Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

You can learn anything, and why you should

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism by Adam Westbrook on February 6, 2012

It was late on a Friday night and we were all drunk. 

My flatmate Rob picked up some juggling balls and offered me a challenge. “I bet I can teach you to juggle in 10 minutes” he said.

I remember trying to learn how to juggle when I was about 12 years old: a short lived experience full of frustration and ultimately failure. But now seemed as good a time as any to try again.

Over the next 10 minutes, Rob showed me the basic technique, starting with one ball, then two, and finally three. When the 10 minutes were up, I had managed to juggle all three balls about once or maybe twice before I dropped them – but I got the general technique.

Then something interesting happened. As everyone else went to bed, I stayed up and kept practicing. I tried juggling the three balls, and dropped them. Then I picked them up, and tried again. I practiced this over and over and over – until four in the morning. Silently throwing the balls up in the air, dropping them, picking them back up.

As I was doing it, I could almost feel my brain making new connections. Arm movements which seemed awkward an hour before were beginning to feel more natural. Soon I could juggle for two rotations, and then three, before dropping the balls.


This was the moment I realised something: I absolutely love learning new things. And I realised that learning something new is as simple as picking up the technique, and then working at it, silently, humbly, unflinchingly, until it sticks. They say your brain is like a muscle – you can train it new habits and build strength by regular repetition.

Of course, most people give up before then. Learning French seems pretty romantic until you factor in the hours of repeating irregular verbs over and over in your head. Every boy dreams of becoming a footballer, until it comes to the moment he has to practice hundreds of penalty kicks over and over in the rain. Everyone signs up to a new gym membership after Christmas with dreams of toning up, until they realise this involves dozens of painful press-ups, over and over again.


I’ve decided to make 2012 a year where I learn relentlessly with machine-line procedure: first I study the key points and then I practice, putting in the repetitive legwork until the muscle is strong. I won’t ever make it to Malcolm Gladwell good, but good enough. So far this year, I’ve been teaching myself some new web design skills: HTML 5, CSS3 and Jquery, building on my French, and hopefully a new musical instrument too.

This attitude to learning is essential in this modern world where technology seems to continually create new platforms, new workflows and new disciplines. In 2010 I taught myself how to animate motion graphics following this idea, something which soon became a source of income.

How to learn anything

So what’s the best way to learn? Luckily for us journalists, producers and publishers access to knowledge we need is pretty easy. But there are things you can do make it easier on yourself.

.01 Find free or cheap resources:  if you need video skills, hit the Vimeo Video School. Anything code related, tap up the Code Academy. You can even learn how to code your own iPhone app at Stanford University – for free! For everything in between I highly recommend*. They’ve got a huge range of courses on design, coding and other key software, and a month subscription costs $25 (£16).

.02 Learn on a need-to-know basis: you need to be smart about this sort of learning. There are no exams, no coursework: you decide the curriculum. So don’t waste your time learning something if it’s not going to be useful to you. What I mean is, if you want to learn how to make small styling adjustments to your WordPress blog, there’s no need to delve in to the history, syntax and ins and outs of  CSS. Just get what you need.

.03 Allocate regular practice time: this is where the legwork comes in – the regular practice, the bit where you create those grey matter connections. Depending on how intense you want to make it, somewhere between an hour a day and an hour a week will do it. Keeping motivation going is tough though, which is where the next tip is the killer…

.04 Give yourself a project: quite simply, the best way to learn something new is to turn your learning into an exciting creative project. In the education world it’s called experiential, or work-based learning, and experts are sure that people learn better when they’re excited by a particular goal. I haven’t been learning HTML step-by-step in factory fashion. Instead, I challenged myself to redesign my personal website from scratch and learnt on the job.

At the heart of all this, is the belief that there is nothing you can’t learn, regardless of age, income, background or education. Director David Mamet puts it well:

“…you get someone who knows how to take a picture, or you learn to how take a picture; you get someone who knows how to light or you learn how to light. There’s no magic to it. Some people will be able to do some tasks better than others – depending upon the degree of their technical mastery and their aptitude for the task. Just like playing the piano. Anybody can learn how to play the piano…There’s almost no-one who can’t learn to play the piano…The same thing is true of cinematography and sound mixing. Just technical skills.”

Finally, an important note about learning. Too often, we use education as a procrastination tool. Someone who wants to make a documentary (or says they want to) will go out and buy a big book about documentary making for beginners. What they should do instead is pick up a camera and start filming. Learning is best done by  doing.

