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Adam Westbrook: 6×6 tips for freelance journalists

September 1st, 2009 | 1 Comment | Posted by in Freelance

During the last fortnight, multimedia journalist Adam Westbrook has published six guides for freelance journalists – with a strong emphasis on practical steps and digital tools available for freelancing.

You can read the full series at this link or jump to the individual posts listed below:

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Adam Westbrook: 6×6 how to make things happen as a freelancer

August 28th, 2009 | 2 Comments | Posted by in Editors' pick, Freelance

Making things happen

“When 900-years-old you reach, pithy phrases will you come up with.”

Ok, so a bit of hammy self-help from Master Yoda there, but he makes a good point. We’ve looked at branding and business, and the craft skills like audio and video, but they all mean nothing in the scary and ever shifting new world of journalism if you’re not prepared to do something with it.

If you’re trying to get your first job particularly, or going freelance especially, you have to be able to make things happen for yourself. This final post has little to do with journalism, but might be the difference between getting your vital first commission and spending your day in the company of Jeremy Kyle crying into your supernoodles.

1) Have goals – big ones
We’ve all got goals, right? Clear that debt, get that promotion, get that pay rise.

But what about dreams? They’re the goals which set your sex on fire. They get your heart racing with excitement and have you muttering to yourself, ‘that would be awesome… but I could never do that’.

It’s the novel you’ve had in the back of your mind to write one day; the photo essay you’d love to go and make in Chad; the media start-up you’d love to get going…

Point is, dismiss them as you may, big goals are what really get us going; once we’re on the track to doing them, they get us out of bed in the morning.

Life coach Jeff Archer says choosing big goals is vital: “Creating a future that excites you is of vital importance. If your future doesn’t excite you, then why go to all the time and trouble of making things happen?”

And Lindsey Agness at the Change Corporation agrees the goals must be ‘compelling’. She also says they must be all of the following:

  • Specific: ‘clearly define what you are going to do’
  • Measurable: ‘if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it
  • Achievable: they should be within the bounds of possibility for you’
  • Realistic: set the bar high enough to find out what you are capable of, but not so high you get frustrated’
  • Timed: ‘set a clear time frame for the goal’

So in practice this means avoiding goals like: ‘I will get a couple of articles published before Christmas’, and instead going with ‘I will pitch two written articles and one photo-essay every month’.

2) Write things down
Things start happening when you write them down. Apparently this has been proved by researchers at Harvard, who split a graduate class into those that had written down their plans for the future and those that hadn’t. And revisiting them 10 years later, the ones who had achieved what they wanted were those who put a pen to paper.

Mechanically, writing down ideas, dreams, plans on paper gets your mental juices flowing. You start to visualise what it might look and feel like to achieve them. And then you start doodling how to get there. The next thing you know you’ve got a list of steps to take to get you on your way.

And other people recommend keeping a journal, if you don’t already. Back to Jeff Archer: “Once you make yourself consciously aware of the highs and lows of each day you decide specifically what changes you’d like to make to make sure you can increase the positive and decrease the negative.”

On a practical level it means a quick post-mortem of your day or week and it keeps you focused on why you set out to do this all anyway.

3) Visualise the process – and the result
Rehearse doing things and rehearse them going well.

The first part is as simple as going through the things you need to do (not plan) the next day: the phone calls you need to make, the film you need to edit, the blog you need to write; picture yourself in your head, sitting down at your desk making those things happen. Alternatively you can write down the steps and describe what it’s like to carry them out. Rehearsing those steps makes them easier to do the next day.

The second part is all about visualising success. Athlete’s vividly visualise winning the 100m sprint until they can almost taste the sweat and feel the flag in their hands. Career coach Jonathan Fields, who’s written ‘Career Renegade: How to Make a Great Living Doing What You Love’ says this part is very important in overcoming any self-doubt:

“Repeatedly visualising a deeply sought after goal, seeing, feeling, hearing yourself accomplish this goal, over and over, has a profound effect. It conditions you slowly away from self-doubt and disbelief and moves you increasingly towards belief.”

4) The Dr Pepper test
This is asking yourself the question: what’s the worst that can happen? Taking the plunge, quitting your job, starting a company, even cold-calling some editors – they’re all scary obstacles. If you’ve thought about going freelance, or retraining, no-doubt you’ve thought quite hard about failing:

  • running out of money
  • not getting a job interview
  • not getting any commissions
  • getting kicked out of your flat
  • defaulting on your mortage
  • giving up

These are the classic scenarios played out by a part of our mentality the NLP lot call the ‘limiting mind’. It’s the voice in your head which says ‘naahh, that’s too difficult’, ‘it’ll never work‘, ‘you? a novelist? give over’. Sadly for many people the limiting mind wins and we talk ourselves out of doing something risky.

How to overcome it? The answer, suggests Jonathan Fields, is to visualise and quantify failure – but only once. Sit down and write out exactly how failure would happen – if the worst came to the worst how long would you keep going? What would happen when you ran out of money? Where would you go?

