Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

The beauty of beta mode

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism by Adam Westbrook on March 19, 2012

Everyone should have the word ‘beta’ after their name. In fact, I’m thinking of putting it on my website when I give it a redesign.

It’s a reference you’ll probably recognise to new websites and businesses which often first go public in ‘beta mode’. It denotes that fact that they are still in a  a process of testing, experimenting, failing and debugging. Gmail was famously in beta mode for more than five years.

Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn says the startup approach can be applied to real people: their lives and careers ought to be in ‘permanent beta’. “We are all works in progress” he says.

Thing is, many people try to get out of the beta version of their lives as soon as possible, and into ‘finished’ mode: the complete career, the complete marriage, the complete house.

And us creative types: online publishers, designers, film makers and journalists do the same thing when we make something new. We rush to get it into perfect mode as swiftly as possible.

The problem with this approach to anything is it is extremely limiting.

Firstly, it limits ideation and iteration: two important parts of any creative process. If you aim for a perfect first shoot, it means your first idea has to be the best. Therefore you ignore all other ideas. You’re also less open to changing from that idea when something better comes along.

Quick tip#1: your first idea is never the best one.

Some say a good approach is a 10:3:1 ratio. You come up with at least 10 ideas, whittle down to the top three, and then pick the best. I used a similar idea with the Future of News mini-meetups in 2010, where I got people to brainstorm a large number of ideas around a problem, aiming for quantity over quality.

Secondly, and with more serious consequences, aiming for perfect limits your mindset. Rushing out of beta mode into finished mode makes you do dangerous things:

  • avoid taking big risks
  • avoid starting projects you don’t know for certain will work
  • discard projects you don’t think will make any money
  • delay or discard big dreams and plans for the future
  • settle

What if you were always in beta?

Imagine how your life would be if, instead of aiming to get out of beta-mode, you relished being in it.

Imagine relishing experimentation, failure, uncertainty, being scared and unprepared. Think of the things it would make you do. The projects you would start for the hell-of-it, and the serendipity that would create. The places you would travel to just to see what it was like, the events you would go to just because.

We would be more bold and more varied in our careers. Young people wouldn’t feel pressured into a specific career early on, or feel like they couldn’t move on to something completely different. More risky innovative projects would get started and finished, which in turn would affect and inspire more people. People wouldn’t wait for permission or the ‘right time’ to get going with something.

Quick tip #2: you don’t need anyone’s permission and the ‘right time’ never comes.

More people would get their hands dirty. We would stop trying to plan and prepare for things we can’t control. And if things don’t work out it’s not a deal-breaking catastrophe, just an opportunity to take stock, change-up and pivot to something new.

That’s what good startups do when they’re in beta mode, because it’s the best way to deal with the uncertainty of entrepreneurship. Isn’t it time we accepted our lives & careers today are filled with just the same uncertainty? 

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What’s holding you back? Trust me, it’s not the money

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism by Adam Westbrook on January 23, 2012

This is my contribution to January’s Carnival of Journalism, this month asking:  “Can a journalist be a capitalist?”

Michael Rosenblum, sometimes controversial and always worth a read, is leading the discussion with his post “How to make millions as a journalist“. He argues that journalists today should make being rich a goal instead of pursuing a myth of martyrdom, sacrificing wealth for the pursuit of the ‘truth’.

I can testify to Michael’s point that without money “you are a perpetual victim, a perpetual employee” – a difficult cycle to escape without a big break or some big balls.  As someone wise once told me, in the last ‘proper’ job I ever had: “you’ll never become a millionaire working for someone else”.

It’s not for everyone I know, but personally, I would love to see more journalists & publishers – especially young ones – breaking free while they can, simply because so many of the hurdles have been removed. And as I’ve said before this window of opportunity won’t last forever. 

Michael is right in lots of ways – but he misses an important point. Yes, journalists shouldn’t shy away from making big bucks. But to do so, you have to be motivated by something more than money.

