Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

“This is not the internet!” What Robinson Crusoe tells us about the future of news

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism by Adam Westbrook on August 8, 2011


Enough talk and conferences and experimentation about the future of journalism! We want answers right!? I mean, how long has it been already?

For all the talk by people like me about experimentation and enterprise, the number of jobs in the industry aren’t getting any larger. If you’re a journalism graduate looking for a job your prospects haven’t gotten any better since reading my blog a year ago, have they?

Well, yes and no.


I’m currently reading Frank Rose’s The Art of Immersion: how the digital generation is remaking Hollywood, Madison Avenue and the way we tell stories.

In it, he quotes the introduction to Daniel Defoe’s novel Robinson Crusoe, it goes like this:

“If ever the Story of any private Man’s Adventures in the World were worth making Pvblick, and were acceptable when Publish’d, the Editor of this Account thinks this will be so….The Editor believes the thing to be just a History of Fact; neither is there any appearance of Fiction in it…”

To decifer the 18th Century parlance, Daniel Defoe is saying – before you read his fiction novel – “this is not a fiction novel.”

Why? Well, with a few exceptions, Robinson Crusoe is one of first novels ever written. Up until then, it had been poems, plays, myths and The Bible. As hard to imagine as it is, the idea of a novel was so new, it was risky to publish it.

Rose notices a common trend in all the major mediums since (movies, television and the Internet): when they first begin, they try to convince you they are not new.

The earliest films were basically filmed like a theatre performance: a stage and a stationary camera – the first movie makers were saying “this is not a movie!

Television did the same thing, up until the 1950s producing shows that resembled theatre – the first TV producers were saying “this is not television!

You can argue TV News still does the same thing, sticking presenters behind desks to mimic the radio announcers of the 1930s.

And the early attempts at online publishing have tried so hard to mimic print and television that it’s almost laughable. From the front page of the New York Times website, to the format of all online video stories, these digital producers are busting their nuts to convince you “this is not the internet!”


And it was ever thus.

But Frank Rose’s other point is what’s really important for any digital publishers, journalism entrepreneurs and video journalists: we are only at the beginning – and the answers won’t come for years.

Frank Rose sold me on his book with his tidy use of online video to publicise it (beats a crappy blurb, right?) He makes the point quietly (about 3’20” in) that whenever a new technology arrives, it takes pioneers 20 or 30 years to figure out what to do it with it.

Cinema was invented in the 1890s, but it wasn’t until the mid 1920s that Pudovkin’s five principles of editing were laid down. It took decades for someone to say ‘hey, what if we edit two different scenes together to make it look like they’re happening at the same time!’

TV was born in 1925, but as Rose points out it was another 25 years before it came into its own with the sitcom format, game shows and the like.

So, by the same logic, this marvellous new medium we’ve created for ourselves – the internet – is 20 years old this month. But you could argue, its true power (web 2.0) wasn’t born until 10 years ago. Either way, it’ll be another decade before we really figure out what the hell this thing can do.

However far we think we’ve come, we’re just at the beginning. 

And us? We’re the pioneers. Anyone who’s produced online video (specifically for the internet), created a podcast, launched an online magazine, started a social network or written a blog: you are the internet’s pioneers, marching determinedly into the frontier.

And that’s a generational privilege we should relish.


The end of ‘television’

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism, Online Video by Adam Westbrook on June 13, 2011

Image credit: espensorvik on Flickr (cc)


Ask someone who works in television what they do, they’ll tell you they do just that.

“I work in television” they’ll say. Same with folks in radio too. And newspapers and magazines.

But skip down the road five years, and what happens when we’re all watching IPTV, internet streamed through a television set? It’s a pertinent question because when Hybrid-IPTV (as we can call it, to avoid a comments row about semantics) does arrive on the mass market, we will effectively have iTunes on our remote controls.

Never mind another dose of bland reality fodder from BBC One, or NBC – what about a niche documentary shot and uploaded by someone in Mexico? Or the latest interview by online video wunderkind Jamal Edwards on SBTV? They’re both yours for $2.99, or perhaps less, all streamed straight to your living room.

Or perhaps even a sci-fi action movie, complete with top of the range special effects, made entirely independently from the Hollywood systems, for just a few thousand dollars? Gareth Edwards has already proven, with great finesse, that it can be done.

When we can get the internet and all its varied signal and noise through our TV sets, what will “working in television” mean? People talk about it as if it is a craft and a career – but actually a television is no different to Youtube, Twitter or Flickr: it is a platform.


Thing is, from an advertiser’s point of view, it is becoming a disproportionately expensive one. Why pay £10,000 for a 30-second slot after Coronation Street, when you could sponsor an independent drama series, or a magazine show on iTunes – aimed at your target customer – for far less?