You should (hopefully) realise that in fact you will always have a place to stay, you can always get another job, and failure isn’t that bad at all. When you stop being afraid of failing, you are unstoppable.

And accept: you will fail. So fail fast, and learn from it.

5) Get messy
Right to business. If there’s one thing I’ve learned the best thing you can do to get started is… to get started. Sounds stupid I know, but my idea of ‘getting started’ was writing lots of to-do lists, creating a financial spreadsheet, reading books on freelancing. Surprise, surprise, nothing happened.

Then I realised I needed to start doing stuff. Ready or not, start contacting editors, start filming, start editing, start writing. Go out there, and do it now! The sooner you start doing things the sooner you get results. And the sooner you fail, so you can get over it.

Too many of us spend time being the proverbial think-tank, when we should be a do-tank.
6) Don’t give up
And for the love of God don’t give up. This is going to be really hard, but as Corey Tennis pointed out it is supposed to be. Being hard done by is what makes us great writers. Pursuing this new world of multimedia journalism – which is right in its infant stages – means an uncertain future.

But any more uncertain than full time jobs and pensions? The recession has dispelled that myth.

When times get tough, read this inspirational piece of gold by freelance writer Tumblenoose:

“Do not give up. Don’t you dare. You’re going to want to. You’re going to think that the security of a paycheck every two weeks is really worth the trade off for working for someone else. Don’t do it, you hear?

“Remember your dream. Remember your bright-eyed, take-the-world-by-storm vision that sent you down the path. Yes, the journey is hard. Yes, you will be discouraged when you feel like nothing is happening, like you aren’t moving forward. Hold your nose and stick through those tough times. Keep working your plan. Keep putting yourself out there. Keep making the connections. Keep building your community.  Do not give up.”

The final word

“Life is either a daring adventure or nothing. To keep our  faces toward change and behave like free spirits in the presence of fate is strength undefeatable.”

Helen Keller

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Adam Westbrook: 6×6 audio for freelance journalists

August 26th, 2009 | 1 Comment | Posted by in Editors' pick, Freelance

This is the fifth post in a series of six blog posts by Adam Westbrook, each with six tips for the next generation of freelance multimedia journalists, republished here with permission.

Follow the series at this link or visit Adam’s blog.

Audio
Audio is one of the most powerful mediums available to the multimedia journalist. Whether it’s radio, podcasts, on video or audio slideshows, audio brings a piece to life. So why is it almost always an afterthought? Too many good films and audio slideshows have been let down by bad quality audio. Here are six tips to make sure that doesn’t happen to you:

1) Let sound breathe

“[A]s soon as a voice comes out of the speakers, the listener attempts to visualise what he hears to create in the mind’s eye the owner of the voice (…) unlike where the pictures are limited to the size of the screen, radio pictures are any size you care to make them.”

Robert McLeish, Radio Production

In other words, with audio your limit is the size of your imagination. Last time I checked, that was pretty big.

So for the love of God, show audio some respect. First off a piece of audio does not have to consist entirely of voices with no gaps in between. In fact that sucks. When you’re out recording, take a moment to listen for sounds – in radio it’s called actuality and it is a key ingredient in bringing sound to life. Doing a story about some people on a boat? We want to hear the water lapping up against the bow. Is your scene in a cafe? Let’s hear the cups clinking, the chatter of everyday conversation, the whoosh! of the coffee machine in action.

This more often than not is recorded as wildtrack. After filming, taking photos, interviewing, whatever, record at least 60 seconds of actuality. It’ll make editing a lot easier too.

Let the audio breathe. Give it a few seconds just to play in your listeners’ imaginations and don’t talk over it. It’ll do more to paint a picture than overladen voice over will.

2) Invest in a good microphone
Audio is so often an afterthought for video and photojournalists alike. This is mostly manifested in using a crap microphone. VJs – don’t use your camera’s onboard mic unless you’re lucky to have something nice like a Canon XL2, Sony EX3, Z1 etc. If you can, buy an external microphone to attach to your camera’s horseshoe. For interviews, it is worth investing in a lapel mic.

Rodemic do some pretty decent offers, including a camera mic for under £100 ($180). For radio journalists, or photojournalists doing audio slideshows, there are a good range of digital audio recorders you can look at. The Marantz PMD620 is small, easy to use and so reliable you’d let it babysit your kids. I took it out to Iraq earlier this year and it was great. It starts at around £300/$500.

The Edirol R-09HR (£211/$349)  has had produced some great sounding audio for freelancer Ciara Leeming and journalists are raving about the Olympus DS-40(£82/$135).

3) Get the mic in close
Microphones do not have selective hearing like our ears do: they won’t pick out the voice across the room you’re pointing them at. So get in close to your interviewee – really close – like a little under their chin (if they’re ok with that). It eliminates a lot of background noise, like air conditioning, traffic, squeaks of chairs and all that. And more often than not it gives the recording a richness and an intimacy.