Nobel Laureate Niels Bohr said “An expert is a person who has made every possible mistake within his or her field”. And nobody made any mistakes while reading a book.

*affiliate link

11 brilliant books for multimedia producers, journalists and entrepreneurs

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism, Online Video by Adam Westbrook on December 8, 2011

In 2011 I read more books than I probably did at any other time. I picked up The Catcher in the Rye for the first time, and thanks to the ease of downloading books via the Kindle app, I’ve been able to read more titles on a whim. 

My reading interests range from everything from journalism to design, to minimalism, stoicism, film making and business. I’ve picked out the best 10 for anyone making the most of the Age of the Online Publisher.

A quick note: all links to titles are affiliate links. Some titles are only available as Kindle downloads. The prices I’ve listed will probably change.

The best books I read in 2011

Steven Pressfield | War of Art: (£5.87/$9 Kindle Edition) I actually read this last year, but Steven’s follow up Do The Work, came out in 2011. If you work in any creative or business  endeavour, then you owe it to yourself to read War of Art, it is the best book I know on the battle you face to create something new. Anyone who’s launched a new website, made a film, published a book or started a business will know what I mean by the word ‘battle’: War of Art is an essential weapon.

Kurt Lancaster | DSLR Cinema: (£14.64/$22.57) This is one of the best books I know for anyone starting out using DSLR cameras (like the 5D, 7D or 550D) to shoot video. If you’ve been using these cameras for a while, it’s probably not an essential buy, but early chapters clear up any confusion you might have about frame-rates, codecs, and shutter speed.

Jonathan Field | Uncertainty: (£12.10/$14.46) Jonathan’s first book Career Renegade, was the book that made me quit my job and go freelance. About eight weeks after I finished it I was down in London starting a new life. His follow up, focuses on how to deal with uncertainty in life – if you’re self-employed, starting a new business, uncertainty is regular spectre.

Frank Rose | The Art of Immersion: (£12.92/$17.79) Frank’s book is so good, it sparked several blog posts here earlier this year. Frank examines how storytelling, journalism and even movies are being changed by new technology, chiefly by allowing audiences to participate in stories too. I can’t tell you how many ideas I had after reading Frank’s book – so give it a try.

Ira Glass | New Kings of Non-Fiction: (£8.34/$10.88) Speaking of great storytelling, it doesn’t come much better than Ira Glass. He’s compiled a collection of excellent long-form journalism, including Malcolm Gladwell and Jack Hitt. It never hurts to read journalism at its finest.

Derek Sivers | Anything You Want: (£5.73/$5) Another title that sparked a big blog post here in 2011, Derek Sivers has some of the best common sense (or as he would say ‘uncommon sense’) advice for starting a business in the digital world. It got me wondering how newspapers would fare if they were run this way – if you liked that post, then dig deeper with Derek’s book.

Brenda Ueland | If You Want To Write: (£7.99/$7.99)This one came recommended by future of photography expert Miki Johnson this year, and boy is it a game changer. Brenda offers the best no-nonsense advice for anyone wanting to write (fiction or non-fiction) and her style is addictive. A word of note, this book was published in the 1950s so comes with some rather old-school values. See past that and you get some gems.

Darrell Huff | How to Lie with Statistics: (£5.99/$6.83) And sticking with old school, here’s another mid-century treat for any journalist dealing with numbers – a skill very few excel at (if you’ll excuse the pun). Guardian data journalist James Ball recommended this book to me as a great primer for the tricks people try and play with numbers. If you’re into data, infographics or similar this is fun introduction.

Alison Bavistock | The Naked Author: (£10.42/$22.95) Alison’s new book is a beefy guide for anyone thinking of by-passing traditional publishers and joining the likes of John Locke as authors making a mint on Amazon. As well as practical advice, Alison takes a good hard look at where publishers fit in this new world. [Disclosure: Alison is a colleague at Kingston University’s Department of Journalism & Publishing].

Al Tompkins | Aim for the Heart (2nd Ed) (£18.99/$29.35) US TV news journalist Al Tompkins has updated his guide to video storytelling and has techniques on interviews, graphics and ethics. It’s aimed at the US local news reporter, so is a bit focused on quick soundbites and writing leads – but Al’s core message is an invaluable one: tell human stories.

Scott Belsky | Making Ideas Happen: (£6.06/$17.79) the founder of 37 Signals (one of the most successful web businesses out there) published this book early in 2010, but I had to wait patiently until this spring to get a copy in the UK. It’s worth the wait though: and guides you through the 99% of perspiration that goes into creating great stuff, with neat advice on time management and motivation.

