Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

10 ways to make the most of your journalism course

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism by Adam Westbrook on September 27, 2011

Image: Adam Westbrook

The signs of autumn are easy to spot: leaves turning golden brown, England in the grip of an Indian Summer (usually after a rubbish actual summer) and a new raft of young journalism students starting courses across the land.

Anecdotally at least, universities are not struggling to fill their places and, where possible, are opening up more spaces: all this despite the bad news surrounding the industry, and the prospect of starting on as little as £14k a year – if you’re lucky enough to get a job.

Because of this, new students this year face a challenge: there are now nearly 100 journalism courses in the UK – that is a lot of wannabe hacks all with the same ambitions. We’re far enough into web 2.0 now that most of these students use social media (the majority of new students I’ve met at Kingston University do); many of them are multimedia savvy (although not nearly enough) and loads of them have got work experience under their belts.

Having an MA in journalism? It’s not good enough any more. Writing a blog while you’re studying? Not good enough either. Getting a pass on your video module? So what. Making noise on Twitter? Everyone’s doing that.

If you’re going to stand out from the crowd you’ve got to bring your A-game to the table. Nothing else will cut it. Yesterday I gave a talk to the new MA students arriving at Kingston University, and suggested ten things they can do to really excel in the short nine months they have before they hit a turbulent industry.

10 ways to make the most of your journalism course

.01 write every day: if you’re in this because you love writing, then write -and write often. And write without thinking too much: as Seth Godin puts it: “No-one ever gets talker’s block”.

.02 blog every week: I said it’s not good enough to have a blog, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have one. It’s a great platform to force you to write, as above, but also to test ideas (and therefore have ideas). You must be comfortable with creating and publishing to the internet – no excuses.

.03  learn new platforms: you need to be all over Storify, Bundlr, Tumblr, Vimeo, Audioboo, again – no excuses. You don’t have to be prolific on all of them, just pick one and run with it. Student Joseph Stashko’s used Storify to great effect this way.

.04 practice your multimedia: chances are you’ll learn how to shoot video, photos and audio on your course. The key word here is practice. A semester-long module won’t equip you with the storytelling experience you need to stand out from the crowd. Force yourself to create content every week for the next 9 months. A guarantee: you’ll get better.

.05 read more. watch less TV: I say this every year, but I’ll say it again: the best thing you can do is cut TV from your life (or drastically reduce it). It’s amazing how much time you gain and brain cells you retain. Use that time to read. I know, pretentious or what, but like I said, we’re talking A-game here.

.06 watch more films: films teach you two things: how to tell good stories and how to tell them visually. A LoveFilm or Netflix subscription is a good start.

.07 teach yourself web skills: I’m talking HTML and CSS. You don’t need to know more than the basics but it’s a huge advantage not to get intimidated by code. The key phrase here is “teach yourself” – don’t pay to learn it, go online and find free resources.

.08 data and run with it: if you have even the slightest affinity for numbers or know how to interrogate an excel spreadsheet there’ll probably be a good job for you at the end of your MA if you can prove it. But you’ll have to prove it yourself, creating mashups, infographics and stat-based stories in your own time, and using a website to publish them.

.09 go to lots of events: if there’s one thing journalists like to do, it’s hold meetups: discussions, debates or just booze-ups. The web makes it easier to find out when they are, so start going to them. If you’re in/outside London or any other major city you really have no excuse. If there aren’t any events near you…start one! Simples.

.10 for the really smart and brave: if you’re really in this to win it, my advice is to start your own publication while you’re still studying. Pick a target market and a niche, get together with some other students and set up an online magazine. It’ll cost you about £50 and take a weekend to set up. Then use your free time to fill it with content: articles, video, interviews and use social media to share it. Why do it now? It’s really hard to justify the unpaid time when you’re in the real world, so university is your best chance.

Don’t think it’s possible? Exhibit A, Exhibit B, Exhibit C, Exhibit D, Exhibit E…….and I could go on.

If all this sounds like hard work, it’s because it is. You have to be motivated, ambitious, determined. You’ll need to sacrifice nights out and hangovers to get up early to shoot that video or update the magazine. You’ll have to become shit-hot at time management in order to juggle all this plus your actual studies. You’ll need to be constantly coming up with ideas – and keeping a close eye on developments in the industry.

In other words you have to make yourself really good; the Darwinist in me thinks this challenge to the next generation will be good for journalism in the long run. 

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.