Compare, for example, the effect of these two recordings: the first with a mic held too far away in a large room, the other with it right in close.

Another great tip I picked up: if you can, record your interviews outside – it eliminates that shallow echo you get in peoples’ offices and living rooms.

4) Let the characters talk
A bit of a personal bugbear this, but often the temptation with multimedia projects is to talk all over them, y’know, like they do on the TV and that. But new media means new ways of doing things. And I think one of the great new trends emerging is the silencing of the journalist/reporter voice over.

If you’ve recorded some great audio for your story, let it breathe – let the characters tell their own story. We don’t need to hear you saying, ‘Angie is a mum of three struggling to make ends meet’, when we can hear Angie saying, ‘Things are really hard right now, tryin’ to support three kids, y’know, payin’ the bills… every day’s a struggle.’

This takes some planning in the interview stages – most of all, you need to ask open questions, so your interviewees’ answers start as full sentences. It has been industry practice for many years to ask interviewees to include your question in their answer:

Why are you finding it so hard to make ends meet?

I’m finding it so hard to make ends meet because….etc.

5) Use pauses
If you’re new to using audio, especially if you’re moving from print or photojournalism, the first thing you will notice when you listen back to your interviews is yourself. Going ‘uhuh, yeah, hmmmm, sure…’ all over their answers.

Ask a question – then keep shtum. This pays dividends in some interviews – especially emotional ones – where your interviewee finishes their point. There’s a pause… you would normally fill it by asking a question… but don’t. Stay silent – and let the interviewee fill the pause. It’s a bit mean, but it gets them to reiterate their point, and in the process show what they’re really thinking.

And then keep those pauses in your piece. They are a natural part of speech and often reveal more about your character than their words.

6) Take them on a journey
There are times when it’s right to bring yourself into the piece. But try not to use it just for dry voice overs recorded in a studio. Your voice is best when you’re somewhere your audience wants to be, and you can show them what it’s like.

To achieve this, you’ll need to be very descriptive in your writing. Tell people where you are and what you’re doing in vivid detail.

For the best examples, we have to go way back, to the first broadcast journalists:

“I began to see what was happening to Berlin. The small incendiaries were going down like a fistful of white rice thrown on a piece of black velvet. The cookies – the 4,000-pound high explosives – were bursting below like great sunflowers gone mad.

“And then, as we started down again still held in the light, I remembered that the Dog still had one of those cookies and a whole basket of incendiaries in his belly. And the light still held it, and I was very frightened. I looked down, and the white fires had turned red. They were beginning to merge and spread, just like butter does on a hot plate.”

Ed Murrow, on a bombing raid over Berlin, 1944

Or:

There were perhaps a 150 of them, all so thin that their skin glistened like stretched rubber on their bones. Some of the poor starved creatures whose bodies were there looked so utterly unreal and inhuman that I could have imagined that they’d never lived at all. They were like polished skeletons, the skeletons that medical students like to play practical jokes with.

“At one end of the pile a cluster of men and women were gathered round a small fire. They were using rags and old shoes taken from the bodies to keep it alight.”

Richard Dimbleby at Bergen Belsen, 1945

The BBC’s Alan Little is one of the finest radio writers, still alive – here’s his advice:

“Try to use old words, words that reach into the very core, the very oldest part of the language. They have the most impact (…) beware of adjectives. This is a rule I keep breaking and I have to exercise great vigilance to rein myself in. Adjectives are fine in moderation and when they genuinely add to the meaning or clarity of the image being conveyed.”

The final word…
From award-winning multimedia producers Duckrabbit, the combo of a great photographer and a great audio producer:

“Many great photographers make really bad audio slideshows because they treat audio as afterthought, or they try to do a voiceover without having any presentation skills. They might as well not bother.

“Actually I’d go further then that. When you put your photos together with poor audio you actually diminish the value of your photos. Good audio is like a bad dog. It gets its teeth into you and won’t let go.”

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Adam Westbrook: 6×6 business for freelance journalists

August 24th, 2009 | 1 Comment | Posted by in Editors' pick, Freelance

This is the fourth post in a series of six blog posts by Adam Westbrook, each with six tips for the next generation of freelance multimedia journalists, republished here with permission.

Follow the series at this link or visit Adam’s blog.

Business
While the news industry is still in an uncertain and uncomfortable state of flux, one certainty has already emerged: journalists can no-longer just be journalists – they must be entrepreneurs too. It’s the difference between the ‘passive’ freelancer who writes to a few editors and waits for the work to come to them, and the ‘active’ freelancer who runs themselves as a mini-business.

Until j-schools start adding business skills to the curriculum this will be something we’re all going to have to teach ourselves.

1) Diversify
If you went into journalism to become a TV news reporter, and just a TV news reporter, the sad news is those days are over. As are the days of being paid to stay in nice hotels in foreign lands drinking cocktails.

