Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

Six tips to help you upgrade your freelance career

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism by Adam Westbrook on July 4, 2011

Image: nurpax on Flickr

The portfolio career – one where you are self-employed, and have revenue from not one but several different activities – is growing in popularity.

There are now books about it, including this excellent one by former ITN journalist Kate Ledger (affiliate link)…and for journalists, photographers, multimedia producers and other creatives I think it often beats freelancing alone.

I personally have found it an exciting, fulfilling and logical way to run my career – full of lots of variety and a more secure income. They come and go, but my different ‘revenue streams’ so far have included:

After doing it for nearly two years I feel I’m on a more stable track, with fewer wobbles along the way. I’ve learned some important lessons – vital for anyone embarking on the same path.

Six ways to manage your portfolio career

.01 Compartmentalise

You have to be able to mentally compartmentalise all the different things you do, and focus on one thing at a time. For example, I lecture one day a week at Kingston University’s journalism department, most recently on Tuesdays. It’s really important (although not always possible) to make sure my university work doesn’t intrude on any other days.

Other than checking my uni email once a day, I don’t think about that work except on Tuesdays. By the same token, on Tuesday, I focus solely on that work and leave all my other commitments until the following day.

.02 Use good online tools

Your big ally in this type of career is Google Calendar (or any other type of online calendar) which is vital for organising my week. I use its colour-coded calendars to separate all my different streams of income, and ensure they all get the right amount of time. As well as being editable, and viewable on your mobile, colouring calendars allows you to see, at a glance, whether you’ve got your priorities straight.

I’ve currently got mine coded in two ways: the red/orangey calendars are current paid commissions on the go; the blue and green ones are the longer term – and personally more important – projects I need to make sure don’t get overshadowed.

I have recently brought in Evernote to help manage my projects too, with a different notebook for each project. It’s great because you can add ideas, tasks and links from anywhere, even on the bus.

.03 learn how to describe yourself

The worst question for anyone with a portfolio career is ‘So, what do you do?’

I still haven’t got this right, and at house parties end up stumbling through a vague description of my various roles in an utterly unconvincing way that leaves most people suspicious that I might actually be unemployed.

So, find a compelling and memorable way to describe what you do. Even though you might have lots of various income streams, we usually find they are connected some way. Katie Ledger describes this as looking for the ‘red string‘ that draws all these together. So, looking at my roles (above) there’s a common theme amongst all of them, of storytelling, communication and education.

Make sure your website reflects your varied career in a positive way too.

.04 start your own projects

Lots of us go freelance to be the master of our own time. If you’re lucky enough to have made this work, don’t waste this power filling your time on paid work alone (as tempting as this is).

I try and ring-fence as much time as I can for personal projects – the ones that really excite me, and might one day make money. At the moment this includes developing a concept for multimedia explainers and starting an online magazine. If you’re scared of the commitment, the 30-day-challenge concept by John Williams is a great place to start.

Why bother? These ambitious, risky projects are the ones that really stretch you, and have the potential to push your career much further than client-based work could do. Sadly, this important work is the stuff that most often gets pushed aside to finish a last-minute story or commission for a client.

.05 keep on top of your finances

When you’ve got lots of revenue streams on the go, it’s vital you keep on top of your finances. The first thing I did when I went freelance in 2009 was register as a sole-trader (a legal requirement in the UK) and set up a separate business bank account. All my work related income comes into this account, and from it, I pay myself a monthly salary.

This really helps deal with the feast-and-famine nature of freelancing.

You need to ring-fence time to deal with the necessary paperwork – that includes sending (and often chasing) invoices, paying bills and taxes and dealing with invoices from others. I often hire camera kit from suppliers for certain gigs, so I need to make sure there’s a paper trail for clients.

.06 take a break!

Finally – and most importantly – give yourself breaks.

