Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

How to come up with good ideas more often

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism by Adam Westbrook on June 25, 2012

Where do ideas come from?

I’m talking ideas for projects, ideas for stories, ideas for businesses.

By now, you know that “there’s no such thing as an original idea”. That’s true, but it’s only half the story.

Twyla Tharp in her excellent book on creativity describes the “unshakable rule that you don’t have a good idea until you combine two little ideas.” It’s an eye opener because it makes you realise that there’s no lightning strike of inspiration. You realise that a good idea is a simple matter of combining two different ideas together.

Many of  my own projects are the result of this combination.

My popular journalism prediction videos were a combination of the raft of end-of-year predictions which flood the internet each December and stylish video.

Inside the Story, which raised $4400 for Kiva this spring, came about by taking Seth Godin’s book What Matters Now and applying its approach to a completely different field of digital storytelling (you’ll notice Seth gets a nod in the book).

Meanwhile a whole industry of advocacy film-making has developed from the concept of applying a documentary approach to the third-sector market.

To take it a step further the most innovative ideas can come from combining two things which would never ordinarily be put together.

A huge amount of content for this blog, in fact, comes from combining smart things Chris, Amber, Ryan, Seth and Tim say about philosophy, life-design, productivity and marketing and wondering “what happens if we apply that to online publishing and journalism?” It’s the reason the blog’s approach to entrepreneurial journalism stands out, say, from what Jeff Jarvis or Mark Briggs might write.

Similarly, the aesthetic of online video is starting to step away from mimicking television news because videographers, armed with HDSLR cameras are taking their cues now from the disparate world of fictional cinema. They’re combining James Cameron’s style with documentary content.

Wait, isn’t that stealing?

Of course it isn’t. Kirby Ferguson, the brain behind the influential series Everything is a Remix, makes this point brilliantly in his series of films. He argues how we take an idea, transform, remix and combine it to create something new. To flat out copy What Matters Now and pass it on as my own – sure that’s stealing. But to combine it with another idea transforms and remixes it into something new.

“If we’re free from the burden of trying to be completely original, we can stop trying to make something out of nothing, and we can embrace influence instead of running away from it.”

Austin Kleon, Steal Like an Artist

Lots of young journalists, film makers and publishers are told to start blogging, but abandon it because they don’t think they have anything to add to the saturated journalism-naval gazing market. Certainly, no-one wants to read another postgraduate’s opinion of the Leveson Inquiry. So if you’re stuck, start by taking something else you’re passionate about – maybe another industry or another craft – and collide it with journalism.

If you’re lucky and persistant, sparks may fly, and give life to a whole blog, an article, a documentary – even a new business.

Multimedia journalism that’s making money

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism by Adam Westbrook on October 19, 2011

Death & Taxes by Jess Bachman

What you’re looking at is a very profitable piece of multimedia journalism.

Death & Taxes is a data visualisation project by Jess Bachman: a 24×36 inch glossy poster that’s just been published by Seth Godin’s Domino Project. It’s available to buy from Amazon US – for $27.00 (currently discounted to $20) – and at the time of writing, has already sold out.

Jess (who isn’t a trained journalist) took all the spending data published by the US government (he says it runs into thousands of spreadsheets) and visualised it into this one image. And let me repeat the most important point: it’s a poster. Not an interactive, not a video, or a motion graphic – a poster: something you can sell to the public. Something that can go up on classroom walls.

I bet no-one teaches poster production on multimedia journalism courses these days…maybe they should.

This is an example of a clever idea, that serves a need, packaged in a sellable way. And here’s the takeaway: anyone reading this blog could have done this. The data is available, for free. The data interrogation and cleansing is free too, if you learn how to do it. The design is tricky, but doable – especially if you rope in a talented friend.

What does it cost? Time -and lots of it. Plus determination and stamina – all fuelled by a brilliant idea. 

10 ways to make the most of your journalism course

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism by Adam Westbrook on September 27, 2011

Image: Adam Westbrook

The signs of autumn are easy to spot: leaves turning golden brown, England in the grip of an Indian Summer (usually after a rubbish actual summer) and a new raft of young journalism students starting courses across the land.

Anecdotally at least, universities are not struggling to fill their places and, where possible, are opening up more spaces: all this despite the bad news surrounding the industry, and the prospect of starting on as little as £14k a year – if you’re lucky enough to get a job.

Because of this, new students this year face a challenge: there are now nearly 100 journalism courses in the UK – that is a lot of wannabe hacks all with the same ambitions. We’re far enough into web 2.0 now that most of these students use social media (the majority of new students I’ve met at Kingston University do); many of them are multimedia savvy (although not nearly enough) and loads of them have got work experience under their belts.

Having an MA in journalism? It’s not good enough any more. Writing a blog while you’re studying? Not good enough either. Getting a pass on your video module? So what. Making noise on Twitter? Everyone’s doing that.