In order to maximise your income, you will need to diversify your skills base. That means selling a range of skills and service, and not just journalism-related ones. I know radio journalists who have a nice sideline designing websites; video journalists who run training courses; and photojournalists who work for non-profits.

Training can often be the most lucrative of these – but only consider this if you really know what you’re doing!

Diversify too in your client base. Pity the news-snob who just pitches to the New York Times and The Guardian. The digital revolution means there are more online-only news outfits and they can be easier to pitch to.

Freelance science journalist Angela Saini offered me this advice recently: “I think it’s almost impossible to survive right now unless you freelance in more than one medium – so as well as doing VJ work, you may have to do radio and print too.”

If you’re a radio journalist you won’t survive as a just a radio journalist. Pitch for video, online, print… everything! Profiling multimedia journalist Jason Motlagh, David Westphal notes:

“Motlagh doesn’t just write stories. He shoots still photos. He shoots and edits video. He does audio. He blogs. He narrates slide shows. And because he does all of those things, he says, he has a huge advantage over freelance foreign correspondents working in a single medium.

“Having multiple media skills is ‘still unusual’, he said. ‘There aren’t a whole lot of people yet who have gotten up to speed. If you are, you can make clients an offer they can’t refuse.'”

2) Find new markets
The entrepreneur, although a business profession, requires a lot of creativity. Just ask Richard Branson. From what I’ve gauged you have to be constantly brainstorming new markets and potential clients. And thinking outside the box reaps rewards.

Career evangelist and author of the popular new book ‘Career Renegade: How to Make a Great Living Doing What You Love’ Jonathan Fields explores how to sidestep traditional career paths to forge your own unique way. He talks about ‘moving beyond the mainstream’ and finding new markets in six different places:

  1. finding a hungrier market
  2. finding the most lucrative micro-markets
  3. exploiting gaps in information
  4. exploiting gaps in education
  5. exploiting gaps in gear or merchandise
  6. exploiting gaps in community

The first two are about digging deeper into the industry and possibly connecting two unrelated ones. A great example comes from a friend of mine, filmmaker Oliver Harrison. He loves cooking, and loves making films but couldn’t find a way to make any money out of either. After a lot of searching, he and business partner Simon Horniblow started talking to universities – and combined the two. They now run studentcooking.tv a very successful online cookery website for students. Would you think to do that? Think outside the box!

To Jonathan Fields:

“In thinking about potential alternative markets, or trying to find smaller, more lucrative submarkets, think about fields, careers, jobs, or paths where the elements of what you love to do are valued, but in short supply. You are looking for a market where your passion leads to: differentiation, hunger [and] price availability.”

Be practical and realistic though: is there really a demand for your new idea?

Here are three examples of journalists who digged a bit deeper to find new markets:

Weyo found a new market in non-profits looking for quality storytelling
Weyo found a new market in non-profits looking for quality storytelling
Journalist Martin Lewis exploited a gap in the market for impartial financial advice
Journalist Martin Lewis exploited a gap in the market for impartial financial advice
Duckrabbit ex[ploited a gap in education and produce training courses in photography and audio design
Duckrabbit exploited a gap in education and produce training courses in photography and audio design

3) Bootstrapping
Bootstrapping means starting your freelance business with little or no cash. It means learning how to get things done for free – and most valuable of all – learning to be careful with money.

The great news is you don’t need any money to start out and market yourself. A website domain name will cost you a small amount. But social media means you can market your talents absolutely free (see the previous 6×6 on branding).

Josh Quittner, writing in Time Magazine uses the term LILO – to mean ‘a little in, a lot out’: “At no other time in recent history has it been easier or cheaper to start a new kind of company. Possibly a very profitable company,” he says. “[Bootstrapping] means your start-up is self-sustaining and can eek out enough profit to keep you alive on instant noodles while your business gains traction.”

If this recession has taught us anything, it’s that the best business is built from the bottom up, on the funds available (not borrowed).

4) Dealing with inflexible income
The biggest fear of starting a freelance career is money. Oh, and failure. ‘What if I don’t get any business?’ ‘How will I be sure I’ll always pay the rent?’ Truth is you won’t ever be sure, but that’s part of the thrill, right?

Still there are some things you can do to make the ebb and flow of freelance income a little more stable.

A good tip is to open up a separate bank account for your business earnings. Get Rich Slowly offers this advice: “Every month as you earn income, receive it (and leave it) in your business account. This is where you accumulate your cash. Because it’s in a high-yield account, it earns interest as it waits for you to use it.”

They recommend paying yourself a monthly salary from that business accountand leaving the rest for tax and other investments. The worst thing is to use the profits from a bumper month to pay for a bumper holiday, only to return to slim pickings.

But the best advice for living on an irregular income? Learn to live lite. Cut back on unnecessary spending wherever you can. Back to David Westphal profiling Jason Motlagh: “He lives modestly and accepts that there may be periods in his work where he’ll have to do something besides journalism to pay the bills.”

