Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

Inside the Story: a huge thankyou

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism by Adam Westbrook on June 20, 2012

I’ve been looking forward to this one since January. 

Yesterday I had the distinct pleasure of wiring $4339.99 to Kiva, the developing world entrepreneurship charity. That’s the total sales raised from shifting nearly 1,000 copies of Inside the Story: A Masterclass in Digital Storytelling from the People who do it Best. It’s an  astonishing amount of money for a brilliant charity.

E-junkie, who handled all the book sales, confirms nearly 1,000 sales

If you’re wondering why the final figure isn’t a round number, remember Paypal and Google Checkout both take a fee per transaction. Each sale therefore raised between £3.12 and £3.15, depending on exchange rates.

The final amount, ready to go to Kiva

The money is now with Kiva, who estimate that every dollar donated (as opposed to loaned) generates ten dollars in loans – so we could effectively have created more than $40,000 for a brilliant charity. If you haven’t caught up with what Kiva do, then check them out here.

I’m personally astonished by the final amount we’ve raised. I had tentatively hoped we would make about $2,000 or maybe $2,500 tops. But to hit nearly $4,500 is just mind-blowing, so thank you if you bought the book, and thank you again if you encouraged others to buy it by blogging or tweeting about it.

I’d also like to thank the 25 brilliant contributors who gave time and effort into making the book happen. The charitable fundraising aside, the response from readers has been fantastic; I’ve had emails from people all over the world who say its inspired them to up their storytelling game in a big way.

What next?

Some of you have asked why the book was only on sale for a temporary period. It’s a logistical thing, mainly: there isn’t a convenient way to set up transactions so the money goes to Kiva as soon as the book is bought, and so I have to look after sales and make a one-off donation. That, plus dealing with customer service emails takes up a lot of time, which I don’t have.

However, Inside the Story will return this summer, and will be permanently available, either for free, or with an optional donation. If you would like to know when that happens, then signup to the mailing list here.

On being generous

I’ve also been asked why I did the project in the first place. Why put so much effort into something like this, without any reward for me? This isn’t how entrepreneurial journalism is supposed to work, surely!

Well, I had my own motivations. I had the idea for the book last year so for one, I just wanted to start and finish it. I felt there isn’t a book like it out there and that people would find it really useful. Completing an ambitious project like this builds momentum to start new projects. It was also a fantastic learning opportunity. In order to make the book happen I had to teach myself Adobe InDesign, HTML, CSS and some Javascript, plus build on my online publishing experience. I’ve learned a lot about digital publishing in the last few months, skills which will feed into my next projects.

It also gave me the opportunity to get in touch with some of my favourite storytellers, journalists and film makers and collaborate with them.

But above all, it’s practicing a fundamental pillar of online publishing and enterprise: you must be generous. If you want to build an audience or a community around what you do and what you love you have to be willing to give away a huge amount, willingly, happily without want for immediate reward.

You have to be willing to share what you learn, give away your best secrets and skills, bring others along on the journey with you. That’s why I’ve spent several hours writing a new blog post every week for the last five years, which I give away for free, with no advertising and no fees attached. It’s why I always try to respond to emails from readers, give interviews and help with student dissertations.

As well as demonstrating you know what you’re talking about, it also builds trust and grows attention – two things in hot demand.

Note that generosity doesn’t include tossing off short lazy blog posts, or poor quality podcasts every so often. Real generosity is crafting something of exceptional quality, like Inside the Story, or even Everything Is A Remix, and then giving it away for free.

So, if you’re stuck about what to do next, and where to go from here, try being unashamedly generous. Give away free advice on Twitter, offer your filmmaking or writing skills for free for a day; hey, you could even publish an ebook.

Think about what you know, what you’re good at, and what you love spending your time doing, and then ask how that can be put to good use helping other people. 

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The alternative to your journalism CV

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism by Adam Westbrook on February 27, 2012

The journalism jobs market is still difficult and likely to stay that way for some time. What that means is every time you apply for a job, you’re competing against a large number of people. 

You’ve been to university, got a journalism qualification of some kind and done some work placements. The problem: so has everyone else.

The common solution is to spend more time tweaking the CV: adding new things, rearranging the layout, sticking it on LinkedIn. But this is a 20th century solution to a 21st century problem.

Everyone else has a CV, but not everyone has the initiative to see the new publishing opportunities in front of us all, and to start something. Launching an online magazine, for example, and building a small, loyal community around great content. Or running a series of talks or events, or making that documentary.

Projects like these demonstrate things a CV just can’t: leadership, initiative, problem solving, social-media prowess and technical ability.

