Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

The “Pr” approach to being a freelance journalist

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism, Freelance, Journalism, Next Generation Journalist by Adam Westbrook on October 21, 2010

Image credit: jm3 on Flickr

What are the qualities of a successful freelance journalist in the 21st century?

Of course, there are all the obvious ones (curiosity, good writing skills, tech knowledge etc) which have been laid out many times by far more experienced and talented hacks than me. But I want to introduce four new qualities, perhaps four you would never have thought of before.

And in this brave new world where the opportunities for the enterprising young journalist are limitless, it’s important to approach it in the right way. So I’ve come up with this ‘Pr’ list of qualities which every journalist should aim for – and they’re one’s every journalist can.

Four ‘Pr’ qualities for freelance journalists

.01 Prolific

First of all, to be good at any form of journalism (writing, blogging, filming, podcasting, info-graphics) you must be prolific. You must create content at a rate of knots, and share it with the world. There’s only one way you get good at something: and that’s practice. Practice = proliferation.

Mark McGuinness (a must read if you want to make money doing something creative) makes this point very eloquently. He points out how one of the great creative geniuses of history, Bach, was prolific beyond belief. We only associate a few extraordinary pieces of work to his name, and assume he was of such unrepeatable talent that the rare tunes he touched turned to gold. But it was not so.

Bach spent his career as an employee, composing music to order on a punishing schedule. One such appointment was as Cantor of St Thomas’s Church in Leipzig, a prestigious but demanding role, where he produced a cantata (a musical setting for sacred texts) every week of the year and extra ones for holidays — a total of 60 every year. He held that position for five years.

Most of Bach’s music was mediocre and disappeared into history. But the very fact his was prolific meant he got so extraordinarily good at his craft he became an unforgettable name in history.

Image: Marxchivist on Flickr

When I read Mark’s article I looked elsewhere in history for a pattern. It didn’t take me long. Let’s take perhaps the most exalted band of the 20th Century, The Beatles. A quick check at their discography proves their success could be down to sheer proliferation: between 1963 and 1969 they produced two albums every yeara total of 307 songs before they split.

Coldplay, by comparison have produced four albums in 13 years, and just a third of the songs. Sure, who can name all 307 Beatles tracks? And sure, many of them are mediocre – but they needed to produce all the mediocre in order to get good.

So if you’re set on being a kick-ass video journalist, you won’t get good sitting around reading video journalism blogs and polishing the lens of your DSLR. Get off your arse, and make a film. Every week. Week in, week out.

. 02 Productive

Being productive is vital for your success as a freelance journalist. In some cases, when you’re being paid a day-rate, that is literally so. But even if not, your time is money, so you have to start using it properly.

This goes beyond just opening the laptop at 9 and closing it at 5pm sharp. It’s about elimating the stuff in your day that doesn’t contribute to your income. It’s also about understanding your own personal productivity: what time of the day are you most productive? What’s the point of starting work at 9, when you’re at your best between 6pm and midnight?

A lot of people use the 80/20 rule too, so it’s worth thinking about. It goes like this: 20% of your time spent, generates 80% of your revenue and visa versa. So you need to identify the 20% of work that actually brings in the cash (that includes sales/pitching) and make sure you do it without fail. And know what the 80% of non-revenue generating stuff is (tweaking your website, filing tax returns, coming up with ideas) and don’t let it overrun your schedule.

If you’re going to be prolific and profitable you need to be productive with your time. So ring fence certain times of your day, compartmentalise and use something like Google Calendar to control it all.

. 03 Profound

Thing is, there are plenty of other voices out there in the digital landscape – maybe too many. And there are plenty more journalists vying for attention. How do you stand out from the crowd? How do you make your blog more clickable than the next?

Seth Godin

The answer lies in being profound: having something to say that matters to other people. A lot of blogs – hell, a lot of journalists – rely on rehashing other people’s content, aggregating it, just blindly reporting what is being said or done.

But in the fragmented, digital, niche world, that is not enough. If you want to stand out within your area of specialty then you need to be profound. We turn to the most popular bloggers in journalism, for example, because they say profound things. Jeff Jarvis tells us the business models are all wrong and suggests alternatives; Mark Luckie shows us how to use awesome technology in new ways; Tracy Boyer shows us how great multimedia can be; and almost everything Seth Godin says is profound…and they are all leaders.

