Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

Old news

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on August 6, 2009

This whole Future of Journalism thing and the various blogs, articles, and presentations I’ve done on it, is all a relatively recent epiphany for me. Or so I thought.

An accidental trawl through my old blog posts unveiled two articles predicting almost exactly the same as I’ve written about recently….from 2006.

Never a better time to be a journalist” (31st December 2006) highlights an article from Andrew Neil saying:

The journalists of tomorrow will write for newspapers, contribute to magazines and podcasts, work for TV production companies, write their own blogs, because you wouldn’t give them a column – and then they will sell the blog back to you at an inflated price…“The journalist of the future…will  have more than one employer and become a brand in their own right.”

Futures” (28th September 2006) I put it (not so) delicately:

If you’re a newspaper journalist, you’re fucked. No not really, but it seems big change is on the horizon for the old hacks. UK paper circulation is declining big time; one doomsayers predicted something like 2043 as the year the last newspaper closes down.

I don’t know, it took me completely by surprise people were predicting this media revolution as long as go as 3 years ago.

Journalism tip #218: always be able to recycle old content as new!

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The future of journalism: IN vs OUT

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on August 5, 2009

The news production process has pretty much always been divided into two parts: input (newsgathering) and output (news production). In the debate about the future of news, is this being forgotton?

For example, my blog post Introducing: the Journalist of the Future focussed, unwittingly, entirely on news output – the way the content will be produced. It mentioned nothing of news gathering. It may be that in the future, these two sides of the coin will be completely separated.

And while the editors and managers engage in a bout of synchronized-head-scratching over how to get us to pay for the output side of news, the input side appears to be generating itself a nice bit of revenue potential.

It’s time to give that area some attention.

new media news gathering

These operations could succeed not because they offer the audience a pre-packaged, scripted and editorialised view of the world; quite the opposite. Their value is in allowing the audience easy access to the raw data. The police statistics, the council decisions, the official documents.

Of course, these are (or should be) accessible to the public anyway, but are often too time consuming to get hold of.  Another characteristic of these operations is they often (although not always) involve some form of crowdsourcing for their success

Three (potentially) successful new-media newsgathering operations

01. Everyblock

Everyblock (in the US only) currently covers a dozen or so cities. It works by providing its audience with critical official data by geographical area. When when I say critical official data, some of it is hard to believe. Residents, and even casual visitors, can see how many 911 calls were made for any particular street and what they were about. They can see every restaurant inspection carried out in Boston, and details of every building permit in Seattle.

Sadly the appalling lack of public information available in the UK means this type of site may not make it to the UK.

02. Help Me Investigate

Just launched in the UK in July, Help Me Investigate is effectively crowd-sourced reporting. Members of the public can suggest issues they want investigated, and other members of the public can help uncover the details; each person does their own little bit. It’s already had a couple big hits in the Birmingham local press.

Again, Help Me Investigate isn’t about sexy audio slideshows or a great package, it’s about public access to raw data.

03. Spot.US

Working along the same theme, Spot.US allows the public to get access to the answers they want. Members of the public suggest stories they want covered, and then a fundraising effort gets underway to pay a professional reporter to get to work. I like this idea because it still gives some currency to the trained journalist and their abilities to uncover the truth.

So what makes these sites different?

They’re all about the information, the data, the evidence. It’s not about finding a new way to produce content; no new ways of shooting video, or unique storytelling device.

And while they might not resemble a newspaper or anything like that, they still provide the same vital public service. These news input projects are one of the first tangibly positive things to emerge from this media revolution.

Everyone’s free (to find a story and write about it)

Posted in Broadcasting and Media by Adam Westbrook on July 6, 2009

In 1999 Baz Luhrmann’s ‘Everyone’s Free (to Wear Sunscreen) became a huge hit, with its sage wisdom  over a haunting and shimmering melody and mellow beat.

The words, written in the Chicago Tribune by American journalist Mary Schmich, seemed to reflect perfectly the feelings of a generation about to enter a new century; as a 15 year old the words seemed to speak directly to me.