Taking flight

There’s a well-known story around the invention of the first flying machine 110 years ago. In 1902 there was a race of sorts to build the first ever plane. If you were alive then, you would have put your bets on Samuel Pierpont Langley – he had years of experience, a huge grant from the US War Department and good connections with the most important people in the country. Meanwhile deep in Ohio were Orville and Wilbur Wright, with no money, no contacts and just a few friends to help them out in a small shed.

But they were famously driven by the dream of flight and its potential to change the world. Langley, on the other hand, was in it for the money and the fame. Despite his huge budget he was beaten to the prize in December 1903 when the Wright Brothers made their historic flight. Langley apparently gave up just a short time later.

Wanting to making millions for the sake of it is not a goal.

Journalists shouldn’t be shackled into a lifetime of looking and dressing like Columbo, but in order to break from that we must be driven by something bigger than money. Remember, Steve Jobs wanted to revolutionise the technology industry and even ‘make a dent in the universe’ – that was what got him out of bed, not the money.

You won’t get rich from a hyperlocal blog if your plan is just to sell ads on the site. But if you’re driven by an ambitious dream to make lasting change in your local community and make it a better place to live (and you can inspire others to follow you in that pursuit) …then you’re onto something.

You also won’t make much money setting up a multimedia production company if your plan is just to hire yourself out to whoever needs a video made. But if you get out of bed every day because you really think the industry needs storytellers that give a voice to the voiceless & challenge the mainstream media’s myopic view of the world…then you can achieve big change.

It’s not a fear of making money us lowly hacks suffer from, it’s a fear of big ideas – of what we could really achieve. 

NOTE: Michael has rounded up all the comments from this month’s discussion – there’s a variety of opinions about journalism and business, so it’s worth a read.

The multimedia journalist’s Christmas list

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism, Online Video by Adam Westbrook on December 12, 2011

What to buy a multimedia journalist for Christmas?

On Monday I published a book list of great titles for any journalist, producer or publishing entrepreneur. If you’re still looking for festive ideas, here are ten gadgets and gifts perfect for any next generation journalist. Enjoy!

Field Notes Set: ($9.95/£7) Moleskins are so last year. These days, the chic journalist jots their thoughts down in a Field Notes book, currently on sale in handy three-pack sets. If you don’t already, always carry a notebook with you, and always write everything down!

Redhead windscreen: ($35/£22) a quirky essential for any multimedia producer recording audio in the field. These hand made windshields are designed specifically for the Zoom and Tascam audio recorders and if the video on the website’s anything to go by, they do an amazing job of ensuring crisp audio in windy conditions. Added bonus: your audio recorder will look like a robot troll.

Adobe After Effects: ($1,320/£850) The ability to design and animate motion graphics is becoming a popular extra string to any multimedia journalists bow. The most popular (but not necessarily the best) suite is Adobe’s After Effects. Get this with a good guide book, and you’ll be creating knockout animations in months.

External hard drive: ($290/£180) Just like no-one is disappointed to receive some Amazon vouchers for Christmas, some extra terabytes always come in handy. This 2TB beast from G-Tech is both reliable and lovely lookin’.

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaccson: ($18/£12) this is on everyone’s Christmas list this year, and if it’s anything like the man’s speeches, talks and writing, it’ll be full of wisdom on creativity and business. Not to mention an insight into what it takes to revolutionise an industry.

Kindle Fire: ($199 US Only) People who have upgraded their original Kindle are raving about the Kindle Fire. The new one comes in colour and allows more iPad style user experience, but without the iPad price tag.

Plug bug: ($34.99 – US Only) A downside of all this 21st century gadgetry is it tends to hog all the plug sockets in the house. Well, TwelveSouth have come up with a neat solution: ‘one plug, two chargers, tres cool’.

Vimeo Plus subscription: ($59.99/£38) A year long subscription to Vimeo’s plus service gives you unlimited HD uploads, better viewing stats and a pass to the front of the encoding queue. Well worth it for any serious online video producer.

