Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

Blogging week #3 How to build an audience

Posted in 6x6 series, Journalism by Adam Westbrook on August 11, 2010


In this week-long series, I’ll be taking a look at why you really can’t ignore blogging if you’re a journalist, guide you through the basics of getting started, and reveal some top tricks for making blogging work for you.

We all want readers, right?

There’s little more galling than spending hours on a crisp blog post, announcing your presence to the world and finding nobody’s listening.

The first thing to remember is this: why should anybody read what you write? Why should anyone know you exist? No-one has a right to be instantly noticed in the crowded online world. But it is possible to quite rapidly build a regular audience, and with that a community, prestige, perhaps even extra income.

I know this because I’ve been on the journey. This blog you’re reading now was started on the 1st September 2006 (after my Warwick one was closed down).

I started writing in earnest, and a few people read it – mostly friends and relatives. It maybe got a thousand page views a month, which amounts to roughly 30-odd a day.

And it carried on like this…for nearly three years.

It was OK, I never really had any blogging ambitions, (I was more interested in my journalism); I updated maybe two or three times a month, writing about whatever interested me.

Then, about 18 months ago, I did two things, which I hadn’t been doing before.

  1. I wrote about one single thing (and wrote about it well)
  2. I made sure whatever I wrote added value to other peoples’ lives.

That’s the blog you’re reading now: solely about multimedia journalism (and not interspersed with details about my last holiday), with lots of practical articles like this one.

And sure enough, more readers emerged.

I’ve learned over that time what brings and audience to a blog and what doesn’t. There was no keyword wizardry going on, I didn’t buy anything from Google. I just started writing good stuff, which helped other people.

Seems simple, right?

Five things you can do to add value to your blog and build an audience

Be valuable & regular

The most important thing you can do is write about a very specific thing, and write for an audience who are interested in that thing. So, if you’re a travel journalist, running a blog for business-travellers, write articles which they will find useful.

It’s the difference between an article titled “W00t! I got an article commissioned!!!1 :D” and one called “5 iPhone apps to make your flights fly by”.

Put yourself in the shoes of your readers. What are the difficulties in their life (the pains, the wasted time or dollars, the boredom) which your journalism can fix?

Second of all, be regular. You should really be writing good, useful, valuable articles two or three times every week. Punctuate them with week-long specials (like this one), guest posts (see below) or links-of-the-week type posts.

Engage

The next most important thing to do is engage.

It is not enough to write for the masses, sit back and let them leave comments. Every comment you receive (especially in the early weeks and months) you should respond to. Any debate which sparks off the back of one of your posts you should join in with.

Be controversial. Be provocative. Make some noise. Challenge people.

Another great way to bring in readers, especially important ones, like big names in your field, is to comment on other peoples’ blogs. Say you’ve got competition from another blogger in the business-travel sector. Start commenting on their posts – they’re bound to follow the link back to your post.

Don’t make it obvious, just leave genuine, thoughtful and maybe provocative comments, and they’ll look at who you are.

List posts

An easy way to guarantee your posts are valuable to other people is to write plenty of ‘list’ posts. You’ll recognise them, especially if you’ve read my blog before, or Mashable, or Smashing Magazine. The one you’re reading right now is a list post (and you’re on number 3, by the way).

Lists are popular for two reasons. One, the reader can tell from the title alone whether the post will interest them and they can make a quick decision whether it’ll add value. A list-post title promises quantifiable, tangible advice as opposed to long-winded rhetoric.

And two, if they’re interested enough to click to your post, they can quickly scan down the list itself to see if they’re learning something new-they’ll either click away very quickly, or ideally, you’ve written something good so they’ll hang around.

Aim to write at least one list-post a week when you start blogging – you’ll make your blog so much more valuable.

Sneeze & squeeze posts

Sneeze and squeeze posts are used a lot by ‘professional’ bloggers but they’re useful to occasionally adopt yourself.

