Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

Video Journalism: are two heads better than one?

Posted in Freelance, Journalism by Adam Westbrook on June 8, 2010

Video Journalism has become intrinsically connected with terms like Solo VJ, One Man Band and Backpack Journalist. A video journalist, as we understand, works alone, exploiting the benefits of being light on the feet: a small, nimble unit.

With more photojournalists experimenting with video, this idea of the VJ as a solo-worker is being accentuated.

But what if this isn’t the best way?

A cinematographer friend of mine got me thinking about this last week. We were talking about the merits of the new range of small digital SLRs, shooting HD video – the Canon 5D, 550D and Nikon D5000.

“My only worry” he said, “is you become more preoccupied with the video and not the journalism. When you look back on your day do you say: ‘I’ve spent most of my time thinking about the journalism’, or ‘have I spent most of it thinking about depth-of-field?'”

Now don’t get me wrong, I usually prefer solo working, and I have long been a proponent of the solo video journalist being far more efficient, fast and value-for-money than larger crews. I don’t think the journalism suffers necessarily with a One Man Band (well, it depends on the journalist of course); but…could it be better if there are two people on a story?

Lois & Clark

Let’s imagine for a second a Lane/Kent type scenario. Instead of working alone finding, researching, treating, shooting and editing stories, the solo video journalist finds a talented partner.

Perhaps a print journalist with some but not much experience in video, they are good at the researching, the phone bashing, the setting up and asking the tough questions. That leaves the video journalist to focus on the shooting & editing and together they work to craft an engaging visual narrative.

This is how some newspapers already work with video – pairing a reporter with a video producer, and papers like the New York Times and the Guardian have produced some of their best results this way. What if independent freelance video journalists teamed up on a regular basis to work like this?

Two heads of course reduce the chances of mistakes, factual errors and clouded judgement.

But it’s all about the pairing. As a veteran of long backpacking tours gone horribly sour when two ill matched travelers inevitably fall out, it often isn’t pretty. The pairs would need similar interests, similar backgrounds maybe, and similar ambitions. They would both need the determination and the resolve to carry on through the hard times.

The duo could go beyond and market themselves together as a brand – you work with one, you get the other.

I’ve talked a lot this year about collaboration, and I have the privilege of working with quite a few talented producers, reporters and presenters already. The idea of a talented pair of multimedia journalists seems to me to be very tempting; what you do you think?

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Get your copy of 6×6: advice for multimedia journalists

Posted in 6x6 series by Adam Westbrook on October 26, 2009

6x6 advice for multimedia journalists

My e-book 6×6: advice for multimedia journalists is now available for download.

I put it together after the popularity of the blog series of the same name back in August. It sums up the advice in that series and updates it. It’s also packed with bonus tips which you won’t find in the series itself, plus a page of resources and links to help you on your way.

The six chapters cover the technical skills, like video, audio & storytelling, plus the non-technical skills, like branding & business.

Best of all, this 32 page e-book is 100% free – you won’t need to register or anything – just click on the big download button below to get it!

And please hit me with feedback, good or bad. What did it miss out? What would you put in?

Click to download for free!

New book: basic skills for the multimedia journalist

Posted in 6x6 series, Journalism by Adam Westbrook on October 22, 2009

6x6 advice for multimedia journalists

If you found the 6×6 series back in August there’s a treat in store for you next week.

I’ve wrapped the blogs up,  tidied them up, corrected & updated them and put them into 1 handy ebook for you to download and take home. It means you have have an all-in-one desktop reference to giving your multimedia journalism more spark, and getting in the entrepreneurial mindset.

Chapters include: video, audio, storytelling and branding.

frontpage

It’ll be available from Monday, it’s 100% free and there’s no registration or anything. Just click on the button and you’ll be able to download it outright.

I’ve got plans for more guides of this kind in the pipeline, so any feedback will be much appreciated.

See you Monday!

5 video rules you can break (and 5 rules you can’t)

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on September 1, 2009

Some people didn’t like my recent suggestion that one thing for multimedia journalists to do with their video was “break the rules”.

Offering advice like ‘Break the Rules’ doesn’t do anything to help online video journalists to improve their work” said one. “Frankly, it’s nonsense. If convergence is going to work content is key. In other words, videos have to be produced to the same exacting standards that are demanded in television, because viewers and readers are not going to make allowances for the fact they have been produced cheaply for the internet.

At one level they’re right: content is the watch word and the quality must remain high. We just need to be more specific when we say “break the rules”.