In this scary new world, people don’t just want consumers, aggregators or reporters, they want leaders. Are you willing to step up to the plate? By being profound, you almost instantly place yourself at a higher level above the rest of the pack.

. 04 Provocative

And finally be provactive too. Stir things up. Cause an argument.

Someone who does that very well are British multimedia producers Duckrabbit, who, if you read their blog (and you should)* it appears they’re always getting into arguments with the photojournalism establishment (for example, this spat with the organiser of an international photography festival).

But Duckrabbit aren’t being argumentative for the sake of it. They have established a strong, authentic, moral, position – on the side of exploited people in developing countries, and photographers exploited by the industry they work for. This forms Duckrabbit’s story, and we, as the audience (and their potential customers) understand where they’re coming from.

And because they stand up for exploited photographers wherever they can, the audience respect them for it. It makes their presence go beyond that of another multimedia company.

It’s a risky strategy perhaps, but there are a lot of multimedia production companies out there now – what will make yours stand out? Stand up for something, believe it it, and mean something. If you’re authentic then it’s all good.

*disclaimer: I occasionally write for Duckrabbit

So – prolific, productive, profound and provocative: four easy to remember words, which if you use them as a guide, they’ll help elevate you beyond all the others in this ever crowded field. Have I missed any off? I could add ‘profitable’ but that’s for another time…

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Learn multimedia on the cheap – and how to make money from it

Posted in Adam, Journalism by Adam Westbrook on June 15, 2010

Image: StarbuckGuy on Flickr (cc)

I’ve been preparing for a day-long course this coming weekend for photojournalists wishing to make the leap into multimedia.

Run by multimedia evangelists Duckrabbit and hosted by Rhubarb Rhubarb, Photography Still Moving is what the industry needs more of – training with an optimistic edge. I’ll be there running a session on how to get kitted up to do video, audio and slideshows at affordable prices; the day ends with advice on how to turn skills into money.

Interested? Here are some details for you.

The running order for the day goes like this:

  • WTF is multimedia?
  • Getting to grips with the kit (on a budget)
  • Sound for idiots (interviewing techniques)
  • I got pictures, I got sound, now what?
  • Show me the money

What’s more, at £45 it’s some of the cheapest training you’ll find – and there are spaces still available! So what will you be doing on Saturday? Face-palming at another England howler from the night before? Probably. But then get out of bed, get your camera and come and learn some new skills.

If you’re interested, click here to get yourself a ticket.

Six great collaborative photography and journalism projects

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on May 1, 2010

I think collaborative projects & crowd sourced creativity, is one of the greatest and most powerful things about the internet.

Getting people, not just to share their opinion, but a bit of their creative flair is wonderful and it’s great seeing photographers & journalists using that power well. Here are four great examples I’ve found over the past few years. If you know any good ones, feel free to share!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

(Images: Someone Once Told Me, 4am Project, How’s Your Weekend, Volcano Love Stories)

Someone Once Told Me

A great concept from BBC Journalist Mario Cacciottolo: people take pictures of themselves holding up a card with a phrase someone once told them. The rules are it has to be something said to them directly, in monochrome and on a piece of paper. I broke the rule writing on a whiteboard I know.

I used SOTM to teach my students basic photography and I was chuffed to see some of them appear on the site having submitted their own ones.

And they’re on Twitter too: @SOTM

How’s Your Weekend?

I love this idea to bits:

Sunny lazy day on the beach. Snuggling under blanket over hot chocolate and DVDs. Morning jogging. A road trip. A hot date. Good times wine and dine. Dress up party. Awesome gigs. A craft day. Baking cupcakes or cooking homemade pasta. Afternoon tea. Coffee and cakes. Art exhibition…we want to share how people around the world spend their weekends. Everyone has a story, share your weekend with us and see what others do too.

The rules are you must submit 3 images which tell the story of your weekend (building a narrative) and they must be at least 800px wide.

Click here to find out more.