BBC TV Centre | Image credit: strollerdos on Flickr (cc)

And from a viewer’s point of view, why watch something at a time decreed by a scheduler, when you can watch it at your leisure? (A friend of mine who works at the BBC commented on Facebook today how people complained last night because Antiques Roadshow was cancelled to accomodate the late-running F1 grand prix.)

I’m not dismissing TV’s past or present, nor the people or work that goes into it. Television as we know it has a future, and it is a future making some extraordinary, live changing shows.

But like newspapers before it, it will fight a difficult battle with its own legacy costs. Television is still eye-wateringly expensive to produce. Studio television is some of the most expensive, and that’s declined so much, the BBC are now selling off their studio complex in West London.


We’ll have to redefine what we call things a little bit. Jamal Edwards wouldn’t say he “works in Youtube” just because that’s his platform. He probably says he’s a film-maker – or even just a content creator. This (or something like it) might be the job-title of the future. And of course there’ll be issues of quality, copyright, and too much noise – all things we’ve already proven we can solve together.

So if I was young and wanted to “work in television” I wouldn’t bother competing with thousands of others for work experience at the BBC, or spend three years doing the Pret runs at an Indie, just so I could have my shot at pitching segments for Gordon Ramsey’s Strictly Come Cash In The Attic SOS: the celebrity special.

No sir, I would pick up a camera and start making something instead.

Out there, on the internet already, “content creators”: ordinary people, small businesses and independent film makers, are proving that remarkable, popular video can be made with little or no money. Its limitation is that viewers have to peer at our work in a small box on their laptops…but one day soon, hybrid-IPTV will project our films onto 45-inch plasma TVs.

And when that happens, “working in television” won’t mean anything at all. 

Money, money, money

Posted in Broadcasting and Media, News and that by Adam Westbrook on October 15, 2008

I spent a large proportion of today standing in the cold outside a fish packaging factory in Grimsby.

Yes, it’s only the highlife journalism for me! Why? Well because 500 people could be made redundant there – after the company’s Icelandic owner struggles with the credit crunch. It could be a massive blow to the region’s economy, and people.

Oh there it goes again.

The. Credit. Crunch.

If you’ve read this week’s Weekly Radio magazine, my former tutor at City University’s Broadcast Journalism course in London, Jan Whyatt has made some interesting points about coverage of the financial crisis so far.

“In my experience, a lot of journalists are not all that numerate. They don’t really feel feel comfortable with financial news. The people that recognise and accredit journalism training should strongly consider making it an absolute requirement to pass an exam demonstrating numeracy.”

I totally agree. I think the media has largely failed to analyse the crisis, other than with graphics of downward graphs and (the BBC’s favourite) a statistic slowly getting larger in the centre of the screen. Peston’s always good quality of course, but unfortunately he’s not available for every market. Radio meanwhile has struggled with its brevity.

I don’t just think our journalists should be armed with better knowledge; I wrote ages ago I think we ALL should!

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Apocalypse soon

Posted in Broadcasting and Media, News and that by Adam Westbrook on October 14, 2008

I wrote a while back about whether the UK media industry would weather the [insert “economic storm” metaphor here].

I reckoned it would be changed significantly at least.

But according to Charlie Beckett writing about a Polis speech by the Guardian‘s Emily Bell, that was a bit of an understatement…!

“We are on the brink of two years of carnage for Western media. In the UK five nationals could go out of business and we could be left with no UK owned broadcaster outside of the BBC. We are facing complete market failure in local papers and regional radio. This is sytematic collapse not just a cyclical downturn.”

Never get out of the boat...

Never get out of the boat...

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The Big Bang Con

Posted in Broadcasting and Media, News and that by Adam Westbrook on September 10, 2008

Ten years of constant work. £5billion. The scientists were ready for the experiment which could have ended the world.

While experts have rubbished the chances of the CERN experiment going wrong,  that didn’t stop the media having a field day.

The talking heads had been lined up- what would happen if a black hole appeared? The headlines were written. The betting shops that their odds decided: 666,666,666,666 to 1. The radio stations had their voxes: what would you do if the world was about to end?

Except it never was going to end. Well, not today.

Its the end of the world as we know it...

It's the end of the world as we know it...

You see, we’ve all been the victim of a bit of a con. Or some kind of calendar mishap.

Yes the big experiment was switched on today with some excitement, but read a little further down this article on the BBC News website, and you find a rather revealing line:

“Cern has not yet announced when it plans to carry out the first collisions, but the BBC understands that low-energy collisions could happen in the next few days.”

Ah. So there never was going to be a “collision” today. And the collision being the thing which the sceptics think would set off the end of the world, makes that a bit of a big deal. None of the coverage bothered to mention that little fact…

More likely if the end of the world does happen, it’ll be while we’re all least expecting it.

