climate change. Yet it has no regular and protected space on our TV screens, supplements or radios (with the exception of One Planet on the BBC World Service).

PlanetDoes it not deserve a regular, accessible, digestible and regular form of coverage?

I would love to see a weekly magazine show, dedicated entirely to the environment. It would have the usual magazine-format mix of the latest news, interviews with important people in the fight against global warming, reviews of the latest green cars or gadgets, and practical advice on cutting your own carbon emissions.

The closest we ever came to that last item in the UK was Newsnight’s failed Green Man experiment.

Importantly this new video-magazine would not be preachy, it would accept the realities and practicalities of modern living, but show us solutions to those problems.

Perhaps we could all become united around this weekly offering, which shows us how to work together and take small steps as individuals to limit the effects of climate change, and make those dramatic Westminster protests unnecessary.

Just a thought. I suspect though it will be for new & social media to fill the gap.

Is there an Atlantic divide in digital journalism?

Posted in Broadcasting and Media by Adam Westbrook on September 16, 2009

The past year has seen some remarkable pieces of multimedia journalism.

From a stunning biography of a drug addict turned boxer, to a fluent and comprehensive look at the drugs trade in Mexico, to a mind-blowing flash based project on the Great Lakes.

And that’s just the professionals.

Look at the journalism students and you have memorable stories like Maisie Crowe’s film about a boy with a rare genetic condition and Chris Carmichael’s portrait of a family losing their home.

Here’s the thing: they’re all coming from journalists and newsrooms – in America.

US produced multimedia journalismClockwise from left: ESPN, Boston Globe, NYTimes, Chris Carmichael

A quick visit to the New York Times, the Washington Post, NPR and ESPN reveal a plethora of enticing, exciting and well produced multimedia projects. Go more local and you can find stunning multimedia from the Boston Globe and the Roanake Times.

More and more have their own designers who work with flash to give them an asthetic appeal as well as journalistic clout.

So what does the UK have in response? The Guardian’s multimedia page has a healthy selection of new videos and the occasional audio slideshow, not to mention some worthy experiments in data sharing, for example this attractive interactive on UK public spending. And there is some nice video pieces – including this excellent alternative look at exam results by John Domokos.

But there are few interactive flash stories, and nothing on the scale of War Without Borders or One in Eight Million (both NY Times).

The BBC News website is (for obvious reasons) packed with original video and audio, and on big stories you’ll find a decent interactive map. But nothing with the ambition and groundbreaking attitude we see over the pond.

You’ll find the occasional audio slideshow, for example this tidy piece marking the anniversary of the Lehman Brothers collapse, but again they are left as slideshows alone and not developed into something bigger.

And it gets worse when you leave London, with some worryingly unimaginative pieces, in small windows; you see pieces like The Fallen (NY Times) and think “in a different league”.

So come on, UK newsrooms, where are you?

Of course it’s all about money, or the lack of it. It is not as if UK media don’t have the talent. But can money really be an excuse? American papers afterall have been hit harder than British ones with more big city closures and layoffs: almost all UK papers that were in print a year ago are still in print today. And of course there are many talented freelancers and independent producers making great stuff, but even that is hard to find.

So what else is it? A lack of ambition? We just don’t get multimedia? Or are we just not interested?

The postcard below awaits your thoughts…

G20: multimedia experiments

Posted in International Development by Adam Westbrook on April 1, 2009

Protests are always a magnet for the media. Scuffles make great pictures for TV, chants make great sound for radio; the mass of people suggesting some great social movement.

Why should multimedia be any different?

It was no surprise all the big news organisations were employing blogs, twitter, online audio and video for today’s G20 protests. They’ve used them on news stories several times over the past few months.

What I think makes today different is this is the first time newsrooms have had significant warning of a news event, to flex their multimedia muscle and see what it’s capable of.

They had time to think ideas, get creative and explore. So, how’d they do? Here are some UK media examples:

BBC News: interactive map

BBC News: interactive map

BBC News : Interactive map

Immediately popular was BBC News’ interactive map which appeared mid morning.

The movable image covered central London, and as reports from the ground were filed, they appeared on the map.

The stories were multimedia; everything from text, audio, video and images.

Guardian: audio boo uploads

Guardian: audio boo uploads

Guardian: Audioboo uploads

The Guardian were out in force at the protests, with journalists employing all sorts of technology to help them in their quest.

One of the favourites was the new audio sharing site Audioboo, unique from places like  Soundcloud and Mixcloud in that it only really works if you have an iPhone.

So excited were Guardian journalists by this new technology it seemed they were happy to upload all and every interview they conducted, including the one pictured, with Rory O’Driscoll.

“Sorry, were you expecting some a little more, err, involved?” he told the reporter, clearly not at all bothered about what was going on.

Guardian: twitter reporters

Guardian: twitter reporters

The Guardian’s Twitter army

Someone (on Twitter in fact) commented, on seeing this image, that there must have been more journalists on the streets than protestors.

What these provide though, were unfiltered, immediate dispatches from the scene.

Stuck in an office, those of us in Web 1.0 world were forced to watch Dermot Murgnahan and the rest of the Sky News reporters stumble their way through the protest.

“Oh look, a policeman’s fallen over” was just one remark, along with a car-crash interview with Russell Brand, the comedian who’d clearly taken the wrong turning on his way out to get some milk.

These Guardian dispatches though – raw, mispelt, abbreviated into 140 characters, gave you the very latest – and of course they’ve not been through an editor.

Who said any story couldn’t be told in 140 characters or less?

BBC News: live updates

The BBC had a similar live update system with similar benefits.

This one though included chosen comments from viewers/listeners as well as BBC correspondents (and in some cases media students) on the ground. It looked good, and continued until 2100…but I’d wager cost a lot more than any other news organisation would manage.

BBC News: live updates

So lots going on, and it felt – for once – there was more to be seen online than on TV. Has this set a precedent? I hope so. Throughout today, no-one was tweeting/blogging about the G20 coverage they heard on the radio or seen on TV. They were sharing links to sites like the above ones.

The key benefits: immediacy, raw information, and interactivity.

But for that, do I feel the coverage of the protests was any better than the old media? Hmmm, that’s not so clear cut.