Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

The rise of the microbusiness and why journalists should embrace it

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism by Adam Westbrook on May 21, 2012

First off, an important announcement about Inside the Story: the book will go off-sale at 23:59 on Thursday 24th May London time, so this is your last chance to get a copy. I have no plans at the moment to re-release the book, so if you want it, don’t waste time. 

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I write a lot about entrepreneurial journalism round here, and get to talk a lot about it too (see below). It’s the Age of the Online Publisher and an incredibly exciting time to be exploring this space.

But I see a lot of people make a big mistake when attempting an entrepreneurial venture in journalism: they think like a traditional business.That either puts them off starting in the first place, or leads to fatal errors, such as relying solely on an ad-based revenue model for a hyperlocal website, or measuring of success in terms of hits and not loyalty.

Enter the Microbusiness: the smart way to think about entrepreneurial journalism.

What is a microbusiness?

A microbusiness is, in some ways, a unique by-product of the internet age, although of course they existed before then. Generally, a microbusiness is one that is intentionally small. It usually consists of one or two people, working from home or from a shared workspace, being frugal, minimising overheads, concentrating on pleasing a small but loyal customer base and, as a result, being impressively profitable. But we’re not talking about Facebook money; one of the defining characteristics of a microbusiness is the owner aims to make ‘enough’.

In his excellent book Rework*, Jason Fried says you shouldn’t be ashamed to run an intentionally small business.

“Don’t be insecure about aiming to be a small business. Anyone who runs a business that’s sustainable and profitable, whether it’s big or small, should be proud.”

I started a video production micro-business in early 2011. I had all the equipment I needed, after saving up over the previous year. All I needed was a website which I made using WordPress over Christmas of 2010. I challenged myself to launch it in 30 days…in the end it took me only 10. I had a target for the business to make a certain amount of money every month by the end of the year…it reached that goal after just two months and continued to be busy throughout the year.

No office, no investors, no employees and all the associated baggage. It also carries less risk, so you can see why it’s a popular option for the first-time entrepreneur, and in particular journalists and publishers looking for new opportunities.

In fact, the micropublisher is already a thing: to see someone really smart building something great in this field you would be wise to check out Thom Chambers, the founder of Mountain & Pacific, a micropublishing house. It’s just him, making very well designed magazines, and working hard at building a loyal audience.

The space is beginning to get populated by more and more success stories. I’ve mentioned many before: people like Kirby Ferguson of Everything is a Remix fame and even successful hyperlocal blogs (when done well) work best as microbusinesses. Many bigger beasts in the industry started out in someone’s living room, a passion project for one or two driven creatives.

How do you set up a microbusiness?

Well, a lot of it depends on your own design – and therefore having a willingness to ignore conventional wisdom, and really create something that fits around your life and your passions. But if you are looking for a guide, you’re lucky because one has just come on the scene, courtesy of one of my favourite authors.

Chris Guillebeau is the founder of The Art of Non-Conformity and the author of a 2010 book by the same name*. It’s a must read for anyone leading unconventional careers like I do. He’s just published a follow up all about microbusiness called The $100 Startup*. (Disclosure: I get a very brief mention in the book, alongside lots of successful microbusiness owners).

It’s not specifically about journalism or publishing (there is a small section on it) but the lessons are universal. Moreover Chris talks in detail about how he has launched his own information-based products, and there’s some great advice about how to launch a new website, book, or other digital product. A lot of his advice actually helped launch Inside the Story last month with such success.

Courage and Commitment

Last month I was invited to Perugia in Italy to talk about entrepreneurial journalism for Media140, and my talk focused on microbusinesses. You can watch a video of the talk (in English) here, and the presentation itself is below. Check out the “microbusiness challenge” slide which gives you a rough run-down of what you need to do.

It’s pretty self explanatory, but I ended on a note about courage and commitment. These are the two essential ingredients that, above all others, make successful businesses. But they are often misunderstood.

We often think courage involves being fearless in our pursuit of something. Courage is nothing of the sort. Courage is feeling shit-scared, but acting anyway. I can’t stress how important this is. The only people who genuinely don’t feel fear have a pathological condition. The rest of us get on with our work despite how scared we are. You need to do this too if you’re going to start any project that makes waves.