Best get some more voxes in then…

That Russell Brand speech in full

Posted in News and that by Adam Westbrook on September 8, 2008

So old Russer hosty-wosted the MTV VMA’s last night, despite being a virtual unknown Stateside. Caused a few upsets though, mixing sex and politics, when we know only Sarah Palin’s daughter’s allowed to do that.

Enough wise-cracks from me, here’s what the man with the massive mullet said:

On the US elections:

“As a representative of the global community, a visitor from abroad, I don’t want to come across a little bit biased, but could I please ask of you, people of America, please elect Barack Obama, please, on behalf of the world.

“Some people, I think they’re called racists, say America is not ready for a black president.

“But I know America to be a forward thinking country because otherwise why would you have let that retard and cowboy fella be president for eight years.

“We were very impressed. We thought it was nice of you to let him have a go, because, in England, he wouldn’t be trusted with a pair of scissors.”

On Sarah Palin’s daugher Bristol:

“That is the safe sex message of all time. Use a condom or become a Republican!”

On himself:

“…a little sex once and a while never hurt anybody.”

“I’m famous in the United Kingdom. My persona don’t really work without fame. Without fame, this haircut could be mistaken for mental illness.”

Meanwhile at the other end of the country, another Brit was making a big impression in America. Misery guts Andy Murray got through to the final of the US Open. Very cool. But incidentally I was talking to people on the street in the UK today and the phrase “couldn’t give a toss” was an oft repeated one.

I wonder then, which Brit made the biggest impression on the US of A last night?

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Countdown to Beijing

Posted in International Development by Adam Westbrook on August 5, 2008

So it’s less than three days until the Olympics launch in Beijing.

And with little sports gossip, journalists are asking whether the Chinese government has lived up to its promises on human rights.

And of course the evidence widely suggests they haven’t.

Now if there was any justice in the world, human rights would matter more than money: and the IOC would swiftly pull the plug on the whole games.

What’s more important? Athletics or human rights?

But of course the games will go ahead, protests will be silenced, and the world will again will stand aside in the face of massive injustice.

If you don’t want to watch that happen, I recommend watching something else instead: perhaps this excellent report from Sky News producer Holly Williams and the BBC’s most recent Panorama programme.

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News and the credit crunch

Posted in Broadcasting and Media by Adam Westbrook on July 8, 2008

“Oh dear, more economic gloom”, says Jon Snow, rather glibly, in his daily ‘Snowmail’ briefing this evening. Today a major group of businesses have announced what some had feared, and even more already knew: that we’re heading towards a recession.

Banks aren’t lending, so people can’t borrow as much money, so they’re spending less, so businesses are earning less, while oil, food and energy prices continue to soar, meaning we have even less money…and so it goes on.

It’s bad news for a lot of people, but I’d thought it would be worth looking at its impact on the media industry.

Not that people should have much sympathy for an industry of overpaid, middle class trouble makers -but it is having an impact. First in the commercial sector, and today, we’re told, even on the mammoth BBC cash cow.

One industry I know is suffering – and has been one of the first to suffer – is commercial radio. High overheads need to be paid for by adverts. But when the companies can’t afford to pay for advertising….

So we’ve seen a raft of cost cutting measures across all areas. After buying out GCap, Global Radio decided to network on more than 30 stations, saving themselves the salaries of 30 presenters.  Some journalism jobs are going too. Then one radio group The Local Radio Company sells six stations which are losing money – reportly flogging them for a pound each.

Commercial TV too is feeling the “pinch” and it’s local/regional output that’s suffering. Today we hear ITV is to completely scrap it’s nightly 30 minute news programmes, replacing them with a weekly current affairs programme instead. So goodbye local TV news.

There’s still lots of talk of “weathering the storm”, but I don’t think these changes are neccessarily temporary. The two examples above – of increased networking on radio, and the loss of daily local news on ITV – are permanent significant changes to how broadcasting is done in the UK.

Meanwhile over at the glittering palaces in White City, the BBC says even it’s tightening its belt. Speaking at a briefing this morning, the Director General Mark Thompson said inflation was “running significantly higher than [the level on which] the BBC’s [licence fee] settlement [was based]”. They’re already looking at cutting 2,500 jobs, although they said they hoped to avoid wider redundancies.

Even if we don’t have a recession, it looks like the media landscape in Britain will be changed forever anyway.

Bridgend Suicides: more media soul searching

Posted in Broadcasting and Media, News and that by Adam Westbrook on February 20, 2008

It’s becoming an increasing trend for the media to self criticise an analyse these days.

