Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

A quick note on innovation in media

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism by Adam Westbrook on September 17, 2012

The first thing to realise is that the secret is not to come up with a new idea.

There is rarely such a thing. Instead, the secret is to look at a space with people, or businesses already established, and see what they’re doing wrong. Then invent something that improves on what they do.

Whether this is blogging, publishing, film-making, business, photography or whatever, you can do this. The “gap in the market” isn’t some big group of people that no-one has thought of targeting before. It’s found in the shortcomings of players already in the market.

Here are some disruptive approaches into any of these fields.

Be the inspirer: use your work to inspire and excite others with new ideas: this is how I have blogged for six years. People love being inspired.

Be the connector: bring people together, either in person, or online, like a good party host. Create a digital space for people to interact (a forum, a social site) or a physical one (start a monthly meetup).

Be the combiner (of new ideas): I’ve written about this before. Combine two disparate ideas to make a new one.

Be the leader: have a vision for how things can be better and actively set out to make it happen. Others will follow.

Be the experimenter: be about lots of ideas, rapid prototyping, quick feedback. Very few people do this openly in any niche (afraid of looking stupid)

Be the doer/maker: get busy building (films, books, events, software) – let your actions speak for you. Probably the best way to go (after all, anyone can talk the talk..)

Be the problem solver: actively look for the problems in a particular area, and create solutions.

Be the UX fixer: any bad (reading, watching, buying, discovery, sharing) experience is an opportunity to own the market, simply by creating a better experience. Instagram wasn’t the first photo-sharing app, but it’s the one that’s the most satisfying to use.

Be the most fun: constantly surprise and delight your users/audience/readers.

Be the most caring: how many magazines or news websites give a damn about their audience? If they really did, would their products be full of adverts? All big organisations and corporations have this human disconnection problem (when was the last time your bank wasn’t an arsehole?)..and they’re all opportunities for smaller, leaner people-driven competition.

Notice the two items that are missing: be the fastest and be the cheapest. They’re races to the bottom and should be avoided at all costs. 

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Bring on the wall! (But is it worth paying for?)

Posted in Adam, Broadcasting and Media, Journalism by Adam Westbrook on May 25, 2010

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“We are completely unashamed of this, we want people to pay for the journalism”

Daniel Finkelstein, Times columnist

Did you know the Times has an Ocean Correspondent? That’s right: a journalist dedicated to covering ocean news. He’s called Frank Pope and he was on the front page of yesterday’s print edition, diving into the Gulf of Mexico, an experience which must currently be akin to swimming through a gigantic jar of Marmite.

He’s a man whose beat is 70% of the earth’s surface, yet the position of Ocean Correspondent is a luxury not many papers or broadcasters would afford.

And that’s why the Times wants us to start paying for its online news, just like some pay for the paper. And this morning we see the launch of this – with thetimes.co.uk and thesundaytimes.co.uk going live in the last few minutes.

Last night I joined a small group of bloggers and media/tech journalists at the headquarters of Rupert Murdoch’s News International in Wapping, London to get a sneak preview of the site before the wall went up.

It’ll be something of a glass paywall at first with the content visible to all — then, after four weeks, the glass becomes brick and not even Google’s spiders will be able to crawl between the mortar cracks.

That’s right: articles on thetimes.co.uk and thesundaytimes.co.uk will not be searchable on Google…if you see a story you like, you won’t be able to share it on Twitter or Facebook…it would seem, a massive own goal, but at least they’ll save money on SEO consultants.

Niche & experience

My two concerns for the Times paywall are these:

  1. the Times is not significantly niche enough (as, say, the Financial Times or Wall Street Journal are) to attract paying readers
  2. the experience of reading the Times online was not good enough to make it something to pay for

On point one, they have put thought into it. The websites will boast what the Times and Sunday Times do have – excellent columnists, good travel, review and culture. It won’t, we’re told, be a repository for breaking news “taken from PA”, insisting they won’t put a story up “if they can’t add value.”

That is a good step, although I am still not sure what the Times stands for: middle-of-the-road, middle-class, middle-aged Britain? As someone once the said, ‘the only thing in the middle of the road is white paint and dead animals.’