A sneeze post is a way of breathing life into old articles, usually taking the form of “Top 10 most popular posts this month” or “15 articles you might have missed”. See my quarterly ‘summary posts’ or the Media Blog’s weekly Top 10 for examples.

It’s a shame, isn’t it, when you write a new article, the one below it slowly slips beneath the waves. Writing a monthly, or quarterly sneeze post brings them back to life – and gives new readers a chance to look through your archive.

A squeeze post is another thing entirely. It’s actually a way to turn readers into either subscribers or customers. It offers them plenty of free stuff (like an ebook or a free report) in return for their valued email address. Something to think about if you decide to take your website to the next level.

Guest posts

Finally, another way to bring in readers with shit-hot content is to get other people involved, usually in the form of a guest post.

They’re used lots by successful journalism blogs like Innovative Interactivity and plenty of the biggest blogs in the world like Copyblogger and Lateral Action.

Identify the big players in your sector and invite them to write a post for you for free. They’ll usually be flattered, and will be happy to do it in return for some link-love. The best bit is they’ll link to your blog ever-after, so you get a chunk of their readers.

Think about interviewing other big players and publishing the interview too. On my other storytelling blog, blog.fu, I’ve invited four film directors to answer questions about their most recent pieces. It’s great for my readers, nice for them, and cool for me. Win, win, win!

And you thought blogging was just an amateur hobby! It is actually a little bit of an art and applying just a couple of these proven blog techniques will almost certainly bring in more readers. But the whole thing must be built on focused, valuable content.

If you’re not making your readers lives easier, more informed or entertained, why would they give you a slice of their fought over attention?

Journo blogger of the day: Christine Ottery

London based freelance journalist Christine Ottery is a good example of someone using not just one blog, but several, to really make the most of their niche and boost their position as an expert in the field.

Christine’s beat is science & environment news and she’s written for the likes of the Guardian and the Ecologist.

Her personal blog, Open Minds and Parachutes, while not that frequent, features some pretty long-form analysis of journalism and the environment, including this excellent piece about campaigning climate change journalism.

Alongside this there’s a tumblr blog which acts as a portfolio site and, as if that wasn’t enough, another blog, Women’s Mag Science – which hones in on a very specific and well defined niche.

Christine’s blogging is similar to that of science journalist Angela Saini who I’ve mentioned many times before. Her blogging and journalism has led to a book deal. Seriously, I’ll say it again, if you are lucky enough to have a journalism specialism get out there and start a blog about it!

Tomorrow: 10 awesome plugins & themes to give your journalism blog spark

(*cough! list-post cough!*)

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How do we shape the future of journalism? Easy!

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on March 23, 2010

Image: I Can Read

Things are moving forward in journalism. Slowly, but we’re definitely seeing things happen in 2010, which were only words in 2009.

New companies, products, ideas; but there’s still a lot to do.

So it’s the time to ask yourself: do you want to play a part in the future of journalism, or just play the bystander? Do you want to be the one who produces something no-one has conceived before? The one who answers a problem we never thought could be answered?

The challenge is a big one – but  guess what, to shape the future of journalism you only have to do one thing: show up.

Showing up means launching the digital magazine you’ve been daydreaming about for months; it means actually buying the domain name for that new hyperlocal you’ve got your heart set on creating, and then learning how to put the website together; it means deciding you will go to South America and report on that issue you know is going unreported, and setting up a way to crowdsource the cash.

It doesn’t mean endless hours brainstorming, planning, scribbing, daydreaming. It means doing.  

Get excited

Three great articles floated my way this week which really sum up what I’m trying  to say. First video journalist Michael Rosenblum reminds us the innovators of history have rarely been those in the establishment already:

The ‘professional scientists and engineers’ of 18th century Britain did not invent the first steam pumps, the working steam engine or the railway engine.  That was left to the ‘amateurs’, who thankfully, did not need the permission of the ‘professionals’ to get access to the tools of experimentation.