In the last few weeks there’s been some tough soul searching: first over the ‘hounding’ of Britney Spears; and more recently over our impact on the ever continuing suicides in Bridgend in South Wales.

The 17th victim – 16 year old Jenna Parry- was found hanged yesterday.

So the big questions are being asked: are the front page splashes and TV/Radio pieces encouraging others to seek their fame posthumously? Should there be a voluntary ban on reporting suicides?

I’m not sure where I sit on this. As far as I am aware it is already against PCC/Ofcom policy to include lurid details on suicides to avoid copy cats.

There are some errors in reporting though. A lot of papers suggest the “town” of Bridgend is under the grip of the suicide horror – in fact Bridgend is a county borough and the deaths are spread across it.

A new trend?

It never seemed to happen much before, except maybe when Princess Diana died and we all wondered whether the paparazzi had driven her into the tunnel wall.

Last year, in the fever of the Ipswich Murders (the verdict of which is expected imminently), no-one slammed the outrageous behaviour of the BBC and Sky who fought a tooth and nail battle to get exclusives.

The BBC famously broadcast an off-the-record interview with a suspect-something any journalist should never do. The papers published pictures of his MySpace site and called him an internet weirdo.

He was later released without charge.

But let this soul searching continue! In the absence of a solid fifth estate, the more self monitoring the better.

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Where there’s smoke…

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

Making live TV news is hard enough, but when the gallery fills with smoke, you know it’s about to get harder.

But never ones to let a good oppurtunity go to waste, the journos at CNN apparently leapt out of the pub and filmed “compelling images” for ITV’s London Tonight.


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“That’s what we do”

Posted in Broadcasting and Media by Adam Westbrook on April 20, 2007

“It’s our job to make television that people want to watch, that’s what we do” I heard a CNN producer say today in a heated debate in the gallery about whether the world’s had enough of Virginia Tech.

That certainly has an element of truth to it; whether you agree with the idea or not.

Whatever you think of the on-screen coverage of Monday’s shootings, Sue Turton from Channel 4 News in the UK has some pretty revealing insights into the media’s behaviour off-screen:

Compared to my ultra efficient but ever polite producer, Sarah Corp, her US equivalent were under immense pressure to deliver the student or parent with the most heart-wrenching story as soon as physically possible.

Sadly this manifested itself in abrupt and sometimes aggressive approaches to people who had already been through so much.

It does not make pretty reading.

Virginia Tech coverage: enough now

Posted in Broadcasting and Media by Adam Westbrook on April 19, 2007

Four days after a troubled student gunned down more than thirty of his fellow students and colleagues and it’s still all out war as far as the networks are concerned. Here in Britain it has cooled off a little bit, but stateside there’s little other news.

And it is with great reluctance that I use the word “overkill” to describe the coverage, not least because of the terrible pun. But there’s not many other words to describe it.

VJ David Dunkley Gyimah had the point nailed on his blog as early as Tuesday, but his concerns have proved even more correct. Cho Seung Hui has gone from a depressed student to a “madman” overnight. In what seems utterly remarkable to me, CNN actually has a jimmy-jib rigged up on the V.T. campus to get sweeping shots from high and low. And it was compounded this morning with the delivery and broadcast of letters, pictures and videos from the killer himself: creepy and haunting, Cho’s seriousness is undermined slightly by his vocal resemblance to Keano Reeves.

Journalists are used to increasing “news management” from press officers and the good ones battle against it. Now, we’ve all fallen for news management by a mass killer.

On CNN International this morning, the script towards the end of an hour of programming went – with no irony whatsoever – like this:

“Your emails have been pouring into us here at CNN. Dan in the Netherlands says: ‘The killer’s video adds nothing to the police enquiry and adds only to the suffering of the families. It worries me that it might inspire another teenager to do something similar like Cho was inspired by Columbine. The networks have gone too far and should stop showing the video constantly.’

Don’t forget to keep sending your emails…meanwhile continuous coverage of the massacres in Virginia continue after the break….”

Audiences on both sides of the Atlantic are clearly both tiring of the coverage and seeing through the hyperbole and journalese that the writers have flung our way. Several times already I’ve heard and seen some of the golden rules of news writing and reporting broken in the race for the biggest yank to the heart strings.

In comparison to the hundred or so people who lost their lives in Iraq yesterday it doesn’t make sense. Will they get each of their names and photos slowly faded onto screen? Will they get their stories read out to the world? Nope.

“No one disputes that this was a major story, and one needing sensitive handling. But as usual you and the other media went over the top in the reporting of it” reads one comment on the BBC News website.

“Seriously, can’t we do better?” says someone else on the NBC blog (via Adrian Monck), “Isn’t it time for news to be news, not endless, repetitive wallpaper that at once offends and numbs?”