Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

Reacting to a #riot

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on August 9, 2011

On Monday morning I was called up and interviewed by a wire service for my thoughts on the weekend’s riots in London.

“What do you say to the idea that Twitter is a catalyst for all these riots?” he asked, and I explained as best I could how the very idea is bunkum. Safe-to-say my quotes were not picked up elsewhere, and the ‘social-media-is-to-blame’ narrative led the way through the day, from former/wannabe London Mayor Ken Livingstone, to careless reporting on 24-hour news channels.

That was yesterday.

This morning, waking up after an extraordinary night in London’s recent history, my judgement’s a bit clouded. Trying to monitor what is really happening via Twitter is very difficult, and working out what to say – even harder.

The big problems: exaggeration, retweeting of rumour, sharing of unverified photographs and video  – and even ‘all-clear’ tweets posted with the ‘#riot’ hashtag created to confusion.

That last issue has been smartly dealt with by Andy Dickinson here – his conclusion is that ‘nothing is happening here’ tweets do matter to the people in those areas.

I live in Balham in South West London, where there was some looting (I saw, photographed and shared images of T-Mobile and a Carphone Warehouse which had been smashed in around 1030 pm) – but relatively minor. That didn’t stop the #balham hashtag becoming a regular stream of all of the above. People reported the big supermarket had been looted (it hadn’t); there were claims of petrol bombs at the Tesco garage (there were none).

As one local tweeter, @DoktorWatson put it:

In one night, Twitter has gone from the best place for breaking news to the best place for breaking bullshit. #balham tag especially

Such was the confusion, several local tweeters felt compelled to walk the streets to just find out the truth, potentially putting themselves at risk.

Media became a problem. Around 1am, I lazily retweeted footage which I thought showed police clashing with thugs in Liverpool. Quick clarification came that the footage came from London, not Liverpool, and the Youtube uploader was regularly changing the title of the video.

Trying, instead, to focus on the surprising stories, I congratulated a local tweeter who was cleverly noting the licence plate numbers of cars turning up to loot from shops outside her house. I was criticised for drawing attention to her profile which had a clear picture of her face on it (but, of course, she posted the tweet in the first place).

So to sum up…it’s messy.

On the plus side, I do think real-time web’s ability to self correct is extraordinary. My blunderous retweet was corrected within five minutes. If you don’t mind taking stern words from other users, it’s a rock solid facet to the platform.

However, Twitter being used by journalists, who (hopefully!) question sources and try to verify, is one thing. But non-journalists aren’t necessarily as skeptical of information. A rumour to a journalist could be read as fact by someone else, especially people who are scared.

I still stand by the argument that Twitter is not being used to organise or incite violence. But now I wonder whether exaggerating violence in one place, or spreading rumours about violence in another (as innocent/naive as it is) could potentially encourage those who do want to cause damage?

Of course, this morning’s papers are full of graphic, terrifying images of carnage which the looters will no doubt treasure as well – so it’s a problem for the media at large.

How we use social media in events like this is important, but rightly, low on the list this morning as London, and the UK at large has bigger questions to ask itself…but do be careful what you tweet.


Learn multimedia on the cheap – and how to make money from it

Posted in Adam, Journalism by Adam Westbrook on June 15, 2010

Image: StarbuckGuy on Flickr (cc)

I’ve been preparing for a day-long course this coming weekend for photojournalists wishing to make the leap into multimedia.

Run by multimedia evangelists Duckrabbit and hosted by Rhubarb Rhubarb, Photography Still Moving is what the industry needs more of – training with an optimistic edge. I’ll be there running a session on how to get kitted up to do video, audio and slideshows at affordable prices; the day ends with advice on how to turn skills into money.

Interested? Here are some details for you.

The running order for the day goes like this:

  • WTF is multimedia?
  • Getting to grips with the kit (on a budget)
  • Sound for idiots (interviewing techniques)
  • I got pictures, I got sound, now what?
  • Show me the money

What’s more, at £45 it’s some of the cheapest training you’ll find – and there are spaces still available! So what will you be doing on Saturday? Face-palming at another England howler from the night before? Probably. But then get out of bed, get your camera and come and learn some new skills.

If you’re interested, click here to get yourself a ticket.

Let’s tackle the journalism business model head-on

Posted in Ideas for the future of news, Journalism by Adam Westbrook on June 7, 2010

The Future of News Meetup Groups I founded in London in November last year are still going strong, with more than 300 members and five spin off groups around the UK & Ireland.

