Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

Reacting to a #riot

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on August 9, 2011

On Monday morning I was called up and interviewed by a wire service for my thoughts on the weekend’s riots in London.

“What do you say to the idea that Twitter is a catalyst for all these riots?” he asked, and I explained as best I could how the very idea is bunkum. Safe-to-say my quotes were not picked up elsewhere, and the ‘social-media-is-to-blame’ narrative led the way through the day, from former/wannabe London Mayor Ken Livingstone, to careless reporting on 24-hour news channels.

That was yesterday.

This morning, waking up after an extraordinary night in London’s recent history, my judgement’s a bit clouded. Trying to monitor what is really happening via Twitter is very difficult, and working out what to say – even harder.

The big problems: exaggeration, retweeting of rumour, sharing of unverified photographs and video  – and even ‘all-clear’ tweets posted with the ‘#riot’ hashtag created to confusion.

That last issue has been smartly dealt with by Andy Dickinson here – his conclusion is that ‘nothing is happening here’ tweets do matter to the people in those areas.

I live in Balham in South West London, where there was some looting (I saw, photographed and shared images of T-Mobile and a Carphone Warehouse which had been smashed in around 1030 pm) – but relatively minor. That didn’t stop the #balham hashtag becoming a regular stream of all of the above. People reported the big supermarket had been looted (it hadn’t); there were claims of petrol bombs at the Tesco garage (there were none).

As one local tweeter, @DoktorWatson put it:

In one night, Twitter has gone from the best place for breaking news to the best place for breaking bullshit. #balham tag especially

Such was the confusion, several local tweeters felt compelled to walk the streets to just find out the truth, potentially putting themselves at risk.

Media became a problem. Around 1am, I lazily retweeted footage which I thought showed police clashing with thugs in Liverpool. Quick clarification came that the footage came from London, not Liverpool, and the Youtube uploader was regularly changing the title of the video.

Trying, instead, to focus on the surprising stories, I congratulated a local tweeter who was cleverly noting the licence plate numbers of cars turning up to loot from shops outside her house. I was criticised for drawing attention to her profile which had a clear picture of her face on it (but, of course, she posted the tweet in the first place).

So to sum up…it’s messy.

On the plus side, I do think real-time web’s ability to self correct is extraordinary. My blunderous retweet was corrected within five minutes. If you don’t mind taking stern words from other users, it’s a rock solid facet to the platform.

However, Twitter being used by journalists, who (hopefully!) question sources and try to verify, is one thing. But non-journalists aren’t necessarily as skeptical of information. A rumour to a journalist could be read as fact by someone else, especially people who are scared.

I still stand by the argument that Twitter is not being used to organise or incite violence. But now I wonder whether exaggerating violence in one place, or spreading rumours about violence in another (as innocent/naive as it is) could potentially encourage those who do want to cause damage?

Of course, this morning’s papers are full of graphic, terrifying images of carnage which the looters will no doubt treasure as well – so it’s a problem for the media at large.

How we use social media in events like this is important, but rightly, low on the list this morning as London, and the UK at large has bigger questions to ask itself…but do be careful what you tweet.

On revolution.

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism by Adam Westbrook on February 11, 2011

Image Credit: monasosh on Flickr; taken Jan 29th, Egypt

Tonight, Egypt’s 30-year-old regime fell.

The hundreds of thousands of protesters in Tahrir Square showed the rest of the world what persistent, peaceful protest can really achieve – in a short space of time. If I were a despot in another part of the world, I’d be nervous, to say the least.

The revolution in Egypt follows (but is not necessarily connected to) a series of major revolutions affecting the world this century. Most immediately the similar political ones in Tunisia and Yemen; but more importantly the revolutions in society, careers, technology – and yes, journalism, which are reforging the way the world works.

The fact is unavoidable: we live in revolutionary times.

These aren’t the thoughts of a lone conspiracy theorist crackpot. I’m not the only, and certainly not the first person to write this. In fact, one of the smartest people on the planet – Sir Ken Robinson – has been saying it for ages. In this speech at the Aspen Institute he defines what revolution really is:

…we are living in times of revolution. And I believe this is literally true; I don’t mean it figuratively, like ‘it’s a bit like a revolution’, or what we think of as a revolution, or what we’ve come to call a revolution. It is a revolution.

A revolution is a time when things you think are obvious turn out not to be. Things you take for granted turn out to be untrue. Things you do habitually turn out to be ineffective. And I believe that’s where we are now, and the pace of this is picking up.

If you work in journalism, hopefully that last paragraph rings true.

If you’re under 30, I think revolution will be the gift, and perhaps also the burden, of your generation. It certainly sets us apart from the baby-boomer generation before us. It is not for us to choose this burden, but it is in our power – and our responsibility – to live up to it.

