Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

The last post

Posted in Adam by Adam Westbrook on October 4, 2012

After six years, 520 posts and who knows how many words, this is the last thing I’m going to write on this blog. 

It’s a decision I’ve been thinking about for almost a year and I’ve kept putting it off, partly because I still had things I wanted to figure out and share with you, and also because – believe it or not – this blog does make a bit of money!

But 2o12 has been a year of reflection and contemplation for me and ultimately of heading in new directions. Over the last few years my interests and passions have developed to the point where I now no longer think of myself as a journalist, but more of a producer and publisher. What I write about has gradually shifted from news to storytelling, to cinema to entrepreneurship, and I know that’s not what many of you come here for.

At the same time, how I think about creating stuff has changed and I want to focus my energy on building things that matter: films, magazines, books, businesses and more. Sadly a weekly blog post, and hours spent on Twitter don’t fit into that.

Parting gifts

I’ve spent some time bringing together 20 of my favourite pieces from the last few years and written five brand new ones, and put them all into a one-off collection. If you’re here for the first time and want the highlights this is for you, or if you want an intensive burst of ideas and inspiration in one sitting then I recommend it too. It’s completely free:  you can have the pdf right here, no email address or nuthin’.

Everything I’ve written on here will stay forever, for free. You can select just the video and storytelling posts or the entrepreneurship and creativity posts if you like, or just see what’s popular.

What next?

In a few months I’ll be leaving my life in London behind and seeking some new adventures. I’ll be heading to Paris in January and then to wherever the wind takes me. There is no plan or strategy, just embracing uncertainty, putting faith in having no plan.

I’ve got some bold new projects I want to start, some experiments I want to try and I’ll generally be gettin’ busy gettin’ messy. I’m still insanely passionate about creating insightful, intelligent and thought-provoking factual stories so a lot of my projects will be trying to solve this problem.

I’m also crazy about storytelling structure and visual storytelling and still have loads of questions about it. The response to the Inside the Story project earlier this year was awesome, and I have plans to develop it in early 2013, most likely in magazine form. If you’ve downloaded a free copy of the ebook, then you’ll hear about it later this year. Click here to get a copy if you haven’t already.

I’ll be location independent so I’ll still be working with clients in the UK and elsewhere and I’ll continue to be available for film, motion graphics and writing commissions. Click here to contact me about that. I’m also still consulting and training, and there are still a few spaces left on the next video journalism workshop in November. At the same time, if you’re an organisation committed to creating great narrative experiences anywhere in the world then drop me a line too, maybe we could work together one day.

Thank you

Finally, and most importantly, I want to say a huge thank you to you for reading all this over the years. You can double that thanks if you’ve ever left a comment after a post, triple it if you’ve retweeted, reblogged or shared a post, and quadruple it if you’ve ever bothered to send me an email. Knowing that something I’ve written has inspired another person, given them a new idea, or helped them do something awesome always puts a smile on my face.

After all this time blogging about journalism, what advice can I offer? Well, there’s a spot open for someone to share more new ideas about how journalism can be done better. If that appeals to you, then remember: be positive, not critical, share and inspire and above all be immensely generous.

Blogging is a great way to crystallise your own ideas and get feedback, not to mention a great way to learn, build a platform and a reputation. It worked for me and it was great fun, so go on, get busy writing. Here’s a series I wrote a couple of years back with advice on how to start your own blog.

Keep up!

I have honestly no idea what will happen next in my life but here are some ways you can keep up with whatever the hell does happen.

My Journal: I’ve slowly been building a personal online journal. Is it just another blog? Sort of, although it is really a blogazine, with each article individually designed, as a way for me to practice web design. It’s a 100% personal site, so if you’re interested in me as a person then take a look. Inspired by Robin Sloan’s brilliant tap essay I’m going to be making tributes to people, things, places and stuff that I really love.

My homepage: My main website is still there – it’s the best way to contact me.

Twitter: I’ll still be tweeting and tumblring, although a lot less frequently.

Hotpursuit.co: This is my new publishing venture..it’s just a top co right now, but will develop more in the future. Still you can sign up to the mailing list if you really want.

• • •

And lastly, I’m not stopping this blog because I have lost faith in the future of journalism or the industry. Quite the opposite. In the lifespan of this website we’ve seen journalism hit hard, and its foundations thoroughly shaken. But the last two years have brought an energetic burst of new ideas, platforms and experiments from ordinary people that I’m certain will propel us through to a remarkable new age, where stories are told, ideas are spread and the truth always challenged.