They’ve become a really exciting environment for people to get together and debate the future of news – and crucially: discover the new concepts, business models and startups which will see journalism out of the quagmire.

To that end I’ve tweaked the standard meetup format this month and launched the Future of News Business Bootcamp. The first one is happening on the 22nd June and will explore ways of making money reporting the stories that matter – developing world and human rights journalism.

The bootcamp is totally different to any other conference or meetup because:

  • it will be free
  • there’ll be just 6 people attending – the ideal number for productive brainstorming
  • there will be no speakers or debates or Q&A
  • it will be just hardcore idea generation around a very specific problem
  • it’s happening in my flat!

If you’re in London on the 22nd of June and would like to take part here’s what you do:

  1. Join the London Future of News Meetup Group (it’s free)
  2. Email me through the website, explaining who you are and why you’d like to be there
  3. Include one idea of how the problem could be solved (it doesn’t have to be a good one)
  4. Do it by Friday 11th June

I’ll select the six most relevant people to attend and they’ll receive all the details. The bootcamps have been featured on over the weekend – here’s me quoted in the article:

“The meet-ups have been running for about six months now and the group has more than 300 members so it’s been going really well. When I set it up I wanted it to be a forum for actual new ideas to emerge, rather than more talk about the future of journalism. The individual meet-ups have been great but I got the sense they’d reverted back to the speaker/Q&A format we see at all the other conferences. I thought of ways I could bring them back to the main mission of the group and realised smaller groups are often better for brainstorming and ideas. They’re going to be really focused sessions, diving straight into what the business models could be and how to package them into profitable products. Fingers crossed one of the bootcamps will bring up a gem,”

It’s not content – it’s ‘experience’ (and red shoes)

Posted in Ideas for the future of news, Journalism by Adam Westbrook on May 19, 2010

How do journalists become entrepreneurial?

That was the big question at last night’s Future of News meetup in Central London. Around 50 journalists, students, academics and other entrepreneurs came to hear first hand how to set up a news business from those who’ve done it themselves.

(Update #1: Journalist Patrick Smith has written a far more comprehensive review of the event for – you can read it by clicking here.)

(Update #2: The West Midlands Future of News Meetup is hosting a similar event tomorrow night as part of JEEECampall the details are here!)

Emi Gal, the founder of Brainient a website which helps people make money from online video, spoke first. At the age of 24 he is already a serial entrepreneur having set up three businesses so far.

He was followed by Tony Heywood and Nick Saalfield, who run a free service for anyone who dreams of setting up their own business but doesn’t know where to start. As a journalist himself Nick was sure journalists can set up their own businesses and make it work.

It’s not content, it’s experience

One of the big sticking points of the night was the seeming void between doing the sort of journalism that matters (human rights, for example) and serving a market who’ll pay for that content.

Deborah Burnello, founder of (and now spoke of her ambition to set up a news website, but couldn’t see who would pay for important, worthy news stories.

Nick was clear: content does not make money. “The days of being paid by the word a dead” he told the room. Instead, journalists must create an experience for their audience – a really enjoyable experience which they’ll come back for, and pay for.

We don’t all go crazy for Apple products because they’re technically better than Windows – but because the whole user experience is so much better.

How do we make the experience better online? I’d love to hear your ideas.

Don’t wait – go!

Brainient founder Emi Gal’s big advice is not to hang around. “Don’t wait for your product to be perfect” he says – you can’t get it right until it’s out there.

Photo Credit: Jon Slattery

Emi also reiterated the importance of collaborating with others. If you’re not good at sales (as many journalists won’t be) find a partner who is. If you want to create a web platform but don’t know the first thing about Ruby or HTML, find someone who does.

Emi, who funded Brainient through winning Seedcamp‘s startup competition, says venture capital (VC) is a good way to get cash – if you can find a good investor. Nick and Tony though reckon ‘Angel investors’ – individuals with spare cash and up for an adventure – are the way to go, and less likely to end up in disaster.

…oh, and the shoes

Emi, Tony and Nick agreed on one thing: get good shoes. Or some item of clothing that makes you stand out – people (potential investors, collaborators) are more likely to remember you that way.

If you want to know more about entrepreneurship and journalism, you don’t have to wait long – Next Generation Journalist: 10 New Ways to Make Money in Journalism goes on sale tomorrow!

In London? Get to the Future of News meetups!

