Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

10 ways to make the most of your journalism course

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism by Adam Westbrook on September 27, 2011

Image: Adam Westbrook

The signs of autumn are easy to spot: leaves turning golden brown, England in the grip of an Indian Summer (usually after a rubbish actual summer) and a new raft of young journalism students starting courses across the land.

Anecdotally at least, universities are not struggling to fill their places and, where possible, are opening up more spaces: all this despite the bad news surrounding the industry, and the prospect of starting on as little as £14k a year – if you’re lucky enough to get a job.

Because of this, new students this year face a challenge: there are now nearly 100 journalism courses in the UK – that is a lot of wannabe hacks all with the same ambitions. We’re far enough into web 2.0 now that most of these students use social media (the majority of new students I’ve met at Kingston University do); many of them are multimedia savvy (although not nearly enough) and loads of them have got work experience under their belts.

Having an MA in journalism? It’s not good enough any more. Writing a blog while you’re studying? Not good enough either. Getting a pass on your video module? So what. Making noise on Twitter? Everyone’s doing that.

If you’re going to stand out from the crowd you’ve got to bring your A-game to the table. Nothing else will cut it. Yesterday I gave a talk to the new MA students arriving at Kingston University, and suggested ten things they can do to really excel in the short nine months they have before they hit a turbulent industry.

10 ways to make the most of your journalism course

.01 write every day: if you’re in this because you love writing, then write -and write often. And write without thinking too much: as Seth Godin puts it: “No-one ever gets talker’s block”.

.02 blog every week: I said it’s not good enough to have a blog, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have one. It’s a great platform to force you to write, as above, but also to test ideas (and therefore have ideas). You must be comfortable with creating and publishing to the internet – no excuses.

.03  learn new platforms: you need to be all over Storify, Bundlr, Tumblr, Vimeo, Audioboo, again – no excuses. You don’t have to be prolific on all of them, just pick one and run with it. Student Joseph Stashko’s used Storify to great effect this way.

.04 practice your multimedia: chances are you’ll learn how to shoot video, photos and audio on your course. The key word here is practice. A semester-long module won’t equip you with the storytelling experience you need to stand out from the crowd. Force yourself to create content every week for the next 9 months. A guarantee: you’ll get better.

.05 read more. watch less TV: I say this every year, but I’ll say it again: the best thing you can do is cut TV from your life (or drastically reduce it). It’s amazing how much time you gain and brain cells you retain. Use that time to read. I know, pretentious or what, but like I said, we’re talking A-game here.

.06 watch more films: films teach you two things: how to tell good stories and how to tell them visually. A LoveFilm or Netflix subscription is a good start.

.07 teach yourself web skills: I’m talking HTML and CSS. You don’t need to know more than the basics but it’s a huge advantage not to get intimidated by code. The key phrase here is “teach yourself” – don’t pay to learn it, go online and find free resources.

.08 data and run with it: if you have even the slightest affinity for numbers or know how to interrogate an excel spreadsheet there’ll probably be a good job for you at the end of your MA if you can prove it. But you’ll have to prove it yourself, creating mashups, infographics and stat-based stories in your own time, and using a website to publish them.

.09 go to lots of events: if there’s one thing journalists like to do, it’s hold meetups: discussions, debates or just booze-ups. The web makes it easier to find out when they are, so start going to them. If you’re in/outside London or any other major city you really have no excuse. If there aren’t any events near you…start one! Simples.

.10 for the really smart and brave: if you’re really in this to win it, my advice is to start your own publication while you’re still studying. Pick a target market and a niche, get together with some other students and set up an online magazine. It’ll cost you about £50 and take a weekend to set up. Then use your free time to fill it with content: articles, video, interviews and use social media to share it. Why do it now? It’s really hard to justify the unpaid time when you’re in the real world, so university is your best chance.

Don’t think it’s possible? Exhibit A, Exhibit B, Exhibit C, Exhibit D, Exhibit E…….and I could go on.

If all this sounds like hard work, it’s because it is. You have to be motivated, ambitious, determined. You’ll need to sacrifice nights out and hangovers to get up early to shoot that video or update the magazine. You’ll have to become shit-hot at time management in order to juggle all this plus your actual studies. You’ll need to be constantly coming up with ideas – and keeping a close eye on developments in the industry.

In other words you have to make yourself really good; the Darwinist in me thinks this challenge to the next generation will be good for journalism in the long run. 

