Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

Best of the blogs: 2009

Posted in Adam, Journalism by Adam Westbrook on December 18, 2009

My Google Reader probably trebled in size in 2009. It’s where I get at least 50% of information, gossip, inspiration and ideas on multimedia,  journalism and the future of news. As a Christmas treat, I thought I’d share some of the best blogs of 2009 with you….

Digital Journalism

10,000 words: Mark Luckie’s site is a goldmine of beautifully presented practical advice for digital journalists. His posts have become less frequent since he became re-employed, but each one is still as valuable.

Journalism 2.0: Mark Briggs is bringing out a new book for digital journalists in 2010 – expect it to become a core text on all journalism course reading lists.

Video Journalism

Advancing the Story: Deborah Potter’s blog on video journalism serves the local American market best of all, but it still has useful advice on shooting video and interviews.

Rosenblum TV: Michael Rosenblum’s blog isn’t your standard VJ fare. As the father of the medium, he is determined to see it revolutionised, and is a vocal herald of the death of traditional TV news. He has pitched for funding on an ambitious plan to give out 1,000 Flipcams in New Jersey, and launches a new video academy in New York in 2010.

The Outernet: David Dunkley-Gyimah’s single handedly pioneered the space between video journalism and cinema; his work resembles multi-million dollar Hollywood flicks. As artist-in-residence at the South Bank Centre in London, expect more news/art mashups in 2010.

Video Journalist: Glen Canning’s site offers some great practical tips for video journalists.

Bob Kaplitz: Bob Kaplitz’s blog is a must for anyone trying to get to grips with the basics of video journalism. He’s done what no-one’s really thought to do up until now – use video to teach video journalism. Clever, huh?

Radio

David Stone: a young news editor by anyone’s standards, David’s posts on practical radio journalism are useful for any radio journalist, especially in the UK.

NewsLeader: Justin King has used Twitter very effectively this year to share advice and tips for radio journalists in the UK and elsewhere. There’s more good stuff on his blog.

James Cridland: just returned from a round-the-world tour of radio, Radio Futurologist James has posted from Canada and the US, where he’s been meeting radio producers everywhere and sharing the future of radio with the rest of us.

Photojournalism

RESOLVE, Livebooks: not just a blog, RESOLVE, managed by Miki Johnson, is also a community of photojournalists all seeking the future for their craft. The After Staff series from summer 2009 is a superb library for anyone who’s been laid off and wants to make it in the scary new freelance world.

The Travel Photographer: Tewfic El- Sawy niftily picks up the best photojournalism from around the world and showcases it. A forward thinking blog, the Travel Photographer also presents new multimedia from photogs.

Lens Blog: The New York Times’ home for photojournalism is a beautiful resource of the best images from the around the world, plus occasional advice from the experts. Great for inspiration.

Writing, Blogging & Thinking

CopyBlogger: possibly the most famous blogger in the world, Brian Clark’s Copyblogger is vital for anyone who wants to understand how to build an audience and avoid boring them with dull words.

Steven Pressfield: a recent discovery for me, Steven’s Wednesday Writing tips not only cover the art of storytelling, but also shares advice on dealing with your own mental resistance and the limiting mind.

Freelance Switch: the ultimate resource for freelancers in all disciplines,  this site has regular articles on writing, getting and keeping clients.

Lateral Action: I have referred to Mark McGuinness’ work several times in the last year, not least because it’s so damn inspiring. If you’re a creative entrepreneur, and want help staying motivated, managing your time or pushing creative boundaries head to Mark. Lateral Action is particularly special because he’s teamed up with Brian Clark from Copyblogger (above) – a dynamic duo if ever there was one.

Career Renegade: also high up on the inspiration chart is Jonathan Fields site Career Renegade. If you’re a journalist thinking of launching your own startup, and creating your own “renegade career”, for Gods sake, read his book first.

The News Business & entrepreneurship

Directors Blog: since setting up POLIS at the London School of Economics, Charlie Beckett has held conferences and given countless conferences on the future of journalism. He has also influenced the future with his ideas of “networked journalism”; his blog today provides academic insight into journalism in the brave new world.

Headlines and Deadlines: blogging from the frontline of regional press in the UK Alison Gow’s blog has insight surrounded by lots of good links.

Killer Startups: every day 15 new internet startups are posted and critiqued. You won’t find any news ones on here, at least not yet, but it’s a fantastic inspiring resource for anyone thinking of going entrepreneurial.