The Times and Sunday Times are to have two separate websites, each independently updated. This means even though the Sunday Times is printed only on a Sunday, it will be updating the web with new content throughout the week.

And what about the experience of reading the Times or the Sunday Times online?

Well, at first impressions I am not bowled over: black text on a white screen, size 12, serif font – just like every other news website out there (and even this blog!). A web page can be any colour and fully dynamic – a concept no major newsroom is yet to grasp.

I was taken to task on this though by Times Assistant Editor Tom Whitwell who insists they looked at different options. There are apparently fewer stories on the front page, leaving it less cluttered. The experience is also more visual with larger front page images, and a chance to explore the top news stories in pictures (a cue taken, perhaps, from the Independent’s NewsWall produced by UltraKnowledge).

The Sunday Times website is actually quite a pleasure to navigate with a large rolling ‘shop window’ carousel and multimedia galleries. Said the editor: “we’re expecting people to browse and enjoy the experience.” Is it distinct enough from the Guardian, Telegraph, New York Times or the BBC? That’s for you  to decide.

Other cool bits include a culture planner to organise your week, and the rather neat ability to set your Sky+ box direct from the Times website, both giving the sites usability rather than just something to read. Interestingly if you wish to SpeEk You’re bRanes about the content, you’ll only be allowed to comment using your full name.

On video & multimedia

Now to the bit most readers of this blog are really interested in – the multimedia stuff.

The editor of the Sunday Times told us they’d “invested a lot of time and money in multimedia” including on a new video studio.

There’s to be a push on interactive infographics to rival the Financial Times, and multimedia photogalleries of the best images. They want to connect their journalists with their readers and there’ll be plenty of live webchats online.

But it seems there hasn’t been an investment in more multimedia staff, or a push for innovative video storytelling. Instead the investment has been in getting their current crop of journalists to create more stuff for the web, with pen still in hand. As if keeping tabs on all the news from 70% of the earth’s surface wasn’t enough, our Ocean man Frank Pope must also file video every time he goes diving.

Now that’s fine – and indeed, if the print journalists I have met in my time are anything to go by, not an easy pitch for the Times editors to have made.

But the Times or the Sunday Times won’t sew the seeds of innovation in multimedia. Tom Whitwell described having to ask columnist Caitlin Moran, who’s interview with Lady Gaga just went viral, to do some video on the story. The problem: Caitlin is on a ‘writer’s retreat’ in Brighton apparently.

Will any of their video journalists be treated to a ‘video retreat’?

(NOTE: Caitlin is doing a live webchat about meeting Gaga at 1200 BST today)

Is it worth the money?

That was the one question everyone asked when I tweeted from last night’s preview. And I’ve needed to sleep on it to make my mind up.

Here’s the numbers: for a single day’s access it’ll cost you (in 4 weeks time) one of your English pounds. But you can get a whole week’s access for £2 – so if you’re interested, don’t bother paying by the day.

And actually…£2 for access to comment and analysis from a good newspaper – and topped off with access to the Sunday Times is almost, almost, worth paying for….

You can try speculating about whether Rupert’s paywall will work, but whatever your conclusion you’ll probably be wrong. So let’s bring on the wall …and see what happens.

Other commentary about the paywall…

The figure of 8: simplify your storytelling

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on October 20, 2009

Teaching my class on Video & Photo Journalism at Kingston University last week, I introduced my students to the concept of the Figure of Eight.

It’s a handy storytelling tool I was taught when I trained to be a journalist, and I’ve always kept it in mind when I need to put a story together in a rush. It is a tool for broadcast journalists, but applies to newspaper journalists working with video too.

The Print Way

Newspaper journalists are usually told to arrange their facts in the paradigm of the inverted pyramid, still regarded as the best way to display text information. You put all the important information right at the top and work your way down from there.

It was invented around the time of the telegraph message, when you had limited space to get lots of information down.

Many newspaper journalists make the mistake of trying to fit this way of sorting information into their video and audio. It doesn’t work. Why? Because multimedia exists differently.

The ‘Broadcast’ Way

Television & Radio – and now video & audio are temporal media. They exist in time. We don’t talk about TV news reports in terms of word counts. We talk about them in terms of time. Time is a tricky dimension because it means all your information has to be laid out in a linear fashion, and usually your audience has only one chance to watch your piece.