Posted in Ideas for the future of news by Adam Westbrook on May 5, 2010

As you may remember, last year I founded the Future of News meetup group; a monthly gathering of journalists, entrepreneurs, students, academics and web geeks to thrash out solutions to journalism’s problems.

The rules of the meetup are simple:

  • it’s free
  • anyone can rock up
  • negativity of any kind is banned
  • as are phrases like “news is dead” and “that’s a crap idea”

Four meetups later and the group is going strong with nearly 300 members, and three local spin off groups in Brighton, Birmingham and Cardiff.

After the UK general election is out of the way on Thursday, we’re having no fewer than two meetup events this month – if you are in or near London please come along!

01. what can we learn from social media & the general election?

Thursday 13th May – details here.

This election is the first where a fully developed social media landscape has been present. How has that affected the campaign, the outcome and how people voted?

More importantly, what can journalists learn from how social media was used during the election campaign? What can we apply to new business ideas and big events in the future?

We’ll be hearing some as yet unpublished figures from UK startup UltraKnowledge who are monitoring social media activity as we speak. The information, including data on what days, parties, events were most popular, won’t have been seen before, so it’s worth heading along to get your eyes on that alone.

Afterwards we’ll be asking how journalists can apply social media for more profitable ways in the future. It’ll be one of our regular big ideas sessions, so if you want to come along, click here to sign up.

02. the entrepreneurship special

Tuesday 18th May – details here

Lots of commentators including Clay Shirky and Jeff Jarvis have been saying the future of journalism is entrepreneurial for some time. But becoming one is easier said than done. What makes a good idea for a news business and how do you even go about starting one up?

We’ve got three speakers lined up who can answer all those questions, including the CEO of a TechCrunch rated startup.

If you would like to launch your own news business (an online magazine, sharing site, social media platform etc.) but don’t know where to start then this event is a must. Spaces are already filling up fast. Click here to sign up & get a place.

There’ll be more future of news meetups over the summer, so make sure you register to get all the information.

More UK Future of News talk

Posted in Ideas for the future of news, Journalism by Adam Westbrook on February 9, 2010

The Future of News Meetup Group continues to grow from strength to strength this week, with the first local branch meetings held in Birmingham and Brighton.

To Brighton first, where the group (hashtag #bfong), organised by‘s Judith Townend included talks from Jo Wadsworth from the Brighton Argus and Simon Willison from the Guardian.

They both spoke about some awesome innovations in journalism, including the Guardian’s successful crowd-sourcing experiment during the MPs expenses scandal.

Laura Oliver provides excellent coverage of both speakers which you can read here and here.

To Birmingham where the group (hashtag #fonwm) heard from Andrew Brightwell from hyperlocal blog Grounds and debated some exciting new business models; hyperlocal star Philip John provides a good write-up here, and student Alex Gamela shares his thoughts too.

Meanwhile the first Welsh event in Cardiff is being planned and there’s plans afoot to set one up in Scotland too.

And back in London, there are still a few places left for February’s event featuring, among others, radio futurologist James Cridland – click here to find out more!

On snow and innovation

Posted in Adam, Journalism by Adam Westbrook on January 6, 2010

It seems wherever you are in the world reading this, whether it’s the UK, western, northern and eastern Europe, Canada or the  eastern seaboard of the US, you’ve seen a good amount of the white stuff recently.

I was walking home through London last night as the first of the latest snow began to fall. I love how quiet and still everything gets as the snow settles.


Meanwhile 2010 must be a year of innovation in journalism. Innovation isn’t easy though. It requires imagination, bravery, lateral thinking, creativity…and risk. Real innovation is an uphill struggle. Breaking the mould in storytelling, video journalism, interactivity and entrepreneurship requires going against conventional wisdom, going against other people, and going against the voice in your head telling you to give up.

And it’s not easy.

Blaze a trail

So if you need a pick-up, just look outside the window, at the snow. On the pavement, grass or road there’ll be two different paths. One that’s already been trodden, laden with scores of footprints and bicycle tracks.

And another, untrodden path: a blank white canvas.

Which one will you go down?

“Do not go where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path – and leave a trail.”

Thinking of going entrepreneurial? Then you should go to news:rewired

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on December 22, 2009‘s up and coming event news:rewired in January 2010 looks like it’s going to be a promising platform to debate an entrepreneurial future for journalism.

I’ve written an article for the event, looking at three ways for journalists to find ideas for news startups, and in particular, I argue:

[idea for new businesses] must start in the market. They must start with a problem the market has, which you can fix; a service the market needs, which you can offer; a product the market wants, which you can produce.

