Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

The 7-step-plan to turn your journalism degree into a career

Posted in Journalism, Next Generation Journalist by Adam Westbrook on September 27, 2010

It’s that time of year again. Except this year the stakes have been upped once more.

If you’re starting your journalism undergraduate or masters degrees this month, then first of all: well done. There was another increase in j-course intake, but still (in the UK at least) thousands of young people didn’t get in. I hope someone has told you already that having letters after your name is not the ticket to a job interview it used to be.

These days you need a strategy to prepare yourself for a very turbulent and brow beaten journalism industry – and a road map to give yourself the edge over the competition.

7 steps, you probably haven’t been told, for turning your journalism degree into a successful journalism career

.01 Learn

“I guess it comes down to a simple choice really: get busy living, or get busy dying”

Andy Dufreyne

Image credit: mikebaird on Flickr

Learn at least 3 new skills. And I mean practical, technical, challenging skills: photography, video editing, data mining, motion graphics production, HTML&CSS, JQuery, infographics design, social media… the list goes on. If there’s one that isn’t being taught as part of your curriculum, then make it your business to learn it in your free time. Look for websites, books, blogs and e-courses specialising in it.

The aim is to become what I call ‘a jack of all trades and a master of one‘: do one thing really well, sure, but widen your skills base in as many other areas as possible. You might think ‘what’s the point at learning JQuery if I’m only ever going to be amateur at it?’ – but your amateur level of coding is valuable to people who know even less than you do (i.e. 98% of people currently working in a newsroom).

The renaissance-style ability to be skilled at many things is back in demand, and the polymath is set for a comeback. Being good at one thing is sooo last century, so use your free time to sharpen your range of skills.

.02 Practice…

“Everyone has talent. What is rare is the courage to follow the talent to the dark place where it leads.”

Erica Jong

You don’t get good at video journalism by reading all the books, making a couple of films, and watching TV. Trust me. I sweat away at making online films 4 days a week, and they’re still not nearly as good as I want them to be (and I’ve been doing this for five years).

While you’re a student you have a massive advantage over the rest of us: access to top-of-the-range gear and more free time on your hands than you know what to do with. You will regret not making the most of this, trust me.

Give yourself a specific project which focuses your practice – something which involves getting deep and dirty with this particular skill for at least 3 hours a week. If you want to learn photography, don’t just book out a camera and take random snaps: do a project taking portraits of the homeless people in your town (for example) and create a public platform for your work in the form of a website.

.03 Publish

“There is no such thing as boring knowledge, only boring presentation”

Dan Roam

Released under Creative Commons licence

Image credit: hejog on Flickr

Get really familiar and comfortable creating content for the internet, publishing it online, and marketing it. Chances are your career will depend on knowing how to do this. Don’t hope/expect a ‘techie’ do all the web stuff for you. Editing a film and uploading it (in the correct standards) to Youtube needs to be second nature to you. And so does using social media to make sure it gets watched.

This one is really important, because if you’re starting uni this year, you’re probably the last generation that may have a memory of life before the internet. There are kids coming up behind you who get millions of views on Youtube without breaking a sweat (see this article for examples) – hell, there are probably a few in your classroom right now.

Start a blog, begin a Tumblr, start audiobooing, whatever – you’ll need to do it now to get over beginner’s nerves and to give yourself time to develop your voice.

.04 Watch less TV

“The best assumption to have is that any commonly held belief is wrong”

Ken Olsen

I watch about 30 minutes of TV a week – and that will go back down to zero when the current series of the Inbetweeners finishes.

Since I cut back on my TV hours my life has got at least 5 times more interesting and exciting than it was before. I have quit my job, I have traveled all over, I have written two books and made a dozen films. What could you do if you stopped watching the X-Factor?

If you still need a fix of something that looks like TV then you would be well advised to fence off 36 minutes a week to watch two TED lectures. Short, succinct presentations from some of the worlds smartest people? Cha-ching!

Don’t just stick to ones about journalism or the media – pick a random one from a marine biologist and your eyes will be opened to new story ideas and issues.

.05 Lead

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood, and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”

Antoine De Saint-Exupery

A great way to separate yourself from the pack while you’re at university is to take the lead on something. The world (including journalism) is full of people who are happy to follow, to consume, to watch others take the chances – but not to take the lead and create something themselves. Are you one of those people? Initiative is a rare attribute – and therefore a very valuable one.

Start a collaborative reporting project and organise your fellow students to contribute to it. Take on the responsibility for being the editor, even when it goes bad, and you’ll learn a lot about yourself and the industry. If there is a problem take responsibility for creating the solution.

.06 Up your game

“It’s your thinking that decides whether you’re going to succeed or fail”

Henry Ford

Released under a Creative Commons Licence

Image credit: Ed Yourdon on Flickr

Here’s the thing: there are way more of you (people studying journalism) than there ever has been. Oh, and there are fewer mainstream jobs. That means increased competition and it means being average just won’t cut it. Five years ago we could all get away with being average at something – the current (and dying) economy is built on selling average stuff at cheap prices. This won’t last.