If there is one thing I have failed to do in my freelance career so far, it is this, with a total of about 10 days off in the last 18 months. I almost always do some work on weekends; when you work from home, like I do, separating work from play is even harder. I’m writing this blog post at 9.30 on a Thursday night, having started my day at 8 this morning.

Holidays are tempting to postpone if the money is irregular, but they are vital for your work – and I mean vital. Your brain – the fountain of the creativity that gives you ideas, inspiration and drives your career – needs ‘down-time’ to function. If you don’t top it up (with rest) you’ll soon find yourself running on empty: the result is a depressing drought of ideas which really affected me in the early months of this year.

But a brain-break need not be on a beach in Cyprus. It can be as little as an hour long walk round the park: if you do it often enough. I often take an afternoon off to meander around Wandsworth Common, usually twice a week. It’s hard to stomach, especially when there is no money coming in, but those two hours spent staring at a screen will do you little good either. The best ideas come to you in those moments of ‘creative idleness’ so give yourself lots of opportunities to have them.

These six principles have really made a different to me over the last two years, so much so, they are ingrained into my routine now.

I’ve written about portfolio careers before: you can take a look at the finances here, and see an interview with Nick Williams here.

It’s different for everyone though – so how do you manage your portfolio career?

Video: Nick Williams on the portfolio career

Posted in Journalism, Next Generation Journalist by Adam Westbrook on September 30, 2010

One of the easiest ways to become a Next Generation Journalist and forge your own exciting work life, is to create a portfolio career.

I go into this in some length in chapter one of the e-book, but the thrust of it is this: we are all good at more than one thing, and we can all make money from more than one thing. The result: a rewarding, challenging and profitable career which takes traditional ‘freelancing’ to a new level.

Last night I went to an event all about portfolio careers, hosted by Nick Williams, one of the thought-leaders on creative entrepreneurialism.  The point of a portfolio career, he says, is not holding down lots of bad jobs to make up a decent income – instead it’s a way of life you purposely pursue.

More and more people are becoming fed up with the rat race, realising life’s too short, and thinking about how they can get paid to do what they really love doing.

Is it something journalists can do? You bet, and many journalists already are. One of last night’s speakers was former ITN newsreader Katie Ledger (pictured, right). She left ITN a while back and now puts her journalism skills to use across a whole range of jobs, from working with Microsoft, to writing a bookAlex Wood, of Not on the Wires, combines his journalism with a thriving web design business; another Not On The Wires journalist, Marcus Gilroy-Ware combines reporting with lecturing and designing software.

I’ve been doing the portfolio career thing for a year now (more on that next week) – but alongside my video journalism and newsreading, I have been lecturing, speaking in different parts of the world, writing books and setting up a new business. It is possible, and it’s awesome fun.

The modern world is calling for more so-called ‘renaissance souls’ as Nick explains:

In this video:

  • you will learn why having a portfolio career is actually more secure than sticking with your 9-5
  • you’ll find out how it’s possible to balance having more than one revenue stream
  • and you’ll hear why journalists are actually positioned perfectly to exploit the demands of the 21st century

Journalism =

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on May 4, 2010

Journalism = ?

We’re at a stage where we’re fortunate enough to be able redefine what journalism is. Earlier this year I interviewed an entrepreneur and coach Nick Williams (who has absolutely nothing to do with journalism) for my new e-book (details here).

He suggested journalists need to redefine what they do and be prepared to be flexible with how we define the trade; he makes his living selling information & inspiration…why can’t journalists do the same?

Journalism = access

Last week I had the pleasure of spending the day mentoring MA journalism students at Birmingham City University on Video & Photo Journalism. We talked about visual storytelling, developing a narrative arc, and the potential of video and audio slideshows as tools for journalism.

One of the things we watched was a film, first posted by Cliff Etzel, called Last Minutes with Oden. (Warning: distressing scenes if you don’t like animals being upset, or, err, dead.)

If we choose we can marvel at the technical elements, the beautiful shots taken on a Canon 7D; but more importantly we can dig into what is a fantastically well told story. The narrative arc here is spellbinding, and masterfully handled.

