Today I am pleased to host an interview I conducted recently with UK journalist Adam Westbrook. Adam, a reporter who also works as a video producer, an instructor, blogger and the owner of his own series of writing-related microbusinesses (the concept of which will be explained in a moment), is one of the best documentarians of the entrepreneurial spirit manifested by today’s most successful nonfiction writers.
Adam is confident, focused, and excited about the future of journalism. After you read this interview, and perhaps some of his blog, you will be too.
Tell us a little bit about your background as a journalist.
After training at City University in London, I started my career as a radio reporter working in different cities in the UK. Over the next three years I covered all sorts of domestic and international stories and spent a short time reporting from Iraq.
At what point in your career did you realize that the journalism industry was undergoing substantial changes? How did you respond?
When I was training it felt very much like we could see storm clouds on the horizon, but none of us could have predicted how much the industry was going to change. In my years as a reporter I continued blogging about my work, and eventually started getting more involved in social media. It was around this time (in 2008-09) that I found my work online excited me more than working in broadcast news.
Then later in 2009 I decided to take a leap and quit my job to become a fully independent multimedia producer, and haven’t looked back.
You spend a lot of time on your blog writing about how journalists can (and should) create microbusinesses or other entrepreneurial ventures. Why do you think this is important?
I don’t necessarily believe everyone should start their own ventures -it is not for everyone. But at the same time, creating and publishing content on the web has become so much cheaper and easier, and the audiences bigger, that it seems to me to be a shame not to explore its possibilities. It’s also far more exciting (I think) than mainstream media because the rules haven’t been written yet, so there’s great scope to create the work and career suited to you. Meanwhile, starting a business involves a much lower overhead, and more people are finding it brings them freedom and creative satisfaction.
In your mind, how might the approach taken by a proprietor of a journalistic microbusiness differ from the way an old-school freelance writer looked at their sources of income?
As a freelancer, despite how much freedom you have you are still selling your time in return for money. So you are at the mercy of client wants and needs, and you are only making money for yourself. Entrepreneurship is about creating a product or a service that does not involve selling your time, but something else (that is) distinct from you; it also has the potential to generate wealth, jobs, etc.
If you’re just starting out, a freelance business is much easier to set up, so it’s definitely worth beginning down this path, but if it’s career freedom you want, you should investigate product or service ideas alongside.
What skills should writers trained to write for print consider adding to their professional toolkit at this point in time? How can they leverage what they already know?
There are so many, but don’t worry about becoming a “jack of all trades and a master of none.” If you want to make a living writing online, you ought to have an understanding of online publishing – so learn how to self host a WordPress blog and do some basic HTML. The great thing about the web is it is so easy to learn new skills, whether its video, data, graphic design or web design. I wouldn’t say professional training is necessary either. Just start practicing and get your questions answered online.
Why did you choose to make one of your latest projects, Inside the Story, a fundraiser for Kiva? How did that end up fitting into your professional/business plan?
The Inside the Story was a project idea I had running around my mind for a while, and when a gap came up at the start of 2012 I thought I might as well get busy and do it. I always imagined the book raising money for a good cause, and in retrospect it wouldn’t have been possible to get the caliber of contributors on board if it had been for my personal profit. In terms of my ‘business plan’ it didn’t cost me anything but my time, which I know how to use well, and was a good profile raiser. But mostly, I believe that generosity is a really important part of business online: you have to give lots away. It’s what I do with my blog every week too.
You’ve talked a lot on your blog about building a “portfolio” career. What did you mean by that, and how important is it in terms of managing one’s career as a journalist these days?
A portfolio career basically involves having more than one form of income to support you. Again, it’s made possible by the time and energy savings of working online. So I make most of my income as a multimedia producer making films for clients; but I also lecture in journalism, do training and consulting and sell books. It’s got better variety and means you’re not reliant on just one job. Every business has a by-product, and there are always other ways to make money from the skills or products you already have.
Want to learn more from Adam Westbrook? He offers several e-books on journalism topics, including one that’s free!