Volcano Love Stories

The idea here is to collect stories of love and loss which inevitably happened when the volcanic ash cloud descended on Europe and closed air space.

Were adulterers caught out when they couldn’t get home from their illicit break? Did a romantic weekend with a new couple turn into a nightmare week of travelling which broke them up? And on the flip side, were any people brought together in the melee who wouldn’t otherwise have met?

Click here to contribute stories.

4am Project

A well known British born project to capture the world at 0400 on a specific date. This year it was the 4th April, and despite my best intentions I never made it out of bed on time (well, it was a Sunday).

Lots of people did though – check out the results here.

A Moment in Time

On a similar theme comes A Moment In Time, on the 2nd May 2010 (I just got this blog out in time!); a project by the folks at the New York Times’ Lens Blog.

The idea: photographers, professional and amateur all capture an image at the same moment. This weekend it is 1500 UTC (GMT), so wherever you are in the world, work out your local time and go out and take an image.

Rather than capturing a random shot, they want images you’ve put some time into:

What matters more than technique is the thought behind the picture, because you’ll only be sending us one. So please do think beforehand about where you will want to be and what you will want to focus on.

Click here to read the rules  – and take part!

Have I gone way off topic?

What’s this got to do with multimedia journalism? Whatever your trade, your art, it’s important to keep yourself fed with inspiration from all quarters.

Even as a journalist I try and consume as much non journalism as possible, and let it seep into my brain. As a visual journalist, on a quest for new styles and approaches, the work of artists in other fields is vital fuel for the fire.

To that end I spend as much time as possible at the wonderful Photojojo, Travel Photographer, Duckrabbit, 500 Photographers, Kitsune Noir, ISO50 and FFFFound.

The future of the Photobook?

Posted in Ideas for the future of news, Journalism by Adam Westbrook on December 9, 2009

Photo: Sarah Foye Photography

The very smart and forward-thinking people over at Livebooks are wondering what the next 10 years hold for the photobook.

Through their RESOLVE blog they’re creating a collaborative blog post asking people to think ahead to 2019. They ask these key questions:

What do you think photobooks will look like in 10 years? Will they be digital or physical? Open-source or proprietary? Will they be read on a Kindle or an iPhone? And what aesthetic innovations will have transformed them?

Click here if you want to contribute too.

Online or off?

Whether Photobooks will exist online or offline will be something fiercely debated as they develop. Some say, quite passionately, that the book will always survive because it is a physical, tangible product and about so much more than just the words or pictures. James Higgs for example wrote last month:

A book is a guarantee of permanence, and of ownership. There is no DRM baked into the printed word, and nothing stopping me reading a book I own whether I am in the middle of the Sahara or on my sofa. There is nothing stopping me lending it to a friend, and I don’t need to worry whether their reader device supports ePub, or whatever format.

When I buy a book, I’m buying a physical, real world object that has properties that can be appreciated beyond the words it contains. It can be beautifully bound, use attractive design elements, have respect for typography, and use the physical properties of the medium as part of the content.

But I was speaking to an innovative book publisher in London this week who’s convinced despite this books will all move online and he’s looking at new distribution models to that effect.

I think in 2019, the future belongs to both. If the Kindle and other mobile readers can keep up, they may offer an equally pleasant reading experience. A physical product will of course be so much more expensive to produce – and therefore buy.

Mobile

One thing is certain though, the future of the Photobook is mobile. Simply because the future of every other form of publishing is mobile too. By 2012, the sale of smartphones is expected to outweigh laptops as we become a society who want things on the move. Photobook publishers need to be prepared for this, and thinking towards apps which deliver high quality photographs.

Even my dear old Mum now reads most of her books on her iPhone.

The great thing about apps is you can sell the product, but then also charge (a small amount) for the app.

Multimedia

And being a multimedia journalist I also firmly believe the photobook in 2019 will be a multimedia product.

In what way? Well, we’ve already seen the power of the audio slideshow demonstrated time and time again: the combination of audio and photography is hugely potent and photographers should be looking to tool up on producing great audio to capitalise on this.

So you’ll open your photobook on a Kindle or equivalent, scroll through the electronic pages and click on an icon to hear the subject of the photograph speak, or hear natural sound.