If you ever despair, remember: we are just at the beginning. 

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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. 

30 free ideas for multimedia producers and digital storytellers

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism, Online Video by Adam Westbrook on September 3, 2012

One of the first and best bits of advice I’ve ever been given has been this: write everything down.

Writing an idea down – making it physical on the page – engages your brain in imaging how that idea might happen. As the words form on the page, you think about logistics, treatments, audiences.

It also gives you the ability to vocalise and understand a problem. If a film you’re making isn’t working for some reason, try and write down why: if you can put your problem into words, you have power over it.

So for the last three years I’ve written ideas down as a matter of routine. I’ve got notebooks upon notebooks, as well as a 50 page Word document on my hard drive full of them. Many of the ideas are now redundant as I’ve moved onto other things, and following last week’s confessional, I thought I’d give some them away for free.

You never know, one person’s trash might be another person’s treasure.

A couple of disclaimers: I am fully aware most of these ideas are either lame or not original – that’s partly why I never pursued them. So I won’t be taking criticism in the comments about the quality or originality of the ideas, thank you. However, even if you don’t find any directly useful, they might fire off a spark into something else.

I’m publishing these under a Creative Commons Licence I’m calling the Call-Your-Mum-Licence (CYML 1.0). You don’t have to give any credit or anything, but if you do find a use for them, promise you’ll give your mum (or equivalent) a ring.

Right, let’s get on!

30 free ideas for digital producers

  1. Amazing real life stories that emerged solely from data on a spreadsheet
  2. Stories about items (typewriter/kodachrome) going extinct
  3. Stories of the glamour days of air travel (PanAm etc)
  4. Missed connections on Gumtree
  5. Profiles of people who make a living pretending to be someone else
  6. “My first…” directors/writers/painters talk about the pain of getting the first film/book/painting done
  7. “Journeys that almost killed me”
  8. “Scene of the crime” – take people back the place where something major happened in their life
  9. Is Britain tilting? (apparently it is)
  10. Elderly people share one piece of advice they’ve learned in their many years
  11. Investigate how easy it is to plant a tree in a public place (apparently not very)
  12. Run for MP in the next election and make a documentary about it.
  13. Visit every World Heritage Site in the country and document
  14. A website/magazine about people for whom ‘OK isn’t good enough’
  15. A collaborative piece where people across the country find out where their waste goes
  16. A website where people can fill in a box to say sorry for something they’ve done (anonymously)
  17. An app that lets people photograph potholes/graffiti and sends it, plus location, to their local authority. The LA can then text them directly when the problem has been fixed.
  18. Competitions to bring people from around the world together to solve a big problem – crowd sourcing problem solving
  19. A platform to show news packages from around the world..how have different countries covered the same event?
  20. Films about people who do a dying trade (blacksmith/wood turner etc)
  21. If we could build the internet from scratch, with everything we’ve learned, what would it look like?
  22. Repackage out-of-copyright books in a more visual and engaging way
  23. An app that makes it really clear what food is in season and local to you for when you go shopping
  24. Use splitscreen/tallscreen to show two sides to an argument
  25. A simple, non-technical description of how web sites are made
  26. A celebration of unconventional solutions to problems
  27. A visual rundown of all the different types of material and  how long they take to decompose
  28. Take someone who’s in a bad place in their life on a creative journey (How to look good naked but with creativity not clothes)
  29. Get 15 brilliant people from completely different industries together to try and solve a problem in a weekend. Document it.
  30. A repository for unwanted ideas that other people can use and take inspiration from. In fact, let’s start it right now – share yours in the comments box!

UPDATE: Journalist Ben Whitelaw has added some of his spare ideas on his blog. Let me know if you do the same and I’ll link to them too.

False starts

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism by Adam Westbrook on August 27, 2012

Most of us, either through our upbringing, education or profession, have an aversion to making mistakes. Most of us too are governed in some way by a fear of failure.

Fair enough, but we live in a world, and work in an industry, where change is afoot and where innovation is desperately needed. This comes not from walking the line, but from making mistakes and experimenting.

As I start to wrap things up around here I’ve been looking back over some of the mistakes and false starts I’ve had over the last few years. There are lots of them. I hope that sharing mine will make you feel better about yours.