Compare that to newspapers, where the reader can skip ahead, or re-read bits they didn’t understand.

Because of it’s unique time-governed nature, broadcast journalists developed a new framework for organising their facts: introducing the Figure of Eight.

The Figure of Eight

figureof8

Broken down it simply means this:

  1. Start your multimedia piece in the present: what’s just happened? What’s the latest?
  2. Then take them backwards and tell them the past: what’s the context? How did we get here? What’s already happened?
  3. Then, finally, loop back over and tell them the future: what’s going to happen next?

This method ticks all the boxes for getting your facts out: it gives them the who-what-where-when-why, fills in the context, and gives us an idea of what it all means by suggesting what will happen next.

A Classic Example

Say you’re producing a video piece about a court case, for which the verdict has just been announced. You start your piece by saying what’s just happened:

Joe Bloggs has been found guilty of killing his wife in a domestic row. After a trial which has gripped the country, the father of three walked into the dock just an hour ago to hear his fate…etc…

Then you tell us the background – take us back to the history of the story.

This tragic case started a year ago when police were called to the Bloggs family home in London.  They found Jane Bloggs dead with a knife in her chest. After a man hunt lasting three months, her husband Joe was arrested in April…etc…

Then to finish off – a quick line on what’ll happen next.

Bloggs will return to the Old Bailey tomorrow where he’ll be sentenced. The Judge has warned him to expect a long jail term…etc.

That way, we’ve covered the bones of the story, in a logical fashion.

It’s a great technique for two reasons: it organises the information for you so you don’t have to; and it is perfect for a temporal medium like video.

…wait! There’s more!

If you found my 6×6 series for multimedia journalists useful, from Monday you’ll be able to download it all in one handy (free) ebook. More details on the way!

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.

Future of Journalism presentation

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on July 15, 2009

I was very kindly asked recently by marketing consulant Jon Moss (@jonmoss) to give a presentation at the increasingly popular Hull Digital event in Hull. The subject: the intimidating title “The Future of Journalism”.

I dusted off my Open Office and Powerpoint skills and put together a presentation back in June. Off the back of that, I was asked to give the same presentation at HumberMUD, a multimedia meetup, also in Hull.

It is now online for you to enjoy, critique and add too.

As I was talking mainly to non journalists I wanted to break the complicated (and ever changing) story right down.  It is also not comprehensive; if I had room I would like to have talked more about Networked Journalism and Hyper-local websites.

Hull and the Humber area has a growing and very talented digital community – if you are in the area I strongly recommend getting involved either at Hull Digital or HumberMUD.

And later this year the inaugural Hull Digital Live event’s taking place -with the just confirmed key note speaker Rory Cellan-Jones. Awesome!

Update: you can now watch my original presentation on the Hull Digital website – or part one here:

“Why journalists deserve low pay”

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on May 20, 2009

Fascinating article thrown my way through Twitter today: “why journalists deserve low pay“.

As a journalist, on low pay, I was immediately angered by the title. And therefore had to have a read. Annoyingly its author, Robert G. Picard, makes perfect sense. This is not so much an article on why journalists deserve low pay (for now); rather a thesis on the very reason journalism, as a concept, is struggling for breathe.

Broken down it says:

Economic value is rooted in worth and exchange. It is created when finished products and services have more value – as determined by consumers – than the sum of the value of their components.

That’s the first time I’ve seen what I do broken down into its raw economic terms.

These benefits used to produce significant economic value. Not today. That’s because producers and providers have less control over the communication space than ever before,

So the reason newspapers aren’t making money, and radio & TV are losing money: they’ve lost their economic value.

Journalists are not professionals with a unique base of knowledge such as professors or electricians. Consequently, the primary economic value of journalism derives not from its own knowledge, but in distributing the knowledge of others. In this process three fundamental functions and related skills have historically created economic value: Accessing sources, determining significance of information, and conveying it effectively.

This too has been diminished by the internet and social media. So not only has journalism lost its value, so have journalists.

Today all this value is being severely challenged by technology that is “de-skilling” journalists….until journalists can redefine the value of their labor above this level, they deserve low pay.