What great books have you read in 2011?

What can the next generation of journalists learn from the Eels?

Posted in Adam, Freelance, Journalism by Adam Westbrook on January 18, 2010

My current bit of non-journalism reading is the autobiography of one of my favourite musicians, the dark, eccentric Mark Oliver Everett, better known as E or The Eels.

It’s a classic coming of age story: before he landed the big time with Beautiful Freak in1996, he spent years and years scratching by as a nobody, making music in his cupboard.

So it is for most artists, musicians, authors….and now journalists. The digital revolution has all but ended the guarantee of a good job after college and a long career ascending gently from cub reporter to editor.

Instead: an unpredictable length of time trying to make it. Making stuff you like as often (and as cheaply) as possible, and showing it to whoever will listen. Then rejection, after rejection after rejection from an industry which d0esn’t really give a fuck about you, no matter how much you spent on J-school.

In the spirit of Les Paul’s lessons for journalists last year, and on the release of The Eel’s latest album End Times today, here’s some snippets from the Eels journey, starting just after Mark was dropped by his first ever record label in the early 90s. It starts on a downer:

I finally had a purpose in life and it was being taken away from me. I could still make my tapes like always, but I wasn’t going to be able to have people hear them now and I wasn’t going to be able to devote all my time to them…I had to keep fighting the urge to take a left off the cliff and into the ocean.

We all know the road to making it as a journalist is full of potholes, as are the roads for many worthwhile jobs. Chances are you’ll have a ‘cliff’ moment; they are inevitable, but it’s how you deal with them which counts. Drive off, or keep going?

I pressed on writing and recording songs in my cold tiny basement. I didn’t know what else to do…I just kept going, blindly.

This is really important. Despite having no audience, no money and little hope, Everett kept on producing. Don’t let unemployment end your productivity. Don’t even let a part-time, or temp job do that either. Sure it means late nights, early mornings and lost weekends, but the important thing is you’re always telling stories, doing interviews, writing blogs. Next:

Then one day during this bleak period in my life, I was driving down the road and heard the English group Portishead on the radio for the first time and it stopped me cold…I was immediately inspired to get back into my old sound-collage world – but apply it to my new songwriting world. The new technology had given the world of sound collage so many new possiblities.

You’ve had this moment right? For me, it was when I realised there were these things called audio slideshows about a year ago. And maybe even again when I learn some more web/data visualisation skills. Create something different by combining two completely different crafts.

I called friends and asked if they had any friends who did music on computers and got a few phone numbers…meanwhile I did about seventy more songs on my own in my basement.

The word is collaboration. Don’t go it alone. Hunt down talented, passionate people. Meet them for a beer, and see if you can work together. Every time I meet a great photographer, VJ, journalist, web jedi, or presenter I jot down a mental note to hook up with them on a project in the future.

Meanwhile,  E is still making more music than he’ll ever need on his own. 68 of those 70 songs were probably crap, but all worth it for the 2 nuggets of awesomeness. Then:

It was an exciting new world world that meant all sorts of limitless possibilities…I started to learn more and develop ideas about production. I stopped using cheesy reverb so much.

With his eyes open for new possibilities, E is finally excited about his work again. When you hit this lovely zone, you can hardly be kept from working. Make sure you make time in your schedule to make the most of this – even if it means taking a day or two off from your boring day job.

Secondly, he’s mastering the technical skills he needs to learn. There’s this principle, which states that things must become complex before they become profound. In other words, you’ve got to get lots of stuff wrong before you get amazing at it. Malcolm Gladwell calls it the ‘10,000 hours rule’. Constantly learning new skills and hacking away at them, without fear of failure, is the only way to get good. Next:

…my friend Jon Brion came over to my house one night…he suggested, as an exercise, that he would go upstairs for thirty minutes to write a song while I went downstairs for thirty minutes to write a song. He was always coming up with ideas like this. “Write a song about something on this table…” and so forth.

This is an amazing example of the power of giving yourself productivity challenges – see my weekend audio slideshow challenge for a journalistic one. Create games and challenges which force you to make something in a limited time frame. That way you focus on getting it done, rather than getting it perfect. Not everything will be great, but you’ll be making a lot more stuff.

And after that, you just got to keep going.

It’s easy to give up, and it was easy for Mark Oliver Everett to give up. The only reason we have such great albums as Beautiful Freak, Daisies of the Galaxy and Blinking Lights and Other Revelations is he didn’t.

Thanks to Holly for the book.