Here’s a quick list of some of the false starts I’ve had so far:

  • I blew my first potential gig as a film-maker, a commission to make a documentary for an NGO. In my naivety and desperation to get the gig I under-sold myself and gave a very cheap quote. Sensibly, they decided to go with someone more expensive!
  • I wrote an ebook of journalism skills for hyperlocal bloggers – it sold a whopping 15 copies
  • Next Generation Journalist did a bit better – it made enough to justify the time I spent on it – but sold far fewer copies than I thought it would
  • My Future of News Meetups in 2010 started off amazingly, but I was unable to continue them after 6 months (although others carried on the baton)
  • I spent about 5 months developing an idea for a new magazine with a friend, but we both lost motivation when we couldn’t marry it to a demand in the market.
  • I started a video business in January 2011 and it did really well. But when the web domain came up for renewal I decided to cancel it and end the business – not through lack of work, but all my clients were coming through me, not the business.
  • I worked with two great  journalists on ambitious plans to create a multimedia explainer of the Eurozone crisis last winter. The topic was so big and fast changing we had to drop it over Christmas.
  • I started a website called Volcano Love Stories which was going to collect love stories that emerged from the volcanic eruption in 2010. I only got one submission
  • Not to mention more than 20 films that have not made the splash I wanted, a dozen web domains bought and left to rot, and the countless ideas that sit in notebooks.

The point is, every one has false starts and stumbles. Everyone falters and fails, particularly on the way to doing important work. Although each of these were disappointing and painful at the time, I learned something important from each of them.

Don’t be set back by your personal false starts. The people who make it in the end are the ones who pick themselves back up, dust themselves off and get busy again. As long as you learn something from them they haven’t been a waste of time.

What have your false starts been and what did you learn from them?

Your online video shopping list

Posted in Online Video by Adam Westbrook on August 20, 2012

There’s an old analogy, which I can trace back to the 1990s, that says making a film is a lot like making a meal. 

It goes like this:

“You choose your recipe (subject and angle), write out a shopping list (treatment and storyboard), get some money (you need more than you think) and go shopping for the raw materials (shoot the pictures and record the sound). Then you return to the kitchen (cutting room) and start cooking (editing). The meal is made in the kitchen; the film in the cutting room.”

Harris Watts, On Camera

I like this analogy a lot, but it’s worth unpacking for 21st century video storytellers.

Choose your recipe

The big point here is you must have an idea of what your film is going to look like when its finished. You must be able to picture the opening, the closing and perhaps some key sequences in the middle. You must be able to close your eyes and hear your  potential interviewees talking, imagining what kind of things they’ll say. You should have a feel for the pace of the film – is it fast or slow? Upbeat or sad?

Ultimately your story should have a theme – a controlling idea of some kind – which you can summarise in a single sentence. You wouldn’t make a risotto for the first time without knowing what one looks like would you?

Write a shopping list

This always finds its way into my workflow, and I teach it to students and clients as well. Before I start filming I mind-map all the elements and use it to plan the shoot. I draw out the key ingredients: the interview, the sequences, the scenes, the other b-roll and anything else like music and graphics. Then from each of these segments I brainstorm ideas for how each one could play out.

A “shopping list” I drew for a short documentary in 2011

So around the interview bit I come up with different ideas for where I could conduct my interviews; I think about what questions I’ll ask. It helps me anticipate any problems which might come up during the shoot. Your first idea is rarely the best, so try and come up with unique takes on each segment.

I’m running another online video basics course with journalism.co.uk in September 2012. Click here for details.

Get some money

The quote above was written for television in the 1990s with its big budgets. These days I’d say video can cost less than you think. Certainly the hurdles to creating and publishing video have fallen through the floor. If you’ve got an iPhone or a flipcam – or even a webcam – the power to tell visual stories is in your hand.

Shop for raw materials

Here’s the big thing: the shoot is like the shopping expedition. You are merely collecting items to edit later on. This isn’t to belittle the shoot and the hard work that goes into it (you can’t make a good meal with bad ingredients, after all). However, to get obsessed by equipment and spend ages on complex super-slick camera moves misses the point: the film is made in the edit. It is the combination and contrast of images that tell the story, rarely the images on their own.

The rules of a good shopping trip apply: have a shopping list, know your way around the supermarket and get in and out as quickly as possible. You want more than enough of each ingredient so you can choose the very best to include in your meal. That means shooting more b-roll than you think you need, and shooting a longer interview than you’ll use.

Start cooking

As I said the real flavours of your film won’t emerge until the edit. That’s the magic moment when you combine your ingredients to create something greater than the sum of its parts. In video we are talking about the combination of images to create an idea in the audiences’ mind. Why does that matter? Because then the story doesn’t happen on the screen, in happens in someone’s brain: they own a bit of it, and it draws them in.

