Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

How to feed your journalism cow

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism by Adam Westbrook on September 22, 2011

Image: cheeseslave on Flickr

Here’s a question I bet you don’t get often: do you feed your cow?

In the early days of my freelance career, back in January 2010, I spent a couple of weeks working on a film with video journalism supremo David Dunkley-Gyimah at the Southbank Centre in London.

We were interviewing artists from around the world, and every discipline imaginable: poets, musicians, film makers, painters and violinists. Among them was the architect Shumon Basar. Off camera he was the most interesting and relaxed, and while we were talking he said something that’s stuck with me since.

He said whatever type of art you do, it’s vital you keep consuming ideas and information. He likened the brain to a cow: ‘you want the cow to produce milk [ideas] but to do that you must feed it well.’

Journalism, and its periphery disciplines (writing, film making, photography, design) consume ideas like we consume petrol. If you’ve worked on a magazine, 24-hour news channel or even run a blog, you’ll know just how ideas hungry these things are.

So, no matter how busy you are, make time to take Betsy out for a big lunch. As always, I’d love your own personal recommendations too – stick ’em in the comments box!

Six things to feed the cow

.01 A good newsletter

Sign up some inspiring, idea-laden, newsletters, that pop into your inbox without you having to do anything. If it’s sitting in your inbox it’s harder to ignore, and you can still save it for later on.

I’m personally loving two particular newsletters right now: BrainPickings, a weekly collection of great design and ideas curated by Maria Popova in New York. Her Twitter feed is really worth following too. Secondly the Do Lectures (think TED lectures but on a Welsh farm) send out a weekly newsletter called Kindling, which does just that: it sets off little sparks of inspiration and lets them catch hold.

.02 TED Lectures

If you can make time, even once a week, to watch an 18 minute TED lecture, you’ll be a more informed and inspired person. As well as good talks on productivity, ideas and the like, the best TED talks are about something completely off the wall, like whaling or painting.

The success of the format relies on the focus on new ideas (rather than a soap box for criticism) and on the 18 minute slot: too short for an expert to waffle on for hours, but too long to just scramble a powerpoint together at the last minute. This one on the future of online video has inspired my ideas throughout 2011.

.03 Kickstarter

Never mind cool ideas, what about being inspired by what people are actually doing? That’s why I love visiting KickStarter. It started as a platform to raise funds for cool projects, but has a secondary role as a hub for inspiring ideas people are trying to get off the ground. If you’re a film maker, it’s a useful watering hole to see what documentary projects people are trying to get off the ground.

I’m living in patient wait for KickStarter to become available to those outside the US (at the moment only US citizens can fundraise). Oh and if you see one you like, don’t forget to donate a dollar or two to the cause.

.04 Video .fu library

Speaking of films, I couldn’t miss off the video .fu library from this list. I’ve been curating a collection of epic, cinematic, memorable video storytelling all year. There are more than 30 films in the library so far, and dozens of subscribers.

In particular, I look for factual stories which take a cinematic approach to how they’re made, focusing on compelling characters and strong narrative arcs. Many appear on this blog but not until some time after they’re in the library so get an early peek. If you’re looking for inspiration for characters, styles or story structure, this is a good place to start.

.05 This American Life

This American Life is a wonderful way to feed the cow when you’re on a long journey or even just commuting to work. The hour-long weekly podcast is a finely crafted nugget of great stories well told, by Ira Glass and his team. If you want to learn how to tell better stories you must listen to TAL.

As it’s a podcast it’s something you can drop onto your iPod, iPhone or just the laptop, and listen when you’re travelling. A word of warning about This American Life: each episode demands (and rewards) your concentration. Don’t listen while you’re doing emails or writing a blog post – give it your full attention.

.06 beta620

A new product from the New York Times, beta620 is a platform for experimental projects being tried about by developers, journalists and co at the paper. They include apps and mashups – worth a visit to see what some of the smartest people in journalism are up to. They also have some great hacking events going on, if you’re NYC based.

Of course, I should add visits to museums, galleries and exhibitions to this list, plus who knows how many countless books. But at least this digital selection is something you can dive into right away. Please add your own suggestions below!

Meet the online video heroes of 2010

Posted in Online Video by Adam Westbrook on December 21, 2010

I’ve got a really good feeling about 2011: online video is going to be huge.

This last year’s been ramping up to that realisation. In the past few months I’ve been approached by journalists, online magazines, charities, corporations and even individuals seeing the enormous potential of online video and wanting to commission films, consulting or training.

Pick up a camera. Shoot something. No matter how small, no matter how cheesy, no matter whether your friends and your sister star in it. Put your name on it as director. Now you’re a director. Everything after that you’re just negotiating your budget and your fee.

James Cameron

The real heroes are the people out there already making video. They’re not asking if it’ll make money before picking up their camera.They’re just getting off their arse and creating content. The online videos heroes I’ve chosen have done more than made a pretty film: they’ve used online video in a new way, for journalism, art or even business.

The list is pretty arbitrary though: if you know other, better online video heroes, add them to the list via the comments!

my online video heroes of 2010

1. Phos Pictures

Heading up the list is a group of three young American filmmakers who are showing the rest of us how online documentary ought to be done. They blew me away back in March with Last Minutes With Oden a short about one man and his dog, a piece so good, it was recognised as Vimeo’s documentary of the year. It’s clocked up 1.3million page views at last count. They followed it quickly with Pennies HEART and most recently with The KINGDOM.