They were drawn to their craft and their avocation, as well as their later vocation, by pure passion and interest. And they delivered a very good product.  A very good product.

In other words, you don’t have to have a BBC email address to play big in journalism. You don’t need the New York Times behind you. You just need passion, interest and a willingness to get your hands dirty.

Show up

Next, Nick Williams of Inspired Entrepreneur points out that what ever you want to get paid to do, the place to start is to show up – even if it means doing it for free at first.

I am a massive advocate of showing up and doing what you love for free to start with. The key is the showing up part – because the money can’t usually follow until you’ve shown up, you can’t get paid in theory for something you haven’t done in practice. I know I would not be where I am today had I not been willing to show up for free at the beginning of my career and at various points since.

In other words, once you start doing something, things start happening for you. You won’t make it as a multimedia journalist sitting on Twitter all day – it’ll only work out when you show up with a camera and the kit and start telling a story.

Let go

Thirdly, Mark McGuiness of Lateral Action has some great advice to make showing up even easier: ‘you can’t plan for magic’:

Plans are good for some things. Buildings. Savings. Exercise. Some bits of some businesses. But they have their limits when it comes to creativity. After all, if you’re only going to execute on a plan, you haven’t really created anything, have you?

Preparation is fine. Research is fine. Practice is fine. Rehearsal is fine. Learning your craft is fine. But there comes a point when it’s time to face the stage, the page, the canvas or the blank screen.

In other words don’t wait for your whole plan to make sense before you start. Does your online magazine need a solid business plan before you write the first page? No! Do you need to have funding guaranteed to make an audio slideshow about a cracking story? Hell no!

You can sit around forever waiting for the business plan to realise or the money to appear, and all the while the future of journalism is moving on without you.

So get excited, show up and let go. And it’s yours.

Best of the blogs: 2009

Posted in Adam, Journalism by Adam Westbrook on December 18, 2009

My Google Reader probably trebled in size in 2009. It’s where I get at least 50% of information, gossip, inspiration and ideas on multimedia,  journalism and the future of news. As a Christmas treat, I thought I’d share some of the best blogs of 2009 with you….

Digital Journalism

10,000 words: Mark Luckie’s site is a goldmine of beautifully presented practical advice for digital journalists. His posts have become less frequent since he became re-employed, but each one is still as valuable.

Journalism 2.0: Mark Briggs is bringing out a new book for digital journalists in 2010 – expect it to become a core text on all journalism course reading lists.

Video Journalism

Advancing the Story: Deborah Potter’s blog on video journalism serves the local American market best of all, but it still has useful advice on shooting video and interviews.

Rosenblum TV: Michael Rosenblum’s blog isn’t your standard VJ fare. As the father of the medium, he is determined to see it revolutionised, and is a vocal herald of the death of traditional TV news. He has pitched for funding on an ambitious plan to give out 1,000 Flipcams in New Jersey, and launches a new video academy in New York in 2010.

The Outernet: David Dunkley-Gyimah’s single handedly pioneered the space between video journalism and cinema; his work resembles multi-million dollar Hollywood flicks. As artist-in-residence at the South Bank Centre in London, expect more news/art mashups in 2010.

Video Journalist: Glen Canning’s site offers some great practical tips for video journalists.

Bob Kaplitz: Bob Kaplitz’s blog is a must for anyone trying to get to grips with the basics of video journalism. He’s done what no-one’s really thought to do up until now – use video to teach video journalism. Clever, huh?

Radio

David Stone: a young news editor by anyone’s standards, David’s posts on practical radio journalism are useful for any radio journalist, especially in the UK.

NewsLeader: Justin King has used Twitter very effectively this year to share advice and tips for radio journalists in the UK and elsewhere. There’s more good stuff on his blog.

James Cridland: just returned from a round-the-world tour of radio, Radio Futurologist James has posted from Canada and the US, where he’s been meeting radio producers everywhere and sharing the future of radio with the rest of us.