They won’t be a slideshow as such – the great thing about photobooks is you can move through them at your own pace.

An exciting future

Does the photobook have a future, with so much other distractions? Yes. Among the cacophony of new media, social media, web 2.0 blah, blah, a solid foundation is emerging of people who want and appreciate awesome content. Attractive, well designed, well shot, well written content.

Sure, there are millions more photographs in the world than ever before, but most are bad quality, and all are seen in some small 720×526 compressed format. By 2019 people will be crying out for photographs presented in a way that sucks them into a new world. That’s always been the power of the photobook, and that power – I think – will continue.

So tool up, learn new multimedia skills, get your head around mobile…but at the end of the day go out and practice taking the most beautiful photographs ever.

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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The powers and problems of the audio slideshow

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on December 1, 2009

Match the absorbing power of a beautifully crafted photograph, with the intimacy of some crisp, clear audio and you have a potent force.

Yes, the audio slideshow has fast become a rising medium for multimedia journalists, and it’s unique because it’s been born from the digital revolution and not threatened by it. It only exists in digital form.

If you haven’t heard of an audio slideshow, the name pretty much gives it away: a sequence of photographs, soundtracked by audio, usually of a person speaking, plus music and “actuality” where possible.  I’ve been making them for about a year now, and spent last week both in meetings with radio producers about them and in classrooms teaching students about them.

I figured it’s time to give them some blog-respect.

The powers of the audio slideshow

I decided to show my photojournalism students some audio slideshows last week as an introduction to the medium. Most of them had never seen one before, but they were completely engaged by The New York Times’ sublime “1 in 8 million” and Duckrabbit’s new MSF project. Why?

01. the powerful combination

For nearly a century each, the mavens of both radio and photography have raved about the immense power of their particular medium.

Photography, as a powerful medium of expression and communications, offers and infinite variety of perception, interpretation and execution

Ansel Adams

A great advantage of the aural medium over print lies in the sound of the human voice – the warmth, the compassion, the anger, the pain and the laughter. A voice is capable of conveying much more than reported speech.

Robert McLeish

On their own great radio and great photographs pack a real punch. Think of the famous images of the D-Day landings, the Vietnam War or 9/11. Think of the lush vividness of Ed Murrow’s This is London reports, the intimacy of This American Life and the solemn colour in Richard Dimbleby’s report from Belsen.

Put together they hold equal if not greater power. Either through being able to see something you’re hearing, or to hear the richness of the voice of someone you’re looking at.

02. it’s not video #1

We hear all too often how video is the medium. How moving pictures are the ultimate way to tell stories and how film is more arresting that anything before it.

Now this may be true. But let me tell you if you don’t know already: video is also really hard to do. Don’t get me wrong, radio, print, podcasts, flash interactives, photography – they’re all really hard to get right. But video is another beast, and you can sweat piss, and still come out with a ropey product.

I’m not saying audio slideshows are easier…they’re less time consuming, less brainpower consuming – meaning you can focus on getting it really good, rather than just getting OK pictures.

03. it’s not video # 2

Equally, video is not only demanding on the sanity of the artist, but on the story too. Video stories have to be told in certain ways. We need sequences and visual grammar, and so storytellers must usually bend or break their craft to fit it into a 720×526 screen.

Again radio and photography are more flexible. And as a result, the audio slide show is not bound by the same rules and formulas which TV finds so hard to break free from.

04. cost of production

In terms of the kit you need, audio slideshows are cheaper to produce. A good enough Digital SLR camera will set you back hundreds, sure. But an audio recorder of a good standard need only cost you just over a hundred. And the editing kit – well the standard seems to be the Soundslides Software, which goes for just over £50.

And that’s a snip of your video costs.

The weaknesses of the audio slideshow

Now we’re seeing lots of audio slideshows being made. And some of them are pretty awesome. Websites like the New York Times and The Guardian have their own online sections dedicated to them. Hoorah. But they are still not gaining huge traction. How come?

01. it’s not video

Aha, this again. Well, sort of. Video’s popularity relies on several things: the fact we were all brought up on television and crave the moving picture, the glamour associated with television production also rubs off on video; we’re led to believe video is more real. And technology is forcing video to be popular with more and more smaller cheaper cameras.

