Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

The journalists winning the race – to the bottom

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

The problem with a race to the bottom is that you might win.

Seth Godin

I.

Seth Godin’s words (buried in this blog post from just a few days ago) must seem painfully apt for any one of the journalists on newsdesks at The Guardian, Sky News, the Sun and the Daily Mail today.

I was in the pub celebrating a friend’s birthday on Monday night when my flatmate checked the Guardian app on his phone just before 9pm. “Amanda Knox has lost her appeal” he said, “bloody hell”.

Guardian app on my flatmate's iPhone

For several minutes we talked about how terrible that must be for her, and how dodgy the police case was – until, that is, I checked Twitter. At which point it got confusing.

“People on Twitter are saying she’s been freed” I said, counting the dozen or so independent tweets from journalists, friends and colleagues.

“Are you sure..?” my flatmate said, reaching for his iPhone.

II.

And so the sorry affair of the obtuse judge, the slow translater and the trigger-happy hacks unfolded.

In this mess lies a really important lesson for online publishers of all creeds, entrepreneurs and young journalists. The race to be faster than your competitors is the same as the race to be cheaper than them: it’s a race to the bottom. There is only one loser in this race and it’s usually you.

I remember an entrepreneur giving me advice last year when I launched my online video production studio: “you don’t want to compete on price – ever.”

So if you run, or want to run, your own publication or business, heed this advice: aim to be the be best: the most accurate, the most accessible, the best produced, the most beautiful – not the fastest and not the cheapest.

Your work should be the Coutts of journalism. Last night the Daily Mail et al joined the ranks of Wonga.com.

Don’t get me wrong, these were one-off mistakes, made by otherwise talented, experienced and honest journalists. But they are mistakes which are only made in a newsroom where the overriding attitude is to be faster. The ethos created the haste, not the journalists themselves.

In a newsroom where quality is king, the hands would have stayed.

III.

I’m convinced if you’re to succeed as an entrepreneurial journalist (or whatever we want to call it), the only way to get ahead of the pack is by betting on quality. Sure, successful new businesses like the Huffington Post and Mashable gamble on quantity but to succeed here you need legacy, or lots of money.

Brian Storm, founder of MediaStorm, made the quality point really well on a recent visit to London. He makes sure everything MediaStorm publishes is as good as it can be – even if it means going several months between each new piece. As he put it: “why be part of the noise?”

The mainstream media (especially those who make speed their tagline) are trapped in this race and can’t reinvent themselves. But that leaves a nice space for the next generation of journalists with a remit of quality.

Whatever kind of journalism you do, aim to produce the best. That is a race to the top: a race worth winning.

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The future of news belongs to those who…kiss

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on April 16, 2010

Image credit: Okinawa Soba

The traditional news organisations: the BBC, CNN, New York Times, the Guardian, Sky News – and all the others – have got a problem.

Up until recently I thought the problem was revenue and the lack thereof; but that will solve itself organically over time.

And then I realised they’ve got another problem:  it’s one they’ll never be able to solve – and it threatens their place in the future of journalism.

They’re too big.

Sounds strange doesn’t it (after all, size is usually good for a news organisation with a big remit). The insight comes from Clay Shirky, whose blog posts are rare, but always near revolutionary. He talks about the collapse of the great empires of the past: the Mayans, the Romans. They collapsed because they got too big, too complex and couldn’t adapt to a new world.

His modern case in point: the Times paywall. He interprets Rupert Murdoch’s justification for charging online content as this:

“Web users will have to pay for what they watch and use, or else we will have to stop making content in the costly and complex way we have grown accustomed to making it. And we don’t know how to do that.”

In other words, News International is so big, so complex, so addicted to the exuberant and wasteful systems which it consumed in the 20th century, it just can’t change. So it has to charge customers to help sustain its lifestyle.

Shirky goes on:

“In a bureaucracy, it’s easier to make a process more complex than to make it simpler, and easier to create a new burden than kill an old one….Some video still has to be complex to be valuable, but the logic of the old media ecoystem, where video had to be complex simply to be video, is broken.”

That last point about video is important. Think how many TV production companies are addicted to $20,000 cameras, big rigs, professional lighting, large crews and plush offices in the centre of major cities. They don’t know how to do anything different, and so they charge their clients thousands upon thousands to cover their secret addiction to luxury.