Entrepreneur Mike Southon asks “where’s the pain?” and builds a business idea from there: is there something people moan about having to do or not being there?

If you don’t start with the market, and the pain it has, you risk peddling a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist.

You can read the rest of my article here. Meanwhile,  the News:rewired site also has profiles of five UK journalist/entrepreneurs, and 10 tips for would-be journalism entrepreneurs; the event itself looks like it’ll be a promising hotbed of business ideas and debate.

I’ll be speaking at news:rewired on the 14th January 2010, alongside a host of interesting journalists on the front line of the digital revolution. You can get tickets from the news: rewired website.

In other news

I’ve popped up in Newsleader’s “Talkie Awards” for 2009, a great roundup of the best of radio in the last year; and the 2nd Future of News Meetup Group has been announced for London on the 20th January 2010.

Talking the future of news

Posted in Adam, Journalism by Adam Westbrook on December 11, 2009

This week we held the first Future Of News Meetup in London.

A small but interesting mix of people turned up: journalism students, academics, publishers, photojournalists, news producers and seasoned hacks: a small fraction of the 140 people who have joined the group so far.

Although it was a casual first meeting, conversation soon turned to the crisis in journalism and the digital revolution, with paywalls and citizen journalism being thrashed out by the bar.

I set the group up in November, with the idea of bringing together journalists, academics, students and entrepreneurs to a free, regular forum to talk about new ideas which will define the future of news.

You can read more about it here, and if you’d like to join and come to more formal meetings in 2010 sign up here.

Photographs: Megumi Waters

Multimedia Journalism on the frontline

Posted in Broadcasting and Media by Adam Westbrook on October 29, 2009

Image: Adam Westbrook

I spent an afternoon at the Canon expo in London yesterday, a showcase for the latest photography kit, including some very sexy looking XL H1s and of course the 5D Mark II.

Hidden among the photo-geekery was photojournalist turned multimedia war reporter John D McHugh.

He was there to speak about his experiences reporting from Afghanistan between 2006-8, during which time he moved from producing just photographs, to audio slideshows and even full films.

He also experienced several fire fights, which he described as “fucking insane” and was even shot by insurgents for his trouble.

John D McHugh

“The power of the still image is still unsurpassed” he says, although he admits he loves the fact he now has lots of different ways to tell a story.

His aim is not to copy television though, rather to “emulate the newspaper tradition”, using multimedia to show more and give more understanding to a story.

But it is not without its challenges. He admitted it is difficult to juggle his SLR with a video camera and dictaphone – something I can totally relate to from my short time filming in Iraq earlier this year. For me the fear was always missing a good shot because I’m busy with something else, something John has just got used to.

“I’ve missed photos, sure” he says, “but then I’ve always missed photographs in my whole career. If I was going to write a book, I always said it was going to be called ‘Photos I Didn’t Take.””

He says each missed photograph is seared in his memory.

“This is never going to be ideal, but it’s the world we’re in.”

A talented, brave and determined photojournalist, John is very much on the frontline, both militarily, and inside the industry.

G20: multimedia experiments

Posted in International Development by Adam Westbrook on April 1, 2009

Protests are always a magnet for the media. Scuffles make great pictures for TV, chants make great sound for radio; the mass of people suggesting some great social movement.

Why should multimedia be any different?

It was no surprise all the big news organisations were employing blogs, twitter, online audio and video for today’s G20 protests. They’ve used them on news stories several times over the past few months.

What I think makes today different is this is the first time newsrooms have had significant warning of a news event, to flex their multimedia muscle and see what it’s capable of.

They had time to think ideas, get creative and explore. So, how’d they do? Here are some UK media examples:

BBC News: interactive map

BBC News: interactive map

BBC News : Interactive map

Immediately popular was BBC News’ interactive map which appeared mid morning.

The movable image covered central London, and as reports from the ground were filed, they appeared on the map.

The stories were multimedia; everything from text, audio, video and images.

Guardian: audio boo uploads

Guardian: audio boo uploads

Guardian: Audioboo uploads

The Guardian were out in force at the protests, with journalists employing all sorts of technology to help them in their quest.

One of the favourites was the new audio sharing site Audioboo, unique from places like  Soundcloud and Mixcloud in that it only really works if you have an iPhone.

