Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

Are you waiting for approval?

Posted in Journalism, Next Generation Journalist by Adam Westbrook on June 28, 2010

Image credit: SleepyNeko on Flickr

A very insightful post from Deborah Bonello at VideoReporter.com today which poses a really important question any next generation journalist should ask themselves.

Comparing the life of an artist with that of a journalist, she makes a salient point about approval – and how it seems we’re all only as good as the establishment say we are.

The seal of approval

Widely speaking, as an artist, you’re as good as the gallery who puts on your show or the client who buys and gushes about your work. Otherwise, you’re an unknown, and your talent is questionable as it has yet to be given the mark of approval of a major art gallery or culture brand. There are of course exceptions to this, but bear with me.

As journalists, we all want to have been published by major media brands that are respected globally, whether as staffers or as freelance contributors. It is the BBC, and major newspapers and broadcasters who give us, as journalists, that stamp that says we have talent, that we’re good, that we can be trusted and should be listened to as reporters and storytellers. In fact, it isn’t until some have that seal of approval that they have the confidence to go off and start freelance careers.

And that’s an interesting point isn’t it? For as much as independent journalists talk about ‘doing something different’ many still crave that job in a big newsroom. They still need that ‘seal of approval’.

Why is that? Why do we need an editor at the BBC to tell us we’re any good? Why does our name have to be a byline in the Boston Globe or LA Times before we’re deemed ‘good enough’? What makes them so important? One thing’s for sure: if they do give your work the ‘seal of approval’ by publishing it, they won’t pay much for it these days.

Who is stopping you?

But as Deborah points out, things are changing: ‘The internet offers you the opportunity to build your very own journalism brand, around yourself’ she says. Right on.

You can create and publish journalism that doesn’t need a seal of approval from a mid-ranking editor and build a formidable reputation around your own skills – around a shit hot news product which provides good content to a target audience who needs it. Seems tough? It is – your content will need to be great (which is why I’m not worried about standards). You’re up to that right?

I really think if  more journalists were willing to work to please themselves and not a distant editor, we would get somewhere. If more didn’t view their talent as questionable but as extraordinary and unique.

Deborah didn’t wait to be deemed worthy by a London newspaper before flying to Mexico and starting MexicoReporter.com – she did it anyway, and became, almost single-handedly, an important media player in the region. The mainstream media then came to her.

So next time you’re on the verge of doing something epic, something exciting – but you think you can’t or shouldn’t do, remember a bit of the great Ayn Rand: the question isn’t ‘who is going to let me?’.

It’s ‘who is going to stop me?’

Online ad revenue: what journalists are getting wrong

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on April 9, 2010

Image credit: DavidDMuir (cc)

How much money has your website made you recently?

For all but the lucky ones, the figure is rarely enough to buy a latte, let alone support a family. And for all but the smart ones, the figure is usually from Google Adwords revenue.

Here’s the crunch: journalists running their own websites, whether they’re hyperlocal blogs,  online magazines or video sites are getting it wrong. They think there’s only one way to make money from a website – advertising. It’s how newspapers do it, so why should they think any different?

Actually, running a website for profit isn’t about building an audience of millions and raking in the ad revenue. For most of us, even the top niche bloggers, your audience will be in the thousands, not the millions. And that just doesn’t pay.

Doing it right

I was kindly invited to speak London’s prestigious Frontline Club this week, on how to make it as a freelancer in the modern age. Speaking alongside me was the inspiring Deborah Bonello, a journalist who actually has made money from her website, without using ad revenue at all.

In 2007, realising she wasn’t doing the journalism she dreamed of, she packed her bags and moved to Mexico, to carry out what she called “an experiment in digital journalism”. She set up MexicoReporter.com, a website which would be the foundation of her business. Starting life as a free wordpress blog (like this one) Deborah spent months filling it with content, covering stories all over the country.

It became hugely popular with the English speaking expats in Mexico, of which Deborah estimated there are more than a million from the USA alone.

If you ask Deborah how much she made from ad revenue, chances are the amount would be small. But if you ask her how much her website has made her: she’d answer ‘a lot’. By putting loads of free content online she had a strong portfolio to show editors when she approached them with stories. Before long she was getting commissions, and shortly after a retainer from the LA Times.

Now based in London, she’s landed a great gig with the Financial Times. In other words, her website has made her thousands.

And it’s likely she wouldn’t have had the same luck without MexicoReporter.com.

How to really make money from your website

The secret is this: your website is a vehicle for making money elsewhere, not an automatic money making machine on its own.

01. promotion: keep your website regularly updated with examples of your work. And keep producing content, even if it’s without a commission. It pays dividends when you’re offered work or a job off the back of your portfolio. Deborah’s work came because she updated MexicoReporter.com even though she had no-one to pitch to.

02. expertise: maintain a targeted, well promoted, blog which establishes you as an expert in your field. The money comes when you’re offered work because you can prove you know what you’re talking about. I have become both a lecturer and a trainer because of this blog, for example.

03. affiliate: be clever with your links. Affiliate links are dedicated hyperlinks to a product which give you a cut of the money if that product is sold. Reviewing a book, CD or anything else available on Amazon.com? Use an affiliate link to share the revenue. Many companies offer affiliate deals to bloggers.

04. sell: use your website as a vehicle to sell products, targeted around your niche. If you specialise in a certain type of journalism, or Google Analytics tells you your audience are a certain type of person, can you create an online store so they buy direct from you? Tracey Boyer has opened a store on her blog Innovative Interactivity with just that in mind, and Media Storm run a store too.

05. and yes, adverts: but you can be clever with adverts too. The UK based service Addiply created by Rick Waghorn solves some of the problems with Google Ads by offering locally targeted adverts for local based websites. Local bloggers say it’s bringing in results.

A combination of two or more of these things could bring in more money than the Google Ads cheque could. If more journalists looked beyond advertising as their sole business model, we’d move so much faster towards a financial base for the future of journalism.