Too often – especially in journalism – we take the inverted triangle approach and tell our audience everything, instead letting them figure it out for themselves.

Anyway, once you’ve stirred all your ingredients together, leave it to simmer for 20 mins and add salt to flavour. But not too much.

Meet the Micropublisher: an interview with Thom Chambers

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism by Adam Westbrook on July 16, 2012

You’ll know it’s not often that I do interviews on this blog, despite getting requests from PR folk each week.

Thom Chambers though is someone I think you should meet.

He left a job in marketing to found his own micropublishing business Mountain and Pacific. It publishes two digital magazines: In Treehouses, a free release about freedom lifestyles and The Micropublisher, a subscription based magazine for wannabe publishers. He’s recently joined authors Colin Wright, Joshua Fields Milburn and Ryan Nicodemus in founding Asymmetrical, a community for writers and publishers, which I have had some great fun with in the last month or so.

But what I really like about Thom is his approach. He knows that you don’t need to be big or have a huge audience to be successful, just please a small, loyal crowd. And he knows there are no shortcuts to thriving in the age of the online publisher, just hard work and commitment.

•••

(By the way, if you’re interested in finding out more about how the microbusiness approach can be applied to journalism and publishing, I’m running a workshop at the General Assembly in London on the 24th July 2012.)

Interview with Thom Chambers, founder of Mountain & Pacific

What is the concept behind micropublishing and how is it different to normal publishing?

Self-publishing, as you’ll well know, has changed. It’s no longer a stepping stone or a fallback, but a lucrative destination in its own right. The opportunity for you to make a living with words is greater than ever before. But there’s a problem: in the self-publishing world, without publishing houses to filter out the rubbish, readers are overwhelmed. It’s harder than ever to stand out.

I believe there’s a simple solution: be your own publishing house.

  • A micropublishing house is simply a traditional publishing house shrunk to down to a one-person operation. A micropublisher is the person who runs it.
  • A publishing house distributes to bookstores. Your micropublishing house can sell books through its own website, through an online bookstore like Amazon, or both.
  • A publishing house needs writers. Your micropublishing house only needs one writer: you.
  • A publishing house aims for a large audience. Your micropublishing house finds a small, specific niche audience and aims to delight those happy few.
  • A publishing house publishes a large number of titles. Your micropublishing house publishes a small number – perhaps only one.
  • A publishing house has huge print costs. Your micropublishing house makes digital publications or print-on-demand titles only.
  • A publishing house runs big promotion campaigns. Your micropublishing house talks to fans who’ve given you permission to talk to them.
  • A publishing house has a huge staff and expensive offices. Your micropublishing house can be run by just you and a computer, from anywhere in the world.

I believe that micropublishing is the best way to make a living with words. By taking up the professional attitude of a traditional publishing house, you help readers, turning them into fans and customers. A micropublishing house is a publishing house for the self-publishing world. It’s a combination of the intimacy of blogging with the professionalism of traditional publishing houses.

How did the Mountain & Pacific business develop over its first year? Was it a slow start and was it hard to get going? How did you build momentum?

Mountain & Pacific only came about after I’d been publishing online for a little while. I started out with In Treehouses, which was a standalone magazine. When I started publishing other work as well, I wanted an umbrella under which to gather it all, rather than have it scattered across different websites. Starting a micropublishing house was a good way to accomplish that.

By taking up the professional attitude of a traditional publishing house, you help readers, turning them into fans and customers.

As a result, Mountain & Pacific had a kind of running start – there was the audience for In Treehouses who came over and read the other things I was writing as well.

With everything I’ve started, though – whether the micropublishing house or the individual magazines – they’ve grown slowly and steadily. I’ve never ‘gone viral’ nor have I made work that was designed to. Instead, I’ve tried to make things that delight those readers I do have. They’re then generous enough to spread the word, and so my readership grows.

That’s the real ‘secret’. However much you want there to be a nice easy shortcut, the only way you’re guaranteed to succeed is by doing great work that delights your existing readers, over and over. Do that, grow slowly, and set aside the gimmicks.

You recently launched Magazines for the Rest of Us – can anyone become a micropublisher these days? 

Sure – but whether you’re able to be a successful micropublisher is a different matter.

All those things it takes to succeed in any other career or discipline – dedication, practice, focus, effort, time – all apply to micropublishing as well. While anyone can publish to the web, not everyone will make a living out of it.