Photojournalism

RESOLVE, Livebooks: not just a blog, RESOLVE, managed by Miki Johnson, is also a community of photojournalists all seeking the future for their craft. The After Staff series from summer 2009 is a superb library for anyone who’s been laid off and wants to make it in the scary new freelance world.

The Travel Photographer: Tewfic El- Sawy niftily picks up the best photojournalism from around the world and showcases it. A forward thinking blog, the Travel Photographer also presents new multimedia from photogs.

Lens Blog: The New York Times’ home for photojournalism is a beautiful resource of the best images from the around the world, plus occasional advice from the experts. Great for inspiration.

Writing, Blogging & Thinking

CopyBlogger: possibly the most famous blogger in the world, Brian Clark’s Copyblogger is vital for anyone who wants to understand how to build an audience and avoid boring them with dull words.

Steven Pressfield: a recent discovery for me, Steven’s Wednesday Writing tips not only cover the art of storytelling, but also shares advice on dealing with your own mental resistance and the limiting mind.

Freelance Switch: the ultimate resource for freelancers in all disciplines,  this site has regular articles on writing, getting and keeping clients.

Lateral Action: I have referred to Mark McGuinness’ work several times in the last year, not least because it’s so damn inspiring. If you’re a creative entrepreneur, and want help staying motivated, managing your time or pushing creative boundaries head to Mark. Lateral Action is particularly special because he’s teamed up with Brian Clark from Copyblogger (above) – a dynamic duo if ever there was one.

Career Renegade: also high up on the inspiration chart is Jonathan Fields site Career Renegade. If you’re a journalist thinking of launching your own startup, and creating your own “renegade career”, for Gods sake, read his book first.

The News Business & entrepreneurship

Directors Blog: since setting up POLIS at the London School of Economics, Charlie Beckett has held conferences and given countless conferences on the future of journalism. He has also influenced the future with his ideas of “networked journalism”; his blog today provides academic insight into journalism in the brave new world.

Headlines and Deadlines: blogging from the frontline of regional press in the UK Alison Gow’s blog has insight surrounded by lots of good links.

Killer Startups: every day 15 new internet startups are posted and critiqued. You won’t find any news ones on here, at least not yet, but it’s a fantastic inspiring resource for anyone thinking of going entrepreneurial.

News Innovation: with the banner “new business models for news” you know this blog is asking the right questions; follow it and you might get the answer. In the meantime, its posted some excellent videos of Jeff Jarvis (see below) explaining why the future of news is entrepreneurship.

BuzzMachine: Jeff Jarvis has emerged as the key proponent of “entrepreneurial journalism” and is leading the way in the classroom with his work at CUNY. His blog explains with passion why the future of news is entrepreneurship. Expect more pioneering ideas from Jeff in 2010.

Online Journalism Blog: one of the best sites for analysis on all things digital, Paul Bradshaw’s blog leans towards the often ignored arena of uncovering, analysing and producing data.

Paul Balcerak: from the US, Paul Balcerak sees the future, and then writes about. He shared some of the most creative uses of video journalism earlier this year, and expertly slams down anyone who is stupid enough to resist the future.

Mashable: in the TechCrunch v Mashable war, I am (after trialling both) firmly with the latter. Techcrunchers slate Mashable for just sharing funny Youtube videos, but it covers the revolution in journalism far better and with a much more positive outlook.

The Media Business: Richard G Picard’s blogs are more like essays, but their insight into business models for journalism is profound, and should be on the reading list of anyone thinking of going entrepreneurial. His articles  in 2009 have been shared on countless blogs.

Design

Design Reviver: unless you’re solely a radio journalist you should really exploit the internet’s fantastic resources for visual inspiration. Design Reviver is one of them, featuring among other things, great wordpress themes and photoshop tutorials.