Why break the rules?

Simply: because with all the change in the media landscape, with films easier to shoot and edit than ever before, available to more people than ever before, and able to be watched by more people than ever before, it would be such a crying shame if – stylistically – the video journalism we all produce is as formulaic as what the mainstream media produce today.

And because some of the best pieces I’ve seen over the last year have trodden over all the rules.

5 rules you can break

01. vomit voice-over: if there’s one thing I’d be glad to see got rid of, it’s the overbearing reporter voice over telling us what we can already see. It is in effect telling us how to feel and we should be able to do that for ourselves. Voice overs are really only used because they’re an efficient way of pasting over the narrative cracks in a deadline driven newsroom.

02. tell your story in a linear way: your typical news story moves  from intro-to-case study-to-interview-to-context-to-other side of the story-to-look ahead/wrap up pretty seamlessly. Again it’s quick and helps beat deadline. The result? Every story looks the same.

03. use cutaways and noddies:they’re used to paste over edits in interviews, but  most of us are media savvy enough to recognise they were shot after the interview (a la Broadcast News). Why mislead your viewer? A simple flash dissolve retains some honesty in your editing while looking OK.

04. do standup piece-to-cameras: I have no problem with stand-ups when there’s some action or walk through involved: when the journalist is showing us something. But although a standup outside a building solves practical problems for mainstream news reporters, the multimedia journalist should be asking whether they are really necessary.

05. open with GVs/telling shot: again this is a technique which has remained for its ease. You can open your film with any shot, interview, graphic you chose. Be imaginative!

5 rules you can’t break

01. shoot sequences: sequences are vital to visual storytelling. They are the demonstration of an action over a series of 3 or more shots and (if used well) tell us more about the subject or story than words can. Our brains piece sequences together and engage us with the story.

02. do your white balance: and sort your focus. Even online there’s no excuse for badly framed, badly lit, badly focused shots. You should aim to be technically as good as TV but more creative.

03. don’t cut on pans or zooms: our eyes will always be distracted by a jump cut or a cut on movement. Unless it’s for a reason, you don’t want to detract your viewers from your story by having them wonder ‘why that shot didn’t look right’. Having said that, these kind of unsettling edits do create an effect you may wish to use.

04.treat audio with respect: bad audio is bad video. The hallmark of poorly produced video for the web is bad audio.

05. don’t  go overboard with your transitions: video editing software offers hundreds of different ways to move from one shot to another. In multimedia journalism as in television journalism you need but two: cut and dissolve. Even think about using some kind of rotating 3D cube? Go take a bath.

6×6: audio

Posted in 6x6 series, Journalism by Adam Westbrook on August 26, 2009

6x6 advice for multimedia journalists

The fifth in a series of 6 blogs, each with 6 tips for the next generation of freelance multimedia journalists.

audio

Audio is one of the most powerful mediums available to the multimedia journalist. Whether its radio, podcasts, on video  or audio slideshows, audio brings a piece to life. So why is it almost always an afterthought? Too many good films and audio slideshows have been let down by bad quality audio. Here’s 6 tips to make sure that doesn’t happen to you!

01. let sound breathe

…as soon as a voice comes out of the speakers, the listener attempts to visualise what he hears to create in the mind’s eye the owner of the voice…unlike where the pictures are limited to the size of the screen, radio pictures are any size you care to make them.

Robert McLeish, Radio Production

In other words, with audio your limit is the size of the imagination. Last time I checked, that was pretty big.

So for the love of God, show audio some respect. First off a piece of audio does not have to consist entirely of voices with no gaps in between.  In fact that sucks. When you’re out recording, take a moment to listen for sounds – in radio it’s called actuality and it is a key ingredient in bringing sound to life. Doing a story about some people on a boat? We want to hear the water lapping up against the bow. Is your scene in a cafe? Let’s hear the cups clinking, the chatter of everyday conversation, the whoosh! of the coffee machine in action.

This more often than not recorded as wildtrack. After filming, taking photos, interviewing, whatever, record at least 60 seconds of actuality. It’ll make editing a lot easier too.

Let the audio breathe. Give it a few seconds just to play in your listeners imagination and don’t talk over it. It’ll do more to paint a picture than overladen voice over will.

Marantz PMD620

Marantz PMD620

02. invest in a good microphone

Audio is so often an afterthought for video and photo journalists alike. This is mostly manifested in using a crap microphone. VJs – don’t use your camera’s onboard mic unless you’re lucky to have something nice like a Canon XL2, Sony EX3, Z1 etc. If you can, buy an external microphone to attach to your cameras horseshoe. For interviews, it is worth investing in a lapel mic.