The second is even more underestimated. To be a starter, an innovator, a leader of any kind requires total commitment. This means making a leap of faith, and betting the farm on your idea, not doing it half-heartedly or half-arsed. It means committing to late nights, often working alongside a normal job, working weekends and more. It means at the moment you feel like taking a break you push yourself to work an extra half-hour. At the moment you feel like giving up, you force yourself to give it one more try.

Do you have that commitment? 

*Affiliate links

‘Hold the front page, I haven’t got a clue’

Posted in Next Generation Journalist by Adam Westbrook on May 17, 2010

Image: Chris(UK) on Flickr (cc)

Thanks to Claire Wardle of Media140 for pointing me in the direction of a Sunday Times article yesterday, which shows how much has got to change in our ideas of journalism.

Hold the Frontpage, I want to be on it‘ by Ed Caeser made it into the Times’ Education section, and paints a predictably bleak picture for journalism students graduating this summer.

“…almost every week I receive an email from some poor sap wanting to know how to break into the business” he says. And what advice can said poor sap expect to receive from Mr. Caeser?

“Today, you’ll need luck, flair, an alternative source of income, endless patience, an optimistic disposition, sharp elbows and a place to stay in London.”

Charming.

The article then goes on to interview five or six people who have had the luck, flair, patience, trust fund and London pad necessary to get a job on the Mirror, Daily Mail, Telegraph etc. And what advice can they give?

“Patrick Foster worked at The Times during Oxford University vacations, and stayed after graduation. Kate Mansey came in through the Liverpool Echo trainee scheme — one of the few local-newspaper training schemes still in operation — and began on the nationals by working temporary shifts.

“Many graduates simply turn up on work experience and refuse to leave. It worked for me.”

So, just to sum up: have an Oxbridge degree, and turn up to your work experience placement with a sleeping bag and a three months supply of tinned meats.

How to actually survive in the new age of journalism

Caeser gets one thing right: he realises journalism is changing. The advice he has sought, however, is for an era in the industry heading towards the grave.

He is stuck in the mindset that to have any career worth having in journalism it has to be working on a national newspaper or big broadcaster, and it has to be earned through unpaid work, desperate pleas to those already inside, a lot of luck, and presumably some sexual favours too.

But the crux is this: as Claire Wardle said when she threw this article my way, there is no mention of entrepreneurial journalism.

Caeser hasn’t even thought about it.

The very concept that the next generation of journalists might take control of their careers, become the chess player and not the chess piece seems alien to him; that these ‘poor saps’ might see opportunity where he only sees despair.

So here’s my advice: if you’re just starting out in journalism don’t read this article.* While you’re at it, don’t make yourself ill eating nothing but Supernoodles for a month (as I once had to) just to afford a shitty flat in Clapham. Don’t spend hours squeezing the desperation out of a desperate email to that sub on the Guardian you chatted to briefly at some conference somewhere. And don’t think you should give up just because you live in the North of England, or you’re poor, or because Ed Caeser says you should.

Instead, do this:

Start looking for the brave, exciting new opportunities presented by this wonderful digital age we now live in.

Start thinking about what new niches are evolving which you can exploit with a savvy, bootstrapped new startup. Start thinking of ideas for profitable online magazines or mailing lists which you can leap straight to being the editor of.

Teach yourself how to film and edit simple video, and how to make basic audio slideshows so you can do as much of it as possible without having to hire expensive outside companies. Learn how to build a simple website using WordPress which could one day be the platform for a news business.

If you know how to, start developing a new iPhone or Android app which people will pay you to download. Or leverage social media and blogs to pitch yourself as a go-to expert on a profitable niche, then sell your knowledge in products. Or start making multimedia for non-profits and NGOs, and tell those stories and do the sort of reporting the New York Times or the Guardian would never let you do.

(For more suggestions click here and here)

The Next Generation Journalist is emerging, to whom, Caeser’s advice is completely redundant. It’s up to you which path you chose.

Caeser’s conclusion is, again, predictably bleak.