So excited were Guardian journalists by this new technology it seemed they were happy to upload all and every interview they conducted, including the one pictured, with Rory O’Driscoll.

“Sorry, were you expecting some a little more, err, involved?” he told the reporter, clearly not at all bothered about what was going on.

Guardian: twitter reporters

Guardian: twitter reporters

The Guardian’s Twitter army

Someone (on Twitter in fact) commented, on seeing this image, that there must have been more journalists on the streets than protestors.

What these provide though, were unfiltered, immediate dispatches from the scene.

Stuck in an office, those of us in Web 1.0 world were forced to watch Dermot Murgnahan and the rest of the Sky News reporters stumble their way through the protest.

“Oh look, a policeman’s fallen over” was just one remark, along with a car-crash interview with Russell Brand, the comedian who’d clearly taken the wrong turning on his way out to get some milk.

These Guardian dispatches though – raw, mispelt, abbreviated into 140 characters, gave you the very latest – and of course they’ve not been through an editor.

Who said any story couldn’t be told in 140 characters or less?

BBC News: live updates

The BBC had a similar live update system with similar benefits.

This one though included chosen comments from viewers/listeners as well as BBC correspondents (and in some cases media students) on the ground. It looked good, and continued until 2100…but I’d wager cost a lot more than any other news organisation would manage.

BBC News: live updates

So lots going on, and it felt – for once – there was more to be seen online than on TV. Has this set a precedent? I hope so. Throughout today, no-one was tweeting/blogging about the G20 coverage they heard on the radio or seen on TV. They were sharing links to sites like the above ones.

The key benefits: immediacy, raw information, and interactivity.

But for that, do I feel the coverage of the protests was any better than the old media? Hmmm, that’s not so clear cut.

How to avoid being “that annoying PR person”

Posted in Broadcasting and Media, Journalism by Adam Westbrook on January 17, 2009

The phone rings – London number.

“Newsdesk, Adam speaking.”

[Excitedly] “Hello Adam, it’s Christabelle here calling from Markettowers PR*, how are you?”

Markettowers. Bollocks.

[Tersely] “I’m OK thanks.”

“Great, that’s great. Hey look, I’ve got a great story which I think you’ll really like – with some great local stats.”

“…go on”

“Well we’ve done some research into when people fill in their tax returns, and discovered that 18% of people in your area leave it until the last day.”


“And we’ve got David Nobody from available for interview tomorrow morning to talk about why we should get them in sooner – can I book you in for a slot?”

“Send a press release and we’ll take a look delete it immediately.”

And so another London PR agency calls with another lame story. It’s one of the minor annoyances of local journalism, albeit a neccessary one, as once in every 15 calls, they bring you a story with some tickle factor that you know will make a light mid-bulletin filler.

It wasn’t until I saw a job ad in the Guardian that I realised what the game really was: it advertised a position at a marketing agency – and the job was to “sell” (their word) stories to radio stations.

Essentially it’s a glorified call centre job. And when I also spotted they get paid £10k more than me, my patience for PR hacks fell through the floor.

So if you work in PR, if – heaven forbid – it is your job to ‘sell’ stories to busy journalists, please read the following advice – it might stop your press release entering the recycle bin.

Don’t call anywhere near the top of the hour

Radio journalists in particular read the news at the top of every hour. Calling anytime after 00:40 will most likely result in a brisk “sod off”. It’s different for newspaper and TV journos of course.

Pitch in 10 seconds or less

It’s a skill journalists are trained to do, so you should too. If you can’t explain your story in less than 10 seconds, don’t bother.

Do your research

I have actually had calls offering me “great local stats” for the wrong county. The phone was hung up pretty soon after. Also, for many local media, regional stats are not local stats.

Do your research

I’ve had calls offering stories about where to invest your money-when most of my target audience shop at Iceland. Sell it to Classic FM, not me.

Do your research

Local commercial radio does bulletins of no longer than 3 minutes. They never do longer interviews unless its with someone off X-Factor. So don’t pitch long 2 ways. Journalists need short clips.

Don’t keep calling

Newdesks fully realise the more times you call, the more desperate you are, ergo the fewer other outlets have used your story, ergo your story blows. Call to pitch, and don’t call back. If a journalist likes the story they’ll make the call – we’re quite clever, you know.

And know your client will very rarely get a name check

You may pitch them as ‘David Nobody from” but 9 times out of 10 they’ll be referenced on air as ‘Money expert David Nobody”. We’re not interested that it’s Tesco, sorry.

*not a real company