When I tell people what I’m up to at the moment, a common response is “That’ll be good for your CV”. I don’t have a CV. No-one has asked for one in more than two years – but I’m busier than ever.

So stop spending your time filling out your CV and asking for recommendations on your LinkedIn profile. For God’s sake get out there and do something. Create. Make a film. Start a business. Write a book. Launch a website. You don’t need anyone’s permission.

Do it with commitment and persistence and the opportunities will start to come to you that a resume simply cannot bring.

It’s harder and scarier than filling your CV with internships and diplomas, which is why still – 10 years into this web 2.0 malarky – not many people try it. Happily that increases the chances of success for those who do.

We’re entering a world that rewards guts, action, execution, total commitment, responsibility and initiative over work placements and qualifications.

Want to be a journalist? Actions speak louder than words.

“This is not the internet!” What Robinson Crusoe tells us about the future of news

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism by Adam Westbrook on August 8, 2011

I

Enough talk and conferences and experimentation about the future of journalism! We want answers right!? I mean, how long has it been already?

For all the talk by people like me about experimentation and enterprise, the number of jobs in the industry aren’t getting any larger. If you’re a journalism graduate looking for a job your prospects haven’t gotten any better since reading my blog a year ago, have they?

Well, yes and no.

II

I’m currently reading Frank Rose’s The Art of Immersion: how the digital generation is remaking Hollywood, Madison Avenue and the way we tell stories.

In it, he quotes the introduction to Daniel Defoe’s novel Robinson Crusoe, it goes like this:

“If ever the Story of any private Man’s Adventures in the World were worth making Pvblick, and were acceptable when Publish’d, the Editor of this Account thinks this will be so….The Editor believes the thing to be just a History of Fact; neither is there any appearance of Fiction in it…”

To decifer the 18th Century parlance, Daniel Defoe is saying – before you read his fiction novel – “this is not a fiction novel.”

Why? Well, with a few exceptions, Robinson Crusoe is one of first novels ever written. Up until then, it had been poems, plays, myths and The Bible. As hard to imagine as it is, the idea of a novel was so new, it was risky to publish it.

Rose notices a common trend in all the major mediums since (movies, television and the Internet): when they first begin, they try to convince you they are not new.

The earliest films were basically filmed like a theatre performance: a stage and a stationary camera – the first movie makers were saying “this is not a movie!

Television did the same thing, up until the 1950s producing shows that resembled theatre – the first TV producers were saying “this is not television!

You can argue TV News still does the same thing, sticking presenters behind desks to mimic the radio announcers of the 1930s.

And the early attempts at online publishing have tried so hard to mimic print and television that it’s almost laughable. From the front page of the New York Times website, to the format of all online video stories, these digital producers are busting their nuts to convince you “this is not the internet!”

III

And it was ever thus.

But Frank Rose’s other point is what’s really important for any digital publishers, journalism entrepreneurs and video journalists: we are only at the beginning – and the answers won’t come for years.

Frank Rose sold me on his book with his tidy use of online video to publicise it (beats a crappy blurb, right?) He makes the point quietly (about 3’20” in) that whenever a new technology arrives, it takes pioneers 20 or 30 years to figure out what to do it with it.

Cinema was invented in the 1890s, but it wasn’t until the mid 1920s that Pudovkin’s five principles of editing were laid down. It took decades for someone to say ‘hey, what if we edit two different scenes together to make it look like they’re happening at the same time!’

TV was born in 1925, but as Rose points out it was another 25 years before it came into its own with the sitcom format, game shows and the like.

So, by the same logic, this marvellous new medium we’ve created for ourselves – the internet – is 20 years old this month. But you could argue, its true power (web 2.0) wasn’t born until 10 years ago. Either way, it’ll be another decade before we really figure out what the hell this thing can do.

However far we think we’ve come, we’re just at the beginning. 

And us? We’re the pioneers. Anyone who’s produced online video (specifically for the internet), created a podcast, launched an online magazine, started a social network or written a blog: you are the internet’s pioneers, marching determinedly into the frontier.

And that’s a generational privilege we should relish.

The age of the online publisher – and why you should embrace it

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism by Adam Westbrook on June 28, 2011

 That’s the ultimate irony, no? That in the midst of remarkable and unprecedented change, in the midst of the greatest stories to happen all century, we are paralyzed by some changes in the delivery system.

Carey Tennis

Far from being a terrible time to be in journalism, publishing or the like, I genuinely believe this is an extraordinary period: unexpected, exciting and packed with new opportunities to create amazing things.

The internet has put awesome publishing platforms at our feet, for free. What great opportunity! Yet, so many are paralysed by fear of change, or fear of the unknown. And of course, fear of failure.