You’ve got a very disciplined strategy which impressed me straight away: your blog posts are short and to the point, you don’t seem interested in having lots of followers or making a big noise. And heaven forbid, you don’t live in London, New York or San Francisco! What are the benefits of doing it this way?

You know, the biggest shift in my entire philosophy came when I realised that most online publishing works best as a means to an end, rather than an end in itself.

There was this little period in time, and I think it’s already gone – when you could make a living as a ‘pro blogger’. Really, though, a blog is just a communication channel. It’s a wonderful one, but that’s all it is – a way of spreading your message, connecting with readers, generating new business. It’s not a business in itself, it’s a platform from which to build your business.

However much you want there to be a nice easy shortcut, the only way you’re guaranteed to succeed is by doing great work that delights your existing readers, over and over. Do that, grow slowly, and set aside the gimmicks.

When you realise this, you also realise that you don’t need to be ‘that guy’ if you don’t want to be. That guy who’s guest-posting everywhere, trying to scrape other writer’s readers. That guy who’s podcasting because a blogging guru told him he should. That guy who writes provocative ’30 things you don’t know about me’ posts that include some naughty swear words, because he’s seen it succeed elsewhere.

I’m not writing to get traffic, or make a big splash. I’m writing to make a connection with people who share my values and philosophy, and to build a reputation of which I can be proud. It’s still important to entertain, be interesting, and so forth – but there’s a difference between doing that and pandering to the lowest common denominator.

It’s becoming clear that success in online publishing comes from building a loyal audience around consistently high quality content – the hardest thing to do! Is that good news for micropublishers or bad?

Well, it’s bad news if you see micropublishing as the next ‘get rich quick’ tactic – if you’re looking at Amazon or the Kindle as ways to make a fast buck. Yes, some people will succeed with that – but most won’t.

The good news is that, if you’re willing to work hard to become the best you can be and you’re willing to do valuable work (rather than simply imitate others), then you can find a bigger, stronger, more vocal audience than ever before. Yes, there’s a lot of noise with which you have to compete, but if you’re able to cut through that then the audience is ready and waiting.

What’s the biggest challenge you’ve overcome in building up the Mountain & Pacific?

Well, I think I’m still overcoming most of the challenges. I’m still teaching myself to be more focused, to do better work, to put in the hours. I haven’t scratched the surface of what I want to achieve – with Mountain & Pacific or with other aspects of my work.

Perhaps that’s the biggest challenge of all – overcoming complacency. Reminding yourself that ‘good enough’ isn’t good enough.

The good news is that, if you’re willing to work hard to become the best you can be and you’re willing to do valuable work (rather than simply imitate others), then you can find a bigger, stronger, more vocal audience than ever before.

A call for collaborators II

Posted in Online Video by Adam Westbrook on July 5, 2012

Are you an independent multimedia journalist already deep into reporting a big ambitious issue?

I’m just starting work on another big publishing project, but right now it’s a lot of planning, ideas and desk-based work. I’m always trying to keep busy telling stories but haven’t had the time to invest in finding a new one yet.

I figured, rather than wait for one to come along and embark on another solo project, this would be the perfect time to help someone else produce their story to a top quality standard. So I’m looking for someone to collaborate with.

Note: this isn’t the same as my call for general collaborators earlier in the year – Mo, Nick, Tony, David, Fabio, Gavin, Lindsay and Pablo thanks for your emails – I’ll be in touch.

Who am I looking for?

I’m looking for someone who is already well into the reporting of a story, has already gathered a lot of the raw materials but is unsure of how to produce it. Maybe you feel that you don’t know how to organise all the materials you collected, or you can’t figure out how to structure the narrative in the most effective way. You might also not be confident at editing and other post-production skills or how to get the story on the web. I can help you with all those things.

It doesn’t matter where in the world you are as we can communicate over Skype and email. However if you would like some hands-on producing then it would be useful (although not vital) if you were in the UK so we can transfer large chunks of media.

What stories am I looking for?

It should be an ambitious, deep reporting multimedia project that you have invested a good amount of time in, building relationships and contacts in the story, immersing yourself in it. I don’t have enough time to do any of the reporting myself so it should be near the end of the ‘gathering’ stage, ready to go into post-production.  There’s no particular subject matter that I’m looking for but I’ll pick the one that interests me most and looks like it has the best potential to be a great story.

You might have photographs, audio and even video to put together. Ideally the story is character led, with a strong engaging person at its heart.

What can I help you do?

I can work with you to shape your raw materials into an engaging, attention grabbing narrative full of all the right story ingredients, whether as a standalone documentary, website, digital magazine or even a one-off iPad magazine.

