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Writing as a microbusiness: An interview with Adam Westbrook

 

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!

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A Writer’s Guide to Blogging


It seems a little silly to call blogs new media, since they’ve existed since the late 1990s. Still, they are a new way for writers to engage with an audience and have been viewed with suspicion by mainstream journalists for far too long.

Blogs represented the vanguard of the social web, a place in which unfiltered (or lightly filtered) give and take between writers and readers — not to mention the informational cross-pollination that hyperlinking adds to the mix — has reshaped the expectations of the people formerly known as the audience. Ignoring blogging as a writer is possible in 2010, but it doesn’t seem very smart.

If you’ve never considered blogging before, there are a number of ways in which it could enhance your writing career.

  • A blog provides a readily available sample of your writing style, tone, range, etc.
  • Blogging can encourage daily writing and stretching oneself to create fresh content.
  • Blogging can provide useful feedback from potential readers for test marketing your story ideas.
  • Blogs are a good way to claim your expertise within a specified niche and connect with others who share that interest.
  • Creating a popular blog can help you build “platform” for a book or film project.

There are entire sites dedicated to how to write well for blogs. I happen to like ProBlogger and Skelliwag. Here are a few tips for nonfiction writers who are ready to take the plunge into blogging.

Tips for creating a must-read blog

1. Start reading blogs if you don’t already. I can’t stress this enough. I have been amazed, when discussing blogging with folks in the corporate world, how many of them are all ready to fire up a blog without having ever read one in their life. While Web 2.0 technology has made the barrier to entry for tools like blogs non-existent, it doesn’t ensure that you will produce content anyone wants to read.

In this post, I include links to some good writing blogs. Visit some of them and see if you like them. Leave a comment on a post if it moves you. Once you’ve got 5-10 blogs you want to read regularly, pick an aggregation service, such as My Yahoo, or Google Reader, that will bring RSS feeds from the blogs to you. You’ll be amazed at how much easier it is to keep up with your favorite bloggers this way.

For further instruction in how to set up a blog aggregator system:

Creating a passion dashboard | Creative Liberty

When you care to aggregate the very best | Guy Kawasaki

2. Claim your niche. Even if you’re planning on writing a free-wheeling blog about your personal literary adventures, recognize that your posts will have a personality and tone that differentiates them from everyone else’s blog. I often liken writing a blog to writing a column in a newspaper or magazine–people rarely read columns just because they want to know “about cars,” or “about” humorist Dave Barry’s improbable life. They’ve connected to the specific type of content delivered, the style and column’s offerings over time.

If you’ve been reading blogs for a little while before starting your blog, you’ll probably get a good idea where you fit within the section of the blog-o-sphere in which you want to become known. If not, ask yourself what you want to write about, then narrow it several times by subtopics, demographic groups (old hippies vs. Generation Y professionals), or your skill level or role in relation to the blog topic (passionate hobbyist, skilled teacher, detached documentarian).

3. Let your hair down… The best blogs read like a conversation. The blogger talks to readers like he would to his friends or colleagues, and commenters reply in the same spirit. The conversation can be serious, technical or even contentious, but it doesn’t become pedantic or bureaucratic.

Corporate blogs have to work hard to achieve this sort of authentic dialogue; if you are able to connect with other bloggers and blog readers (through linking or commenting on other blogs  or other methods), you, as a solo blogger, may have an easier time expressing yourself with your authentic voice. And as a writer, being able to express in a style that is clear and genuine should always be your goal.

4. …But have some boundaries. Mostly, use common sense. What would you think if your post was printed in a magazine or newspaper?

Privacy is one of social web’s biggest battlegrounds. Facebook’s creator Mark Zuckerberg reportedly doesn’t think much of privacy. And we’ve all met contacts on social media who commit other over-sharing faux pas. But even if you’re legitimately revealing intimate details in the service of a post that showcases your writing abilities, keep in mind that the reader won’t have the same investment in the minutae of your life as you do. (But identity thieves might!)

More quick tips for successful blogging

  • Plan ahead. I make a blog post calendar every month. I often deviate from the posts I say I’m going to write, but it does make me think through my content and research posts ahead of time.
  • Break a long post into a series of posts. I’m not really following my own wisdom in this post, but if your post is more than 1000 words, consider parceling it out over 2 or 3 posts.
  • Understand, but don’t abuse, visit-boosting strategies. You should put your best posts on sharing sites like Digg and StumbleUpon. It’s OK, while you’re reading the blogs of others, to link to relevant posts on your own blog in your comments to them. However, if your entire life online looks to a third party as if all you do is seek blog visits, it will turn people off.

Bonus links on blogging

Top 10 Blogs for Writers 2009 | Copyblogger

Here are 10 great blogs to visit for information on writing and blogging.

Nonfiction Tweets: 70+ Authors to Follow on Twitter

Many of these tweeting authors also have excellent blogs.

How to Decide What Blogs to Read (4 Steps) | American Express OPEN Forum
Author Rohit Bhargava gives four great tips for figuring out whose blogs to follow — and how.

10 Pathways to Inspired Writing | Copyblogger
Power blogger Matthew Cheuvront offers 10 somewhat surprising tips on how to perk up your blog posts. He makes such heretical suggestions as reading actual (paper) books and listening to entire music albums from beginning to end!

How to Keep Your Readers Coming Back to Your Blog | Social Media Examiner
How to use the CODA (Content, Outreach, Design and Action) system to improve one’s business blog.

9 Ways People Respond to Your Content Online
Great post on the Lateral Action blog that sketches out how people respond to material online, and how to truly engage them with your stuff.

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