Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

A quick note on innovation in media

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism by Adam Westbrook on September 17, 2012

The first thing to realise is that the secret is not to come up with a new idea.

There is rarely such a thing. Instead, the secret is to look at a space with people, or businesses already established, and see what they’re doing wrong. Then invent something that improves on what they do.

Whether this is blogging, publishing, film-making, business, photography or whatever, you can do this. The “gap in the market” isn’t some big group of people that no-one has thought of targeting before. It’s found in the shortcomings of players already in the market.

Here are some disruptive approaches into any of these fields.

Be the inspirer: use your work to inspire and excite others with new ideas: this is how I have blogged for six years. People love being inspired.

Be the connector: bring people together, either in person, or online, like a good party host. Create a digital space for people to interact (a forum, a social site) or a physical one (start a monthly meetup).

Be the combiner (of new ideas): I’ve written about this before. Combine two disparate ideas to make a new one.

Be the leader: have a vision for how things can be better and actively set out to make it happen. Others will follow.

Be the experimenter: be about lots of ideas, rapid prototyping, quick feedback. Very few people do this openly in any niche (afraid of looking stupid)

Be the doer/maker: get busy building (films, books, events, software) – let your actions speak for you. Probably the best way to go (after all, anyone can talk the talk..)

Be the problem solver: actively look for the problems in a particular area, and create solutions.

Be the UX fixer: any bad (reading, watching, buying, discovery, sharing) experience is an opportunity to own the market, simply by creating a better experience. Instagram wasn’t the first photo-sharing app, but it’s the one that’s the most satisfying to use.

Be the most fun: constantly surprise and delight your users/audience/readers.

Be the most caring: how many magazines or news websites give a damn about their audience? If they really did, would their products be full of adverts? All big organisations and corporations have this human disconnection problem (when was the last time your bank wasn’t an arsehole?)..and they’re all opportunities for smaller, leaner people-driven competition.

Notice the two items that are missing: be the fastest and be the cheapest. They’re races to the bottom and should be avoided at all costs. 

How to come up with good ideas more often

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism by Adam Westbrook on June 25, 2012

Where do ideas come from?

I’m talking ideas for projects, ideas for stories, ideas for businesses.

By now, you know that “there’s no such thing as an original idea”. That’s true, but it’s only half the story.

Twyla Tharp in her excellent book on creativity describes the “unshakable rule that you don’t have a good idea until you combine two little ideas.” It’s an eye opener because it makes you realise that there’s no lightning strike of inspiration. You realise that a good idea is a simple matter of combining two different ideas together.

Many of  my own projects are the result of this combination.

My popular journalism prediction videos were a combination of the raft of end-of-year predictions which flood the internet each December and stylish video.

Inside the Story, which raised $4400 for Kiva this spring, came about by taking Seth Godin’s book What Matters Now and applying its approach to a completely different field of digital storytelling (you’ll notice Seth gets a nod in the book).

Meanwhile a whole industry of advocacy film-making has developed from the concept of applying a documentary approach to the third-sector market.

To take it a step further the most innovative ideas can come from combining two things which would never ordinarily be put together.

A huge amount of content for this blog, in fact, comes from combining smart things Chris, Amber, Ryan, Seth and Tim say about philosophy, life-design, productivity and marketing and wondering “what happens if we apply that to online publishing and journalism?” It’s the reason the blog’s approach to entrepreneurial journalism stands out, say, from what Jeff Jarvis or Mark Briggs might write.

Similarly, the aesthetic of online video is starting to step away from mimicking television news because videographers, armed with HDSLR cameras are taking their cues now from the disparate world of fictional cinema. They’re combining James Cameron’s style with documentary content.

Wait, isn’t that stealing?

Of course it isn’t. Kirby Ferguson, the brain behind the influential series Everything is a Remix, makes this point brilliantly in his series of films. He argues how we take an idea, transform, remix and combine it to create something new. To flat out copy What Matters Now and pass it on as my own – sure that’s stealing. But to combine it with another idea transforms and remixes it into something new.

“If we’re free from the burden of trying to be completely original, we can stop trying to make something out of nothing, and we can embrace influence instead of running away from it.”

