Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

10 new years resolutions to make you a better multimedia journalist

Posted in 6x6 series, Journalism by Adam Westbrook on January 1, 2010

What will 2010 bring?

It’s sure to be an eventful year in journalism and multimedia and I’ve already spelled out a few of my predictions for the year. But how can you prepare yourself for all the twists and turns? If you’ve already given up smoking, joined the gym and don’t need to loose any weight, here are 10 resolutions to make you a better multimedia journalist in 2010.

01. Learn a new web skill

You can’t live in fear of code, CMS, templates ‘and all that geeky stuff’ any longer: if you don’t know a bit of HTML the other 50 people going for your dream job will. Or maybe only one of them will, it doesn’t matter, they’ll still probably get the job.

There are two myths about learning web languages: 01. it’s really difficult; 02. it costs money. They’re both false.

Learning any of the basic web languages is both relatively easy and free. You can fork out £40/$60 on “HTML for Dummies” if you want but it’s not necessary. I’ve just spent a few hours over Christmas lounging on the sofa teaching myself Javascript on my laptop.

If you’re still not convinced, think about this: society is moving increasingly online and news definitely is. How much of a handicap is it to be unable to speak the language of the web? It’s like moving to France without knowing a jot of French. And then trying to get a job on Le Monde.

Four things you can learn:

  1. HTML/XHTML
  2. CSS
  3. Javascript
  4. J-Query

02. Read up on business

I’ve said several times in recent articles and videos, as have many others, there is potential for journalists to employ business skills to create small, nimble journalistic ventures which return a profit. Even if most balk at that idea, multimedia journalists – especially freelancers – should tool up on business skills to maximise their profits.

Again, don’t be scared off by the unfamiliarity of the subject. Use the New Year to grasp the nettle and dive straight in. I’ve been reading lots of business books over the last three months, investigating how journalists can employ business knowledge in a news environment. The results will appear in a new e-book here in the spring.

In the meantime, study successful business people and find out how they made it work. And remember this, the most successful businesspeople often come from non-business backgrounds:

  • Richard Branson (him off Virgin) left school with few qualifications. Despite being  dyslexic, he set up his own magazine.
  • Duncan Bannatyne (off that there Dragons Den) was a beach bum until he turned 30, when he started selling ice-cream, now he’s worth more than £100m.

03. Make audio slideshows

If you haven’t made any audio slideshows yet, pledge to make at least one in 2010. They’re great because they’re relatively quick and cheap to make (a second-hand SLR and audio recorder could set you back perhaps £300; Soundslide software is just £50) and the results can be stunning.

They’re also removed of the production distractions of shooting videos, so you can focus on telling a great story.

The weekend audio slideshow challenge:

  1. Got a free weekend on the horizon? Start thinking of story ideas near you. All you need is one or more people to interview, and a setting with the opportunity for great photographs and great sounds. Set it up. On Saturday morning go and record the story and take lots of pics.
  2. On Sunday morning go through your material and craft it into a story on paper. Then edit the audio together using Audacity (free software) and create a slideshow in Soundslide.
  3. Sleep on the results, and after making changes, upload the final piece on Monday morning. Use social networks like LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook to share it. And you could even try to pitch it to a paper.
  4. Repeat as many weekends as possible.

04. Learn a new design skill

I think New Years Resolutions should be about learning new things, not prohibiting things (can you tell?). Here’s another.

A journalist with a great visual eye makes for a good multimedia storyteller. Composition, colour are really important, especially if you’re working in video or photography. But there will be more calls for interactive designers in the future. People who can create stunning data visualisations using Java and design software.

If none of the resolutions appeal to you so far, think about learning how to use Photoshop (or even cheaper, its open source equivalent GIMP); of how about Illustrator or DreamWeaver? And start bringing in some design blogs into your blog reader. I gave some suggestions in my best of the blogs post.

Join a network like Deviant Art or Behance to show off your work.

05. Pick up a microphone

This is an appeal to make 2010 the year you take audio seriously. If you’re shooting video or audio slideshows, audio is half of the magic, and coming back with poor sound quality shouldn’t be acceptable.

Spend some money on a decent microphone and spend some time learning how to use it properly.

6×6: audio

In my e-book “6×6 skills for multimedia journalists” I devote a chapter to getting good audio. Click here to download it.