Just as belts are tightened and we are attempting to map our future in the internet age, the legions of graduates keep coming — arts degrees and journalism diplomas in hand — to join the party. Are they, by attempting to start their journalism careers in 2010, making what the hero of Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland calls “a historic mistake”?

The only ‘”historic mistake'” to make is to ignore the fantastic opportunity to reshape journalism we now face. And it’s an opportunity which won’t last forever.

Are you a Next Generation Journalist?

*in fact do, if only to spot the subbing errors. On Sunday afternoon I found six.

Can you tell it’s conference season?

Posted in Adam, Journalism by Adam Westbrook on March 30, 2010

Image credit: Poulomi Basu/Digital Storytelling '10

Some card said on Twitter recently that they feared the Future of Journalism was ‘endless conferences on the Future of Journalism’.

They’re probably right, although if we can help it, the future of news will be defined with action rather than words.

Having said that I’ve been lucky enough to be invited to take part a whole host of interesting events and conferences so far this year including News Rewired in January and Digital Storytelling ’10 in March. There are some particularly good ones coming up too:

Frontline Club :: 6th April

I’ll be joining John Brazier and Anne Wollenberg at London’s Frontline Club to share my experiences of going freelance in the new digital age. It’s an event tailored just for freelancers so if you’re lucky enough to work for yourself or are thinking of giving it a go, then you’ll find it  really interesting. Click here to get tickets.

International Journalism Festival :: 19th – 25th April

I’m really excited about this one: 20,000 journalists from around the world, converging on the beautiful Italian town of Perugia. You’ll find me alongside the team from Media140 for a week of future of news chat, audio booing, qiks, slideshows and possibly even some pizza. I’ll be speaking on the Friday about the power and potential of audio slideshows, and throughout the week Claire Wardle, Ande Gregson, Christian Payne, Kate Pickering and I will be trying all sorts of multimedia nonsense to show off real time web.

Local Heroes 2010 :: 14th May

A one day conference to sort out the future for local news in the UK. It’s being held by The Press Gazette, at Kingston University, London, where I am currently Journalist-in-Residence. I’ll be speaking to news editors from across the country about “why video could be the answer for local news” and the rest of the line up looks excellent. Local journos sign up here!

If you’re going to any of these events drop me a line – it would be great to meet face-to-face!

A rare work update…

Posted in Adam by Adam Westbrook on January 8, 2010

It’s been a busy start to the New Year here at Westbrook towers.

First off my article about prisoner votes campaigner John Hirst is featured in this week’s Big Issue In The North. It follows this audio slideshow I produced in 2009. If you’re in the north of the UK, I’m sure a (very) cold Big Issue vendor would appreciate your custom. Meanwhile some of the images from this slideshow are appearing in a documentary, The Fear Factor, due for release in March.

My new e-book, Newsgathering for Hyperlocal Websites is due for release next week. It’s a practical manual packed with advice on how to turn your hyperlocal blog into a solid newsgathering operation, holding powers to account where the mainstream media have failed. It’s got a discounted opening price, so make sure you subscribe to the blog for details!

Elsewhere the lecturing work carries on, with dozens of short films my students have made due for marking by the end of this month. I hope to be returning to Kingston University’s journalism department for other events in 2010.

And I’m being kept busy with various conferences. I’m looking forward to speaking at Journalism.co.uk‘s News: Rewired event in London on the 14th January; tickets for that have now sold out. I’m also due to speak at a couple of planned events in London, and I’ve been invited to take part in some exciting international festivals in the spring as well (more details soon).

All the while January’s Future of News Meetup in association with POLIS is now full, with a waiting list building. We’ll be hearing from journalists at the Financial Times and one of the team behind the Berlin Project about innovation  in multimedia. If you would like to sign up to future meetups or try to make January’s event, click here to get involved.

Right here there’s lots of plans for the blog, with lots more practical advice and analysis of developments in journalism due in 2010. You’ll find me contributing to a host of excellent blogs and websites in 2010, including Duckrabbit, A Developing Story and Journalism 2.0.

And ahead, I some exciting multimedia plans stewing, and I’ll be looking for collaborators in the near future – keep your ears to the ground! In the meantime, I’m always available for various freelancing work, so just click on Contact Adam to get in touch!