This instantly gives the audio slideshow a disadvantage.

“What? The picture’s don’t move? This sucks!”

02. it’s slow

Video and television are a bit like crap magicians. If their trick is no good, they can stun you with a quick flash or spark. They do this with fast cuts, fancy transitions and montages.

Audio slideshows aren’t like that. They’re a lot slower. One image will stay on screen for 5 or more seconds, before slowly dissolving into another. In video, we see images lasting just a matter of frames.

To some, this lack of visual ecstacy makes audio slideshows appear duller, when really they’re not.

03. saboteurs

A lot of audio slideshows, especially in the mainstream media, aren’t very good. I wondered for a long time why this was. Why did the audio and pictures not match up? Why was the editing so bad?

Then I heard one photojournalist at an expo in London. He’s been trying audio slideshows out, and I asked him why more generally, many slideshows out there weren’t very good. He said he knew cases of newsroom journalists resenting being given multimedia work.

“They make it shit on purpose, so they won’t be asked to do it again” he said.  Incredible, really. A relief though, because it means just because so many slideshows are dull, does not mean the medium does not have potential.

04. the name

This came up in a meeting with radio producers in London last week.

“Audio Slideshow” is a crap name. It ain’t web 2.0 that’s for sure, and conjours an image of your aunty and uncle showing you their holiday snaps. Worst of all,  if people have not heard of one before, they can tell straight away what it is from the name, and draw their own (usually negative conclusions).

Compare that to the emergence of the podcast. It’s name is unusual and not self explanatory, so you’re forced to listen to one to investigate.

So here’s the deal: audio slideshows need a new name. Let’s find one.

I’m creating a poll to vote on a new name. It starts with the first idea I came up with, and you can add your own suggestions too. If you have an idea, put it in the comments box and I’ll add it to the poll manually. Everyone can then vote on the best ones. Ready? Here goes:

And while you’re thinking, here are some awesome examples of [INSERT NAME HERE] out there:

New York Times: 1 in 8 Million

Duckrabbit: Praying for the Rain

Ciara Leeming: Born Free

Eileen Mignoni: Facing Deportation

John D McHugh: Memorial

Adam Westbrook: Hirst v UK

BBC News/Paul Kerley: Tommies’ Tales

Nick Hand: Slowcoast

Resolve Blog’s coverage of audio slideshows

Getting to know The Gimp

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on September 21, 2009

I’ve spent quite a lot of the last few weeks getting to grips with The Gimp, the free and open-source alternative to the not-free Adobe Photoshop.

Image manipulation is an important part of any multimedia journalists toolkit, whether its to generate graphics or artistic images, or just to touch up your photographs, and if you haven’t got the Gimp, you really should (unless you’re lucky enough to have Photoshop of course).

A more heavily manipulated image using layers & curves

A heavily manipulated image using layers & curves for Viking FM

Test image for an audio slideshow

A shot from an audio slideshow I'm making with minor contrast edits and a light vignette effect

Short for GNU Image Manipulation Program, it is as complicated as its Adobe counterpart, at least at first appearance. But half the trick is learning what the Gimp’s important tools are. I have personally found the most important bits to grasp – at least at first – are:

  • layering
  • controlling curves
  • creating, feathering and manipulating sections

But as the iPhone is hypervalued by its homemade apps, the Gimp’s real value lies in a vast library of tutorials and guides…produced by Joe Public. Working on both my audio slideshow and the Viking FM graphics, I’ve been able to instantly get help just by visiting Youtube.

Here are five top tutorials to help you get to know the Gimp.

01. Using curves for selective exposure correction

02. using curves to improve night shots

03. a very basic introduction to layers

04. creating vintage/vignette effects

05. and some Gimp basics

One in eight million

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on July 7, 2009

NYT screenshot

Another great piece of multimedia craftmanship from the folks at the New York Times.

It’s not so much the content of each story I like (in fact, I’ve only watched a couple), but the way all the stories collectively create this living breathing tapestry of modern New York. And I love the presentation: a slick fluid carousel running along the bottom of the screen. Choosing a story is like picking a delicious sushi from the conveyor belt.