5) Find your creative time
Sure, for some freelancers the appeal of being your own boss is getting up at 10, watching some TV, doing some work, heading out on a night out without the guilt… and that might work for some. But the creative entrepreneur’s life is most likely to be a different one.

Just ask Mark McGuinness. He coaches creative freelancers and says for the successful ones, it ain’t no bohemian life:

“After scanning my diary and surveying the tasks in hand, I was faced with a depressing conclusion. I was going to have to get up early.”

He’s up at 6 in the morning, every morning, getting the crap out the way, like emails and the like.  He then says he has several hours free to work solidly on creative tasks, before the rest of the world gets up and the phone starts ringing. Know when you are at your creative best and ring fence it, so you can’t get disturbed. It might be 6am, it might be midnight. Whatever, just make sure it’s protected.

“[W]hen I look back over the last couple of years, the time when I’ve created most value, for myself and my clients, has been those first hours of the day I’ve spent writing blog posts, essays, seminars and poems. It’s the creative wellspring that feeds into all the coaching, training, presenting and consulting I do when I’m face-to-face with clients.”

Treat it like a full time job too. If you can, work somewhere where you can commute to, or have some ringfenced office space at home. I recommend Mark’s excellent (and free) ebook ‘Time Management for Creative People‘.

6) Be lean, but don’t be mean
If you’re dreaming of going freelance, you might be thinking about holding off until after the recession. No need, says Leo Babauta 0f Zenhabits fame:

“This is the best time to start. This is a time when job security is low, so risks are actually lower. This is a time to be lean, which is the best idea for starting a business. This is the time when others are quitting – so you’ll have more room to succeed.

“And with social media and networking taking off, this is the easiest time to start a business, the easiest time to spread the word, the easiest time to distribute information and products and services.”

Starting now though won’t be easy – and you’ll need to be lean. But that is such an important skill to keep things afloat later on. Be sensible with your money, don’t overspend. It’s the thing the big companies can’t do, and the reason they lose money hand over fist. And don’t be mean: journalism is a small village – make friends and keep ’em!

The final word:
Journalism.co.uk offer some great practical advice for freelancers, which cover things like registering as self-employed, pitching for new work and managing finances. And if you’re still unsure of taking the entrepreneurial route, just watch this video.

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Adam Westbrook: 6×6 storytelling for freelance journalists

August 21st, 2009 | 2 Comments | Posted by in Editors' pick, Freelance, Multimedia

This is the third in a series of six blog posts by Adam Westbrook, each with six tips for the next generation of freelance multimedia journalists, republished here with permission.

Follow the series at this link or visit Adam’s blog.

Storytelling
A lot of the focus for multimedia journalists and digital journalists has been on new technology: using Twitter, learning Flash. But there’s a danger that in the rush to learn new skills, we forgot (or never learn) the oldest ones. And there is no skill older, or more important, than storytelling.

Maybe you think it’s something you can’t learn; it comes naturally. You might think it’s something with no rules: each story is different. True, but there is a science to storytelling as well as an art: here are six secrets.

1) Who’s your character?
Every story needs a character. Lord of the Rings has dozens, but your short doc or audio slideshow might only have one. Either way, they need to be compelling and they need to be embarking on a journey. And we need to like them or be fascinated by them, because we’re going to follow their journey: and we want our audience to follow it too.

No matter what your story, it needs a character. In old-media land this is known crudely as the ‘case study’. (Think how many TV news reports start with a case study!). But they are crucial because they humanise what might actually be a general issue. Making a doc about homelessness?  You best make sure it stars a homeless person.

Beware though the difference between ‘character’ and ‘characterization’. Robert McKee in his excellent book Story tells us the latter is the outward description of a person – their personality, age, height, what clothes they wear – but character is the true essence of the person in the story. That true character is only revealed when their journey puts them under increased pressures.

The decisions we all make under pressure are the ones which reveal our true character.
2) The narrative arc
The next thing you want to do is find your story’s narrative arc. Remember I mentioned your character’s journey? Well, that’s your narrative arc.

It starts with what Hollywood screenwriters call ‘The Incident Incident’. It’s the moment which instills in your character a desire to achieve a seemingly insurmountable goal/object of desire. It sets them on a mission – a quest.

This mission must challenge them in increasingly difficult ways (and never decreasingly), rising to a climax to which the audience can imagine no other. Writing in the Digital Journalist, Ken Kobre sums it up:

“Besides a beginning, middle and end, a good story has a memorable protagonist who surmounts obstacles en route to achieving a goal that we care about.”

Stories work better with a real play-off of positive and negative charges. Something good happens, and then something bad. Then something even better than before, and then something even worse than before. Robert McKee describes a second device, called ‘gap of expectation’: that’s where your character’s expectations of an event are blown apart by reality.

