Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

10 ways to make waves in journalism & publishing

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism by Adam Westbrook on May 14, 2012

Our industry needs innovators, boat rockers, leaders, starters.

If you want to make your mark, get noticed, here are some ideas. These are things you can do as a journalism student, recent graduate, employee – whatever. They’re necessarily big (what’s the point in making small waves?) but manageable if you start small, take baby steps and gain momentum in your spare time.

  • Create a product (that’s a website, magazine, app, film, podcast, experience or book) that challenges how journalism is done right now.
  • Deploy new technology on journalism before anyone else does. Think of Not On the Wires‘ clever use of mobile reporting in 2009, and more recently Codoc’s ideas for layered video journalism.
  • Create a product that strives to do journalism better than the mainstream media (it’s not difficult).
  • Create an in-depth multimedia production that goes deeper into a story or issue than anyone has before. There are plenty of examples, from Powering a Nation, to The Ration.
  • Write a blog that challenges the status quo. Duckrabbit do this really well and everyone loves them for it.
  • Go in-depth into an under-reported community and create a site about them. MA students at City University in London have been doing this with good results.
  • Design products that savour in-depth quality over 400 word posts. This space is wide open right now, but it’s time consuming and hard to do. I’m really looking forward to Kirby Ferguson’s next project This is Not a Conspiracy Theory, but he’s spending months putting it together.
  • Find a gap in the market and go all out to fill it. Think of how Jamal Edwards has become well known in a whole music genre by pushing SB.TV or even how Poppy Dinsey saw a space in social fashion.
  • Be an experimenter and a ‘media inventor’ who’s always creating new things. Robin Sloan is one of my favourite people on the whole internet. Have you read his tap essay? You should.
  • Create something that looks fantastic and ignores the design conventions of the web.
  • Pick a niche and knuckle-down to become an expert in the space. This doesn’t mean getting qualifications, it means being generous with what you know.

Whatever you do, aim big and take no shortcuts.

The industry already has more reporters, subs, producers, editors and designers than it needs, and you’re up against thousands of others to become one of them. What the industry sorely lacks are people who come up with big boat-rocking ideas and execute on them.

Be one of those people and your career could take you to remarkable places. But you’ve got to make waves first.

Speaking of boat-rocking ideas, Inside the Story has already raised more than $2500 for charity and helped hundreds of people get better at storytelling. Have you got your copy yet? It’s only available for another 12 days.

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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.

How to be a new media pioneer

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism, Online Video by Adam Westbrook on September 8, 2011

If you’re interested in online video, journalism or film making generally, you really ought to watch Mark Cousins’ new series The Story of Film – an Odyssey

It’s a strangely minimalist affair – sparse writing, artistic landscape shots and lots of clips from films you’ve never heard of, while at the same time thankfully free of self-aggrandizing pieces to camera.

I had the pleasure of working with Mark briefly in early 2010 when he was starting work on the series; he also showed us the preview of his quite remarkable documentary The First Movie – a quiet but powerful story about Kurdish children in Iraq.

Episode 1 of this 15 hour series was broadcast in the UK on Sunday and in it Mark tells the story of the first 20 years of cinema, from Thomas Edison to Cecille B DeMille, and all the innovations in between. It was an extraordinarily exciting time of discovery, experimentation and invention, and led to the creation of visual conventions we all subscribe to today: continuity editing, reverse shots, parallel editing and the 180 degree rule.

It’s hard to remember another time when a completely new medium – a new art form – appeared. The equivalent of the invention of the pencil or the piano.

Except, of course, for the period we’re living in right now. The internet, digital film, the iPhone and the HD-DSLR have given our generation a new blank sheet to scribble on. In The Story of Film Mark Cousins describes an early movie where the director shot a boxing match using 63mm film instead of the standard 35mm – an innovation which led to the creation of widescreen.

Now, 90 years later, we have pioneers on Vimeo developing tall-screen and super-widescreen videos. There are foetal ideas about creating layers of video on top of each other, augmented reality, immersive storytelling and more.

Mark tells the story of Florence Lawrence the world’s first film-star; now, a century on, we are meeting the early super-stars of the digital age, who have used Youtube to propel their lives into the mainstream. And the new generation of digital directors and movie moguls, like Jamal Edwards: the 20 something South-London founder of SBTV who’s even been featured in a Google advert.

Yes, I know this feels like a difficult time with revenues down, layoffs up and impossible prospects of getting a job on a newspaper. But in the same breath this is the birth of cinema all over again! The door is wide open for the next generation of innovators, directors, and entrepreneurs.

And most importantly: this won’t last forever. There is probably only a few years before online video, for example, hits the mainstream through IPTV. For those already on board the train, that’s exciting stuff.

But if you’re not there yet – do not delay.

The end of ‘television’

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism, Online Video by Adam Westbrook on June 13, 2011

Image credit: espensorvik on Flickr (cc)

I

Ask someone who works in television what they do, they’ll tell you they do just that.

“I work in television” they’ll say. Same with folks in radio too. And newspapers and magazines.

But skip down the road five years, and what happens when we’re all watching IPTV, internet streamed through a television set? It’s a pertinent question because when Hybrid-IPTV (as we can call it, to avoid a comments row about semantics) does arrive on the mass market, we will effectively have iTunes on our remote controls.