News Innovation: with the banner “new business models for news” you know this blog is asking the right questions; follow it and you might get the answer. In the meantime, its posted some excellent videos of Jeff Jarvis (see below) explaining why the future of news is entrepreneurship.

BuzzMachine: Jeff Jarvis has emerged as the key proponent of “entrepreneurial journalism” and is leading the way in the classroom with his work at CUNY. His blog explains with passion why the future of news is entrepreneurship. Expect more pioneering ideas from Jeff in 2010.

Online Journalism Blog: one of the best sites for analysis on all things digital, Paul Bradshaw’s blog leans towards the often ignored arena of uncovering, analysing and producing data.

Paul Balcerak: from the US, Paul Balcerak sees the future, and then writes about. He shared some of the most creative uses of video journalism earlier this year, and expertly slams down anyone who is stupid enough to resist the future.

Mashable: in the TechCrunch v Mashable war, I am (after trialling both) firmly with the latter. Techcrunchers slate Mashable for just sharing funny Youtube videos, but it covers the revolution in journalism far better and with a much more positive outlook.

The Media Business: Richard G Picard’s blogs are more like essays, but their insight into business models for journalism is profound, and should be on the reading list of anyone thinking of going entrepreneurial. His articles  in 2009 have been shared on countless blogs.

Design

Design Reviver: unless you’re solely a radio journalist you should really exploit the internet’s fantastic resources for visual inspiration. Design Reviver is one of them, featuring among other things, great wordpress themes and photoshop tutorials.

ISO50: Scott Hansen is not only a talented musician but an exceptional graphic designer who shares his own work and those that inspire him. His retro colours and collages are perfect inspiration, and his taste in music is on the ball.

FFFFound: a must for visual journalists of any kind seeking inspiration. A warning though – you’ll struggle to click through the 100+ marvelous designs and photographs from around the world which will filter into your reader.

Multimedia

4iP: it’s always worth following the latest developments from 4iP towers; they are one of the major funders of public service startups in the UK, and their blog provides a good idea of what the latest developments are – and what they fund.

Duckrabbit’s Blog: Ben Chesterton and David White have shown the rest of us how to do multimedia, especially for non-profit clients. When not producing powerful stories for those without a voice, Ben and David passionately blog about the good, the bad and the ugly of multimedia journalism.

Bombay Flying Club: meanwhile in warmer climes, the three talents of Poul Madsen, Henrik Kastenskov and Brent Foster are producing equally gorgeous content for non-profits all over the world. Their blog acts as a showcase of their beautiful work, and is a great inspiration for anyone.

Innovative Interactivity: Tracy Boyer’s seriously on the ball when it comes to using multimedia and interactivity to tell news stories. Subscribe to her blog and you’ll get thoughtful critiques of some quite amazing work which is paving the way towards the future.

A daily dose of all these blogs have filled my mind with things I never thought possible, and work of superb quality. And there’s already room for more…what blogs do you recommend?

Some awesome photographic panoramas

Posted in International Development, Journalism by Adam Westbrook on December 6, 2009

Here’s a couple of innovative photographic panoramas which have caught my eye over the weekend.

Nairobi by Steve Bloom

The first, which has been tweeted healthily, is a huge panorama of a Nairobi street. It’s author, Steve Bloom, thinks it may be the longest photographic panorama in the world; sure enough it takes more than six minutes to explore it all in video form:

Kroo Bay by Anna Kari & Guilhem Alandry (for Save The Children)

Thanks to Tewfic El-Sawy over at The Travel Photographer for highlighting this multimedia beauty. Using video and audio slideshows to tell the stories of the people living in this Sierra Leone slum isn’t particularly new of course; but each story is presented within quite remarkable interactive 360 degree panoramas.

Kroo Bay for Save the children

The images are of exceptional quality and I was taken aback by how effectively it brought me into their world. The use of natural sound in the background (such a powerful tool, please use it lots!) sucks you straight in. I could almost smell the sewers again.

In particular check out Scene 3, a colourful portrait of Kroo Bay’s most popular musicians. Not every slum story has to be about diarrhoea, malaria and poverty. You can donate to Save The Children clicking here.

What makes these two work? Exceptional photographs, great use of sound, and the authors do not intrude in the storytelling. More please!

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Why charities need multimedia journalists

Posted in Ideas for the future of news, Journalism by Adam Westbrook on November 30, 2009

Last week I showed my journalism students an audio slideshow by multimedia producers Duckrabbit. Sat in silence, they watched Francoise’ story and got into a healthy debate afterwards about the piece.