Video Journalism has been around as a cheap alternative to traditional TV news gathering since the 1980s. Why do all the big news organisations still send 2 or even 3 person crews to stories? Michael Rosenblum points out dryly, ABC News’ move to VJing should have been news in the 90s.

Bad times for them. Good times for the next generation of journalists and producers.

How to survive in the future of journalism

Keep It Simple, Stupid.


Next generation journalists have a big advantage: we’re not addicted to expensive gear, offices, full time employment or bureaucracy. We know we can do things quick, cheap and simple. We can get impressive results with DSLRs, open source software, a laptop and creative commons media. We’re not ashamed to interview someone on a FlipCam, or embed our video with Youtube.

Do not underestimate the advantage that gives us in the market.

Someone who gets it is media commentator and lecturer Jeff Jarvis. Here’s what he wrote for the Guardian, when the Times paywall was announced:

“…in Murdoch’s folly, I see opportunity….As a teacher of entrepreneurial journalism at the City University of New York, I see openings for my students to compete with the dying relics by starting highly targeted, ruthlessly relevant new news businesses at incredibly low cost and low risk.”

And that’s precisely it. Go in lean, mean and ruthless and start tearing stuff up. But know this: if your career takes you into the fold of the giants, you too will become addicted to their opium. It’s a tough drug to get over. I’ve been lucky in some ways. I’ve only ever worked for tiny, struggling commercial outlets. I thought it sucked at the time, but it meant I always had to do things cheap, and quick – and I never got hooked on the luxurious journalism of the BBC or anyone else.

But the future is bright: here’s Clay Shirkey to wrap it up:

“It’s easy to see the ways in which collapse to simplicity wrecks the glories of old. But there is one compensating advantage for the people who escape the old system: when the ecosystem stops rewarding complexity, it is the people who figure out how to work simply in the present, rather than the people who mastered the complexities of the past, who get to say what happens in the future.”

Dear BBC, please get rid of the News Channel

Posted in Broadcasting and Media by Adam Westbrook on July 1, 2009

It has tens of thousands of viewers, has won two RTS awards in the last 3 years, and is (according to its own branding) ‘Britain’s Most Watched News Channel’.

But, dear BBC,  you should scrap your 24 hour rolling news.

Now when I say that, I don’t mean close down transmitting, or make hundreds of people redundant, or pull out of the “race” for breaking news. I don’t even mean stop broadcasting news altogether.

It just seems in the growth of satellite news channels, which brought us  CNN and Sky News, and then Fox News, and then ITV News, which then closed down, and then Al-Jazeera…it just seems you have missed a trick.

What I want to see is a BBC News and Information Channel. Except with a better name than that, obviously.

With a whole channel dedicated to news, with 24 hours to fill,  how come fewer documentaries are produced? How come in order to find out about under reported stories from both the UK and abroad we have to turn to the internet? How come for some well thought out analysis of global events, you’re better off in the hands of Radio 4 or the World Service?

Because in the race with Sky News, the BBC News Channel fills its 24 hours with breaking news stories and following them as they develop, just like Sky News. And with that comes all the trappings and distortions of rolling news.

The pointless 2-ways from outside buildings where the newsreader clearly knows more about the story than the correspondent. The irrelevant updates on local, but gruesome crimes. The live broadcasting of police press conferences, of interest to hardly anyone. The parading of guest after guest after guest, each adding very little to the story. The over-reporting of PR news. And the speculation – oh, the speculation!

Click, Newswatch and Hardtalk are all well and good, but they are too few and far between. And you stick ’em on at 5am on a Sunday morning.

This race with Sky News (which, if it was an actual race in a stadium or something, would have about 15 spectators) has created a terrible distortion in news and facts, where both channels zoom in on a story to such an explosive magnitude, making it seem like the biggest most important disaster since some kind of climate change nuclear tsunami.

And, dear BBC, it really isn’t a race you need to win. Or even run in.

So how about this: a channel with short live news bulletins twice (or even four times an hour), with more 30 minute news bulletins, and the rest of the time filled with amazing documentaries, and great longer interviews with really interesting people, and some right-on analysis from all those clever correspondents. Hey, you’d have so much space to fill you could commission some riskier pieces from non-British journalists or young journalists. They might work, they might not, but it would be interesting.

You could whack more science and history on there. You might even get to be creative and dynamic.