But most of all this is about the access.

This is a personal, intimate story – one man in grief, and he has agreed to let the film makers join him and share it with the rest of us. That is what journalism–no matter what platform–is: we as journalists must have access to something the rest of the world does not have access too, whether that’s a person, facts or media; and we must have the storytelling nouse not to blow that access on a crap narrative.

  • Business journalism is in profit because journalists have access to financial/market data the rest of us can’t get.
  • Sport journalism will always be strong because journalists can speak to Alex Ferguson every week, when the rest of us can’t.
  • Celebrity news will always have value because the journalists have access to the premieres, press pools and parties the rest of us don’t get to go to.
  • Breaking news is value-less because once something goes online we can all share it.

What do you have access too?

How do we shape the future of journalism? Easy!

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on March 23, 2010

Image: I Can Read

Things are moving forward in journalism. Slowly, but we’re definitely seeing things happen in 2010, which were only words in 2009.

New companies, products, ideas; but there’s still a lot to do.

So it’s the time to ask yourself: do you want to play a part in the future of journalism, or just play the bystander? Do you want to be the one who produces something no-one has conceived before? The one who answers a problem we never thought could be answered?

The challenge is a big one – but  guess what, to shape the future of journalism you only have to do one thing: show up.

Showing up means launching the digital magazine you’ve been daydreaming about for months; it means actually buying the domain name for that new hyperlocal you’ve got your heart set on creating, and then learning how to put the website together; it means deciding you will go to South America and report on that issue you know is going unreported, and setting up a way to crowdsource the cash.

It doesn’t mean endless hours brainstorming, planning, scribbing, daydreaming. It means doing.  

Get excited

Three great articles floated my way this week which really sum up what I’m trying  to say. First video journalist Michael Rosenblum reminds us the innovators of history have rarely been those in the establishment already:

The ‘professional scientists and engineers’ of 18th century Britain did not invent the first steam pumps, the working steam engine or the railway engine.  That was left to the ‘amateurs’, who thankfully, did not need the permission of the ‘professionals’ to get access to the tools of experimentation.

They were drawn to their craft and their avocation, as well as their later vocation, by pure passion and interest. And they delivered a very good product.  A very good product.

In other words, you don’t have to have a BBC email address to play big in journalism. You don’t need the New York Times behind you. You just need passion, interest and a willingness to get your hands dirty.

Show up

Next, Nick Williams of Inspired Entrepreneur points out that what ever you want to get paid to do, the place to start is to show up – even if it means doing it for free at first.

I am a massive advocate of showing up and doing what you love for free to start with. The key is the showing up part – because the money can’t usually follow until you’ve shown up, you can’t get paid in theory for something you haven’t done in practice. I know I would not be where I am today had I not been willing to show up for free at the beginning of my career and at various points since.

In other words, once you start doing something, things start happening for you. You won’t make it as a multimedia journalist sitting on Twitter all day – it’ll only work out when you show up with a camera and the kit and start telling a story.

Let go

Thirdly, Mark McGuiness of Lateral Action has some great advice to make showing up even easier: ‘you can’t plan for magic’:

Plans are good for some things. Buildings. Savings. Exercise. Some bits of some businesses. But they have their limits when it comes to creativity. After all, if you’re only going to execute on a plan, you haven’t really created anything, have you?

Preparation is fine. Research is fine. Practice is fine. Rehearsal is fine. Learning your craft is fine. But there comes a point when it’s time to face the stage, the page, the canvas or the blank screen.

In other words don’t wait for your whole plan to make sense before you start. Does your online magazine need a solid business plan before you write the first page? No! Do you need to have funding guaranteed to make an audio slideshow about a cracking story? Hell no!

You can sit around forever waiting for the business plan to realise or the money to appear, and all the while the future of journalism is moving on without you.

So get excited, show up and let go. And it’s yours.