3) Oi! Where’s the conflict?
You’re making a film about that homeless person on a mission to get his life back on track. The first thing he wants to do is get some money for a small flat. He asks the council. They give him the money. The end.

Lame story.

Why? Because there is no conflict! I hate conflict in real life, but in storytelling it’s essential. There must be forces opposing your character and their mission. And sparks must fly. McKee lists three types of conflict:

  1. Inner conflict: your character is in conflict with themselves (Kramer vs Kramer)
  2. Personal: your character’s in conflict with people around them (Casablanca)
  3. Extrapersonal: your character’s in conflict with something massive (Independence Day)

4) Climax!
Traditionally stories end in a climax. The ever increasing ups and downs culminate in either an ultimate high (happy ending) or ultimate low (sad ending). Either way, the key word is ‘ultimate’. In Hollywood-land the ending must be so climatic they cannot possibly imagine another way of doing it.

In the real world it is not always the way, but you should have half a mind on how your story is going to end. Crucially if they’ve been set off on a quest, they should finish it for better or worse. The ending should still be ‘absolute and irreversible’.
5) Use tried and tested storytelling techniques
There are lots of little storytelling devices you can use to add some sparkle to your work.

  • Book-ending: returning the character/place/event which opened your piece, at the end, is a nice way to sum up what’s changed. It can add a bit of emotional punch too.
  • Narrative hook: opening the piece with an enticing, unexplained event/interview/image to suck the viewers right in
  • Get the crayons out: popular in internet memes everywhere, getting people to write something down and hold it up to the camera is very effective (just check out SOTM if you need proof); I know of a very experienced reporter who took crayons and paper to a refugee camp and got children to draw the terrible things they’d seen: another great device.

6) Stories are everywhere!
These guidelines are really used by authors, and screen writers – people who create stories from scratch. As journalists we aren’t making up stories (hopefully not, anyway) – but we should have our eyes and ears open to these elements in the real world to heighten the sense of story for our audience.

And most of all – remember stories are everywhere! I have never been more inspired than by reading Cory Tennis’ advice to one floundering journalism graduate, unable to get work:

“And then, with the irony that cloaks us against utter nihilism, we think, if only we were living in more interesting times! And that is the confounding thing about it, isn’t it? That we stand on the nodal point of a great, creaking, crunching change in historical direction, at the beginning of cataclysmic planetary collapse, at the dying of civilization, at the rising of new empires, at our own meltdown, as a million stories bloom out of the earth like wildflowers in the spring and we think, gee, uh, if only there were some good stories to tell.”

The best way to learn the craft of storytelling, is to get out there and tell some.
The final word:

“A storyteller is a life poet, an artist who transforms day-to-day living, inner life and outer life, dream and actuality into a poem whose rhyme scheme is events rather than words – a two-hour metaphor that says: Life is like this! Therefore a story must be abstract from life to discover its essences, but must not become an abstraction that loses all sense of a life-as-lived. A story must be like life, but not so verbatim that it has no depth or meaning beyond anyone in the street.”

Robert McKee, ‘Story’

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Adam Westbrook: 6×6 video for freelance journalists

August 20th, 2009 | 3 Comments | Posted by in Editors' pick, Multimedia, Training

This is the second in a series of six blog posts by Adam Westbrook, each with six tips for the next generation of freelance multimedia journalists, republished here with permission.

Follow the series at this link or visit Adam’s blog.

Video
Video has by far and away become the most popular medium for the multimedia journalist – to the extent it almost seems many won’t consider it a truly multimedia project unless it’s got a bit of video in it. The thing is, video is a tricky medium and must be treated differently in the world of online journalism.

1) Video doesn’t need to be expensive
Don’t be fooled into thinking you can’t do video just because you haven’t got any cash. Sure, if you want to go right to the top range, say a Sony EX3, Final Cut Pro and After Effects, yes, it’s going to set you back about £3,000 ($5,000). But high quality can be achieved on lower budgets.

Check out my article on how I put together an entire film making kit for £500 ($800).

2) Shoot for the edit
If there’s one piece of advice for multimedia journalists making films – it comes from Harris Watts, in a book he published 20 years ago. In ‘Directing on Camera’ he describes exactly what shooting footage is:

“Shooting is collecting pictures and sound for editing (…) so when you shoot, shoot for editing. Take your shots in a way that keeps your options open.”

Filming with the final piece firmly in mind will keep your shooting focused and short. So when you start filming, start looking for close ups and sequences. The latter is the hardest: an action which tells your story, told over two or more shots.

Sequences are vital to storytelling and must be thought through.

A simple sequence: shot 1, soldiers feet walking from behind
A simple sequence: shot 1, soldiers feet walking from behind
Then to a wide shot of the same action...
Then to a wide shot of the same action…
...and then to a wide reverse showing more detail
…and then to a wide reverse showing more detail

3) Master depth of field
In online video, close-ups matter. The most effective way to hold close-ups – especially of a person – is to master depth of field. Put simply the depth of field how much of your shot in front of and behind your subject is kept in focus. It is controlled by the aperture on your camera – so you’ll need a camera with a manual iris setting.