ISO50: Scott Hansen is not only a talented musician but an exceptional graphic designer who shares his own work and those that inspire him. His retro colours and collages are perfect inspiration, and his taste in music is on the ball.

FFFFound: a must for visual journalists of any kind seeking inspiration. A warning though – you’ll struggle to click through the 100+ marvelous designs and photographs from around the world which will filter into your reader.

Multimedia

4iP: it’s always worth following the latest developments from 4iP towers; they are one of the major funders of public service startups in the UK, and their blog provides a good idea of what the latest developments are – and what they fund.

Duckrabbit’s Blog: Ben Chesterton and David White have shown the rest of us how to do multimedia, especially for non-profit clients. When not producing powerful stories for those without a voice, Ben and David passionately blog about the good, the bad and the ugly of multimedia journalism.

Bombay Flying Club: meanwhile in warmer climes, the three talents of Poul Madsen, Henrik Kastenskov and Brent Foster are producing equally gorgeous content for non-profits all over the world. Their blog acts as a showcase of their beautiful work, and is a great inspiration for anyone.

Innovative Interactivity: Tracy Boyer’s seriously on the ball when it comes to using multimedia and interactivity to tell news stories. Subscribe to her blog and you’ll get thoughtful critiques of some quite amazing work which is paving the way towards the future.

A daily dose of all these blogs have filled my mind with things I never thought possible, and work of superb quality. And there’s already room for more…what blogs do you recommend?

Introducing: the journalist of the future

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on July 23, 2009

There’s been enough talk about the cancer spreading through modern journalism. The cutting of jobs and money, the shedding of audiences and advertising, the invasion of PR guff and the medium’s failure to reject it; and vitally, the disappearance of time for journalists to do some proper journalism.

I’m tired of talking about the past and want to know what’s coming next. Here’s my picture of a future journalist, based on books, blogs, a couple of talks I’ve given recently and all the noise on Twitter. As always, it’s by no means comprehensive – so let me know what’s right and wrong in the comments box!

Typewriter

 

Introducing: the journalist of the future

This combines the technical skills the new journalist will need (plus the old ones), new ways of collaborating with audiences and journalists across the globe; and most importantly an entrepreneurial edge to create an army of “creative entrepreneurs”.

The Jack of All Trades

Let’s get the obvious ones out of the way first: the journalist of the future is a reporter, a video journalist, a photo-journalist, audio journalist and interactive designer, all-in-one. They shoot and edit films, audio slideshows, podcasts, vodcasts, blogs, and longer articles.  They may have one specialism out of those, but can go somewhere and cover a story in a multitude of platforms.

They may start off hiring the kit, but eventually will become a one-person news operation, with their own cameras, audio recorders and editing equipment.

They don’t just do it because it potentially means more revenue; they do it because they love telling stories in different ways. And let’s get another thing straight: they still live and breathe the key qualities of journalism: curiosity, accuracy and a desire to root out good stories and tell the truth.

The Web Designer

It goes without saying the journalist of the future should know several languages, two of which should be XHTML and CSS (and the more spoken ones the better). Their ability to design interactive online experiences will give them an advantage over competitors and a chance to charge more for their work.

They have an amazing portfolio website which shows off their wares.

They understand audio and video for the web does not follow the rules of radio and TV. They know what works online and what doesn’t. They can use social media to drum up interest and audiences in what they do, and are members of LinkedIn, Wired Journalists, Twitter to name just a few.

And it also goes without saying the journalist of the future has been a blogger for a long time.

The collaborator

The journalist of the future doesn’t belong to the world of “fortress journalism“. They don’t sit at their desk in a newsroom all day – in fact, they work from home.

They use Noded Working techniques to find collaborators for different digital projects; picking the most talented people from around the world. There are no office politics or long meetings. They market their work well enough to get chosen to take part in other projects.