Rodemic do some pretty decent offers, including a camera mic for under £100 ($180). For radio journalists, or photo journalists doing audio slideshows, there are a good range of digital audio recorders you can look at. The Marantz PMD620 is small, easy to use and so reliable you’d let it babysit your kids. I took it out to Iraq earlier this year and it was great. It starts at around £300/$500.

The Edirol R-09HR (£211/$349)  has had produced some great sounding audio for freelancer Ciara Leeming and journalists are raving about the Olympus DS-40(£82/$135)

03. get the mic in close

Microphones do not have selective hearing like our ears do: they won’t pick out the voice across the room you’re pointing them at. So get in close to your interviewee – really close – like a little under their chin (if they’re ok with that). It eliminates a lot of  background noise, like air conditioning, traffic, squeaks of chairs and all that. And more often than not it gives the recording a richness and an intimacy.

Compare, for example, the effect of these two recordings: the first with a mic held too far away in a large room, the other with it right in close.

Another great tip I picked up: if you can, record your interviews outside – it eliminates that shallow echo you get in peoples’ offices and living rooms.

04. let the characters talk

A bit of a personal bugbear this, but often the temptation with multimedia projects is to talk all over them, y’know, like they do on the TV and that. But new media means new ways of doing things. And I think one of the great new trends emerging is the silencing of the journalist/reporter voice over.

If you’ve recorded some great audio for your story, let it breathe – let the characters tell their own story. We don’t need to hear you saying “Angie is a mum of three struggling to make ends meet” when we can hear Angie saying “things are really hard right now, tryin’ to support three kids, y’know, payin’ the bills…every days a struggle.”

This takes some planning in the interview stages – most of all, you need to ask open questions, so your interviewees answers start as full sentences. It has been industry practice for many years to ask interviewees to include your question in their answer:

Why are you finding it so hard to make ends meet?

I’m finding it so hard to make ends meet because….etc.

05. use pauses

If you’re new to using audio, especially if you’re moving from print or photo journalism, the first thing you will notice when you listen back to your interviews is yourself. Going “uhuh, yeah, hmmmm, sure…” all over their answers.

Ask a question – then keep shtum. This pays dividends in some interviews – especially emotional ones – where your interviewee finishes their point. There’s a pause…you would normally fill it by asking a question…but don’t. Stay silent – and let the interviewee fill the pause. It’s a bit mean, but it gets them to reiterate their point, and in the process show what they’re really thinking.

And then keep those pauses in your piece. They are a natural part of speech and often reveal more about your character than their words.

06. take them on a journey

There are times when it’s right to bring yourself into the piece. But try not to use it just for dry voice overs recorded in a studio. Your voice is best when you’re somewhere your audience wants to be, and you can show them what it’s like.

To achieve this, you’ll need to be very descriptive in your writing. Tell people where you are and what you’re doing in vivid detail.

For the best examples, we have to go way back, to the first broadcast journalists:

I began to see what was happening to Berlin. The small incendiaries were going down like a fistful of white rice thrown on a piece of black velvet. The cookies-the four thousand pound high explosives-were bursting below like great sunflowers gone mad.

And then, as we started down again still held in the light, I remembered that the Dog still had one of those cookies and a whole basket of incendiaries in his belly. And the light still held it, and I was very frightened. I looked down, and the white fires had turned red. They were beginning to merge and spread, just like butter does on a hot plate.

Ed Murrow, on a boming raid over Berlin, 1944


Richard Dimbleby

Richard Dimbleby

There were perhaps a 150 of them, all so thin that their skin glistened like stretched rubber on their bones. Some of the poor starved creatures whose bodies were there looked so utterly unreal and inhuman that I could have imagined that they’d  never lived at all.  They were like polished skeletons, the skeletons that medical students like to play practical jokes with.

At one end of the pile a cluster of men and women were gathered round a small fire. They were using rags and old shoes taken from the bodies to keep it alight.

Richard Dimbleby at Bergen Belsen, 1945


The BBC’s Alan Little is one of the finest radio writers, still alive – here’s his advice:

Try to use old words, words that reach into the very core, the very oldest part of the language. They have the most impact….beware of adjectives. This is a rule I keep breaking and I have to exercise great vigilance to rein myself in. Adjectives are fine in moderation and when they genuinely add to the meaning or clarity of the image being conveyed.