They loved the text on the screen, and the images; but most of all,  as one student put it “I like how she tells he own story without any reporter’s voice”.

Duckrabbit have just launched a powerful new series with Medicins Sans Frontiers, and if you speak to Ben Chesterton from Duckrabbit you’ll quickly learn letting people tell their own story is what he’s all about.

Told only in their own voices all the website asks you is to send a message of support. At first that might seem a bit daft…Surely what they need is cash right? Well if you watch their videos you can find out about their lives, you can find out they’re not much different to you and me…secondly your messages of support do make a difference. I worked in camps in Kenya and the thing that people were most frightened of was being forgotten, the sense that no-one cares.

A debate on this blog earlier this year asked the question: do people need to care in order to act?

Journalists realised a few years ago there is good work available telling the powerful stories of NGOs, charities and the people they help.

More NGOs though need to come round to that idea, and understand the journalist’s storytelling skills will add a punch that no black and white footage with dreary voice over ever could.

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Your chance to get involved in the future of news

Posted in Ideas for the future of news, Journalism by Adam Westbrook on November 10, 2009

There’s lots and lots of talk about the future of journalism at the moment.

You can read it on blogs like this one, this one and this one.

You can occasionally read something new in one of the papers, like this one.

You can even pay some money and go to conferences.

And while they are all fantastic hotbeds for debate, they’re not really regular enough to be good forums for that most crucial currency of all: new ideas.

That’s why I’ve set up a new meet-up group to get things moving.

Futureofnews-meet1

It’s called the UK Future of News Group. If you are in the UK, or even better, in London then please think about joining and coming along to an informal meet up. It’s free, and you don’t even need to be a journalist- just interested about the future of journalism.

It’s perfect for bloggers, J-students, young journalists, J-entrepreneurs, hyper-locallers, lecturers not to mention seasoned old hacks. You could be working online, in print, on radio or with a camera.

The first meet-ups going to be in a bar near Waterloo, on the 7th December.

(hopefully avoiding any early Christmas parties)

What it isn’t, is an arena to repeatedly lament the death of print, or the end of quality journalism, or to go around saying  “paywalls must be the answer, journalists have got to eat!”

What it is, is a place where people can think positively, about tangible new ideas to determine the future of journalism. I hope someone will pitch a few ideas which we can all thrash out and stew over.

And maybe one of them will come up with the next big thing.

But most of all, I want it to be a forum where we can all have a say on the future of our craft, without having to pay hundreds in conference fees.

Interested? Sign up now!

Multimedia Journalism on the frontline

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

Image: Adam Westbrook

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

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

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

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

John D McHugh

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

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

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

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

He says each missed photograph is seared in his memory.

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

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

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!

More good video journalism

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on October 7, 2009

The New York Times has come up with another stunning display to remind the rest of us how multimedia journalism should be done.

Inside the Private Equity Game - Business and Financial News - The New York Times_1254898058756
Flipped takes us inside the dark and mysterious world of private equity, and it’s affect on the market, business and jobs…OK, I’ve lost you already haven’t I.

Well this is exactly why Flipped is so good. It fulfills two things journalists of the future will need to do no matter what changes in technology come along. Firstly they need to keep telling us about complicated things in an accessible way. And secondly they need to find a way of grabbing us by the collars and saying “this is really important!”

Flipped does that. I have never had an interest in private equity, but the style, brevity, flair of Flipped kept me watching through all 10 videos. 15 minutes of my time, and I was enlightened.

And that’s what this is all about, right?

So what lessons can we learn from Flipped?

  • It is made up of 10 short (2-5 minute) videos, instead of one long one. This makes it easier to digest.
  • It has an easy to navigate flash carousel, which leads you through the story.
  • Videos appear instantly inside the window (very important).
  • The subjects (mostly NYT reporters) are extremely engaging, and very good at breaking down the issue
  • It doesn’t take itself too seriously, with short cartoons to help understand the complicated bits
  • It puts a human side to the story, with workers who’ve been screwed by the system

Mindy McAdams writes on Twitter it could have done with key words on the side to help chose which videos to watch. I agree, but I got most value from watching all the videos and understanding the whole story.

And there is huge value in this isn’t there? Matters of huge interest, broken down and made accessible, relevant and engaging. Private Equity is a creator of huge wealth…but also huge debt, and impacts all our lives.