And the journalist of the future aspires to the ideals of Networked Journalism set out by Charlie Beckett. They are not a closed book obsessed by the final product. Their journalism is as much about the process as the final product and they use social media technologies to get reaction to stories, find contributors, experts and even money. To top it off, they share their final product under the ethos of creative commons so others can build on it.

The Specialist

The internet has shown we’re just not prepared to pay for general news, especially when someone else is giving it away for free. The decline in newsrooms killed off many correspondents and specialists, but the journalist of the future knows there’s more money and more audiences in a niche. So they become more of a specialist in some areas, or use a current specialism to build an audience around what they do.

Science journalist Angela Saini, for example, uses her qualifications in the subject to get her work with a whole host of TV and radio science programmes.

Business, showbiz and sports news I think have a paid-for future – but so do other specialisms.

The Flexible Adapter

The journalist of the future will be born out of this recession and the death of traditional journalism. They’ll succeed now because they adapted, re-trained and were prepared to change their ways. And that is what will help them survive the next downturn too, and the next media revolution. They are flexible, creative and not stuck in their ways.

Mark Luckie, writing over at 10,000 Words says this ability to reinvent is really important:

…being a Jack of all trades is only the starting point. Journalism and its associated technologies are changing at a rapid pace and to learn one skill set is to be left in the dust. Sadly some of the technologies…will be obsolete in just a few years time. To survive in this industry means continuously evolving along with it.

They embrace new technologies, rather than view them as a threat. When a new social media tool or technology comes along, they ask themselves how can I use this?

And they are prepared to live light for a bit. They can live cheap, which means they can charge less and get more business. As David Westphal writes, describing journalist Jason Motlagh:

He lives modestly and accepts that there may be periods in his work where he’ll have to do something besides journalism to pay the bills.

The Entrepreneur

The journalist of the future is a Creative Entrepreneur. Their business is their talent, creativity and knowledge. They are a freelancer, yes, but not a slave to the odd newsroom shift or rubbish PR story; instead they are in command of their destiny by creating content people will pay for. They discover stories and generate new ideas and sell them.

Back to Charlie Beckett in Networked Journalism:

“Entrepreneurship must be part of the process because every journalist will have to be more “business creative”…Journalism and business schools should work more closely together as information becomes more important to the economy…”

Their multiple skills means they can pitch countless ideas in several formats, for a wide variety of clients. They run their new start-ups in the get-rich-slow mentality described by Time Magazine as Li-Lo business:

It means that your start-up is self-sustaining and can eke out enough profit to keep you alive on instant noodles while your business gains traction.

And they think outside the small journo bubble: their clients aren’t just Cosmo or Radio 4, but B2B publications, charities, NGOs. They get grants from journalism funds to pursue important and under-reported stories.

Evidence has shown several sacked newspaper journalists have made a new career by remembering newsrooms aren’t the only people who pay for content. Brian Storm, from MediaStorm, quoted in PDN Online says:

“NGOs and corporations are just now starting to see the power of multimedia stories…A pr message has no authenticity. It won’t go viral. Organizations are looking for a new way to get their message out, and journalists can play a role in that.”

The Storyteller

And most importantly they do the thing all journalists have ever done: tell stories. But they do it better than traditional journalists because they are not so constrained by time or house styles or formulas. They understand what makes a good story and aren’t afraid to break some rules.

And they have the time to tell the stories properly: truthfully, accurately and responsibly.

I think these make up an exciting future for journalism, but also for the people who try this form of journalism out. Is there anything more exciting than being such a creative entrepreneur?

There’s never been a better time, I tell students, to be a journalistic entrepreneur — to invent your own job, to become part of the generation that figures out how to produce and, yes, sell the journalism we desperately need as a society and as citizens of a shrinking planet. The young journalists who are striking out on their own today, experimenting with techniques and business models, will invent what’s coming.

Most experiments will fail. That’s not a bug in the system, but a feature. It’s how we get better.

Dan Gilmore, Centre for Citizen Media