Austin Kleon, Steal Like an Artist

Lots of young journalists, film makers and publishers are told to start blogging, but abandon it because they don’t think they have anything to add to the saturated journalism-naval gazing market. Certainly, no-one wants to read another postgraduate’s opinion of the Leveson Inquiry. So if you’re stuck, start by taking something else you’re passionate about – maybe another industry or another craft – and collide it with journalism.

If you’re lucky and persistant, sparks may fly, and give life to a whole blog, an article, a documentary – even a new business.

How to feed your journalism cow

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism by Adam Westbrook on September 22, 2011

Image: cheeseslave on Flickr

Here’s a question I bet you don’t get often: do you feed your cow?

In the early days of my freelance career, back in January 2010, I spent a couple of weeks working on a film with video journalism supremo David Dunkley-Gyimah at the Southbank Centre in London.

We were interviewing artists from around the world, and every discipline imaginable: poets, musicians, film makers, painters and violinists. Among them was the architect Shumon Basar. Off camera he was the most interesting and relaxed, and while we were talking he said something that’s stuck with me since.

He said whatever type of art you do, it’s vital you keep consuming ideas and information. He likened the brain to a cow: ‘you want the cow to produce milk [ideas] but to do that you must feed it well.’

Journalism, and its periphery disciplines (writing, film making, photography, design) consume ideas like we consume petrol. If you’ve worked on a magazine, 24-hour news channel or even run a blog, you’ll know just how ideas hungry these things are.

So, no matter how busy you are, make time to take Betsy out for a big lunch. As always, I’d love your own personal recommendations too – stick ’em in the comments box!

Six things to feed the cow

.01 A good newsletter

Sign up some inspiring, idea-laden, newsletters, that pop into your inbox without you having to do anything. If it’s sitting in your inbox it’s harder to ignore, and you can still save it for later on.

I’m personally loving two particular newsletters right now: BrainPickings, a weekly collection of great design and ideas curated by Maria Popova in New York. Her Twitter feed is really worth following too. Secondly the Do Lectures (think TED lectures but on a Welsh farm) send out a weekly newsletter called Kindling, which does just that: it sets off little sparks of inspiration and lets them catch hold.

.02 TED Lectures

If you can make time, even once a week, to watch an 18 minute TED lecture, you’ll be a more informed and inspired person. As well as good talks on productivity, ideas and the like, the best TED talks are about something completely off the wall, like whaling or painting.

The success of the format relies on the focus on new ideas (rather than a soap box for criticism) and on the 18 minute slot: too short for an expert to waffle on for hours, but too long to just scramble a powerpoint together at the last minute. This one on the future of online video has inspired my ideas throughout 2011.

.03 Kickstarter

Never mind cool ideas, what about being inspired by what people are actually doing? That’s why I love visiting KickStarter. It started as a platform to raise funds for cool projects, but has a secondary role as a hub for inspiring ideas people are trying to get off the ground. If you’re a film maker, it’s a useful watering hole to see what documentary projects people are trying to get off the ground.

I’m living in patient wait for KickStarter to become available to those outside the US (at the moment only US citizens can fundraise). Oh and if you see one you like, don’t forget to donate a dollar or two to the cause.

.04 Video .fu library

Speaking of films, I couldn’t miss off the video .fu library from this list. I’ve been curating a collection of epic, cinematic, memorable video storytelling all year. There are more than 30 films in the library so far, and dozens of subscribers.

In particular, I look for factual stories which take a cinematic approach to how they’re made, focusing on compelling characters and strong narrative arcs. Many appear on this blog but not until some time after they’re in the library so get an early peek. If you’re looking for inspiration for characters, styles or story structure, this is a good place to start.

.05 This American Life

This American Life is a wonderful way to feed the cow when you’re on a long journey or even just commuting to work. The hour-long weekly podcast is a finely crafted nugget of great stories well told, by Ira Glass and his team. If you want to learn how to tell better stories you must listen to TAL.

As it’s a podcast it’s something you can drop onto your iPod, iPhone or just the laptop, and listen when you’re travelling. A word of warning about This American Life: each episode demands (and rewards) your concentration. Don’t listen while you’re doing emails or writing a blog post – give it your full attention.

.06 beta620

A new product from the New York Times, beta620 is a platform for experimental projects being tried about by developers, journalists and co at the paper. They include apps and mashups – worth a visit to see what some of the smartest people in journalism are up to. They also have some great hacking events going on, if you’re NYC based.