I interviewed filmmaker Lukas Korver about the production of their films for blog.fu earlier this year – check it out here.

2. Yoodoo

Coming in from a different line is the UK enterprise Yoodoo.biz, founded by Nick Saalfield and Tony Heywood. I met them both when I invited them to speak at the UK Future of News Meetup back in the spring.

Yoodoo is an online training course for entrepreneurs and new businesses. It is content which could be delivered through text and pictures. Any other producers would probably do just that. But Nick and Tony saw the potential of online video earlier than many, and the free course is delivered through short video interviews.

Disclaimer: I write occasionally for Yoodoo.

3. Food Curated

What you need to know about me is pretty simple. I love food. And I love telling a good story.

That’s how Liza Mosquito de Guia describes the founding of Food Curated: an online video blog all about food. Throughout the year Liza’s been out shooting and editing (she’s a one-man-band) short films in all sorts of food establishments.

Each film is unique and she does a good job of keeping herself out of it, and letting the subjects tell their own story. Her site was nominated for a James Beard Award this year, for best Video Webcast.

4. The Scout

If there’s one thing American new media producers can do better than European ones (in this reporter’s humble opinion) it is designing online magazines that look insanely stylish. Dwell, for example, has an elegant aesthetic which outclasses the Darth Vader-esque front page of Britain’s Monocle.

Another stylish number is The Scout, a food culture and design blogazine from the US. They’re on this list for commissioning several short films about inspiring creatives which leave you drooling. They’re the work of director Brennan Stasiewicz who I interviewed back in the summer. His piece on eccentric chocolatiers the Mast Brothers has been shared very widely, but his film on architects Roman and Williams is also superb.

Hat-tips for dedication to similar online video content this year has to go to The Monocle and Vice’s VBC TV.

5. Honda

Yes, it pains me too. But one of this years online video heroes has to be Honda, for their surprising Live Every Litre campaign.

They hired top director Claudio Von Planta to tell a series of powerful short stories, on the premise of a journey taken while driving a Honda Civic. The vehicles and any Honda promotion takes a back seat to the stories however, which is what makes this campaign quite unique in 2010. In particular, check out this short about a D-Day veteran and his daughter which gives many history documentaries a run for their money.

6.Vimeo

Many of the best online video of the year wouldn’t be possible without Vimeo, the classier alternative to Youtube. But that’s not why they’re on the list. The video sharing site was a late entry, with the release, just last week, of their online video school.

It’s something they’ve been working on all year, according to the site’s blog, and it’s a comprehensive, stylish and fun introduction to shooting video. They even brought in Philip Bloom to teach us how to use our DLSR cameras properly. Again, some training Vimeo could have been tempted to deliver in text or even in paid face-to-face courses.

But they chose to harness the power of online video and create something of far more value instead.

7. Witney TV

OK, straight-up, Witney TV ain’t pretty. They’ve actually chosen the ‘broadcast news’ theme from Garageband for their opening titles, which themselves, look like they’ve been done in Microsoft Paint. There isn’t a huge amount of care taken to making pretty video.

ButWitney TV is one of the first, sustained attempts at online video serving a local audience. And, it’s incredibly popular. Some episodes I’ve seen have 150,000+ views and scoops with Jeremy Clarkson and David Cameron have had them mentioned in the national press. I grew up in Witney, and family members tell me it’s also huge in Japan. Who knew?

They’re showing the rest of the hyperlocal world how it should be done. If you choose to follow in their footsteps, just don’t use Garageband.

8. Tim Johns

BBC radio producer Tim Johns (Disclaimer: he’s a friend) is on the list to represent all the people who’ve picked up a camera and got creative with it this year, again without any desire for reward.

Online video is an unrivalled platform for original drama and comedy, and with a flipcam costing less than £100 it’s possible for anyone to join the party. But how many do? And how many get scared away?

Tim isn’t one of those. He’s just started making films for the hell of it, and for a radio producer, he shows a startling aptitude for visual comedy & storytelling.

.09 VJ Movement

Another online video hero this year is the Dutch social enterprise  VJ Movement.

It launched back in 2009 amid some hype (among video journalists, at least) and since then has got down to the business of building a network of VJs from across the globe. After a recent rebrand this autumn, the VJ Movement have focussed on developing larger scale projects and commissioning films for that project from all over the world.

Personally, I think it’s yet to find its real voice and distinctive style, but this will come with time. For the time being, it is one of the only fully independent platforms commissioning in-depth journalism from outside mainstream circles, and long may that continue.

Disclaimer: I occasionally produce films for the VJ Movement

Lifetime achievement award: TED

And finally, a lifetime achievement award is deserving of one organisation who clearly ‘got’ online video when Youtube was still in nappies.

TED lectures have been around for sometime, but it was only when they started uploading them to Youtube and making them freely available that the organisation’s remarkable talks really started to take off.

They’ve collectively been watched more than 600 million times, and spurred future speakers to up their game, a concept TED boss Chris Anderson called Crowd Accelerated Innovation. In this TED lecture, he predicts online video will have a profound affect on our future. Which begs the question: if you’re not getting in on the fun now, why not?