Don’t go into the jobs market place choosing to be average.  (Notice how I say ‘choosing‘ to be average, and not ‘being‘ average: average is a mindset, not a physical attribute. You stop being average the day you decide you will be awesome-or-bust, and spend every day achieving that.)

It’s not a simple switch however, and takes people months to come to terms with and apply – start now, and you’ll be rocking the free world before the ink dries on your graduation certificate.

.07 earn

“I never perfected an invention that I did not think about in terms of the service it might give others….I find out what the world needs, and then I proceed to invent.”

Thomas Edison

The great thing about being a ‘polymath’ (see point 1, above) is you can potentially make money from doing several different things at once. The internet has made this easier, faster and cheaper than ever. If you haven’t already, aim to turn at least one of your skills into a part-time business before you graduate. Know how to make an awesome website? Then you’ll know how easy it is to set up a web design company. Got a proper SLR camera and all the lenses? Then why not set yourself up as a one-person events photography business?

More than anything, it will get you used to the idea of exchanging your skills for money, and you’ll learn a lot of the basics of business which hold people back from great entrepreneurial ventures in the future. One gig a month shooting an event and you’ll be able to swap the Supernoodles for something nicer – and it won’t invade your study schedule.

Apart from the first one, these are not the traditional “skills the journalists of the future must learn” you’ll see on other j-blogs this year. Preparing yourself for the choppy waters ahead is more than just learning some multimedia skills and starting a blog: it requires a real shift in mindset, and that’s something few students are prepared for.

For more advice and practical skills for Next Generation Journalists click right here!

Have I missed anything off the list? Hit me in the comments box below!

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Hopeful voices on the future of news

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on March 11, 2010

“We have this passion, this drive to step into a field where things don’t look so hot…”

Students on the Poynter journalism Fellowship in the US are clearly pretty passionate about what they’re doing, about storytelling, and about the future of journalism.

Here’s a video they’ve made to raise funds for other students who wouldn’t be able to afford the costs of the course. As Tracy Boyer over at Innovative Interactivity (a former fellow herself) points out the music’s a bit hammy for most tastes, but still it’s great to hear some voices of people who really get it.

You can check out some of the fellows here: Greg Linch and McKenna Ewan.

Maybe letter writing does work…

Posted in Adam, Broadcasting and Media by Adam Westbrook on April 16, 2007

Today’s Media Guardian has a spread announcing the launch of the 2007 Student Media Awards – the annual parade of student journalism talent in the UK.

And for the first time, there’s a category for Student Broadcaster of the Year.

It’s taken 12 months exactly…but maybe letter writing does work:

Letter to the Media Guardian

Shame all three of us are no longer elible to enter though.

[Cheers to Doidge for the tip off]

Cabin fever

Posted in Adam, News and that by Adam Westbrook on March 23, 2007

What happens when TV journalists spend seven hours in an edit suite with barely a break?

This does.

Nick, Shona, Harry, Adam

Comments Off on Cabin fever

Ghana @ 50: a leading light?

Posted in International Development by Adam Westbrook on March 5, 2007

Kids in AccraThe oldest independent nation in Africa, Ghana is – in my not very important opinion – a model for the rest of the continent to follow. A sound leadership, but backed by tangible credible democracy, and because of that a strong economy.

And best of all, peace. Whatever people say about the “gentle giant” John Kufour, he’s helped lead Ghana into an enviable lack of violence, discrimination or intimidation. And that’s in spite of sitting between two rather less peaceful neighbours – Togo and Cote D’Ivoire – and the ramblings of the old dictator Jerry Rawlings, who it still amazes me gets at least one newspaper front page a week. And this is backed up by some promising figures.

I was contacted this week by the World Bank believe it or not, who gave me some of their latest research on Ghana as she turns a golden fifty. They’ve concluded the following:

  • There’s been strong improvements in the business climate, political stability and press freedom.
  • Inflation’s decreased from 40% to 10% and the economy’s growing by around 6% a year, compared to 4% over the past 20 years.
  • Poverty’s down to 33.4%, from nearly 40% in 2000 and over fifty percent in 1990.

And most amazing of all:

  • Ghana may be able to halve poverty by 2015.

That would be a phenomenal acheivement – even Britain’s pretty poor on poverty, especially among children. The World Bank says it thinks the chances of Ghana becoming a middle-class country in the next few years as “high”. Accra street

That, I think, is down to the reasons above, but also many others. Not least the fact people in Ghana seem pretty unhappy unless they’re aiming big and changes are happening.

Check this article from BBC News’ Alexis Akwagyiram in Accra. It’s a report about a debate held between a government minister Frank Agyekum and a group of young Ghanaians. “Despite the air conditioning,” Alexis writes, “the minister is sweating”.

“Sitting amongst hundreds of young Ghanaians, the government spokesman is being forced to defend his administration’s record against a barrage of criticism. Issues ranging from corruption and economic mismanagement to the country’s education system are being held up as examples of failure.”