Well, ladies and gentlemen of the class of 2009, there might be a new edition.

It emerged through Twitter last week; some sage wisdom from one journalist to another – again seemingly reflecting perfectly the fears and feelings of a generation on the verge of a massive revolution.

Its here in full; you need to read the question to understand it fully, but the answer, I think, is poetry.

I studied print journalism. Now what?

By Cary Tennis (published in Salon Magazine)

Dear Cary,

I spent the last four and a half years studying print journalism in college and watching vacantly as the newspaper/magazine industry crumbled before my eyes. The decline never bothered me. I always figured I had what it takes to get a job even in an extremely competitive market: Before I ever graduated, I had completed four internships at newspapers, magazines and a Web site, published almost a hundred clips (including longer, high-quality pieces), and left a good impression with everyone I worked with. I knew I wanted to be a journalist, and I knew that I wanted to write for a living.

Now, six months after graduating, my parents still pay my cellphone bill and I am working full-time making ice cream. I make a couple hundred bucks here and there freelancing for a magazine I interned at, but otherwise my “freelance” career, as well as my journalism career, is dead in the water. I find myself despondent and unable to send out any more cover letters, and I can’t find the time or motivation to research a story idea enough to send it to an editor because I assume he or she will simply reject my half-baked idea. I’m panicking, but I fear failure so much that I can’t even get started. Freelancing seems to be my best option career-wise, but I can’t summon the willpower and enthusiasm to do it. Plus, I lost my license to a DUI conviction (that got me fired from one of those newspaper internships), which has immobilized me and left me unable to relocate to a new job until October. The DUI also contributes to my job-hunting anxiety.

What I see is that my passion for journalism and writing is waning. Working full-time has taught me that work is work and play is play, and that I need to maximize the efficiency of my hours I spend at work in order to maximize how much I can play outside of work. I am looking into jobs in other fields that pay better. Is it healthier to stick it out working at an ice cream store and desperately try to make it as a writer, or should I pursue a career where financial security is more realistic?

Scared Journalist

Dear Scared Journalist,

If you are a true journalist, the world is going to kick your ass. If you are a true journalist, you  are supposed to be having a hard time. This is how the world makes writers. It kicks their ass long enough that they start finally telling the truth. They just finally give up and start bleating out little truthlets.

If we are honest we occasionally wonder why we aren’t starving in the gutter, or dead, or working in a windowless office stuffing envelopes. Though luck has played a part, so have other things. We have been cunning and ruthless. Sometimes this will be an almost spiritual thing; you sit in your room and visualize your eventual occupation while others are furiously pounding on doors. You refuse to show that you want what you so desperately want; sometimes you refuse even to admit it to yourself. And then it comes and you quietly take it to your corner to chew it to death.

A measure of charm has been necessary. A modicum of hygiene has been necessary. A measure of keeping one’s mouth shut and pulling the cart along with everyone else has been necessary. A measure of compromise and pretending has been necessary, as it was necessary in nursery school and kindergarten and first grades through 12, and in college and graduate school and in the innumerable low-paying, humiliating bullshit jobs that followed.