I have a fair few other commissions and projects on the go at the moment so this wouldn’t be a full time gig – but we’ll work hard together on it until its done and ready to be published. I’ll also help you turn it around swiftly so it goes live by the end of the summer.  I won’t charge anything for my time or claim any ownership of the content itself, although a producer credit would be nice.

How to get in touch 

If your project sounds like a good fit then first of all drop me an email and tell me a bit more about you and your project. I want to know who you are, what your story is, what stage it is at right now and how it fits the criteria above. I’ll get in touch with the ones that appeal to me and the next step will be a short Skype conversation where we can see if we’ll work well together.

To get in touch visit my website and click the big ‘Contact Me’.

Comments Off on A call for collaborators II

How to make boring things interesting in video

Posted in Online Video by Adam Westbrook on July 2, 2012

There’s no doubting that video is an incredible medium. It has the power to transport us to other worlds, feel other peoples’ feelings and can affect our emotions quite dramatically, when done well. Ultimately, video can move people to action.

Part of the secret to doing good video is choosing the right stories to tell with video in the first place. Read that sentence again and you get an important truth about video: it can do some stories, issues and subject matter really well. Everything else, it does badly.

What is video good at?

When I give talks, lectures or workshops about online video I usually start by laying out what video can and cannot do. This is my list of its favourite subjects:

  • explosions, fire, sparks and noise (ever wondered why these always lead the news bulletins?)
  • action and movement: every video must involve someone doing something
  • awe-inspiringly big things like landscapes
  • amazingly small things that our eyes can’t see – but also anything closeup in general
  • human stories and emotion – no matter how complex

What is video bad at?

Human emotions are probably the most complex things out there but video can convey them better than any other medium. When it comes to other complex issues however, video is out of its depth:

  • Politics and meetings: much of it happens behind closed doors, is polemic and involves little physical movement
  • Business, economics and theory: similarly non-visual at first glance
  • Statistics, numbers and data: video and data journalism don’t sit side by side
  • Interviews (yes, really): video is not designed for people sitting down and talking

However, almost everyone involved in video finds themselves working on the latter a lot of the time. The nightly news has to cover politics and the economy. A management accountancy firm has to make videos about management accountancy. We all have to run interviews (do we?)

So the question then is: how do we make this shit interesting?

“There’s no such thing as boring knowledge. Only boring presentation.”

Dan Roam

I start with this quote in mind. Although I’m putting down business, politics and data as video subjects, there is no denying they are hugely interesting subjects in and of themselves. But to make them work on video we have to put in some extra work.There are some tested techniques filmmakers use to inject interest into potentially dry stories – many of these you will recognise from television, where programme makers face this challenge regularly.

In other cases, we are still struggling to make it interesting – so there’s potential for disruption from brave new film makers (that’s you).

.01 humanise

Tell a real human story as access into the issue. Ever wondered why news packages about gas price rises always start with an old lady filling up her kettle and worrying about her winter fuel allowance? That’s how journalists try to get people to care about a story that is actually about oil prices and Russian diplomacy.

This, incidentally is the secret behind great films that promote either non-profits or business. Duckrabbit’s TV campaign for Oxfam uses the real story of a donor to make us care; this series by Phos Pictures uses the same device to advertise -wait for it: a gym. It almost made me sign up, and I live 4,000 miles away.

.02 visualise

If every story should be human, it must also be visual. Video, like photography, graphic design and web design is about using images to convey the message – not words. A common crime of directors is to rely on dialogue, voice over and interviews to tell the story when ideally people should get it with the sound turned off.

At its most simple: if you’re filming an interview with an IT specialist for your website, don’t just film a straight interview. Make it visual: film them at work, going for a walk, cycling to work, eating lunch, playing squash whatever – it’s the eye-candy video is made for. Done well, visually led films can turn an interview with a blogger (snore…) into something quite wonderful.

.03 surprise

Amy O’Leary makes the point in this talk that surprise is a key element to a successful story. We love surprises because they release happy chemicals into our brains. You can hook your viewers on the surprise drug in two ways: you can be clever with your narrative to create a set-up and punchline throughout a piece (difficult) or you can smack them in the face with a wet fish.

For example, if your bread and butter is a weekly video interview with a leader in your field, why not do the interview while they’re getting their haircut? I’m serious. Find an amicable barber and you’ve got something easily set up, that fills its purpose and is visual at the same time…all while sticking annoyingly in your audiences mind. (If you manage to pull it off in your organisation, let me know!)