Thankfully, more and more overcome this as time goes on. Every month, new shoots break through the soil, small (for now) but with great potential to be the publishing powerhouses of the future. Here’s a few examples, which I hope inspire.

Five online publishers who create great stuff – and make money

.01 John Locke

If you’ve never heard of John Locke before, you soon will. The US author shot from obscurity this year to become the first person to sell 1 million ebooks using Amazon’s direct publishing service. British authors, such as Louise Voss, are following suit.

The Kindle service negates the need for publishing houses entirely, and allows authors to publish direct, taking 35% of the revenue (much more than most mainstream book deals); ebook sales jumped in the UK last year from £4m to £16m and it’s becoming big business.

I’ve said before that ebooks are a much overlooked publishing platform for journalists: zero costs, and if your content is quality then you can make decent revenues. I’ve done it twice myself, publishing two e-books in 2010 (and another on the way at the end of 2011). The great thing is once they’re up and online, they provide a great source of passive income: there’s nothing cooler than waking up on a Sunday morning and finding out you made money while you were asleep.

.02 Fleet Street Scandal/Yuki7

Fleet Street Scandal is the work of two US designers Kevin Dart and Chris Turnam who have the aim of making “art that looks great on a wall”. There are plenty of design agencies mind, so why are they here?

Well, this year they created something pretty unique and remarkable: an animated character called Yuki7 who has stylish 1960s-esque adventures. I saw this little film, and liked it so much I bought the t-shirt.

There’s clearly been some investment in making these films, and they’re recuperating that through products – posters, books, t-shirts and DVDs – which are now on sale. The point is, it takes balls to make something as big and complicated as this: something that we expect to see done by television studios. Fleet Street Scandal prove you don’t need be in the mainstream media to publish great stuff.

.03 Put This On

A video web series now, from Jesse Thorn and Adam Lisagor – all about men’s fashion, with the tagline “a web series about dressing like a grown up”. As well as a regularly updated website, which is actually just a Tumblr blog, PTO also contains regular, high quality short films focusing on different areas of mens fashion, including shoes, grooming and denim.

I love this series because it targets a clear and easily identifiable group of people (men, interested in fashion) of which there are a lot. You just have to see the popularity of sites like Fashion Beans to see that.

Each episode is getting 20,000+ views; it’s funded by sponsorship (a season one deal with Instapaper) plus donations from viewers. Make something that draws people to you and the money will follow.

.04 Pictory

Laura Brunow-Miner’s photo-series was instantly popular when it launched a year ago. It’s a very simple premise: each month, a different theme with story and photo submissions from readers.

Pictory/PhotographyBlog.com

Laura’s made it work by keeping it a small operation (she runs it alone) and through sponsored themes including partnerships with Levi’s and NPR. She also takes advertising on the site, with the rather charming idea of making adverts “big and beautiful” unashamedly 1000 pixels wide.

More importantly, Laura’s established herself as a big name in tech and media, with speaking work and a place in Fast Company’s Most Influential Women in Tech list.

.05 Everything is a remix

Kirby Ferguson’s documentary project started modestly nine months ago, with the publishing of part one of  ‘Everything Is A Remix’, a short Adam-Curtis style documentary which makes the point that nothing is new, everything is influenced by something else.

The third instalment went online in June to much fanfare, and collectively the three videos have been viewed more than a million times across Vimeo and Youtube, with one more on the way in the Autumn.

Kirby asks for donations to keep the project going, but watching his appeal at the end of the latest film, you realise it’s launched a career as an in-demand speaker and commentator. All down to publishing something remarkable.

These are all just ordinary people with the sort of skills journalists today have: good writing, design, filmmaking or photography. What makes them different is they had the initiative to take an idea and keep working at it until it became real – and through a little bit of social media promotion, they’ve become disproportionately popular.

So what’s the takeaway? There are jobs out there, yes, but the barrier to entry is set high; the barrier (and cost) to becoming your own publisher and editor meanwhile is now nearly non-existent. The question is, do you have the balls to start something, and the guts to finish it?

This is the age of the online publisher. So go, publish. 

NOTE: just as I published this, science writer Ed Yong (who blogs over at It’s Not Rocket Science) made this excellent point, which I think wraps my argument up perfectly:

I care very deeply about journalism, but there are few things more boring than journalists arguing over what counts as journalism. We live in a world full of stories, about amazing people doing amazing things and terrible people doing terrible things. I will use every medium I can to tell those stories. I will try to tell them accurately so people aren’t misled. I will try to tell them well so people will listen. If people want to argue about what to call that, that’s fine for them.

I would rather just do it.