Glidetrack MobiSlider: ($129/£99 opening offer, December 2011) Yes, the inevitable has happened – someone’s brought out a camera slider specifically for iPhones and other small HD cameras. If you can get past the garish neon green design, this the most affordable way to add some elegant tracking to your smartphone footage.

Camera Table Dolly: ($90/£58 via PhotoJojo) But if wheels are more your thing, then why not try this new Table Camera Dolly – smooth camera moves with a greater variety of angles – a cheap option for any DSLR film-maker.

Holstee Manifesto: ($25/£16) This modest little poster has hit the internet like wildfire in 2011. I’ve had a copy on my wall for more than a year and it makes an inspiring reminder to go do epic shit. If you’re a freelancer or entrepreneur, this is good piece of decoration.

The gift of knowledge

Cheesy I know, but if you’d rather give someone’s brain a present for 2012, then here are three unrelentingly practical ideas guaranteed to make the recipients life better.

A good book: Easy to wrap as well! Here are 10 ideas from my other blog post this week.

Lynda.com ($25/£16 per month) There’s Google of course, but then there’s Lynda.com – the best online tutorial place I can think of. If you want to learn InDesign, Final Cut Pro, even HTML then Lynda’s got it all. A month’s subscription (enough to pick up a new skill) is in that perfect price range too.

RosettaStone ($240/£150+) Want a sure-fire way to beat the competition in a job interview? Knowing your Bună dimineaţa from your Guten Morgen is a sure fire way. Personally I’m trying to improve my French, but Rosetta Stone offers a range of languages to learn at home.

Thinking of a journalism start-up? Here’s a checklist

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on November 5, 2009

If the future of journalism is indeed entrepreneurial, we have to start thinking with a business hat on.

It’s a big change in mentality for some journalists. I’ve been to several events and meetings recently where hacks have insisted people will have to pay for news “because journalists have to eat”.

This is upside-down thinking. People don’t buy iPhones because Steve Jobs needs to eat. They buy them because they are an innovative product which satisfies a demand people are willing to pay for.

And so it must be if journalists are to be entrepreneurs. I’ve put together a list of criteria a new business idea might need to satisfy to see it become successful. I don’t think a successful business will need to satisfy all of them, or maybe even 50%. But ignoring these questions means another financial failure…

News start-up checklist

  1. Is it a new idea?

  2. Does it have a defined target audience?

  3. Does it provide niche (i.e. hyperlocal) content?

  4. Does it satisfy a desire that is not being fulfilled by someone else?

  5. Or does it do something better (faster, cheaper, more effectively) than someone else?

  6. Does it actually have income potential, or will it rely on funding?

  7. Does it use the power of crowd-sourcing/community?

  8. Would it be fulfilling for journalists to work for?

  9. Does it publish/exist on more than one platform?

  10. If it has content, is it sharable?

  11. Does it require a lot of money to run?

  12. Does it have boot-strapping potential?

  13. Does it scale?

  14. Does it fulfill a public service?

  15. Is it a legally sound idea? What about copyright?

  16. Would it appeal to venture capitalists, angel investors?

  17. And…does it have a cool name?

That’s what I’ve come up with so far. I think if you answer these questions at the early stages, you’ll have a greater chance of your start up succeeding. What it says is a sustainable business – journalism or otherwise – begins with a solid well-defined customer base.

You need to know who these customers are, and be really clear about why you are providing something they can’t get elsewhere. Innocent Smoothies was begun by three British students in 1999 who realised there was a demand for healthy fruit smoothies, which wasn’t being satisfied by anyone else. It now has a revenue of £128m.

US start-up “incubator” Y-Combinator is looking for new media business ideas which embrace this form of thinking:

What would a content site look like if you started from how to make money—as print media once did—instead of taking a particular form of journalism as a given and treating how to make money from it as an afterthought?

Add more to the list in the comments below if you have any. And while you’re here, read the comments of one reader on an earlier blog entry. Some interesting criticism of the notion journalism is entrepreneurial at all…