So despite amazing and unrivalled improvements over the past ten years, people aren’t satisfied. And that’s so important because it means complacancy will never set in. And the fact that a government minister can be held to account to without fear is almost unrivalled too:

“…most of the crowd, which consists almost entirely of people aged between 20 and 30, make it clear they disagree by murmuring and heckling.”

Ghana kings …there are some country’s where that kind of behaviour gets you in trouble.

The crowd were worried most about corruption and I seem to remember from my time in Ghana that was a problem – but tiny compared to corruption in Burkina Faso and Mali.

There are 25 heads of state plus delegates from 60 countries arriving for tomorrows jubilee celebrations. And I hope everyone else joins in as well…Ghana has a lot to celebrate!

Discrimination in the media: it’s not race – it’s money

Posted in Broadcasting and Media by Adam Westbrook on February 27, 2007

Is radio racist?

That was the question asked at a Radio Academy event I went to last week. Arguments went round in a circles a little bit, with nobody actually producing even anecdotal evidence of any prejudice or discrimination in the line of their work.

Then my friend Jimmy, who works at the Radio Centre, produced some yet-to-be-published statistics from Skillset, which poured a bit more fuel on the fire:

  • Averaged out, about 6% of the UK population are non-white.
  • 10.9% of the BBC’s staff are non-white
  • 3.1% of staff in the commercial radio sector are non-white.

A bit embarassing for commercial radio really, but you do have to mention that the majority of local radio staff work in regions and small towns. Compare that to the Beeb’s mainly London based staff. And in London nearer 30% of people are from ethnic minority backgrounds.

My own personal conclusion was (in regards to employment) the media industry is possibly the least racist industry there is. But it does discriminate still – against people, of all races, without money.

Greasy poles and NUJ polls

Take my course for example. To train to be a journalist at City University will set you back £5,995. Its equivalent at Westminster is £4,700 and £5,391 at Cardiff.

And on top of that we, plus anyone wanting to go into any branch of the industry, usually do at least a couple of months worth of unpaid work experience. And on rare occasions we get our travel expenses paid. That’s happened to me once.

I’m not for one second trying to moan about this or get above my station. I know I’m one of thousands clambering at the bottom of a great whopping dirty greasy pole; if I didn’t work for free, there are hundreds behind me who will. It’s part of the process.
But it’s worried the National Union of Journalists who today handed a survey to Her Majesty’s Custom and Exise highlighting the exploitation of people on work experience by certain companies. An early day motion’s also been tabled in parliament to discuss the NUJ’s findings.

They say some companies are bringing in unpaid students on work experience to fill HR gaps and sick leave. Here’s one example from the NUJ’s survey:

“At my local paper – I was given several by-lines including a front page exclusive and was not even offered payment for my travel expenses.”

Money, money, money

Again, I’m not here to moan, and a lot of the case studies in the NUJ survey seem to be just general “I didn’t get to do anything” rants. One person even complains I really had to push to get work and used my own initiative to get stuff on air”…well done mate – that’s how it works.

But they do raise a good point about the cost of going into this industry. And if you’re doing the work that a freelancer could be brought in to do, then by rights you should be paid the rates.

It’s a hugely rewarding industry when you get in and – I dearly hope – my six grand will have more than paid for itself this time next year.

But it’s cold and wet on the outside looking in. Is it surprising that people get turned off from the media when they have to sacrifice so much to get in? You need extraordinary amounts of money to get started, and it’s sad fact that most of the people who can’t afford fees or unpaid work happen to be from BME backgrounds.

But that’s a socio-economic problem for Britain as a whole – it’s not something the media industry (as powerful as it is) is not equipped to deal with.

The toughest degree there is

Posted in International Development by Adam Westbrook on February 25, 2007

Students like to moan a fair bit. The course is too expensive, the work’s too hard, the lectures are too boring, the exams are badly organised…it goes on.

But imagine trying to study in Baghdad.

Having been a student since the Iraq conflict began I’m ashamed I haven’t even considered what it’s like to study in one of the most dangerous country’s on earth. Perhaps it’s because I just assumed education has been cancelled amid the daily carnage of market bombings and kidnappings.

But it goes on. And for Iraqi students this week is the start of their mid term exams.

According to Correspondent Sahar, writing for the fascinating Inside Iraq blog, the scariest part of the exams for the students is not the pressure of the exams, the last minute revision or the panic of a topic overlooked…it’s the fact that the exams have to have a fixed timetable.

That means they’re effectively “sitting ducks” for the next ten days.

Usually, lecturers are forced to adopt a random timetable that’s never the same for more than a week, to avoid the kidnappers, the snipers and the bombers.

As Sahar says, it’s something the students are sadly used to as an unimaginable addition to the stress of study:

Snipers pick inhabitants and students walking from college to hospital or back. One car stops in front of the entrance, lets out one handcuffed young man, waits for him to take a few steps away … and then he is shot, bait, it turned out. Naïve students run to his aid only to be shot at by snipers on a rooftop of a high building in Haifa Street.