Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

Conventional wisdom and what it says about journalism

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism by Adam Westbrook on October 31, 2011

Image: saaleha on Flickr

I’ve overcome lots of hurdles to survive two years of freelancing in one of Europe’s most expensive cities, in the middle of a recession.

The biggest challenge though was the one I faced before I even started. Back in the summer of 2009 I wanted to go it alone and have some digital adventures, but in my mind I couldn’t see how it could work.

All the opportunities to make films, teach, train, write and start exciting new projects that now make up every working day were invisible to me, because I was looking at it through the eyes of conventional wisdom.

What is conventional wisdom?

These are the rules, made up by conservative types, and silently adopted by society, that say how things should be. Most crucially, they make assumptions about the present based on the past, and not the present or the future, which is where the problem lies.

Why am I writing about conventional wisdom? Because its rules and beliefs stop even the most ardent potential innovator or entrepreneur before they’ve even begun. Now is the best time and place to start new projects, take risks and make big ideas happen in our industry, but I worry that the best ideas never happen because conventional wisdom stops their creators before they even begin.

Here are some things conventional wisdom might be telling you: do any of them sound familiar?

  • You need to ‘do your time’ before you can do any of the fun stuff in journalism
  • You need decades of experience in journalism to train other people how to do it
  • The economy is too weak to launch a new magazine
  • You’re too old to change career
  • You need an MBA to start your own business
  • You need a degree to become a journalist
  • It’s easier/more realistic to make £40k a year than £1million
  • It’s impossible to make money from blogging
  • You need an office to run a business
  • You need to wait until you’re 40+ to become a foreign correspondent
  • Getting a ‘proper job’ (no matter how poorly paid) is more secure than going it alone
  • You need to be talented in order to achieve great things (as opposed to just working damn hard)
  • You need to be good at maths/science to be able to understand coding
  • If you can’t get a good job you need to get another qualification

I have proven most of these wrong in the last two years; the others I have watched friends and colleagues disprove.

Conventional wisdom is dangerous because it stops us doing the things we know we really want to. It stops people who ought to do great things, stretch their abilities on ambitious work and ultimately shape the future of journalism and publishing.

On the flip side, of course, conventional wisdom does have one advantage, according to Jonathan Fields, author of Career Renegade*: it “thins the herd of competition” and makes it easier for those who are bold enough to forge their own path.

Is conventional wisdom affecting the choices you’re making in your career?

*Affiliate link

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!

10 myths that will stop you innovating in journalism

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism by Adam Westbrook on August 15, 2011

If there’s anything I’d ever wish you to take away from reading this blog over the years, it would be the following ten points. 

They underline everything I’ve learned in two years of searching for new ways to do journalism, and the four years of reporting before that. Please share with anyone you think wants to do big things – but is holding back.

10 myths that will stop you innovating in journalism

.01 you don’t have enough time

Truth: you will never have enough time, so just get on with it.

.02 you don’t have enough money

Truth: you will never have enough money, so just get on with it.

.03 you don’t have a good idea

Truth: everyone has good ideas; they just don’t write them down – so start writing every one down.

.04 you don’t know video/web design/HTML/CSS – it’s too complicated

Truth: Nothing is too complicated so buy a book and teach yourself

.05 your idea will never work

Truth: Most ideas don’t work. But they often create opportunities for better ones, if you start them

#6 It’s safer/more secure to get a ‘proper’ job

Truth: the recession has proven that job security does not exist.

.07 If you take a risk and fail you’ll go bankrupt/get in trouble/will never be employed again

Truth: obviously it’s up for you to weigh up your own personal risks; most people find though that fears of bankruptcy/bailiffs/divorce and homelessness are mere phantoms.

.08 There’s no point in going out to write an article/shoot a film if no-one’s going to pay for it

Truth: then you’re denying yourself great opportunity to practice and master your craft (unless you’re the greatest journalist/writer/film maker the world has ever seen)

.09 You’re the greatest journalist/writer/film maker the world has ever seen – and as soon as people realise, you’ll get the job you deserve

Truth: you’re not, so just get on with it.

.10 This is too difficult and too much like hard work.

Truth: Life is difficult for everyone, so just get on with it.

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. 

Journalism posts: a summary IV

Posted in Fresh eyes series, Ideas for the future of news, Journalism by Adam Westbrook on March 31, 2010

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.

On snow and innovation

Posted in Adam, Journalism by Adam Westbrook on January 6, 2010

It seems wherever you are in the world reading this, whether it’s the UK, western, northern and eastern Europe, Canada or the  eastern seaboard of the US, you’ve seen a good amount of the white stuff recently.

I was walking home through London last night as the first of the latest snow began to fall. I love how quiet and still everything gets as the snow settles.

Innovation

Meanwhile 2010 must be a year of innovation in journalism. Innovation isn’t easy though. It requires imagination, bravery, lateral thinking, creativity…and risk. Real innovation is an uphill struggle. Breaking the mould in storytelling, video journalism, interactivity and entrepreneurship requires going against conventional wisdom, going against other people, and going against the voice in your head telling you to give up.

And it’s not easy.

Blaze a trail

So if you need a pick-up, just look outside the window, at the snow. On the pavement, grass or road there’ll be two different paths. One that’s already been trodden, laden with scores of footprints and bicycle tracks.

And another, untrodden path: a blank white canvas.

Which one will you go down?

“Do not go where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path – and leave a trail.”

What can next-generation journalists learn from Les Paul?

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on August 15, 2009

Les Paul

Les Paul

A music icon of the 20th century passed away this week. Aged 94, Les Paul was still playing weekly gigs in Manhattan right up to his death.

Not just a talented musician, Les Paul was an innovator, and hearing him speak you realise he had within him the skills the journalists of the future will need if they’re to innovate as much as he did.

Last year he spoke to the New York Times about his life, as part of the obituary segment called “The Last Word.

“I was playing one night and this guy comes up to me and says ‘hey, your guitar isn’t loud enough!’ So I thought to myself ‘how can I make my guitar louder?'”

Lesson: Les had a goal – a dream: something to aim for. It was as simple as making his guitar louder, but it set something on fire inside of him.

He attached his guitar strings to his mother’s radio: “and it made the most beautiful sound I ever heard.

“I went to work on wood, shaping it like a beautiful woman…and finally I got it – it took years and years and years of continued working on it.”

Lesson: innovation takes a hell of a lot of work – and a lot of time. But keep working, shaping, building, refining until you get it right.

“I took it to the manufacturers and they kept turning it down, saying it was a novelty.”

Lesson: there’ll be lots and lots of knock backs – but never, ever give up.

From guitarists to journalists to business people to web designers to sports stars: the same passion, dream, determination and perserverance runs through them all.