If you’re going to stand out from the crowd you’ve got to bring your A-game to the table. Nothing else will cut it. Yesterday I gave a talk to the new MA students arriving at Kingston University, and suggested ten things they can do to really excel in the short nine months they have before they hit a turbulent industry.

10 ways to make the most of your journalism course

.01 write every day: if you’re in this because you love writing, then write -and write often. And write without thinking too much: as Seth Godin puts it: “No-one ever gets talker’s block”.

.02 blog every week: I said it’s not good enough to have a blog, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have one. It’s a great platform to force you to write, as above, but also to test ideas (and therefore have ideas). You must be comfortable with creating and publishing to the internet – no excuses.

.03  learn new platforms: you need to be all over Storify, Bundlr, Tumblr, Vimeo, Audioboo, again – no excuses. You don’t have to be prolific on all of them, just pick one and run with it. Student Joseph Stashko’s used Storify to great effect this way.

.04 practice your multimedia: chances are you’ll learn how to shoot video, photos and audio on your course. The key word here is practice. A semester-long module won’t equip you with the storytelling experience you need to stand out from the crowd. Force yourself to create content every week for the next 9 months. A guarantee: you’ll get better.

.05 read more. watch less TV: I say this every year, but I’ll say it again: the best thing you can do is cut TV from your life (or drastically reduce it). It’s amazing how much time you gain and brain cells you retain. Use that time to read. I know, pretentious or what, but like I said, we’re talking A-game here.

.06 watch more films: films teach you two things: how to tell good stories and how to tell them visually. A LoveFilm or Netflix subscription is a good start.

.07 teach yourself web skills: I’m talking HTML and CSS. You don’t need to know more than the basics but it’s a huge advantage not to get intimidated by code. The key phrase here is “teach yourself” – don’t pay to learn it, go online and find free resources.

.08 data and run with it: if you have even the slightest affinity for numbers or know how to interrogate an excel spreadsheet there’ll probably be a good job for you at the end of your MA if you can prove it. But you’ll have to prove it yourself, creating mashups, infographics and stat-based stories in your own time, and using a website to publish them.

.09 go to lots of events: if there’s one thing journalists like to do, it’s hold meetups: discussions, debates or just booze-ups. The web makes it easier to find out when they are, so start going to them. If you’re in/outside London or any other major city you really have no excuse. If there aren’t any events near you…start one! Simples.

.10 for the really smart and brave: if you’re really in this to win it, my advice is to start your own publication while you’re still studying. Pick a target market and a niche, get together with some other students and set up an online magazine. It’ll cost you about £50 and take a weekend to set up. Then use your free time to fill it with content: articles, video, interviews and use social media to share it. Why do it now? It’s really hard to justify the unpaid time when you’re in the real world, so university is your best chance.

Don’t think it’s possible? Exhibit A, Exhibit B, Exhibit C, Exhibit D, Exhibit E…….and I could go on.

If all this sounds like hard work, it’s because it is. You have to be motivated, ambitious, determined. You’ll need to sacrifice nights out and hangovers to get up early to shoot that video or update the magazine. You’ll have to become shit-hot at time management in order to juggle all this plus your actual studies. You’ll need to be constantly coming up with ideas – and keeping a close eye on developments in the industry.

In other words you have to make yourself really good; the Darwinist in me thinks this challenge to the next generation will be good for journalism in the long run. 

Can we teach journalists entrepreneurship?

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism by Adam Westbrook on May 16, 2011

I

This is the question I’ll be asking lots over the coming months. I am carrying out research on behalf of Kingston University into entrepreneurial journalism. We want to find out whether we should be teaching it, and if so – how.

Other journalism programs in the UK and US, including UCLAN, BCU, City and CUNY have all introduced (or are planning on introducing) enterpreneurship into their courses, and all in different ways.

Personally, I am very excited by the possibilities and opportunities that entrepreneurship provides – especially to young journalists and creatives.

In a brilliant and inspirational commencement speech at Berkeley this month, the NPR journalist Robert Krulwich summed it up superbly:

It’s not easy. It’s not for everybody. Just something to think about.

Suppose, instead of waiting for a job offer from the New Yorker, suppose next month, you go to your living room, sit down, and just do what you love to do. If you write, you write. You write a blog. If you shoot, find a friend, someone you know and like, and the two of you write a script. You make something. No one will pay you. No one will care, No one will notice, except of course you and the people you’re doing it with. But then you publish, you put it on line, which these days is totally doable, and then… you do it again.

The people in charge, of course, don’t want to change. They like the music they’ve got.  To the newcomers, they say, “Wait your turn”.

But in a world like this… rampant with new technologies, and new ways to do things, the newcomers… that means you… you here today, you have to trust your music… It’s how you talk to people your age, your generation. This is how we change.

II

In the last two years I have dragged myself from a reluctant biz-novice to someone who has produced and sold books and started a business: like Robert says, it’s tough, it’s not for everyone…but it’s addictive.