06. Have personal projects

Life shouldn’t be all work, work, work – even if we are lucky enough to call journalism our job. Devote time to personal creative projects. They’re a fantastic way to keep your creativity vitalised.

Make it the part of journalism you love the most – writing maybe, or shooting video, or designing graphics…and give yourself a project just for the hell of it. It’ll keep you in a happy place I promise.

Ideas for personal projects

  • Create a tumblr account and use it to post your own creative bits and pieces
  • Start writing that novel or screenplay. Go on, just write the thing!
  • Design a new range of awesome posters
  • Create an audio portrait of an interesting area or neighbourhood over the space of 6 months
  • Start creating blogazines instead of boring old blog posts

07. Aim to double your blog readership or website hit rate

Challenge yourself to create a website that really sells you and gives value to readers. The key, as all the blogging mavens tell you, is creating great content. Make 2010 the year you stop posting funny videos or rants about something you read in the paper, and focus your content.

What value can you share with other people? What do you know about that other people will want to know about it? If you’re a journalist, there’s a good chance there’s something you can share.

This very post is a good example. I was close to writing a “my goals for 2010” post, and bore you all with my plans for next year. Then I thought I could add much more value to your day by coming up with this list.

08. Devote time to storytelling

One of the things I learned in 2009 was about the importance of storytelling, how most storytelling nowadays is crap, how many of us think it’s something we’re born with or that it’s easy.

Storytelling is in fact a craft in itself: choosing the characters, developing a narrative, conflict and climax. Take time in 2010 to learn more about this mysterious and under-appreciated art. A good place to start would be to get hold of a copy of Robert McKee’s excellent book Story. He’s been quoted all over this blog in 2009.

09. Collaborate and hookup

One of my aims for 2010 is to collaborate more. Teaming up with other people, especially those who have strengths where you have weaknesses is really fulfilling. Collaborating also gives projects a better chance of getting funding and of getting finished. So don’t go it alone in 2010.

At the same time, talk to more journalists, and collaborate on ideas for the future of news. More than 150 people have joined the Future of News Meetup Group I created in 2009, and in 2010 we’ll be meeting every month to thrash out new, positive, tangible ideas on what the news landscape will look like.

If you’re in London, make sure you sign up and get involved. If you’re not in London, then create your own for your area!

10. Be audacious

2009 was a rough year. And the signs are 2010 won’t be any easier, especially if you’re a journalist. But make a decision now not to get battered around by the waves of the economic storm. Your future doesn’t have to be shaped by events around you, just you, your ideas, and whether you’re prepared to turn them into reality.

“If you don’t find what you’re looking for, be it, create it.”

S. Dawns

Whatever your resolutions and goals are for next year, make them audacious. Make them big and make them exciting. If they don’t excite you or scare you a little bit, what hope do you have of making them happen?

And a final resolution for you….keep reading this blog!  It’s been great to have all your comments and feedback in 2009; there will be lots more practical advice about multimedia journalism in 2010, including two ebooks before February.  To make sure you don’t miss out, use the form to the right to subscribe to future posts.

Whatever you have planned for 2010, I hope it’s awesome. Happy New Year!

6×6: storytelling

Posted in 6x6 series, Journalism by Adam Westbrook on August 21, 2009

6x6 advice for multimedia journalists

The third in a series of 6 blogs, each with 6 tips for the next generation of freelance multimedia journalists.

storytelling

A lot of the focus for multimedia journalists and digital journalists has been on the new technology: using Twitter, learning Flash. But there’s a danger that in the rush to learn new skills, we forgot (or never learn) the oldest ones. And there is no skill older, or more important, than storytelling.

Maybe you think it’s something you can’t learn; it comes naturally. You might think it’s something with no rules: each story is different. True, but there is a science to storytelling as well as an art: here are 6 secrets.

01. who’s your character?

Every story needs a character. Lord of the Rings has dozens, but your short doc or audio slideshow might only have one. Either way, they need to be compelling, and they need to be embarking on a journey. And we need to like them or be fascinated by them, because we’re going to follow their journey: and we want our audience to follow it too.

No matter what your story, it needs a character. In old-media land this is known crudely as the “case study”. (Think how many TV news reports start with a case study!). But they are crucial because they humanise what might actually be a general issue. Making a doc about homelessness?  You best make sure it stars a homeless person.