The final word…

From award-winning multimedia producers Duckrabbit, the combo of a great photographer and a great audio producer:

Many great photographers make really bad audio slideshows because they treat audio as afterthought, or they try to do a voiceover without having any presentation skills. They might as well not bother.

Actually I’d go further then that.  When you put your photos together with poor audio you actually diminish the value of your photos. Good audio is like a bad dog. It gets its teeth into you and won’t let go.

Next time: making things happen!

6×6: business

Posted in 6x6 series, Journalism by Adam Westbrook on August 24, 2009

6x6 advice for multimedia journalists

The fourth in a series of 6 blogs, each with 6 tips for the next generation of freelance multimedia journalists.

business

While the news industry is still in an uncertain and uncomfortable state of flux, one certainty has already emerged: journalists can no-longer just be journalists – they must be entrepreneurs too. It’s the difference between the ‘passive’ freelancer who writes to a few editors and waits for the work to come to them, and the ‘active’ freelancer who run themselves as a mini-business.

Until J-schools start adding business skills to the curriculum this will be something we’re all going to have to teach ourselves.

01. diversify

If you went into journalism to become a TV news reporter, and just a TV news reporter, the sad news is those days are over. As are the days of being paid to stay in nice hotels in foreign lands drinking cocktails.

In order to maximise your income, you will need to diversify your skills base. That means selling a range of skills and service, and not just journalism related ones. I know radio journalists who have a nice sideline designing websites, video journalists who run training courses, and photojournalists who work for non-profits.

Training can often be the most lucrative of these – but only consider this if you really know what you’re doing!

Diversify too in your client base. Pity the news-snob who just pitches to the New York Times and The Guardian! The digital revolution means there are more online-only news outfits, but they can be easier to pitch to.

Freelance science journalist Angela Saini offered me this advice recently: “I think it’s almost impossible to survive right now unless you freelance in more than one medium – so as well as doing VJ work, you may have to do radio and print too.”

If you’re a radio journalist you won’t survive as a just a radio journalist. Pitch for video, online, print…everything! Profiling multimedia journalist Jason Motlagh, David Westphal notes:

Motlagh doesn’t just write stories. He shoots still photos. He shoots and edits video. He does audio. He blogs. He narrates slide shows. And because he does all of those things, he says, he has a huge advantage over free-lance foreign correspondents working in a single medium.

Having multiple media skills is “still unusual,” he said. “There aren’t a whole lot of people yet who have gotten up to speed. If you are, you can make clients an offer they can’t refuse.”

02. find new markets

The entrepreneur, although a business profession, requires a lot of creativity. Just ask Richard Branson. From what I’ve gauged you have to be constantly brainstorming new markets and potential clients. And thinking outside the box reaps rewards.

Career evangelist and author of the popular new book Career Renegade: How to Make a Great Living Doing What You Love Jonathan Fields explores how to sidestep traditional career paths to forge your own unique way. He talks about “moving beyond the mainstream” and finding new markets in 6 different places:

  1. finding a hungrier market
  2. finding the most lucrative micro-markets
  3. exploiting gaps in information
  4. exploiting gaps in education
  5. exploiting gaps in gear or merchandise
  6. exploiting gaps in community

The first two are about digging deeper into the industry and possibly connecting two unrelated ones. A great example comes from a friend of mine, film maker Oliver Harrison. He loves cooking, and loves making films but couldn’t find a way to make any money out of either. After a lot of searching, he and business partner Simon Horniblow started talking to universities – and combined the two. They now run studentcooking.tv a very successful online cookery website for students. Would you think to do that? Think outside the box!

To Jonathan Fields:

“In thinking about potential alternative markets, or trying to find smaller, more lucrative submarkets, think about fields, careers, jobs, or paths where the elements of what you love to do are valued, but in short supply. You are looking for a market where your passion leads to: differentiation, hunger [and] price availability.”

Be practical and realistic though: is there really a demand for your new idea?

Here’s 3 examples of journalists who digged a bit deeper to find new markets:

Weyo found a new market in non-profits looking for quality storytelling

Weyo found a new market in non-profits looking for quality storytelling

Journalist Martin Lewis exploited a gap in the market for impartial financial advice

Journalist Martin Lewis exploited a gap in the market for impartial financial advice

Duckrabbit ex[ploited a gap in education and produce training courses in photography and audio design

Duckrabbit exploited a gap in education and produce training courses in photography and audio design

03. bootstrapping

Bootstrapping means starting your freelance business with little or no cash. It means learning how to get things done for free – and most valuable of all – learning to be careful with money.