UPDATE: jump down to the comments section to see how Reuters do this effectively with a strand of their videos

.04 be useful

If you can’t be interesting then at least make sure your video is useful. Some people will sit through a 20 minute panel discussion if they know the information is important to them.

If you can’t even be useful, then for the love of God…

.05 be short

Some people say videos on the web shouldn’t be longer than two minutes. You can definitely tell a good story in less than this. While I don’t think there is a hard and fast rule, I do believe anything longer than five minutes is a result of laziness or ego (please note: I am regularly guilty of both of these).

Does your video have an upside down flying rhino in it? If not, it probably doesn’t warrant being longer than two minutes.

That said, if you’ve got a great human story, that you’re telling visually and is packed full of surprise: then please, I will give you hours of my attention. 

So in summary: if you can’t be interesting, useful or concise, you’ve picked the wrong medium.

The video decision workflow

To help you out I’ve designed this video decision workflow which puts all the above points into place. Start at the top and hopefully it will help you decide whether or not to tell your next story in video. As well as journalists and documentarians, it is also designed very much with commercial factual video in mind too. I know there are a lot of B2B magazines, agencies or industry websites out there wanting to use video but doing it ineffectively.

Please note: although the image has a © symbol on it, I am releasing it under a Creative Commons Licence for attribution. Please takeaway and use, but give credit if you publish it elsewhere. 

Adam Westbrook's Online Video Workflow

Click to enlarge

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.

Inside the Story: a huge thankyou

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism by Adam Westbrook on June 20, 2012

I’ve been looking forward to this one since January. 

Yesterday I had the distinct pleasure of wiring $4339.99 to Kiva, the developing world entrepreneurship charity. That’s the total sales raised from shifting nearly 1,000 copies of Inside the Story: A Masterclass in Digital Storytelling from the People who do it Best. It’s an  astonishing amount of money for a brilliant charity.

E-junkie, who handled all the book sales, confirms nearly 1,000 sales

If you’re wondering why the final figure isn’t a round number, remember Paypal and Google Checkout both take a fee per transaction. Each sale therefore raised between £3.12 and £3.15, depending on exchange rates.

The final amount, ready to go to Kiva

The money is now with Kiva, who estimate that every dollar donated (as opposed to loaned) generates ten dollars in loans – so we could effectively have created more than $40,000 for a brilliant charity. If you haven’t caught up with what Kiva do, then check them out here.

I’m personally astonished by the final amount we’ve raised. I had tentatively hoped we would make about $2,000 or maybe $2,500 tops. But to hit nearly $4,500 is just mind-blowing, so thank you if you bought the book, and thank you again if you encouraged others to buy it by blogging or tweeting about it.

I’d also like to thank the 25 brilliant contributors who gave time and effort into making the book happen. The charitable fundraising aside, the response from readers has been fantastic; I’ve had emails from people all over the world who say its inspired them to up their storytelling game in a big way.

What next?

Some of you have asked why the book was only on sale for a temporary period. It’s a logistical thing, mainly: there isn’t a convenient way to set up transactions so the money goes to Kiva as soon as the book is bought, and so I have to look after sales and make a one-off donation. That, plus dealing with customer service emails takes up a lot of time, which I don’t have.

However, Inside the Story will return this summer, and will be permanently available, either for free, or with an optional donation. If you would like to know when that happens, then signup to the mailing list here.

On being generous

I’ve also been asked why I did the project in the first place. Why put so much effort into something like this, without any reward for me? This isn’t how entrepreneurial journalism is supposed to work, surely!

Well, I had my own motivations. I had the idea for the book last year so for one, I just wanted to start and finish it. I felt there isn’t a book like it out there and that people would find it really useful. Completing an ambitious project like this builds momentum to start new projects. It was also a fantastic learning opportunity. In order to make the book happen I had to teach myself Adobe InDesign, HTML, CSS and some Javascript, plus build on my online publishing experience. I’ve learned a lot about digital publishing in the last few months, skills which will feed into my next projects.

It also gave me the opportunity to get in touch with some of my favourite storytellers, journalists and film makers and collaborate with them.

But above all, it’s practicing a fundamental pillar of online publishing and enterprise: you must be generous. If you want to build an audience or a community around what you do and what you love you have to be willing to give away a huge amount, willingly, happily without want for immediate reward.

You have to be willing to share what you learn, give away your best secrets and skills, bring others along on the journey with you. That’s why I’ve spent several hours writing a new blog post every week for the last five years, which I give away for free, with no advertising and no fees attached. It’s why I always try to respond to emails from readers, give interviews and help with student dissertations.