How to add some Flavors to your online portfolio

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism by Adam Westbrook on January 10, 2011

Image Credit: youngthousands on Flickr

Up until recently, I have advocated WordPress.org as the best platform for building your own, easy portfolio site. I talked about it at length in last year’s Blogging for Journalists series, and in this article for journalism.co.uk.

But all is not well.

Over the Christmas break I started reworking my portfolio website. Up until now I’d been using a WordPress install with a decent free theme. I’ve been updating it through 2010, but its message was confusing, and crucially, it wasn’t bringing in any new work. I decided I needed something new: something simple and eye-catching.

So, I started the hunt through hundreds of WordPress themes, free and paid for…and after three frustrating days – I found nothing.

Hundreds if not thousands of developers create new WordPress themes all the time, but many of them focus on using all the features, creating themes packed with text, widgets, columns and menus. There was no room for simple, elegant theme (incidentally, if you’re a WordPress theme designer reading this: gap in the market!)

I almost gave up…and then I discovered Flavors.

Why use flavors?

Flavors.me‘s tag-line is “make a homepage in minutes” – and that’s what it is about. It is a platform for you to create a one-page destination for your digital world, detailing who you are, and bringing all your different feeds into one place.

For me, Flavors offers three really significant things for someone trying to make a quick, distinctive website:

.01 simplicity: there are no pages, posts, comments or widgets to worry about. You can actually create the whole site in about 30 minutes, which for a website is pretty remarkable

.02 versatility: despite this, no two flavors.me sites I have seen look the same. And it gives you the chance to use the whole browser window and create a really attention grabbing theme.

.03 curation: flavors.me was designed to provide a one-stop shop for all our different digital outlets. So you connect your Twitter feed, your blog output, your Tumblr, Flickr and Vimeo feeds – and they can all be viewed from one page.

Wordpress vs Flavors: which is more eyecatching?

How to use flavors

  • You start with flavors.me by registering with the service for free and creating your own url – at first http://www.flavors.me/yourname.
  • Then you’re taken to your page, and a floating ‘design’ panel lets you add all your news feeds, edit the name of your site, and mess around with the shape and size.
  • Flavors lets you adjust the positioning of your content to about six or so templates, for example, to the left of the screen, right in the centre etc. You can also adjust the font, size and colour of your text.
  • Finally, you can decide on the background for your site. People use photographs, their own graphic designs or just plain colours. They all appear full screen, right across the browser, which instantly makes your own website stand out from the crowd.

What about your portfolio?

So, how do you create a portfolio of work inside Flavors.me? This is where the site’s curation tools are most useful, because you can connect them to the third-party sites holding your portfolio work and it does the rest of the work.

For example, as a video journalist, I want my films available to view on the site. But I don’t need to worry about creating a new post for each film, and embedding it: I simply connect Flavors to my Vimeo page and it does the rest.

It works the same with Flickr and Picasa (and others) for photojournalists, Soundcloud for audio journalists; Behance for designers and all the major blogging platforms for writers.

Best of all: clicking on each feed, opens it up in an adjoining panel: so people can watch your content without leaving your website.

How to match it to your domain name.

Flavors.me is free to access most of the features. However, to get all the fonts and full range of design options, SEO metadata and domain matching you’ll need to pay an annual fee of $20 (£12).

The paid version also lets you add a nifty ‘contact’ page and a few other things too.

If you really like your Flavors site, you might want to make it your official homepage. Obviously, you’ll need to own a domain name (try services like Bluehost (affiliate link) if you don’t have one already); but once you do, redirecting is pretty simple.

You need to log into your domain name’s Control Panel, find the options to change DNS records, and add a new A-record, changing the IP address to the Flavors.me server.

Flavors offer  quick guide to doing this, so it’s pretty straightforward.

Examples of great journalists portfolios

Loads of journalists are already experimenting with Flavors. Here are some examples of it being used to great effect. If you want more inspiration, the site’s directory is a great place to start.

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There are some design downsides: the site’s full-screen nature means it looks different on each computer. I am also not sure how it looks on mobile devices or an iPad.

NOTE: Lovely readers, including Philip John and David Berman have pointed out my site looks less impressive on an iPad. Clearly something to test with your own background designs.

Image Credit: Philip John

What you compromise is the flexibility of WordPress: there are no plugins, no widgets, no CSS; but what you gain is the chance to design a website that really stands out. And with the number of websites in the billions and growing daily, that’s what matters.