The great news is you don’t need any money to start out and market yourself. A website domain name will cost you a small amount. But social media means you can market your talents absolutely free (see the previous 6×6 on branding).

Josh Quittner, writing in Time Magazine uses the term LILO – to mean ‘a little in, a lot out’: “At no other time in recent history has it been easier or cheaper to start a new kind of company. Possibly a very profitable company” he says. “[bootstrapping] means your start-up is self-sustaining and can eke out enough profit to keep you alive on instant noodles while your business gains traction.”

If this recession has taught us anything, it’s that the best business is built from the bottom up, on the funds available (not borrowed).

04. dealing with inflexible income

The biggest fear of starting a freelance career is money. Oh, and failure. ‘What if I don’t get any business?’ ‘How will I be sure I’ll always pay the rent?’ Truth is you won’t ever be sure, but that’s part of the thrill, right?

Still there are some things you can do to make the ebb and flow of freelance income a little more stable.

A good tip is to open up a separate bank account for your business earnings. Get Rich Slowly offers this advice: “Every month as you earn income, receive it (and leave it) in your business account. This is where you accumulate your cash. Because it’s in a high-yield account, it earns interest as it waits for you to use it.”

They recommend paying yourself a monthly salary from that business accountand leaving the rest for tax and other investments. The worst thing is to use the profits from a bumper month to pay for a bumper holiday, only to return to slim pickings.

But the best advice for living on an irregular income? Learn to live lite. Cut back on unnecessary spending wherever you can. Back to David Westphal profiling 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.”

05. find your creative time

Sure, for some freelancers the appeal of being your own boss is getting up at 10, watching some TV, doing some work, heading out on a night out without the guilt…and that might work for some. But the creative entrepreneur’s life is most likely to be a different one.

Just ask Mark McGuinness. He coaches creative freelancers and says for the successful ones, it ain’t no bohemian life:

After scanning my diary and surveying the tasks in hand, I was faced with a depressing conclusion. I was going to have to get up early.

He’s up at 6 in the morning, every morning, getting the crap out the way, like emails and the like.  He then says he has several hours free to work solidly on creative tasks, before the rest of the world gets up and the phone starts ringing. Know when you are at your creative best and ring fence it, so you can’t get disturbed. It might be 6am, it might be midnight. Whatever, just make sure it’s protected.

…when I look back over the last couple of years, the time when I’ve created most value, for myself and my clients, has been those first hours of the day I’ve spent writing blog posts, essays, seminars and poems. It’s the creative wellspring that feeds into all the coaching, training, presenting and consulting I do when I’m face-to-face with clients.

Treat it like a full time job too. If you can, work somewhere where you can commute to, or have some ringfenced office space at home. I recommend Mark’s excellent (and free) ebook “Time Management for Creative People“.

06. be lean, but don’t be mean

If you’re dreaming of going freelance, you might be thinking about holding off until after the recession. No need, says Leo Babauta 0f Zenhabits fame:

This is the best time to start. This is a time when job security is low, so risks are actually lower. This is a time to be lean, which is the best idea for starting a business. This is the time when others are quitting — so you’ll have more room to succeed.

And with social media and networking taking off, this is the easiest time to start a business, the easiest time to spread the word, the easiest time to distribute information and products and services.

Starting now though won’t be easy – and you’ll need to be lean. But that is such an important skill to keep things afloat later on. Be sensible with your money, don’t overspend. It’s the thing the big companies can’t do, and the reason they lose money hand over fist. And don’t be mean: journalism is a small village – make friends and keep ’em!

The final word:

Journalism.co.uk offer some great practical advice for freelancers, which cover things like registering as self-employed, pitching for new work and managing finances. And if you’re still unsure of taking the entrepreneurial route, just watch this:

Next: audio for multimedia journalist!

6×6: storytelling

Posted in 6x6 series, Journalism by Adam Westbrook on August 21, 2009

6x6 advice for multimedia journalists

The third in a series of 6 blogs, each with 6 tips for the next generation of freelance multimedia journalists.

storytelling

A lot of the focus for multimedia journalists and digital journalists has been on the new technology: using Twitter, learning Flash. But there’s a danger that in the rush to learn new skills, we forgot (or never learn) the oldest ones. And there is no skill older, or more important, than storytelling.