We have applied and applied and applied for jobs and gotten nothing, and then things have been dropped at our feet that we were not sure we wanted but which we accepted because there was nothing else available. We have applied and applied and applied for jobs and been rejected and been forced therefore to work in unsuitable occupations that surprisingly led us to good fortune. We have kept our heads down and crawled forward like G.I.s in Korea. We have alternately railed at the system and begged it for favors and received the same infuriating coolness and indifference either way. We have ranted and we have started movements and we have tried to infiltrate the ranks of journalism as poets and insurrectionists. We have attempted to better our public relations skills. We have tried to network and join organizations. We have bought drinks at bars frequented by journalists and have praised works we detested. We have tried to detect trends and written queries suggesting feature stories about such trends. We have tried to develop specialties and gained immense knowledge of the inconsequential. We have interviewed celebrities and resold the interviews to numerous publications, each paying less than the one before in a vector of diminishment resembling our own entropic trajectory toward death. We have entertained the notion of getting into TV. We have wondered why the best quit or get fired and the mediocre persevere. We have wondered how mediocre we must be if we are still employed. We wonder why so many brilliant writers remain unheard, and why we ourselves were not thrown out long ago. We wonder why we don’t have a six-months cash reserve. We wonder who will save us from our own foolishness. We wonder if maybe there is a God who is quietly taking care of us. We take note of our increasing store of mediocre ideas such as that one. We think of Sartre. We read Boswell. We picture the harsh levity of a drunken Samuel Johnson and think to ourselves, well, things could be worse. We think of Samuel Pepys on London Bridge getting blown by whores. We think of him singing with his wife and friends in the parlor. We think of him being treated, again, for another venereal disease. We think of Neanderthals scratching on the walls of caves. We think of their flutes 18,000 years old, the music they must have played, the fears they must have had; we wonder if they thought about us, their descendants, trying to figure out our VCRs. We embark on stories that do not get sold. We spend weeks investigating. We sit in airports waiting for the governor. One of us strikes gold: Look, there’s the governor, returning from Buenos Aires! Look, it works! Journalism works! Hunches pay off! We have played a thousand hunches and not one has paid off but look, there is the thousand-and-first hunch and it paid off! We think plodding away is the solution so we continue to plod away and get nowhere. We change our strategy. We think networking is the solution so we lavish false blandishments on the successful. We share our marijuana with editors who go back inside before our pitch is half done. We take up music. We go through phases where we are “reading the masters.” We peruse brochures for MBA programs at prestigious East Coast universities. We think about the exponential growth of creative writing programs. Maybe our skills could be useful in detective work. Maybe we could start our own newsletter. Maybe someone will call today about our résumé.

And then, with the irony that cloaks us against utter nihilism, we think, if only we were living in more interesting times! And that is the confounding thing about it, isn’t it? That we stand on the nodal point of a great, creaking, crunching change in historical direction, at the beginning of cataclysmic planetary collapse, at the dying of civilization, at the rising of new empires, at our own meltdown, as a million stories bloom out of the earth like wildflowers in the spring and we think, gee, uh, if only there were some good stories to tell. The stock market just collapsed, the seas are rising, polar bears are dying, a whole generation is transcending its corporeal limitations and creating essentially a new civilization outside the body, a chimerical wonderland of holographic and spiritual representation permanently liberated from face, hands, feet … and rather than celebrating the destruction of the old paper-bound media and assuming with a shrug that no way in hell could it be any other way, instead we cling to our occupations like ox-cart drivers who do not want to climb down from the ox cart. Miracles and tragedies are bursting all around us but we plod through the village in our ox cart, selling vegetables one at a time.

Yeah. 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. Well, we do know, as McLuhan taught us, it is not just the delivery system; paper itself is a kind of message; it tells us that information is permanent, whereas the Net tells us that information is in motion. So the print journalism curriculum may have taught, incorrectly — because it is  taught by ox-cart drivers — that information is permanent, not that it is in motion, and you may well be struggling to throw off that teaching, as perhaps you must if you are to tweet your way to victory. We must ask: If information is in motion, does that make it more or less true? That depends on whether you believe the world is in motion. Obviously the world is in motion. So information must be in motion as well.

There it is in a nutshell. No need to read Terry Eagleton, just ask me! But, well, he’s funnier.

And so we add to the list of attributes: a breathless arrogance; shameless comfort with our own ignorance!

So that’s where we’re at. That’s how we are, me included. We stand paralyzed before the fire, like animals watching their habitats burn. I can see what’s happening but am also somewhat paralyzed, doing an essentially 19th-century thing in this 21st century medium. I can scarcely figure out how to download the MP3 of my band from 1983 — but believe me, when I get it together next week, I’ll sell it to you for $1.50 a pop and maybe make enough to pay my cellphone bill.

It’s a weird world but it’s interesting and fun. Fuck the little stuff. Don’t worry about your career. Find a story and write about it, and stay off the streets if you’re drunk.