Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

Can blogs create change?

Posted in Adam, Journalism by Adam Westbrook on November 2, 2010

Journalism aside, do blogs make a difference?

Today, two victories for two campaigners who have been using blogs to get their message across, heaping pressure on the establishment and building a community of support.

Fighting the law…

Firstly, in Hull in the North East of England, John Hirst also known as the Jailhouse Lawyer won a victory he has been waiting five years for, with reports in the press that the British government have (reluctantly) decided to give prisoners the vote. It comes after John won a landmark case in the European Court of Human Rights back in 2005, which ruled Britain’s disenfranchisement of prisoners violated their human rights.

Now whatever you think about whether prisoners should have the vote, John’s legal victory did not mean a change in the law like it should have. The previous Labour government stalled on the issue quite shamefully, and led to people like me making photofilms like this.

For a background on this story, check out this film I shot for the VJ Movement back in May 2010.

From his small terrace house in Hull, John persisted with his campaign and his blog became his main voice. He blogged everyday and built up a not insignificant following. He’s been interviewed on countless news programmes, and as I said earlier this year, he’s even been able to make money from advertising deals on the blog.

…and fighting companies

[UPDATE December 2010: WordPress took down the original blog, but it has now been moved to this address.]

Secondly, and closer to home, my mum and her partner Toni have finally been awarded a claim from financial company Welbeck Wealth, after a persistent campaign via a blog. Owed several thousand pounds, and ignored via the usual routes, they started Welbeck Group, I Want My Money Back!, and blogged regularly about their treatment.

Toni’s clever use of SEO and a growing readership soon put the blog in the top three results when you Googled Welbeck Wealth. As you can imagine, this irked the company somewhat, who – quite remarkably – threatened to sue for defamation (a claim they soon retracted). More importantly, Toni’s blog brought out a community of other unhappy customers, and even at one stage, a whistleblower, who gave her an interview. She was, in some ways, acting like a consumer journalist on this one story.

And today, the company finally paid out – again, reluctantly.

Neither victory would have been possible without the dogged persistence of both John and Toni, who kept going, even when it seemed no-one else was interested anymore. But online publishing – free, quick and easy – gave them another weapon to change the world.

Can blogs create change? Maybe, just maybe.

My first video journalism shoot with the Canon550D

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on May 7, 2010

I was recently commissioned to produce a five minute video package ahead of this week’s General Election in the UK, on the controversial ban on prisoners being able to vote.

It was a commission for the VJ Movement, and has since been featured on Radio Netherlands Worldwide.

It was also the first test for my new Canon 550D DSLR camera and related paraphernalia which I introduced here.

Click here to watch it.

The story

We spent a fair amount of time thrashing out the story arc for the piece, something VJ Movement take very seriously.

Together we’re trying to produce video journalism which doesn’t conform to the old rules of a TV news piece. This first commission doesn’t quite go the whole way with that, but the opening sequences and the atmospheric introduction of the main character attempt to try a few different things.

We used John as the main character to drive the narrative forward, rather than flipping between talking heads, which works well, and he lent himself well to colourful soundbites and nice sequences.

The story is limited though by its complex and legal nature; there’s a lot of elements to it not just John’s personal story which all need to be included – a challenge to both shoot and write to.

The gear

For the most part the 550D performed well, and produced some excellent images. I have the most basic 18-55mm lens but it’s a good all-rounded for most shots. Importantly it performs very well in low light, which helped in the darker locations I was filming in for this piece.

It also produces a nice colour for the images. Some limitations with recording time though: you can only record for a maximum of 12 minutes at a time, regardless of the size of your SD card (I have absolutely no idea why). You might also spot a couple of out of focus shots too, a result of not being able to focus properly on the LCD screen.

The rough edit contained a few handheld shots but we removed them as they were too shaky. Being an SLR it’s not an easy camera to keep steady…more support, if anything, for always using a tripod where you can.

The biggest challenge, as with all the DSLRs is audio. As well as a Rode VideoMic attached to the camera, I recorded all the interviews separately onto a Tascam DR-07 and synched it in Final Cut Pro.

I am very happy with the quality of the audio – but ran into trouble with frame rates. If, for example, I changed the shutter speed down to 25fps to brighten the image, the audio recording was not recorded at the same speed.

All minor problems to iron out with more practice, and I personally don’t find it too much of a hassle to sync the audio in post – if it means the sound is good quality.

No grading was done to this film – more out of a lack of time rather than anything else. I’m hoping to get more aquainted with Apple’s Color in later edits.

The DSLR debate

I’ve enjoyed working the 550D: very happy with what I got for the price and also glad to have the flexibility to take photographs and produce audio slideshows with a single camera.

Meanwhile the debate over whether video journalists should use DSLR cameras continues; the detractors – for example Cliff Etzel in this post – label it a “fad” and accuse users of a “lazy” obsession with shallow depth-of-field:

There are many who have become enamoured with the so called uber cool extreme shallow depth of field flavor of the moment, equating it to creative license and thus making it their top priority, and in the process, losing sight of the first rule of solo video journalism:  It’s the story, not the gear.

And of course Cliff is right, it’s the story not how the pictures look…but personally, I think it’s possible to care about both.

What do you think?

Meet the man making money from his blog

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on May 3, 2010

This is John Hirst. You might recognise him if you have read any of my articles or seen any of my multimedia on the prison votes case.

While serving 30 years for manslaughter he taught himself law and is hounding the government for its slow action on giving inmates the vote.

As you can see, John has a new widescreen flat screen TV in his living room.

He’s  also got a brand new vacuum cleaner and he’s bought his girlfriend a ring.  John told me, when I popped round to his house in Hull last week, that it’s all been paid for…by his blog.

Yes after I wrote here that journalists need to move away from ad revenue as a the way to monetise a website, John has sort of proved me wrong, as one of the few bloggers I can think of making money from pure advertising alone. It’s not Google Adwords though; John’s been approached by insurance companies who he charges a flat annual fee to put banners on his blog.

John’s site, the Jailhouse Lawyer get’s around 500 hits a day, but it can go up to 2,000 when he writes something controversial about Guido Fawkes or Madeleine McCann.

I say sort of proves me wrong: imagine how much extra John could get if he leveraged his blog to publish other products…

Audio slideshow: from killer to legal campaigner

Posted in Adam, Freelance by Adam Westbrook on November 25, 2009

I’ve finally gotten round to posting up a short audio slideshow I started producing when still working as a journalist in Hull.

It tells the story of John Hirst, a fascinating man who is almost single-handedly leading the (controversial) call for UK prisoners to be given the right to vote.  After voraciously studying law books while in prison, John knows his stuff and is confident the law is on his side.

And prisoners could get the vote before May’s election.

I originally shot several hours of video, intending to make a series of short films, but for various technical reasons that never happened. In my final weeks in Hull I decided one good quality audio slideshow would be better than video. Thanks, in particular, to Duckrabbit and Ciara Leeming for their honest feedback which shaped the piece.

You can read more about John and his campaign on his blog.