Maybe you think it’s something you can’t learn; it comes naturally. You might think it’s something with no rules: each story is different. True, but there is a science to storytelling as well as an art: here are 6 secrets.

01. who’s your character?

Every story needs a character. Lord of the Rings has dozens, but your short doc or audio slideshow might only have one. Either way, they need to be compelling, and they need to be embarking on a journey. And we need to like them or be fascinated by them, because we’re going to follow their journey: and we want our audience to follow it too.

No matter what your story, it needs a character. In old-media land this is known crudely as the “case study”. (Think how many TV news reports start with a case study!). But they are crucial because they humanise what might actually be a general issue. Making a doc about homelessness?  You best make sure it stars a homeless person.

Beware though the difference between Character and Characterization. Robert McKee in his excellent book Story tells us the latter is the outward description of a person-their personality, age, height, what clothes they wear; but character is the true essence of the person in the story. That true character is only revealed when their journey puts them under increased pressures.

The decisions we all make under pressure are the ones which reveal our true character.

02. the narrative arc

The next thing you want to do is find your story’s narrative arc. Remember I mentioned your character’s journey? Well that’s your narrative arc.

It starts with what Hollywood screenwriters call “The Incident Incident.” It’s the moment which instills in your character a desire to achieve a seemingly insurmountable goal/object of desire. It sets them on a mission – a quest.

This mission must challenge them in increasingly difficult ways (and never decreasingly), rising to a climax to which the audience can imagine no other. Writing in the Digital Journalist, Ken Kobre sums it up:

“Besides a beginning, middle and end, a good story has a memorable protagonist who surmounts obstacles en route to achieving a goal that we care about.”

Stories work better with a real play-off of positive and negative charges. Something good happens, and then something bad. Then something even better than before, and then something even worse than before. Robert McKee describes a second device, called “gap of expectation”: that’s where your character’s expectations of an event are blown apart by reality.

03. Oi! Where’s the conflict?

You’re making a film about that homeless person on a mission to get his life back on track. The first thing he wants to do is get some money for a small flat. He asks the council. They give him the money. The end.

Lame story.

Why? Because there is no conflict! I hate conflict in real life, but in storytelling it’s essential. There must be forces opposing your character and their mission. And sparks must fly. McKee lists three types of conflict:

  1. Inner conflict: your character is in conflict with themselves (Kramer vs Kramer)
  2. Personal: your character’s in conflict with people around them (Casablanca)
  3. Extrapersonal: your character’s on conflict with something massive (Independence Day)

04. climax!

Traditionally stories end in a climax. The ever increasing ups and downs culminate in either an ultimate high (happy ending) or ultimate low (sad ending). Either way, the key word is “ultimate”. In Hollywood-land the ending must be so climatic they cannot possibly imagine another way of doing it.

In the real world it is not always the way, but you should have half a mind on how your story is going to end. Crucially if they’ve been set off on a quest, they should finish it for better or worse. The ending should still be “absolute and irreversible”.

05. use tried and tested storytelling techniques

There are lots of little storytelling devices you can use to add some sparkle to your work.

  • Book-ending: returning the character/place/event which opened your piece, at the end, is a nice way to sum up what’s changed. It can add a bit of emotional punch too.
  • Narrative hook: opening the piece with an enticing, unexplained event, interview, image to suck the viewers right in
  • Get the crayons out: popular in internet memes everywhere, getting people to write something down and hold it up to the camera is very effective (just check out SOTM if you need proof); I know of a very experienced reporter who took crayons and paper to a refugee camp and got children to draw the terrible things they’d seen: another great device.

06. stories are everywhere!

These guidelines are really used by authors, and screen writers – people who create stories from scratch. As journalists we aren’t making up stories (hopefully not, anyway) – but we should have our eyes and ears open to these elements in the real world to heighten the sense of story for our audience.

And most of all – remember stories are everywhere! I have never been more inspired than by reading Cory Tennis’ advice to one floundering journalism graduate, unable to get work:

“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 best way to learn the craft of storytelling, is to get out there and tell some.

The final word:

“A storyteller is a life poet, an artist who transforms day-to-day living, inner life and outer life, dream and actuality into a poem whose rhyme scheme is events rather than words – a two-hour metaphor that says: Life is like this! Therefore a story must be abstract from life to discover its essences, but must not become an abstraction that loses all sense of a life-as-lived. A story must be like life, but not so verbatim that it has no depth or meaning beyond anyone in the street.”