Your aim – especially with close-ups – is to have your subject in clear focus, and everything behind them blurred: Alexandra Garcia does it very well in her Washington Post In-Scene series. (HT: Innovative Interactivity)

Screenshot: Innovative InteractivityScreenshot: Innovative Interactivity

Here’s a quick guide to getting to grips with depth of field:

  1. you need a good distance between the camera and subject
  2. a good distance between the subject and the background
  3. and a low f-stop on your iris – around f2.8, depending on how much light there is in your scene. A short focal length does this too.
  4. You may need to zoom in on your subject from a distance

4) Never wallpaper
If there was ever an example of the phrase ‘easier said than done’ this would be it. It’s a simple tip on first read: make sure every shot in your film is there for a reason. But with pressures of time or bad planning you can often find yourself ‘wallpapering’ shots just to fill a gap.

In his excellent book The Television News Handbook Vin Ray says following this rule will help you out no end:

“One simple rule will dramatically improve your television packaging: never use a shot – any shot – as wallpaper’. Never just write across pictures as though they weren’t there, leaving the viewer wondering what they’re looking at. Never ever.”

5) Look for the detail and the telling shot
Broadcast journalists are taught to look for the ‘telling shot’, and more often than not make it the first image. If your story is about a fire at a school, the first thing the audience need to see is the school on fire. If it’s about a woman with cancer, we must see her in shot immediately.

But the telling shot extends further: you can enhance your storytelling by looking for little details which really bring your story to life.

Vin Ray says looking for the little details are what set great camera operators apart from the rest:

“Small details make a big difference. Nervous hands; pictures on a mantelpiece; someone whispering into an ear; a hand clutching a toy; details of a life.”

I’m midway through shooting a short documentary about a former prisoner turned lawyer. One of the first things I noticed when I met him was a copy of the Shawshank Redemption on his coffee table – a great little vignette to help understand the character.

6) Break the rules
The worst thing a multimedia journalist can do when producing video for the web is to replicate television – unless that’s your commission of course. TV is full of rules and formulas, all designed to hide edits, look good to the eye, and sometimes deceive. Fact is, online video journalism provides the chance to escape all that.

Sure it must look good, but be prepared to experiment – you’ll be amazed what people will put up with online:

  • Cutaways are often used to cover over edits in interviews; why not be honest and use a simple flash-dissolve instead. Your audience deserves to know where you’ve edited, right?
  • TV packages can’t operate without being leaden with voice over, but your online films don’t need to be.
  • Piece to cameras don’t need to be woodenly delivered with the camera on a tripod.

The final word…
Here’s VJ pioneer David Dunkley-Gyimah speaking at this year’s SxSW event in the US:

When it comes to the net, there is no code yet as I believe that is set in stone (…) we’ve all been taking TV’s language and applying that and it hasn’t quite worked. Video journalism needs a more cinematic, heightened visual base.”

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Adam Westbrook: 6×6 branding for freelance journalists

August 17th, 2009 | 6 Comments | Posted by in Editors' pick, Freelance, Training

This is the first post in a series of six blog posts by Adam Westbrook, each with six tips for the next generation of freelance multimedia journalists, republished here with permission.

Follow the series at this link or visit Adam’s blog.

Branding
Even as far back as 2006, the likes of Andrew Neil appreciated the journalists of the future will need to brand themselves well. “The journalist of the future…will have more than one employer and become a brand in his own right” he wrote.  With full time jobs in well staffed newsrooms becoming more sparse, but opportunities outside traditional/mainstream journalism becoming more plenty, this prediction is coming true. So, what can you do to boost your brand?

1) Own your name
The first thing to overcome is the embarrassment or discomfort of ‘blowing your own trumpet’. For some people the idea of self branding is for cocky self promoters. Well guess what: if you’re going to succeed as a freelancer, some self promotion has gotta be done. Oh, and aim for confident, not cocky.

As a freelancer especially, your brand is your name. Therefore you need to own your name, especially in cyberspace. You should try and own your domain name (www.yourname.com or www.yourname.net or www.yourname.co.uk).  If you’re running yourself as a business with its own name that’s OK too.

Lisa Barone at Outspoken Media agrees: “It’s always better to have the username and not use it, then need to wait and kick yourself later when someone else grabs it. Having a unified social media username is very important in establishing trust with other members.”

Another unpopular thing to do: Google your own name. How far up does it come? If an editor or potential client needs to find you, you must be high up the rankings. You don’t need to pay for this (although you could); instead you should be putting up authoritative quality content which gets you those all important links, diggs and retweets from readers.

Brian Clark, in his excellent Authority Rules e-book, makes the point that if ‘people think you’re important, so will Google’.

