Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

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.

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 age of the online publisher – and why you should embrace it

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism by Adam Westbrook on June 28, 2011

 That’s the ultimate irony, no? That in the midst of remarkable and unprecedented change, in the midst of the greatest stories to happen all century, we are paralyzed by some changes in the delivery system.

Carey Tennis

Far from being a terrible time to be in journalism, publishing or the like, I genuinely believe this is an extraordinary period: unexpected, exciting and packed with new opportunities to create amazing things.

The internet has put awesome publishing platforms at our feet, for free. What great opportunity! Yet, so many are paralysed by fear of change, or fear of the unknown. And of course, fear of failure.

Thankfully, more and more overcome this as time goes on. Every month, new shoots break through the soil, small (for now) but with great potential to be the publishing powerhouses of the future. Here’s a few examples, which I hope inspire.

Five online publishers who create great stuff – and make money

.01 John Locke

If you’ve never heard of John Locke before, you soon will. The US author shot from obscurity this year to become the first person to sell 1 million ebooks using Amazon’s direct publishing service. British authors, such as Louise Voss, are following suit.

The Kindle service negates the need for publishing houses entirely, and allows authors to publish direct, taking 35% of the revenue (much more than most mainstream book deals); ebook sales jumped in the UK last year from £4m to £16m and it’s becoming big business.

I’ve said before that ebooks are a much overlooked publishing platform for journalists: zero costs, and if your content is quality then you can make decent revenues. I’ve done it twice myself, publishing two e-books in 2010 (and another on the way at the end of 2011). The great thing is once they’re up and online, they provide a great source of passive income: there’s nothing cooler than waking up on a Sunday morning and finding out you made money while you were asleep.

.02 Fleet Street Scandal/Yuki7

Fleet Street Scandal is the work of two US designers Kevin Dart and Chris Turnam who have the aim of making “art that looks great on a wall”. There are plenty of design agencies mind, so why are they here?

Well, this year they created something pretty unique and remarkable: an animated character called Yuki7 who has stylish 1960s-esque adventures. I saw this little film, and liked it so much I bought the t-shirt.

There’s clearly been some investment in making these films, and they’re recuperating that through products – posters, books, t-shirts and DVDs – which are now on sale. The point is, it takes balls to make something as big and complicated as this: something that we expect to see done by television studios. Fleet Street Scandal prove you don’t need be in the mainstream media to publish great stuff.

.03 Put This On

A video web series now, from Jesse Thorn and Adam Lisagor – all about men’s fashion, with the tagline “a web series about dressing like a grown up”. As well as a regularly updated website, which is actually just a Tumblr blog, PTO also contains regular, high quality short films focusing on different areas of mens fashion, including shoes, grooming and denim.

I love this series because it targets a clear and easily identifiable group of people (men, interested in fashion) of which there are a lot. You just have to see the popularity of sites like Fashion Beans to see that.

Each episode is getting 20,000+ views; it’s funded by sponsorship (a season one deal with Instapaper) plus donations from viewers. Make something that draws people to you and the money will follow.

.04 Pictory

Laura Brunow-Miner’s photo-series was instantly popular when it launched a year ago. It’s a very simple premise: each month, a different theme with story and photo submissions from readers.

Pictory/PhotographyBlog.com

Laura’s made it work by keeping it a small operation (she runs it alone) and through sponsored themes including partnerships with Levi’s and NPR. She also takes advertising on the site, with the rather charming idea of making adverts “big and beautiful” unashamedly 1000 pixels wide.

More importantly, Laura’s established herself as a big name in tech and media, with speaking work and a place in Fast Company’s Most Influential Women in Tech list.

.05 Everything is a remix

Kirby Ferguson’s documentary project started modestly nine months ago, with the publishing of part one of  ‘Everything Is A Remix’, a short Adam-Curtis style documentary which makes the point that nothing is new, everything is influenced by something else.

The third instalment went online in June to much fanfare, and collectively the three videos have been viewed more than a million times across Vimeo and Youtube, with one more on the way in the Autumn.

Kirby asks for donations to keep the project going, but watching his appeal at the end of the latest film, you realise it’s launched a career as an in-demand speaker and commentator. All down to publishing something remarkable.

These are all just ordinary people with the sort of skills journalists today have: good writing, design, filmmaking or photography. What makes them different is they had the initiative to take an idea and keep working at it until it became real – and through a little bit of social media promotion, they’ve become disproportionately popular.

So what’s the takeaway? There are jobs out there, yes, but the barrier to entry is set high; the barrier (and cost) to becoming your own publisher and editor meanwhile is now nearly non-existent. The question is, do you have the balls to start something, and the guts to finish it?

This is the age of the online publisher. So go, publish. 

NOTE: just as I published this, science writer Ed Yong (who blogs over at It’s Not Rocket Science) made this excellent point, which I think wraps my argument up perfectly:

I care very deeply about journalism, but there are few things more boring than journalists arguing over what counts as journalism. We live in a world full of stories, about amazing people doing amazing things and terrible people doing terrible things. I will use every medium I can to tell those stories. I will try to tell them accurately so people aren’t misled. I will try to tell them well so people will listen. If people want to argue about what to call that, that’s fine for them.

I would rather just do it.