Before you close this tab and dismiss me as an anarchist, I am not calling for the masses to take up arms and head to the streets. Revolution is rarely about violence (the social-media revolution is the opposite of violence, right?) In fact, all you have to do this: accept it; relish it; embrace it. Revolution is messy, so be prepared to get your hands dirty and your feet wet. You’ll have to accept the conventional wisdom is wrong, and the things you might have taken for granted are untrue.

But whatever you do, don’t resist it. Don’t linger in the past, don’t yearn for things to be the way they were. In a revolution, the Mubaraks always lose. And the only person who suffers when you do that is you.

For the last seven years, this blog has been about a very specific revolution: the revolution in journalism; and about a very specific way of dealing with it: seeing opportunities where other people see threats; being entrepreneurial and creating your own luck…in other words embracing it. The revolution is why I quit my conventional job 18 months ago – and it’s been a wild ride since.

I genuinely think there are unique and extraordinary opportunities to reshape our craft (for the better) that our predecessors never had, if only we go for them. Imagine living in The Matrix – but only temporarily. For as long as the revolution lasts, it is possible to bend spoons if you believe it can be done. But to do so you need to take risks, make your ideas happen, create change, lead other people and start movements…but do it now, because it won’t last forever.

So seriously, jump in – the water’s lovely.

Video: top trends in journalism in 2011

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism, Online Video, studio .fu by Adam Westbrook on January 5, 2011

The New Year is here and that means it’s time to look ahead at some of the big trends in journalism in the 12 months ahead!

This year I’ve brought in some of the brightest young minds in journalism today, including Alex Wood, Tracy Boyer, Patrick Smith and Philip John for their suggestions – and the 11th prediction this year has been suggested by one of you guys!

Enjoy – and if you think I’ve missed anything good out, or got something completely wrong, then the comments box is right downstairs.

Happy New Year!

 

Video: can journalists use online marketing?

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism, Online Video by Adam Westbrook on December 17, 2010

Regular readers will know how much I like throwing ideas from outside journalism head-on into the craft itself – and seeing what comes out.

I recently got hold of a copy of Get Up To Speed With Online Marketing – a new book by social media consultant Jon Reed. It’s a very useful read if you’re starting a new business, or already running a small business. And the key message: don’t spend thousands on old-style marketing, do it all yourself, for free, online.

But what’s that got to do with journalism?

Jon talks about creating valuable, high quality content in video, audio, images and text and then using social media to build a loyal community around it. Sound familiar?

I caught up with Jon and asked him whether journalists could learn anything from the often maligned world of online marketing…

In the video Jon talks about:

  • why online marketing is important for journalists
  • once you’ve created good content, how to get it out there
  • why a niche is important and how to define one

Click here for more information on the book.

Slideshow: the new journalist and the age of social media

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on December 8, 2009

Just a quick post here to flag up an excellent presentation by social media expert JD Lasica.

At 61 slides its pretty long, but in on topics such as journalists as entrepreneurs and storytellers he’s right on the money. There’s also loads of good suggestions for free websites and apps journalists can use.

Over to Mr Lasica (and hattip: Journalism.co.uk)

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Twittersheep: shepherding your flock

Posted in Broadcasting and Media by Adam Westbrook on February 21, 2009

Here’s a great way to get a snapshot of who your followers are on Twitter. It’s assembled from the most commonly used words Tweeple put into their bios.

Twitter Flock

For the serious twitterers it is a useful snapshot of the interests of their followers. I, for example, can see the majority of my followers are journalists, or at least work in the media. Many work in radio. I can now focus my tweets to make them more interesting and relevant.

Incidentally I rarely follow someone unless they put something substantial on the bio.  Click here to find out your twitter flock!

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“Online video is not TV”

Posted in Broadcasting and Media, Journalism by Adam Westbrook on January 26, 2009

OK for many of you reading the title of this post the response will be ‘duh’.  And I think I’d already clocked there’s a big difference between TV video content and online content.

But until I watched a neat video by Visual Editor Robb Montgomery it had never been spelt out to me.

It’s a great video partly because it’s part-travelogue of one of my favourite cities, Paris, but mostly because Robb spells four narratives for online video – essentially four rules for Video Journalism:

01. the visual narrative: “the sequence of shots which tell a story

02. the audio narrative: “interviews, natural sound, scripted pieces

03. the graphics narrative: “titles and motion graphics

04. the social narrative: “the ability to comment, to rank, to group, to friend to embed, all the interactive part of video that makes the digial video experience so compelling.

Now the first three are hallmarks of television. When we learn the grammar of television, we learn to shoot sequences, to build sound and to add graphics.

But the fourth narrative, is really a fourth dimension which gives online video an awesome power – despite the “amateur” criticism so often labelled at it.  In fact Robb’s video is titled “audio is the most important multimedia to get right” Agreed: crappy sound is what gives much VJing it’s amateur title these days.

But Robb is  right: online video is not TV. It’s so much more than TV.As soon as we all realise that the faster it’s potential can be realised.