But suddenly – breaking news! What do you do? It’s OK – if it’s not that important, there’s always the ticker at the bottom of the screen. And if it is important, then you can dip out of the programme for a bit. And if it is really important, then you can revert back to your news-channel ways.

We know you covet your “most watched news channel” crown, but come on BBC, the licence fee payers deserve more than this tit-for-tat war with Sky News, right?

What’s your “news eco-system”?

Posted in Adam, Broadcasting and Media by Adam Westbrook on November 25, 2008

The BBC have carried out some research into how the modern homo-sapien consumes its news. They asked a load of people to keep a diary noting everytime they checked up on the news, and how they did it.

Steve Hermann writes about the results here.

Interestingly, their researchers described each person as having their own “news eco-system”: ‘where an individual might read several papers, hear news on the radio, look at various websites and/or TV channels for news’.

Well I hope that pattern isn’t news to the BBC.

But that’s an interesting term, and got me wondering what my news-ecosystem might look like….

0630: BBC 5 LIVE – DAB radio, in bed – to find out the headlines and who’s saying what

0800: Viking FM – DAB radio, in bed – to see what stories I’ll be sent out to cover that day

0830: Radio 1 – radio, in car – to get an idea of how Newsbeat are tailoring the news for their audience.

0900: Scan through the local papers, plus Mail, Mirror and Sun – to get an idea of what our listeners are reading.

Mid morning – a catch up with the big stories online. I also check Media Guardian, BBC News Online, NY Times. I also get email alerts from various sources.

All day – brief glances at Sky News in the office. I’m also drip fed news via IRN’s wire service.

1330 – BBC Look North – to see what the opposition are up to; inevitable plug of Peter Levy’s show.

Evening – check up on social news: Facebook, Google Reader/blogs and Twitter all tell me what people I’m interested in are up to.

1900 – Channel 4 News – but these days for just a few minutes. On Friday’s I love Unreported World.

Evening – alternative news sources if I have time: Current TV

There you go – I count 17 different sources (20 if you breakdown all the local papers, 50 if you add each blog). Each one consumed for no more than 5-10 minutes, and each one I select, chew and spit out as I please.

So what could be a useful conclusion for the future of news? It can be alternative. And it needs to be short.

What’s your eco system? Post below, and maybe we can give David Attenborough a ring!

Countdown to Beijing

Posted in International Development by Adam Westbrook on August 5, 2008

So it’s less than three days until the Olympics launch in Beijing.

And with little sports gossip, journalists are asking whether the Chinese government has lived up to its promises on human rights.

And of course the evidence widely suggests they haven’t.

Now if there was any justice in the world, human rights would matter more than money: and the IOC would swiftly pull the plug on the whole games.

What’s more important? Athletics or human rights?

But of course the games will go ahead, protests will be silenced, and the world will again will stand aside in the face of massive injustice.

If you don’t want to watch that happen, I recommend watching something else instead: perhaps this excellent report from Sky News producer Holly Williams and the BBC’s most recent Panorama programme.

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Bridgend Suicides: more media soul searching

Posted in Broadcasting and Media, News and that by Adam Westbrook on February 20, 2008

It’s becoming an increasing trend for the media to self criticise an analyse these days.

In the last few weeks there’s been some tough soul searching: first over the ‘hounding’ of Britney Spears; and more recently over our impact on the ever continuing suicides in Bridgend in South Wales.

The 17th victim – 16 year old Jenna Parry- was found hanged yesterday.

So the big questions are being asked: are the front page splashes and TV/Radio pieces encouraging others to seek their fame posthumously? Should there be a voluntary ban on reporting suicides?

I’m not sure where I sit on this. As far as I am aware it is already against PCC/Ofcom policy to include lurid details on suicides to avoid copy cats.

There are some errors in reporting though. A lot of papers suggest the “town” of Bridgend is under the grip of the suicide horror – in fact Bridgend is a county borough and the deaths are spread across it.

A new trend?

It never seemed to happen much before, except maybe when Princess Diana died and we all wondered whether the paparazzi had driven her into the tunnel wall.

Last year, in the fever of the Ipswich Murders (the verdict of which is expected imminently), no-one slammed the outrageous behaviour of the BBC and Sky who fought a tooth and nail battle to get exclusives.

The BBC famously broadcast an off-the-record interview with a suspect-something any journalist should never do. The papers published pictures of his MySpace site and called him an internet weirdo.

He was later released without charge.

But let this soul searching continue! In the absence of a solid fifth estate, the more self monitoring the better.