Beware though the difference between Character and Characterization. Robert McKee in his excellent book Story tells us the latter is the outward description of a person-their personality, age, height, what clothes they wear; but character is the true essence of the person in the story. That true character is only revealed when their journey puts them under increased pressures.

The decisions we all make under pressure are the ones which reveal our true character.

02. the narrative arc

The next thing you want to do is find your story’s narrative arc. Remember I mentioned your character’s journey? Well that’s your narrative arc.

It starts with what Hollywood screenwriters call “The Incident Incident.” It’s the moment which instills in your character a desire to achieve a seemingly insurmountable goal/object of desire. It sets them on a mission – a quest.

This mission must challenge them in increasingly difficult ways (and never decreasingly), rising to a climax to which the audience can imagine no other. Writing in the Digital Journalist, Ken Kobre sums it up:

“Besides a beginning, middle and end, a good story has a memorable protagonist who surmounts obstacles en route to achieving a goal that we care about.”

Stories work better with a real play-off of positive and negative charges. Something good happens, and then something bad. Then something even better than before, and then something even worse than before. Robert McKee describes a second device, called “gap of expectation”: that’s where your character’s expectations of an event are blown apart by reality.

03. Oi! Where’s the conflict?

You’re making a film about that homeless person on a mission to get his life back on track. The first thing he wants to do is get some money for a small flat. He asks the council. They give him the money. The end.

Lame story.

Why? Because there is no conflict! I hate conflict in real life, but in storytelling it’s essential. There must be forces opposing your character and their mission. And sparks must fly. McKee lists three types of conflict:

  1. Inner conflict: your character is in conflict with themselves (Kramer vs Kramer)
  2. Personal: your character’s in conflict with people around them (Casablanca)
  3. Extrapersonal: your character’s on conflict with something massive (Independence Day)

04. climax!

Traditionally stories end in a climax. The ever increasing ups and downs culminate in either an ultimate high (happy ending) or ultimate low (sad ending). Either way, the key word is “ultimate”. In Hollywood-land the ending must be so climatic they cannot possibly imagine another way of doing it.

In the real world it is not always the way, but you should have half a mind on how your story is going to end. Crucially if they’ve been set off on a quest, they should finish it for better or worse. The ending should still be “absolute and irreversible”.

05. use tried and tested storytelling techniques

There are lots of little storytelling devices you can use to add some sparkle to your work.

  • Book-ending: returning the character/place/event which opened your piece, at the end, is a nice way to sum up what’s changed. It can add a bit of emotional punch too.
  • Narrative hook: opening the piece with an enticing, unexplained event, interview, image to suck the viewers right in
  • Get the crayons out: popular in internet memes everywhere, getting people to write something down and hold it up to the camera is very effective (just check out SOTM if you need proof); I know of a very experienced reporter who took crayons and paper to a refugee camp and got children to draw the terrible things they’d seen: another great device.

06. stories are everywhere!

These guidelines are really used by authors, and screen writers – people who create stories from scratch. As journalists we aren’t making up stories (hopefully not, anyway) – but we should have our eyes and ears open to these elements in the real world to heighten the sense of story for our audience.

And most of all – remember stories are everywhere! I have never been more inspired than by reading Cory Tennis’ advice to one floundering journalism graduate, unable to get work:

“And then, with the irony that cloaks us against utter nihilism, we think, if only we were living in more interesting times! And that is the confounding thing about it, isn’t it? That we stand on the nodal point of a great, creaking, crunching change in historical direction, at the beginning of cataclysmic planetary collapse, at the dying of civilization, at the rising of new empires, at our own meltdown, as a million stories bloom out of the earth like wildflowers in the spring and we think, gee, uh, if only there were some good stories to tell.”

The best way to learn the craft of storytelling, is to get out there and tell some.

The final word:

“A storyteller is a life poet, an artist who transforms day-to-day living, inner life and outer life, dream and actuality into a poem whose rhyme scheme is events rather than words – a two-hour metaphor that says: Life is like this! Therefore a story must be abstract from life to discover its essences, but must not become an abstraction that loses all sense of a life-as-lived. A story must be like life, but not so verbatim that it has no depth or meaning beyond anyone in the street.”

Robert McKee Story.

Next: the creative entrepreneur!