Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

How to be a new media pioneer

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism, Online Video by Adam Westbrook on September 8, 2011

If you’re interested in online video, journalism or film making generally, you really ought to watch Mark Cousins’ new series The Story of Film – an Odyssey

It’s a strangely minimalist affair – sparse writing, artistic landscape shots and lots of clips from films you’ve never heard of, while at the same time thankfully free of self-aggrandizing pieces to camera.

I had the pleasure of working with Mark briefly in early 2010 when he was starting work on the series; he also showed us the preview of his quite remarkable documentary The First Movie – a quiet but powerful story about Kurdish children in Iraq.

Episode 1 of this 15 hour series was broadcast in the UK on Sunday and in it Mark tells the story of the first 20 years of cinema, from Thomas Edison to Cecille B DeMille, and all the innovations in between. It was an extraordinarily exciting time of discovery, experimentation and invention, and led to the creation of visual conventions we all subscribe to today: continuity editing, reverse shots, parallel editing and the 180 degree rule.

It’s hard to remember another time when a completely new medium – a new art form – appeared. The equivalent of the invention of the pencil or the piano.

Except, of course, for the period we’re living in right now. The internet, digital film, the iPhone and the HD-DSLR have given our generation a new blank sheet to scribble on. In The Story of Film Mark Cousins describes an early movie where the director shot a boxing match using 63mm film instead of the standard 35mm – an innovation which led to the creation of widescreen.

Now, 90 years later, we have pioneers on Vimeo developing tall-screen and super-widescreen videos. There are foetal ideas about creating layers of video on top of each other, augmented reality, immersive storytelling and more.

Mark tells the story of Florence Lawrence the world’s first film-star; now, a century on, we are meeting the early super-stars of the digital age, who have used Youtube to propel their lives into the mainstream. And the new generation of digital directors and movie moguls, like Jamal Edwards: the 20 something South-London founder of SBTV who’s even been featured in a Google advert.

Yes, I know this feels like a difficult time with revenues down, layoffs up and impossible prospects of getting a job on a newspaper. But in the same breath this is the birth of cinema all over again! The door is wide open for the next generation of innovators, directors, and entrepreneurs.

And most importantly: this won’t last forever. There is probably only a few years before online video, for example, hits the mainstream through IPTV. For those already on board the train, that’s exciting stuff.

But if you’re not there yet – do not delay.

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Why your news business idea doesn’t have to be original

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism by Adam Westbrook on February 24, 2011

OK, so you’re busy thinking of ideas for a journalism startup – hopefully, so you can enter myNewsBiz and win £1000. Or maybe because you’re being brave and want to create your own business.

You’ve read lots of blogs about the future of news, multimedia, startups and tech. And you’re buzzing around with ideas like “innovative” “unique” “remarkable” “world-changing”, “the next big thing”. In other words, you’re searching for an original idea.

That puts a lot of pressure on the grey matter doesn’t it. The good news is there’s really no such thing as an original idea – nor indeed is there a need for one.

Inventions invented many times

There’s a famous (untrue) myth that the Commissioner for the US Patent Office Charles Duell back in 1902 said “everything that can be invented, has been invented.” A look back through the history books shows, firstly, that inventions have come thick and fast since then; but secondly, that some of the greatest inventions were actually invented several times.

The typewriter was invented more than 50 times, the first time way back in 1714. The lightbulb was famously patented by nearly a dozen scientists, before Thomas Edison’s lamp took hold. Even audio recording, originally invented by a Frenchman Charles Cros, was made famous by Thomas Edison in 1877, a year before Cros could get his idea to the patent office.

So: don’t worry about creating something new out of thin air.

The foundation of a great business idea is that it serves a need, fills a gap or cures a pain. For example, someone’s already come up with the idea of starting a multimedia production company in New York. Doesn’t mean I can’t do the same in London, right?

In fact, some of the most successful businesses come from improving on a product or service that already exists. James Dyson didn’t invent the vacuum cleaner, but he made it a whole lot better.

We all thought Mark Zuckerberg had social networking all sown-up; but then along came Twitter.

Four ways to improve on someone else’s idea*

  1. Do something old in a new way which saves your customer time or money.
  2. Do something better or faster than the competition.
  3. Do the same thing but with better quality of service or more promises (‘or your money back!’)
  4. Do the same thing but cheaper…although top tip: you don’t want to compete on price.

To find out more about what makes a good business idea, check out these videos – and then make sure you enter myNewsBiz!

*adapted from The Beermat Entrepreneur by Mike Southon & Chris West

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!