Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

How to make money in online video: 3 approaches

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism, Online Video by Adam Westbrook on October 10, 2011

Every week I get emails from readers of the blog asking about online video and entrepreneurial journalism. I try and answer as many of them as I can as promptly as I can.

Since I published Next Generation Journalist: 10 New Ways to make Money in Journalism in May 2010 I’ve received a lot more questions about entrepreneurship, freelancing and making money. A typical one came into my inbox last week, and I’d thought I’d put my reply here so everyone can benefit.

Reporting for radio and video from Iraq in 2009

Nick in Australia got in touch to ask how to make money as a freelance video journalist, and he’s kindly agreed to let me share his question:

I’m about to be a journalism grad and I want to start making video stories. I’ve got lots of ideas, but just got one question that is bugging me. Once I’ve filmed, edited and uploaded my little creations online to my blog/website, how can I build a freelance income from them? i.e. I understand that once they’re online and I’m plugging them on my Twitter, Tumblr and other places with various links with journo folk they will (ideally) create job opportunities. However, I want to be actively sending/selling them to the right sources. Who pays for freelance video journalism, and where do I find these amazing publications? Surely metro papers & mainstream networks wont. Is it possible?

Nick, you’re already doing a few things right here: firstly (and most importantly) you have ideas and you want to start making video stories. I can’t stress how important it is to be prolific in your work. Secondly, you’re smart about using social media to share your content and build up an audience around it.

From here, there are three ways you can approach it: I’ll call the first the traditional approach, and the second the smart approach, and then the smart-er approach.

The traditional approach

The traditional approach is pretty much what you described: find publications who do video and pitch ideas to them. If they like your stuff, they might buy it, it’s as simple as that. You’ll obviously need a body of good work available online to prove you’re good.

As for how to find these ‘amazing publications’: there is no short cut I’m afraid: you just have to look. Print freelancers of this ilk often go into a newsagents and browse the magazine section to discover potential titles. A few might put notices out on Mandy.com or similar sites. From here, the old rules apply: find out the name of the right person to pitch to and know their content inside out.

You might be able to tell by the tone of my writing though that this is not how I build income in my career. Why? Well, for a start, it’s what everyone else does, so the competition is fiercer.  The pay often stinks, even at national titles. You spend a long time chasing ignored emails from editors who are, quite frankly, not interested. Beyond this, a lot of publications prefer to train their own staff to make video content (even though it’s usually awful). There is a lot of rejection.

That said, some people are successful at it, although I hear it takes a long time to get established. Personally, it’s not for me: I’m terrible at networking, brown nosing and cold-calling. Some people are really good at it – so its horses for courses. The key to success? Producing remarkable, high quality video.

The smart approach

The smart approach begins by having faith in this belief: the demand for online video right now is huge. Newspapers and magazines want it, yes, but so do think-tanks, chartered institutes, universities, NGOs, charities and even your local barber if you sold it to him in the right way.  Michael Rosenblum is very good at pointing this out almost every week on his blog.

The smart approach also recognises that in the traditional game, the rules are stacked against you, especially with so many other competitors. Timothy Ferris said once ‘doing the unrealistic thing is easier than doing the realistic thing’. The realistic (traditional) approach is packed with competition.

When I first went freelance two years ago, I knew it would be extremely difficult to get noticed by harried editors, already knee-deep in pitches. So instead I created my own online video production company, video .fu; I built a website in a weekend, got some cheap business cards from Moo.com and started making content (in my own time, for free) to prove what I could do. I made this series of environmental shorts with Matt Walters, portraits and more. All in my own documentary style.

As a result of these films plus, it should be said, this blog, I started to get approached by organisations wanting the sort of films I like making. This year I have been nearly fully booked on projects for think-tanks, charities and online magazines; I’ve worked with celebrities, worked in China and have even started to turn down work too.

You don’t just need faith in the demand – you must also have faith in yourself. Writing it out like this makes my approach sound planned, when in fact it’s been a process of ‘making it up as I go along’ – and still is. The key to success? Producing remarkable, high quality video.

The smart-er approach

This is, I think, a smarter way to go about it, and one with a proven track record of success for the smartest people. It’s what I am trying next. The best way to outflank the rejection of traditional pitching to editors is to become an editor yourself.

You said you want to make video stories – well turn them into a web series about something that people are interested in, create a website and start publishing. That’s what Jesse Thorne and Adam Lisagor have done with Put This On, a fashion web series. Their stylish short films clock 30,000 plus views each. It worked for Kirby Ferguson too, the creator of Everything Is A Remix, which has more viewers than some television documentaries. And of course, it has worked for Jamal Edwards, who founded SB.TV who now hangs out with Jay-Z and Richard Branson. I’ve written about all these guys before, here.

Mainstream editors now approach them with offers (and, I imagine, so do some video journalists taking the traditional approach to making money).

The smart-er approach requires faith, passion and a set of squirrel-sized balls to pull it off. But the key to success? Producing remarkable, high quality video. 

My advice to Nick is to start making these video stories now – without anyone to pitch to. If you start worrying about how to make money from the start you’ll never produce anything – and that’s a vicious circle towards giving up. Make a film, publish it – and then make another one. And keep going. Get a staff job on a newsdesk to pay the bills – or work in a bar if you have to.

These approaches aren’t for everyone though and it’s really down to the sort of person you are. But the opportunities to do something amazing are out there – and they won’t exist forever.