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News 21’s media scroller: a new way of presenting multimedia?

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on October 5, 2009

I’ve spent some time playing with Arizona University’s Carnegie-Knight funded multimedia project News 21.

It’s headline is one I fully subscribe to: “A New Generation Produces a New Form of Journalism“.

Amen to that. It’s good to see a project dedicated to finding new ways of doing old things, and they’re coming up with some good stuff. For example: how about this- a multimedia scroller to view photos and video associated with a text story.

News 21: Carnegie-Knight

News 21: Carnegie-Knight

You read through the text as you would any other online piece. But rather than having photographs & videos embedded within the text, it appears above the words as and when.

As you scroll down to a new paragraph, a photo illustrating the point appears. Scroll down a bit further, and it is replaced with some video which you can play instantly.

News 21’s current version isn’t much to look at, but it is certainly easy to use and gives a much more integrated way of experiencing multimedia. More please!

A snapshot of how video journalism should be

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on September 30, 2009

A big hats off to US journalist Paul Balcerak, who has found and posted two examples of what he calls artistic video journalism.

What they are, are two examples of how video journalism ought to be, if we can persuade VJs and newsrooms the world over to drop their book of TV conventions, put down the voice-over microphone and engage some creative juices.

The first, tells the story of a man trapped in a lift in a New York skyscraper. Before you watch it, imagine how it might look as a human interest piece on your local news programme.

FOOTAGE FROM INSIDE LIFT

REPORTER VO: “Nicholas White got more than he bargained for when he went for a smoke break last Friday evening”

WHITE, ON SCREEN: “I told my colleagues I was going for a cigarette break and I’d be back in five minutes.”

REPORTER VO: “But it became the longest cigarette break in history when the express elevator Nick was in broke down somewhere between the 30th and 43rd floor.”

REPORTER PIECE TO CAMERA, OUTSIDE BUILDING: “It began a 40 hour ordeal for Nicholas…” etc. etc.

We might also expect to hear from the manager of the building, defending lift safety, and if the reporter’s got more space to fill, some kind of medical expert about what happens to the body after 40 hours with no food or water.

All very….meh.

Now watch this:

That’s how the New Yorker ran it on their website. No reporter. No voice over narration. No interviews.

But which one tells the story? Which one gives you even the slightest inkling of the fear, boredom, desperation, despair you must feel being stuck in a lift for 40 hours?

The second piece was produced at Pnwlocalnews.com:

But there’s lots to be said about it, the first being I watched the whole thing through, even though it was about transportation policy in a US state thousands of miles away.

  • It uses vox pops, not to tell us how ‘disgusting’ something else or how ‘the government need to sort it out’; instead they’re used to share how people commute
  • It favours captions with artistic b-roll over droning voice over
  • Some footage is not full frame
  • It is beautifully shot with excellent use of depth-of-field/focus, which gives the story an extra quality

On the other side I’m sure you noticed the poor quality of the sound in the interviews, and I felt it was a bit slow in places, but otherwise this is storytelling on another level.

So what can we learn from this?

The way news is gathered is changing. So is the way it is funded. And the way it is delivered. But it is also vital the way news looks changes too. It would be a crying shame if, after the dust of the digital revolution settles, we are still watching formulaic 90 second packages fronted by a reporter.

Now is the time to make sure that doesn’t happen: video journalists need to let go of the rule book and think freely – and let storytelling take the lead.

The last word is best left to Paul:

The industry is going through a complete and utter reformation—and a lot of us aren’t going to make it. Most of us who do will be the ones who innovate, who experiment—who go against everything we’ve been ever been told about journalism.

5 reasons why UK newspapers still don’t get multimedia

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on September 24, 2009

I wrote last week about the growing gap between the US and Europe in the quantity and originality of multimedia journalism.

But as well as lacking style, originality, interactivity, some UK papers still have a worrying lack of quality.

I’ve put together some general examples so show what I mean. A couple of disclaimers though:

  • they’ve been collected from two local papers owned by one group, but the same issues seem to  exist in other groups in other parts of the country.
  • these are local/regional papers and it must be noted they have smaller budgets and prefer to give their print journalists a camera, rather than bringing in multimedia expertise
  • the following is not a criticism of the journalism, the quality of which is exceptional; rather the way it is presented

5 reasons why UK papers still don’t get multimedia

01. poor pictures

HDM-slideshow

Newspapers have a big advantage with pictures: they have professional photographers to take them. So why are the photographs on this website compressed so much? And why can’t we click on them to get a really big high quality version? (the answer I suspect lies in the fear of copyright)

02. weird web domains

HDM-web

My website is not called http://www.amalemultimediajournalistbasedinlondon.co.uk. Let’s call a spade a spade and maybe more people will be able to find the website. It’s a strange choice too, because the “This is…” brand, although used on all the local websites owned by this group, does not relate to the print version’s brand at all.