Of course, I should add visits to museums, galleries and exhibitions to this list, plus who knows how many countless books. But at least this digital selection is something you can dive into right away. Please add your own suggestions below!

Putting some Fresh Eyes on journalism

Posted in Fresh eyes series by Adam Westbrook on February 25, 2010

What happens if you ask a cinematographer, a musician, a branding expert, a designer and a programmer about the future of news?

Might sound odd, but the idea of colliding disparate disciplines has a history of sparking innovation. Johannes Gutenberg, for example, wanted to come up with something which combined the power of the wine press, with the flexibility of the coin punch..and came up with the printing press. Mercedes-Benz brought in someone completely random – the watch maker Swatch – and together they came up with the Smart Car.

Getting an outsider’s approach sheds new light on old problems, and reveals tips, tricks and viewpoints those of us inside the bubble will ever think of.

So all next week I’ll be getting those very experts to cast their eyes over the future of news. What can us hacks learn from a film maker, or a branding guru? You’ll find out right here on Monday.

Three ideas for news businesses which will never work (and why)

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on February 10, 2010

Journalism students and even older journalists struggling for work are being encouraged to get entrepreneurial and launch their own startups.

And damn straight too – let’s hope more of them take the leap and start launching products. I’m sure the most popular ideas for news businesses in someway mimic the mainstream media – for example an online magazine, hyperlocal website or production company.

All businesses with potential, but there are traps to fall into too. Here are some ideas (I came up with) which will never even get off the ground…and why.

1. Twat!: The risque new music magazine for young people in London

Twat! Magazine is a montly print magazine and website for young people in London that “really gets under the skin of culture” and “isn’t afraid to offend”. It features interviews “with upcoming artists the other magazines haven’t even heard of” and crazy mental features.

It won’t work. Why?

Referring to my Journalism Startup checklist it fails on the first four questions: it is not a new idea, and most importantly it does not have a defined target audience. Who are “young people in London?”. As it happens they’re incredibly diverse from postcode gang members to city bankers. None of them can identify with the ‘lifestyle’ the magazine is trying to sell and therefore have no reason to pick it up.

It’s not a new idea, because pubs, bars and student unions are flooded with “edgy, cool, underground” magazines all the time, usually made by Magazine Publishing students. Going for print alongside web brings in large overheads – and bootstrapping becomes harder.

2. WorldTV: a video website that showcases the best films about “the issues which matter.”

This website pays to licence video journalism pieces from around the world and put them into one place. They’re after films about “under-reported” issues for example Darfur, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.  It will also allow users to upload their own video which gets voted on by other users. The site will have an “international feel” and be for people who “really care about politics”.

It won’t work. Why?

It’s a noble idea – but why would you want to visit this site? Again, WorldTV suffers from a poor grasp of a well-defined target audience. It is probably aiming for young people around the world, but again they are incredibly diverse. No-one will feel a need to register and therefore hopes of building an active community will fall through. The films themselves are likely to be long, worthy affairs and bore most people after two minutes.

The site wants to pay for video commissions, and so will need to cough up cash to video journalists. It may get some venture capital at first, but the rates will steadily slip from $800 to $500 to $200, to nothing.  Viewing figures will be low: creating something worthwhile and expecting the masses to come is a poor business model.

3. DoleItOut: a multimedia magazine for unemployed people in Birmingham

DoleItOut is a regularly updated multimedia website for people out of work in the Birmingham area of the UK. As well as feature interviews and interactives about life on the dole, it also has plenty of video advice guides on how to find work, video diaries and an active forum. Plans are underway to develop an iPhone app.

It won’t work. Why?

Hurrah! Finally an idea with a well defined target audience! Problem is they’re a bad target audience for running a business. Why? Because they got no money. If the editors of DoleItOut were hoping their readers would pay a minimal subscription they’d be wrong. Advertising is possible, but you’ll be left selling ads for evil loan sharks and 1000% loans. And what unemployed person can afford an iPhone app?

The idea also struggles with question 13 of the startup checklist – it doesn’t really scale. Although it’s good to be geo-specific, are there really enough unemployed people in Birmingham?

Too many news startup ideas fail because they take an upside down approach. Journalists think of a product and then decide who to make it for.  Instead you need to define your audience first – and then ask “what do they need?”.

Have you checked out the News Startup Checklist yet?

Photo Credit: Curious_Zed on Flickr