It’s so refreshing to see our profession reduced to its raw bones; and until we solve these core issues of value in what we do, no pay-wall or subscription fee will save us.

‘They didn’t…so they aren’t’

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on March 21, 2009

Have a read of Michael Rosenblum‘s blog about why some newspapers failed and others didn’t.

It’s the subject of a lot of chatter, debate and writings, but Rosenblum cuts right through it all and delivers this crisp diagnosis of why papers are screwed:

“US papers have been eviscerated because of Craigslist.  It stole the classifieds and their income.

“Ironically, the offices of The [San Francisco] Chronicle are just a few blocks from Craig Newmark’s apartment in San Francisco.  The Chronicle could have started Craigslist, they could have bought it, they could have owned it. A Chronicle that was married to Craigslist today would have no financial troubles whatsoever. They could afford to send the best journalists all over the world to do the best journalism. But they didn’t … so they don’t.

“The New York Times once could have bought Google for $1 million. But they didn’t.  They didn’t because they didn’t think that internet search engines had anything to do with their business.  A strange postion for a paper whose very motto is ‘all the news that’s fit to print’. If The New York Times owend Google (or part of it), there would be no question about their becoming the engine for journalism in the 21st Century. But they didn’t.. so they aren’t.”

A snapshot of the new media debate

Posted in Broadcasting and Media by Adam Westbrook on March 18, 2009

It was a busy day. Lots of last minute editing to do for my radio station’s week of reports on Iraq and content to put online; then bits to send to sister radio stations in Leeds and Teeside; not to mention a huge amount of local news moving including some important court cases and inquest verdicts….

In short, probably not the time to engage in a debate about the future of journalism.

After a couple of good articles in the Media Guardian it was on my mind; and sitting across from fellow new-media-ist @mattgame (here’s his website) it was inevitable.

I said: I love doing online journalism and multimedia – but how do we make money out of it?

Matt said: No-one will ever pay for online content – not when it’s free everywhere else

I said: so how will we make any money as video journalists online?

Matt said: once newspapers ditch print and we all have Kindles, they’ll have audio, video and text – in short you’ll be a VJ for a big newspaper, and people will watch your films on the underground.

I said: but what about in the meantime?

…we both shrug our shoulders.

I then tweeted the summary – and caught the attention of @jonshuler (here’s his website) and the following debate occured in 140 characters or lessa snapshot of the new media debate raging across the world

twittalk

Three young media types trying to figure out the future of their profession. That’s the new media debate – join in!

update: Check out this video from Beet.tv: they interviewed online video producer Zadi Diaz at SXSW. Her advice for getting through the tough times: team up with other producers and see if you can come up with  a good way to make it work financially. You have to think outside the box. When online money dries up Zadi switches to consulting/advising others to keep herself going.

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Changing media: the human victims

Posted in Broadcasting and Media, Journalism by Adam Westbrook on March 15, 2009

A lot of the talk about the death of newspapers and the new media revolution can be quite excited, proclaiming a new era.

But let’s not forget the ‘death of newspapers’ has human consequences too.

The recently closed Rocky Mountain News in the US  ‘covered it’s own funeral’ and produced this emotional account of its demise:

(Hat tip: from dead trees to moving pictures)

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The all digital newsroom: a vision

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on February 3, 2009

Here’s an interesting look into what a post-print digital newsroom might look like, from Steve Outing in the Editor & Publisher.

It’s crux is a reduced core of multi-media journalists, who – as well as writing, shooting, podcasting and blogging – create web 2.0 communities around their specialism.

Sounds great, for those left with the jobs, but involves huge job losses in circulation, print, middle management.

And he reckons it might not be so far off.

HT: Cyberjournalist.net

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A new era

Posted in Broadcasting and Media, Journalism, News and that by Adam Westbrook on January 20, 2009

So it was as powerful and emotional and historic as November 4th, and more.

Billions, they reckon, watched Barack Obama’s inauguration; 4 million made the pilgrimage to Washington DC to see it for themselves.

From a journalist’s perspective days like this are always fascinating and exciting. I thought some mind find it useful to see how the local radio station I work for covered it today.

Local v national

Generally, local media have 2 choices when it comes to big national/international stories:

  1. You are a local station, you cover local stories primarily
  2. You are an outlet in tune with your local audience and the wider world.