As well as demonstrating you know what you’re talking about, it also builds trust and grows attention – two things in hot demand.

Note that generosity doesn’t include tossing off short lazy blog posts, or poor quality podcasts every so often. Real generosity is crafting something of exceptional quality, like Inside the Story, or even Everything Is A Remix, and then giving it away for free.

So, if you’re stuck about what to do next, and where to go from here, try being unashamedly generous. Give away free advice on Twitter, offer your filmmaking or writing skills for free for a day; hey, you could even publish an ebook.

Think about what you know, what you’re good at, and what you love spending your time doing, and then ask how that can be put to good use helping other people. 

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.

The active way to start your journalism career

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism by Adam Westbrook on May 7, 2012
image SeanRogers1 on Flickr

First a quick update on Inside the Story, which has been on sale for 10 days now. It is selling extremely well, and has raised around $1700 for Kiva so far. I want to double this by the time the book goes off sale at the end of May though, so please tell everyone who’ll listen to get a copy!

If you’re not sure about it, then there have been some good reviews of the book so far on Innovative Interactivity, plus from other journalists.

The active way  to start your journalism career

One of the most popular posts on this blog in the last six or so months was a response to a query from Nick, a young Australian journalist. He wanted to know how to use the age of the online publisher to start his journalism career in the best way.

My main advice was to get to work, making high quality video stories, even with nobody to pitch to. Take the initiative, make a bold move, and create good content.

Well, I recently received a follow-up from Nick, which again, he’s kindly agreed to let me share with you.

Hi Adam,

Believe it or not, this morning I got offered my first real job in the journalism industry. It’s just as a Production Assistant at a TV news network, but most importantly it’s my foot in the door. Honestly, after three rounds of interviews it hasn’t sunk in yet.

The reason I’m telling you is because at the beginning of this year I decided to take some initiative, get out there and start creating stories. At the time I drew a lot of inspiration and advice from your blog and links. I bought a Canon 60D (with 50mm f1.4) on credit, found ‘free’ software, created a simple blog and began making videos. My videos are very amateur, but I’m convinced that the reason I got the job this morning was because of taking that initiative. And in part – that initiative was a result of reading your stuff.

First of all that’s fantastic news and congratulations Nick. I’ve shared this, partly to show that fortune really does favour the bold, but also to highlight some of the specifics of Nick’s approach that you can apply yourself.

The key is Nick’s decision to take the initiative, start a project, and get to work making videos. There is literally no excuse not to really, and if you’re a beginner, like Nick, then it is the only way to improve your craft.

Now, Nick says his videos are “very amateur” although I would beg to differ. Take a look:

First of all, I love the concept: give people an ice lolly in exchange for their opinion? Brilliant! If you don’t mind Nick, I will be borrowing that idea myself one day.  (Vox popsicle anyone?). His videos are creatively cut, perhaps inspired by the famous 50 people 1 question series, and he uses his DSLR camera and lens well.

The important thing is this: he has designed a project to channel his creativity and force him to create a series of content, just like some of the video producers I mentioned in the post before. I cannot stress the importance of this enough. It’s a clever idea, but not so ambitious it would take a long time to do (and cause enthusiasm to eventually fizzle out).

Secondly, Nick smartly doesn’t make a big financial investment where possible. He uses free editing and publishing software to get his content made. The music in his films are creative commons licensed. The only thing I’d advise is to avoid buying anything on credit as far as you can. From painful experience, borrowing money is not  a route to go down, especially early in your career.

That said, Nick’s investment in his camera does demonstrate one important thing: commitment. In buying a camera Nick is saying to himself, to the universe and of course, to potential employers, he is serious about this. He is committed.

From experience I can tell you that big projects often require a public demonstration of commitment, as if you are telling the Gods ‘I am serious about this shit‘. Once you make that commitment, you find things start to shift in your favour somehow: people start getting in touch, offers start coming through, inspiration takes hold.

Finally, and most importantly, Nick shipped. He started the Icy Poll project – and he finished it. That proves stamina, determination and an understanding of when something is done.

So, if you are sitting across the table from Nick at this TV News Network you see a young journalist with initiative, creativity, commitment, determination and leadership. Cool fact: they are five skills they don’t teach you at j-school and are therefore rare.

Prove you’ve got those skills too – through action, not words – and you’ve got a much better chance of standing out. The jobs market is not going to get easier: you have to get tougher.