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Virginia Tech coverage: enough now

Posted in Broadcasting and Media by Adam Westbrook on April 19, 2007

Four days after a troubled student gunned down more than thirty of his fellow students and colleagues and it’s still all out war as far as the networks are concerned. Here in Britain it has cooled off a little bit, but stateside there’s little other news.

And it is with great reluctance that I use the word “overkill” to describe the coverage, not least because of the terrible pun. But there’s not many other words to describe it.

VJ David Dunkley Gyimah had the point nailed on his blog as early as Tuesday, but his concerns have proved even more correct. Cho Seung Hui has gone from a depressed student to a “madman” overnight. In what seems utterly remarkable to me, CNN actually has a jimmy-jib rigged up on the V.T. campus to get sweeping shots from high and low. And it was compounded this morning with the delivery and broadcast of letters, pictures and videos from the killer himself: creepy and haunting, Cho’s seriousness is undermined slightly by his vocal resemblance to Keano Reeves.

Journalists are used to increasing “news management” from press officers and the good ones battle against it. Now, we’ve all fallen for news management by a mass killer.

On CNN International this morning, the script towards the end of an hour of programming went – with no irony whatsoever – like this:

“Your emails have been pouring into us here at CNN. Dan in the Netherlands says: ‘The killer’s video adds nothing to the police enquiry and adds only to the suffering of the families. It worries me that it might inspire another teenager to do something similar like Cho was inspired by Columbine. The networks have gone too far and should stop showing the video constantly.’

Don’t forget to keep sending your emails…meanwhile continuous coverage of the massacres in Virginia continue after the break….”

Audiences on both sides of the Atlantic are clearly both tiring of the coverage and seeing through the hyperbole and journalese that the writers have flung our way. Several times already I’ve heard and seen some of the golden rules of news writing and reporting broken in the race for the biggest yank to the heart strings.

In comparison to the hundred or so people who lost their lives in Iraq yesterday it doesn’t make sense. Will they get each of their names and photos slowly faded onto screen? Will they get their stories read out to the world? Nope.

“No one disputes that this was a major story, and one needing sensitive handling. But as usual you and the other media went over the top in the reporting of it” reads one comment on the BBC News website.

“Seriously, can’t we do better?” says someone else on the NBC blog (via Adrian Monck), “Isn’t it time for news to be news, not endless, repetitive wallpaper that at once offends and numbs?”

Clapham shooting: media hype or worthy debate?

Posted in Adam, Broadcasting and Media by Adam Westbrook on February 18, 2007

Billy Cox, the fifteen year old boy who was shot dead on my estate on Wednesday, was one of the fifty people who are killed each year in gun crime. For the British media however this was something much more.

“WARZONE UK….NIHILISTIC ANARCHY!” screamed the Daily Mail.

“NO END TO GUN CRIME?” was Sky News’ dubious headline last night.

I could go into the journalistic flaws in a headline including “no end to…” but that’s beside the point. The point is I am apparently living in the centre of nihilistic anarchy.  Really? If I was, would I have been able to pop down to the shops for a pint of milk yesterday? Would my mate Jimmy have been able to come round to watch the Reading-ManU match?

Surely we would need to have been wearing flak jackets and I would have expected to have been airlifted to safety by Friday at the latest.
The series of shootings in the last fortnight are, as far as the police know, unrelated. They’re a statistical anomaly, which, if they continue, would boost the average number of shooting fatalities year on year.  But we don’t know that yet.

I’m not accusing the media of lying. Every report I’ve seen has dutifully reported the facts, but the events of the past week have revealed a meta-level of news: the stringing together of several unrelated events to create a narrative of gun crime anarchy in the UK.

But on the flip side, although it’s a distortion of the truth, the media hype has sparked a high level debate about the UK’s gun laws. The Met Police held and emergency meeting on Thursday, and Tony Blair appeared on BBC One’s Sunday AM programme this morning talking seriously about updating gun crime laws.

And that can only be good.

Has Billy’s death come a month ago or in two months time, it would have hardly warranted an inch in page 10 of the Metro. But that’s news I guess…as someone far wiser than me said to me last week…in news you simplify and then exaggerate.

No news at Christmas?

Posted in Uncategorized by Adam Westbrook on December 26, 2006

Apparently it’s hard work putting together a news programme over Christmas. The misery of working Christmas Eve/Day and perhaps sipping a bit too much sherry aside, the problem facing journos over the festive period seems to be the lack of news.