2) Define your niche
The branding experts tell you if you’re going to have a brand, people need to know what you’re about. And you need to be able to give someone the elevator pitch about yourself too. A niche will give you a vital advantage over general-news journalists. Freelance science journalist Angela Saini for example knows what she’s good at (science) and has successfully built herself a reputation as a science journalist around that, in less than a year.

If you don’t have a niche, don’t worry too much. But just be able to sum up what you’re about: not only will it define your branding, it’ll help keep you focused on what projects you pursue.

3) Have a good great website and blog
As a multimedia journalist your content exists for the web. And so to not have your own web presence is ludicrous. But your website must be great (not just good). It must stand out and most importantly be designed to show off what you’re good at.
So:

  • if your selling point is the great photographs you take, make sure your website has a huge single column on the front page, with a flash platform displaying your best photos at their best;
  • if you’re a video journalist, your front page should have an equally large, single-column, splash video showreel;
  • if you’re about the audio, think about getting a visually exciting audio player, again at the top of the front page.

Here are three original, striking and inspiring portfolio websites to get you going:

6x6-portfolio-carmichaelx

6x6-portfolio-maisiex6x6-portfolio-monicax

A blog is another crucial element for the multimedia journalist, for several reasons. It keeps your website current and up to date; it allows you to build on your brand and show off your expertise with some well written authoratitive blogs; and allows you to build and engage with a community of other journalists and even clients.

Back to Brian Clark at Authority Rules: “Your content actually demonstrates your expertise, compared with a website or bio page that claims expertise.”

4) Have a fresh CV and showreel
After your blog and front page portfolio, the most important thing visitors will need to be able to find is your CV/resume and showreel. Have it in the top navigation bar and in one of your sidebars.

Your CV must be in pdf format (or a Google Doc) and up to date. You can chose to have it typed up in the page as well.  Create an image button to make it more attractive. Mindy McAdams says your CV is  vital to prove your claims, so ‘your real work experience should be easy to find and easy to scan quickly. People will want to check this for verification, so dates should be clear, not obfuscated’.

Your showreel must also be up to date, especially if you are pitching for daily news work. Radio journalists especially: make sure your uploaded bulletin is only a few weeks old.

Upload your showreel and embed it into your web page. That way potential editors and clients don’t need to download large files to be able to see what you do. Vimeo is ideal for video. Soundslides does the job for photographs and audio slideshows. And I use Soundcloud for embedding audio. If you can, use flash to give your showreel some animation. Freelance radio journalist and web designer Katie Hall does this to good effect on her site.

5) Keep your networks consistent
An important part of brand management is consistency. The internet is a hugely powerful tool for connecting with people, so it is important you spread yourself across as many social networks as possible: Twitter, LinkedIn, Demotix, Current TV and Facebook to name just a few.

But keep them all consistent. Have the same username for each – and make it your name. My Twitter name is AdamWestbrook, as is my Vimeo and LinkedIn profile. My Facebook URL is facebook.com/AdamWestbrook.

And do the same with images. Have one image of yourself (it’s called a Gravatar) and use that for your profile images. One name, one image, one brand.

6) Get business cards
All these tips so far have been for branding yourself in the online world. Amazingly the real world hasn’t given up the ghost through lack of attention just yet, and it’s equally important to promote yourself at networking events, conferences and other shindigs.

Business cards are a necessity. There are many sites offering this service, not to mention high street stores, but UK born website Moo.com has been recommended to me far too many times for it not to be good. They’ll even give you 50 free business cards as a trial.

The final word…
Now I know I’ve pushed for you to brand yourself as your own name as a multimedia journalist. It’s a lot quicker, cheaper and easier than creating an actual stand alone business. But a wise word of warning comes from James Chartand at Freelance Switch:

“A personal brand traps you into always being present in your business. You will be at the mercy of your clients and your career (…) your personal reputation is at stake. One bad day, one slip, a job gone sour, an unhappy client spreading rumors, and your reputation is tarnished.”

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Adam Westbrook’s guides and an antidote to media navel-gazing

August 14th, 2009 | No Comments | Posted by in Editors' pick, Journalism, Training

Two editor’s picks for the price of one here – as they go hand in hand.

Firstly Marcelo Ballve on True/Slant sums up the problems of media navel-gazing, suggesting that the industry’s ruminations on its own fate may be of less interest to the general public than we give them credit for:

“It’s always going to be the case that a profession will have its water cooler talk, and with the internet, much of it is going to be public. But there’s too much of it and too much of it is seeping into spaces where a reader or viewer might simply want to be informed or told a story,” he writes.

Elsewhere, in an unrelated blog post, Adam Westbrook announces his plans to publish practical guides for journalists on video, branding, storytelling, audio, business skills and ‘making things happen’.

The 6×6 guides will start from next Monday and are intended to encourage the industry to look forward.

“People don’t want to be reminded how bad the newspaper/journalism sector is right now; they don’t want to read more introductions to articles reeling off the various nails in the coffin,” says Westbrook.

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