Get a Start in Digital Storytelling

30 May

What’s the best way to get a start in video or film journalism? According to Adam Westbrook, multimedia producer, journalism lecturer and entrepreneur, go out and make a video.

“Just do it”, was his advice when I interviewed him recently. Practice beats training, says Adam. You will be disappointed with your first efforts, but the best way to begin is to get out in the street and start filming. 

Adam has just produced a fabulous ebook on digital storytelling, Inside the Story, to help Kiva, which provides microfinance in developing countries.

I talked to Adam about the book – which was only on sale for a limited time but may be reissued – and about how to make a name for yourself as a digital storyteller.

Why is storytelling so powerful?

Storytelling is powerful because it is such a fundamental part of human life. We are wired to respond to well-told stories and it’s what we’ve been doing for thousands of years. Organisations using stories isn’t anything new. What’s really changed recently is the ability of organisations to bypass publishers and publish their own material.

Meanwhile, mass-market advertising is on a slow decline to irrelevance, giving way to authentic, targeted ads to niche communities.

The key word is authenticity. Audiences are skeptical of commercials and advertising these days and don’t respond to it. Journalists are good at telling real authentic stories. Everyone has a story — even the smallest small business owner — and it is that story which customers respond to now.

What makes a compelling digital story?

  • First and foremost, a good story has a strong character at its heart
  • Secondly they have to be striving to achieve something
  • Surprise is another element that makes stories compelling
  • Ultimately they have to say something about the world itself
  • The best stories have meaning behind them.

What should would-be film-makers do? Go out with their iPhone? Watch a lot of videos? Get training?

All of those except training – skip that. Instead, watch lots of great web docs, follow the contributors to Inside the Story on Twitter and most importantly, start making stuff now. Your first few films or pieces will disappoint you, that is a given, but the important thing is to not give up.

What are the basics in terms of tools?

A camera (an iPhone will do just fine) and something to edit the media with. Finally you need a way to publish your stories so a website/blog and Vimeo account are useful too. Beyond that, get a tripod and good audio equipment.

Most of all you need to be curious, interested in people, and willing to experiment. Everything else you can learn, but being able to edit video doesn’t mean much if you aren’t able to go out and find stories.

Can you share any useful resources?

I write a lot about digital storytelling on my blog. Vimeo’s Video School  is another excellent, more technical, resource. In terms of images I recommend GIMP 2.6 as a free alternative to Photoshop and Audacity for free editing software. There is lots of open source software for multimedia producers out there, so explore.

Who are the digital storytellers to follow?

The best ones in my opinion have all written for Inside the Story! Brian Storm and MediaStorm in general are one of the best story houses I know; the Bombay Flying Club, Claudio Von Planta, Duckrabbit and California Is A Place have all made knockout multimedia, and any beginner should check out their work in depth.

How difficult is it to freelance in video journalism?

Entrepreneurial Journalism is rising in popularity in response to the declining number of jobs in the industry, plus the ease and affordability of self-publishing. That doesn’t make it easy to make actual money, however.

The best advice on this front is to come up with something that helps people — whatever you do, it has to be valuable to other people for them to pay for it; be extremely generous and build up a community around your work, and then look for lots of different ways to monetise it (products, subscriptions, events etc). But know you’re swimming against the tide of conventional wisdom — expect lots of resistance, but don’t give up.

How did you get started?

My background is in radio journalism — I spent several years as a reporter working all over the UK. I quit my job in 2009 to pursue all the exciting opportunities to publish on the web, and although it’s not been easy, I haven’t looked back. These days I focus on various video and publishing projects, as well as teaching video journalism at Kingston University in London, making films for various organisations and training.

This interview first appeared at the Community Blog. See it there.

Photo: mnadi on flickr

What makes a good digital story in your opinion? Do you know of any resources to share? Leave a comment below.


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