03. bizarre breaking news

HDM

This example shows three “breaking news” updates, on the same page, on the same story. As well as filling up the page with repetitive stories, it also diminishes the value of using “breaking news”. The solution: just update the single page – that way your readers can find all they need on a story in one click. (Again I suspect it’s designed to get more clicks rather than benefit the reader).

grimsbytel3

And I don’t need to explain why this “breaking news” is anything but.

04. uncontrolled comments

HDMtributes

This particular newspaper seems to have no problem with allowing comments on every story, including some legally contentious ones. I have read the likes of ‘the scumbag should rot in hell’ on coverage of murder trials, where the verdict is yet to be reached, as well as the quite frankly tasteless and upsetting comments allowed on the above example.

Notice too, how small and out-of-the-way the photograph is. It tells the story more than the words, and should be full size and central.

05. virtually invisible video

HDM-video2

This newspaper group takes its online video seriously and was one of the first in the UK to get its hacks trained. I have seen their small lightweight cameras appear at many crime scenes and press conferences. And while it is rarely cinematographic, it does deserve to be more prominent than the banner adverts which surround it. Shouldn’t it be in the central column?

It may seem otherwise, but I am really not trying to single out one paper or one group. These papers as you can see on some of the mastheads, actually won multimedia awards two years in a row! But we have to start recognising poor use of multimedia, discussing it, and improving it. The longer it remains amateurish, the fewer eyeballs it gets and ultimately advertisers/subscribers cash.

And as much as it may pain the wallets upstairs, these five examples will only get better with more cash, more investment and some multimedia trained journalists.

Is there an Atlantic divide in digital journalism?

Posted in Broadcasting and Media by Adam Westbrook on September 16, 2009

The past year has seen some remarkable pieces of multimedia journalism.

From a stunning biography of a drug addict turned boxer, to a fluent and comprehensive look at the drugs trade in Mexico, to a mind-blowing flash based project on the Great Lakes.

And that’s just the professionals.

Look at the journalism students and you have memorable stories like Maisie Crowe’s film about a boy with a rare genetic condition and Chris Carmichael’s portrait of a family losing their home.

Here’s the thing: they’re all coming from journalists and newsrooms – in America.

US produced multimedia journalismClockwise from left: ESPN, Boston Globe, NYTimes, Chris Carmichael

A quick visit to the New York Times, the Washington Post, NPR and ESPN reveal a plethora of enticing, exciting and well produced multimedia projects. Go more local and you can find stunning multimedia from the Boston Globe and the Roanake Times.

More and more have their own designers who work with flash to give them an asthetic appeal as well as journalistic clout.

So what does the UK have in response? The Guardian’s multimedia page has a healthy selection of new videos and the occasional audio slideshow, not to mention some worthy experiments in data sharing, for example this attractive interactive on UK public spending. And there is some nice video pieces – including this excellent alternative look at exam results by John Domokos.

But there are few interactive flash stories, and nothing on the scale of War Without Borders or One in Eight Million (both NY Times).

The BBC News website is (for obvious reasons) packed with original video and audio, and on big stories you’ll find a decent interactive map. But nothing with the ambition and groundbreaking attitude we see over the pond.

You’ll find the occasional audio slideshow, for example this tidy piece marking the anniversary of the Lehman Brothers collapse, but again they are left as slideshows alone and not developed into something bigger.

And it gets worse when you leave London, with some worryingly unimaginative pieces, in small windows; you see pieces like The Fallen (NY Times) and think “in a different league”.

So come on, UK newsrooms, where are you?

Of course it’s all about money, or the lack of it. It is not as if UK media don’t have the talent. But can money really be an excuse? American papers afterall have been hit harder than British ones with more big city closures and layoffs: almost all UK papers that were in print a year ago are still in print today. And of course there are many talented freelancers and independent producers making great stuff, but even that is hard to find.

So what else is it? A lack of ambition? We just don’t get multimedia? Or are we just not interested?

The postcard below awaits your thoughts…

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!