Thing is, I don’t think its got much to do with the nuts and bolts of business itself (sales, spreadsheets, business plans) – although they play a part.

Entrepreneurship is an attitude: a way of looking at life, perhaps as a playground full of opportunity and not (as most of us do) as an assault course of pitfalls and hazards. I never used to have this attitude but I’ve ‘learned’ it in some way over the last few years.

And the attitude we need to instill in the next generation of journalists is simple: start things. And then finish them. That’s all. Sounds simple, but it requires a lot: the ideas, the initiative to marshall the all the forces to bring the idea to life, and the dogged determination to see it through to something that ‘intersects with the market‘.

Beyond that, you need the thick skin to deal with the inevitable failure of your idea. Then the balls to repeat the whole thing again. And again.

On Wednesday last week I was invited to chair a panel of digital journalists at We Publish in Leeds. The Guardian’s Sarah Hartley, Nigel Barlow from InsidetheM60 and Emma Bearley, founder of The Culture Vulture discussed a whole range of things – and entrepreneurship was a hot topic.

The feeling from the audience, and some of the panel, was that this attitude is rare, especially among young journalists. And blame was placed partly on the education system – at all levels.

III

If you get time, you should watch the marvellous Sir Ken Robinson talk about education in this TED Talk. The education system we use is the same one the Victorians used: and it was designed for a Victorian world – an industrial world.

Schools, says Ken, are like factories: we batch children by age (why age?) put them through a machine, a system, and churn out identikit office and factory workers at the other end. This was fine for our military industrial complex but as offices go digital, and factories go east, we don’t need identikit workers any more.

We need risk takers, creatives and entrepreneurs.

The world has changed. But education hasn’t.

And so, as great as it is that more journalism educators introduce entreprise as a part of their training, they’re still very much rooted in the Victorian tenets of education: failure is bad, risk leads to failure, so stick to the rules and do as you’re told.

How do we make people less risk averse? Can we? Should we? I’d love your thoughts.

5 big reasons to stay small

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism by Adam Westbrook on May 2, 2011

“Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius—and a lot of courage—to move in the opposite direction.”

Albert Einstein (via 37 Signals)

Do you know how many people are employed in the two Chinese factories that makes Apple’s iPads and iPhones?

Well, according to this worrying Guardian article & NGO investigation, the Shenzhen and Chengdu factories house 500,000 workers. That’s larger than the population of Manchester, UK or Atlanta, Georgia.

The industrial concept of ‘economies of scale’ has led us to create mammoth corporations, in the hope that the efficiency makes them more profitable. It’s a daunting prospect for new entrepreneurs. But very few consider the benefits of doing the opposite – of running an intentionally small company.

If you’re a journalist dreaming of dipping your toe into business waters, staying small is where it’s at.

Five big reasons to run an intentionally small business

.01 The risks are lower: when you stick to being small your overheads are much lower and you invest less time and money. If the idea eventually fails, you haven’t lost too much, but gained plenty of experience. It’s the old adage: fail fast, fail often.

.02 You are profitable sooner: you don’t have a business until the money you bring in exceeds the money you spend. Up until that point you’re running a hobby, not a business. Staying small – keeping your overheads low – means you’ll be in profit sooner, and your profits will be higher.

.03 It’s an edge over the competition: if you’re going into competition against established brands, online magazines or production companies, your small size is a big advantage. With no office rent, stationary or admin staff to pay for you can focus on investing in the business itself. The bigger companies need to charge more to sustain their mass.

.04 You can do things a lot faster: You can launch faster. You can change direction faster. If it’s clear the business needs to go in a different direction you can move that way almost instantly; a larger company needs to consult its board, its shareholders and put strategies in place. Cue big delays…

.05 Because you can! The internet has cut the overheads of running a business right down to virtually nothing. In the past you needed to rent landlines, offices and office equipment. These days a website and some moo cards is all you need.

People make the mistake of believing that being bigger and more complex makes them better. I think the opposite: the more simple and small your business is the better your product or service is going to be.

Be small

So, if you’re toying with the idea of launching your own news business – an online magazine, a hyperlocal blog, or a design agency, then set yourself a challenge of doing it small:

  • force yourself to strip your idea right down to its bare minimum
  • challenge yourself to launch it on less than £100/$150
  • challenge yourself to launch it in less than two weeks
  • challenge yourself to make a profit within two months
  • always ask yourself how you can do things faster, cheaper, more simply

Last year I launched studio .fu, my online video production company on these terms. After I wrote my idea down I kept reducing it, removing the complexity and convolution. I narrowed my offering down to just online video and motion graphics.  I challenged myself to launch it on less than £100 (it actually cost me £60) and in less than two weeks (I did it in 5 days). Within two weeks I had my first gig – which instantly knocked me into profit.

What, do you think, are the other benefits of being small? 

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…