“It can be quite tricky putting together a news programme on Christmas Eve… when there’s no news” writes Channel 4 News’ Emily Wilson on Christmas Eve, “surely in the last 24 hours, something other than Mark Ramprakash winning Strictly Come Dancing merits some television coverage.”

But this to me seems extraordinary. No news? If any editor tried looking outside the UK they’d see one of the most important stories of this and the coming year playing out in front of their eyes.

I’ve been writing quite a bit over the past few months about the burgeoning conflict in Somalia.  In August the United Islamic Courts, a fundamentalist Islam group, took control of Mogadishu, ending over a decade of warlord induced chaos. The legitimate government holed up in Baidoa protested, but there were initial talks and a prospect of peace.

But then the two neighbouring countries, Ethiopia and Eritrea got involved. Ethiopia’s a big supporter of the interim government, as its essentially Christian. Muslim Eritrea meanwhile’s behind the UIC.

We’ve all known since September that Ethiopia’s had troops massing inside the country. But on Christmas Eve they finally admitted the fact, and launched several military attacks against the Islamists. As it stands now, the UIC are in a retreat, and Ethiopian troops are about 70 km from the capital.

Why is this important? First off, under the UIC, Somalia became a worry to the west especially as an Al-Qaeda training ground. Whether this is true or not we don’t know. Secondly the real danger emerging is of a proxy war between Ethiopia and Eritrea fought in Somalia – something that could have tragic consequences for ordinary Somalians. This is afterall a country that hasn’t seen stability since 1991.

And that’s before you consider Somalia’s proximity to other hot spots, notably the DR Congo and Sudan.

So a massive conflict on the brink. I think we’ll here a lot more about Somalia next year.

So far, Al-Jazeera English is the only network leading with that story. At the same time I know african conflict isn’t really in the remit christmas domestic bulletins in the UK . But if journalists are so desperate for news, isn’t a burgeoning conflict with immense humanitarian consequences more significant than an indepth report on Leona’s X-factor win?

And as I write, there are devastating floods in Indonesia, four hundred dead in a pipeline explosion in Lagos…oh and a 1 metre tidal wave heading for Taiwan and the Phillipines (2 years to the day after “The Tsunami”.)

No news at Christmas? Yeah right.  

Trial by media?

Posted in Uncategorized by Adam Westbrook on December 19, 2006

Embarrassing news for the BBC, Sky and pretty much every newspaper this morning: another man has been arrested in the Ipswich murders case. This means that the man arrested yesterday – Tom Stevens – the man who’s name, face, myspace, past and private conversations have been spattered across our screens yesterday – might not be guilty.

Bodies found in Ipswich

Of course most of us know that an arrest doesn’t automatically mean guilt. But the 24-hour news networks seem to have forgotten that.

Blanket coverage was given to Stevens’ arrest yesterday. We were told his name (in the public domain because of an interview he gave with the Sunday Mirror, not because the police released it), what he did for a living, and the fact he was a regular client of some of the women murdered.

Other that, the only other fact we were told was that he had been arrested.

Technically, they haven’t broken any contempt of court rules: they haven’t outright said he’s guilty.

But the extent of the coverage — the helicopters above Stevens’ house, the reporters outside the front door, the speculation about his life — all give the suggestion that the arrest was hugely significant – i.e. the police have got their man.

And on top of that, the BBC pulled out their trump card yesterday morning. A background interview that Stevens gave to Radio 1 reporter Trudi Barber (of Pete Doherty assault fame) was unveiled to get one over Sky News.

“The interview was for background purposes” we were told, “…but we’ve decided to play it anyway.”

If you promise not to broadcast an interview (before the interview takes place) then you don’t do it. It’s a bit like naming a source when you’ve promised not to.

As Chris Doidge said on his blog yesterday: “the competition between News 24 and Sky News has become so ridiculous that they dare not move away from the story in case they are a nano-second behind the other.”

The press and broadcasters have overstepped the mark on this story. The Sunday Mirror article put the police under immense pressure to arrest Stevens, regardless of their own investigations. The BBC and Sky have given so much air time to the arrest that the investigation could be severely damaged:

If he’s charged, he can easily claim the trial’s been prejudiced by the media; if he’s not charged, it wouldn’t surprise me if his lawyer gave some news editors a call.