Robert McKee Story.

Next: the creative entrepreneur!

What can next-generation journalists learn from Les Paul?

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on August 15, 2009

Les Paul

Les Paul

A music icon of the 20th century passed away this week. Aged 94, Les Paul was still playing weekly gigs in Manhattan right up to his death.

Not just a talented musician, Les Paul was an innovator, and hearing him speak you realise he had within him the skills the journalists of the future will need if they’re to innovate as much as he did.

Last year he spoke to the New York Times about his life, as part of the obituary segment called “The Last Word.

“I was playing one night and this guy comes up to me and says ‘hey, your guitar isn’t loud enough!’ So I thought to myself ‘how can I make my guitar louder?'”

Lesson: Les had a goal – a dream: something to aim for. It was as simple as making his guitar louder, but it set something on fire inside of him.

He attached his guitar strings to his mother’s radio: “and it made the most beautiful sound I ever heard.

“I went to work on wood, shaping it like a beautiful woman…and finally I got it – it took years and years and years of continued working on it.”

Lesson: innovation takes a hell of a lot of work – and a lot of time. But keep working, shaping, building, refining until you get it right.

“I took it to the manufacturers and they kept turning it down, saying it was a novelty.”

Lesson: there’ll be lots and lots of knock backs – but never, ever give up.

From guitarists to journalists to business people to web designers to sports stars: the same passion, dream, determination and perserverance runs through them all.

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.

The Journalist of the Future: your reaction

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on July 28, 2009

Thanks to you if you commented on, shared, retweeted or blogged about my last post – Introducing: the Journalist of the Future. Thousands of hits later and your comments have been enlightening.

Here’s a summary of what you guys have been saying:

Alexandre Gamela kicked it off, and wondered whether knowledge of a specific subject is a becoming more of an advantage for journalists.

Great post, it’s great to see that some ideas i have are shared by others.I wrote about the same here, but i missed the specialist part. It’s true, a strong knowledge about a specific subject is an advantage, now more than ever.

Michele added an excellent point which I admit I overlooked:

The one area I would add to this is to say that the future journalist should also be a skilled data-miner. I think we (industry and educators) have focused heavily on multimedia storytelling (Flash and video) as the future of news, but also need to direct our attention to the wealth of information that can be had from the organization and presentation of data in the form of searchable databases and mashups.

Agreed – news gathering is as important as how it’s produced. I touched on it in a fashion, when I wrote about the importance of crowd sourcing news. And arguably – as this find by Cyberjournalist shows – it’s the ones who develop a niche for finding cool stuff who will get a headstart.

On twitter ElleAmeno wondered the same thing – “there’s a ‘driven’ quality to great reporters that’s more about ‘finding out’ than ‘telling’.” I agree : “I was wondering are there 2 types of journo? The one who loves digging stuff up and one who loves putting it out?……not wise to generalise I know, but could be a useful divide. As much as I’d love to be the former, I am prob the latter!”

Back on the blog and VJ pioneer David Dunkley-Gyimah pondered the unknown – both here and on his own blog. You can read his fascinating response here.

And could it be that if The Media Standard Trust et al work through a trusted-kite mark system to acknowledge journalists who meet the new “standard”, it’s likely they’ll be further fragmentation, such that old style journalism will persist, new will hold its own and then there’s the unknown?

The legal implications got Mark N wondering:

who pays the legal fees for the journalist of the future if some corporate entity doesn’t like what she wrote and tries to sue her to silence her?

The reason why traditional news media are important and cannot be replaced without a loss to civic life is that only salaried employees backed by the legal staff of a news organization can take the risk to do real investigative journalism. It is too easy for anyone in power to sue a freelancer.

So if you are correct, we will live in a world where one of the essential checks against corporate and government corruption will be gone. It’s a shame, but that’s where we are heading.

Quite the opposite Mark N! I think the future of journalism is a positive thing not  a negative one! He makes a good point about how freelancers (and I suppose smaller niche publications) could become easy targets for corporate lawyers, something Elle picks up on:

If lawsuits and government suppression attempt to dictate coverage, then news breaks anonymously. In current media, credibility is earned through an appearance of a professional process to guarantee accuracy and objectivity.

Emerging media have broken that appearance down to expose its very human flaws – inescapable bias, human error, vanity, fear, concentrated into small organizations. In emerging media, credibility comes from publishing the evidence directly, and context is presented through the persistently streaming nature of the media; fear, bias, subjectivity and error exist, as they always will, but are dispersed among the broad group of active participants in the news, as opposed to the broad group of passive consumers in current mass media.