In radio certainly – many managers consider local news a major facet of their “localness” requirements – and will often inforce ‘Lead on Local’ policies.

Even without, local journalists sometimes feel guilty at covering non-local stories.

Where I work, we take option 2. There is a wider world out there, and often things happen nationally/internationally which affect our listeners lives.

When people turn on the radio, they expect to be briefed on all the big stories – and what’s happening NOW.

We decided editorially last week it would be THE story today, despite another strong local story which has been developing for a week vying for lead.

So we put lots of effort in advance of today getting local reaction to the historic inauguration. In our main lunchtime bulletin we ran an in-house report looking back at Bush’s legacy. We also tracked down American’s living in our area, as well as academics and politicians.

Mixed with audio from our national news wire service we had comprehensive coverage.

Perhaps overambitiously we tried to take a live feed from Washington at 1700 to catch the opening words of Obama’s oath. A nice idea, thrown out of whack when the ceremony was delayed (for the first time in 200 years!).

In terms of writing, a day like to day is a journalists dream, with all sorts of options for epic and creative copy.

Compare that to our local rival (who I won’t name); at 5pm, as Obama was about to step up to take the job of President of the United States, they led with a local crime story.

The inauguration came last “and finally…”

As a listener/viewer/reader would you feel in touch with the world?

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How to avoid being “that annoying PR person”

Posted in Broadcasting and Media, Journalism by Adam Westbrook on January 17, 2009

The phone rings – London number.

“Newsdesk, Adam speaking.”

[Excitedly] “Hello Adam, it’s Christabelle here calling from Markettowers PR*, how are you?”

Markettowers. Bollocks.

[Tersely] “I’m OK thanks.”

“Great, that’s great. Hey look, I’ve got a great story which I think you’ll really like – with some great local stats.”

“…go on”

“Well we’ve done some research into when people fill in their tax returns, and discovered that 18% of people in your area leave it until the last day.”

“Right.”

“And we’ve got David Nobody from Tesco.com available for interview tomorrow morning to talk about why we should get them in sooner – can I book you in for a slot?”

“Send a press release and we’ll take a look delete it immediately.”

And so another London PR agency calls with another lame story. It’s one of the minor annoyances of local journalism, albeit a neccessary one, as once in every 15 calls, they bring you a story with some tickle factor that you know will make a light mid-bulletin filler.

It wasn’t until I saw a job ad in the Guardian that I realised what the game really was: it advertised a position at a marketing agency – and the job was to “sell” (their word) stories to radio stations.

Essentially it’s a glorified call centre job. And when I also spotted they get paid £10k more than me, my patience for PR hacks fell through the floor.

So if you work in PR, if – heaven forbid – it is your job to ‘sell’ stories to busy journalists, please read the following advice – it might stop your press release entering the recycle bin.

Don’t call anywhere near the top of the hour

Radio journalists in particular read the news at the top of every hour. Calling anytime after 00:40 will most likely result in a brisk “sod off”. It’s different for newspaper and TV journos of course.

Pitch in 10 seconds or less

It’s a skill journalists are trained to do, so you should too. If you can’t explain your story in less than 10 seconds, don’t bother.

Do your research

I have actually had calls offering me “great local stats” for the wrong county. The phone was hung up pretty soon after. Also, for many local media, regional stats are not local stats.

Do your research

I’ve had calls offering stories about where to invest your money-when most of my target audience shop at Iceland. Sell it to Classic FM, not me.

Do your research

Local commercial radio does bulletins of no longer than 3 minutes. They never do longer interviews unless its with someone off X-Factor. So don’t pitch long 2 ways. Journalists need short clips.

Don’t keep calling

Newdesks fully realise the more times you call, the more desperate you are, ergo the fewer other outlets have used your story, ergo your story blows. Call to pitch, and don’t call back. If a journalist likes the story they’ll make the call – we’re quite clever, you know.

And know your client will very rarely get a name check

You may pitch them as ‘David Nobody from Tesco.com” but 9 times out of 10 they’ll be referenced on air as ‘Money expert David Nobody”. We’re not interested that it’s Tesco, sorry.

*not a real company