Never mind another dose of bland reality fodder from BBC One, or NBC – what about a niche documentary shot and uploaded by someone in Mexico? Or the latest interview by online video wunderkind Jamal Edwards on SBTV? They’re both yours for $2.99, or perhaps less, all streamed straight to your living room.

Or perhaps even a sci-fi action movie, complete with top of the range special effects, made entirely independently from the Hollywood systems, for just a few thousand dollars? Gareth Edwards has already proven, with great finesse, that it can be done.

When we can get the internet and all its varied signal and noise through our TV sets, what will “working in television” mean? People talk about it as if it is a craft and a career – but actually a television is no different to Youtube, Twitter or Flickr: it is a platform.

II

Thing is, from an advertiser’s point of view, it is becoming a disproportionately expensive one. Why pay £10,000 for a 30-second slot after Coronation Street, when you could sponsor an independent drama series, or a magazine show on iTunes – aimed at your target customer – for far less?

BBC TV Centre | Image credit: strollerdos on Flickr (cc)

And from a viewer’s point of view, why watch something at a time decreed by a scheduler, when you can watch it at your leisure? (A friend of mine who works at the BBC commented on Facebook today how people complained last night because Antiques Roadshow was cancelled to accomodate the late-running F1 grand prix.)

I’m not dismissing TV’s past or present, nor the people or work that goes into it. Television as we know it has a future, and it is a future making some extraordinary, live changing shows.

But like newspapers before it, it will fight a difficult battle with its own legacy costs. Television is still eye-wateringly expensive to produce. Studio television is some of the most expensive, and that’s declined so much, the BBC are now selling off their studio complex in West London.

III

We’ll have to redefine what we call things a little bit. Jamal Edwards wouldn’t say he “works in Youtube” just because that’s his platform. He probably says he’s a film-maker – or even just a content creator. This (or something like it) might be the job-title of the future. And of course there’ll be issues of quality, copyright, and too much noise – all things we’ve already proven we can solve together.

So if I was young and wanted to “work in television” I wouldn’t bother competing with thousands of others for work experience at the BBC, or spend three years doing the Pret runs at an Indie, just so I could have my shot at pitching segments for Gordon Ramsey’s Strictly Come Cash In The Attic SOS: the celebrity special.

No sir, I would pick up a camera and start making something instead.

Out there, on the internet already, “content creators”: ordinary people, small businesses and independent film makers, are proving that remarkable, popular video can be made with little or no money. Its limitation is that viewers have to peer at our work in a small box on their laptops…but one day soon, hybrid-IPTV will project our films onto 45-inch plasma TVs.

And when that happens, “working in television” won’t mean anything at all. 

Why entrepreneurs are journalism’s only hope

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

Even David Cameron’s saying it now. In a speech to his spring conference this weekend he announced that entrepreneurs are Britain’s ‘only strategy’ for growth, and is promising help for people starting their own businesses in this month’s budget.

The same is true for journalism too. The call to enterprise isn’t a stop-gap, nor an acceptance of defeat trying to get a ‘proper’ job.

Journalism needs entrepreneurs to shake things up and make some new things happen. In the shadow of newsroom cuts, creative famine and spreading churnalism, these brave starters are journalism’s ‘only strategy’ for growth.

As if by magic (or more likely by perusing the planning diary) the Observer yesterday featured several ‘young guns‘: young men and women who, in the face of high youth unemployment, have made their own careers happen. Included was 20-year-old film-maker Jamal Edwards who founded SBTV, an impressive youth channel; Georgina Cooper, 26, the creator of PretaPortobello.com; Gerard Jones, 21, who founded his own football training academy while still at university; and Edwin Broni-Mensah, 25, who’s come up with a great business around refillable water bottles.

They are inspiring stories of young people who, in the face of a game where the odds were stacked against them, invented a new game, with the rules squarely in their favour. And they’re relishing the freedom and opportunity it gives them. Meanwhile, more young journalists who fought their way into a national newspaper the old way are handing in their notices!

So start now…but start small.

The time to make your own career happen is now.

I had the pleasure of speaking at Leeds Trinity University’s Journalism Festival a week ago, alongside Joanna Geary from the Times, Chris Ship from ITV, Patrick Smith from the The Media Briefing and many others.

I was there to talk about entrepreneurial journalism – and in particular, the often overlooked beauty of starting an intentionally small, but insanely profitable business. In it, I presented several examples of journalists making money in new ways, described how I did it launching my business studio .fu and gave some practical advice on how to start a business with no funding, no employees and no office.

My presentation is available to view by clicking here.

You can also read a write-up and listen to an interview here.

The lure of having @bbc.co.uk or @cnn.com on your email address is a temptress, I know. But we are entering an age where the self-starter is the one with the opportunities – don’t miss out! If you still need convincing read this great article in Smashing Magazine.

And for another four weeks, there is the opportunity to win £1000 in cash to get your business off the ground in our unique myNewsBiz competition. Click here for details of how to enter.

UPDATE: a couple of similar excellent posts from other young journalists today: Joseph Stashko asks why are j-students still attracted by the mainstream media; and Marc Thomas explains why he’s going entrepreneurial instead of looking for jobs this summer.