Tom Matrullo wants the future journalist to be more aware of the past:

So, before the entrepreneur and the guy who plays well with others, how about the analyst? the people who remember some history? the people who study economics? the people with imagination?

And photographer Lisa Hogben get’s  back onto the money question:

And while I believe I actually fall into the category of the ‘Future Journalist’, BUT and this is the big one, I am struggling to find decently paid markets for my work and while many of us have adapted to the new skill sets necessary to produce vibrant, intelligent, well researched and critically thinking pieces, who is gonna pay for it?

Perhaps there is one very important category that can be added to the position of ‘Future Journalist’ -Salesperson.

I think “entrepreneur” covers the salesperson arena. This time you are selling yourself and your skills. It will require dogged sales skills as the market gets more competitive. But certainly the issue of funding journalism is still an unknown. Some are getting grants from charities, others being savvy with advertising.

The point of this type of future-journalist though is as a freelancer they don’t have to worry about meeting ad targets: they work alone getting a grant from here, doing a corporate gig there, selling some photography there etc…they will have to think outside the traditional realms of journalism.

But that’s what this is all about right?

Life after newspapers?

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on June 8, 2009

Here’s another inspiring article doing the rounds: detailing how multimedia journalists in America are re-inventing themselves and forging new business working for NGOs and non-profit groups.

…in Norfolk, Virginia, former Virginian-Pilot staff photographer Chris Tyree has launched a multimedia production company called Weyo with Stephen Katz, who is still a staff photographer at the paper and won POYi Newspaper Photographer of the Year honors in 2008. “We’re trying to brand ourselves as storytellers to the non-profit world,” Tyree says. Clients so far include Physicians for Peace, Resolve.org and the Samaritan’s Purse Canada, among others.

Tyree quit his job last August, right before a wave of layoffs hit The Virginian-Pilot. “It became obvious that stories I was interested in—about social justice and social responsibility—weren’t getting [published] as much” because of budget pressures and cutbacks, Tyree explains.

And they reckon their background in frontline news gives them the edge over more established competition.

One challenge for would-be freelance multimedia producers is competition from established video production companies that are chasing corporate and non-profit PR work. Migielicz argues that producers with newspaper backgrounds are better storytellers by training, and can work faster and leaner.

Leeson says, “One thing you learn as a still photojournalist is how to get in and out and produce something with high quality. We know how to tell a story. We don’t have to story board it, and go through all these pre-production meetings. All I need is a grasp of what the client is hoping for. In newspapers, you get an assignment with a basic outline of the story, and beyond that you’re expected to find it.”

As a couple of other inspiring pieces (like this one and this one) are showing, maybe now is the time to to take the plunge and advertise your talents to more people. But the risks and challenges of starting your own business are still pretty intimidating.

The money though isn’t bad, according to the article:

Weyo just finished one job that paid $10,000 for a 7-minute video and a Web site with “20-some” linked pages. Another recent job for a women’s shelter paid $15,000 for similar work, “with some branding as well,” Tyree says. Another shelter in Maryland paid Weyo $4,000 for a video and some still photography. “I was definitely paid better at the newspaper, but that’s because we’re just starting out,” he says.

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Learn from the best

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on May 20, 2009

A brief, simple blog from multimedia producers Duckrabbit has stuck with me this week.

As well as highlighting amazing inspirational pieces of work (not to mention producing a fair few themselves), they’re also not afraid to highlight the less than good.

A frank post: “CNN should fire the producer of this audio slideshow” shows us a piece about a rehabilitation centre for children in Aghanistan, and shows us whats wrong with it.

In particular:

The point about a still photo is that your eye explores it. When you put too much motion into a slideshow you’re removing the viewers ability to pause and reflect, to explore.

Slow pans on a big screen look great … but at the small size the images are reduced to on our computer screens the panning looks as rough as a dogs dinner that even the dog refuses to eat.

This is an incredibly important point about the still photograph and its place in the audio slideshow,  and one I’ve never thought about before. (You only have to watch an audio slideshow I did from Basra to see similar seasick movements).

So these guys know what they’re talking about.

And now there’s a chance to learn from the best: with a weekend training event in Bristol, UK in July. Click here for all the details.

I had high hopes of going myself (gawd knows my photography needs some help) but sadly a prior arrangement (and a shortage of cash) keeps me out of the race.

Which means there’s one more place for you!