“If Your Online Project Isn’t Working, It’s Not Good”: A Conversation With Adam Westbrook


For many of us, being a journalist who works with names as prestigious as the BBC or Al Jazeera near the debut of his career would be enough of an accomplishment on its own. It would be the kind of thing that someone might even feel complacent about — the beginnings of a resume which, if achieved in your 20s, would be a clear road to a future in traditional journalism. As difficult a field as it is to break into for so many, those who embark on a career as a journalist are often inclined to hold onto the opportunities they get with an iron grip.

But for Adam Westbrook, whose journey started off with such prestige, the idea of continuing down that beaten path of documentaries, news clips, and talking-head pieces was just not an option. Adam’s vision of news and publishing was one that he took into his own hands, something that might not have had the allure of the big name or the up-front big paycheck, but would be created entirely the way he wanted to. Despite the internet’s proven record of well-intentioned start-ups and publications fizzling out just a few short months into their run — and becoming more a source of humiliation than anything else for its creator — Adam knew he had to give it a try.

Several years into his career as a broadcast journalist, he took to the internet to create his own digital magazine, Inside The Story, and find out what it means to be the publisher, instead of just the published. We recently sat down with him to talk about journalism, self-promotion, and the way we listen to each other on social media.

Thought Catalog: First things first, let’s talk about how you got into journalism.

Adam Westbrook: I first got interested in journalism when I was 15 or 16. I knew I wanted to work on television, but I also had that kind of thing you have when you’re a kid, like, “I want to do something important, something that matters.” It’s hard to break into TV though, as an actor or, what I wanted to be, a director. Somehow journalism felt more legitimate. So I decided to go for it.

My first paid job was as a news reader on a radio station, and I actually enjoyed it. My first few years in doing “traditional journalism” was pretty tough because it was really low pay, like 14,000 pounds a year, and it was really hard hours. But when I look back at it, it was actually kind of fun. I had my shitty car, and there would be, like, a fire, and I would get in my shitty car and go report on the fire. So it was not much, but it was a good start.

TC: What do you consider your “big break” in journalism?

AW: I think that one of the best things I did was probably a job as a reporter when I was about 22, and I had this tiny area to report on, like three counties. And it was just countryside, not much to report on, but it was my proper news job. And it’s funny, because what I do now is so disconnected from all of that.

TC: What would you say that you do now?

AW: I’ve been doing it for years now, and I still struggle to answer that question. I have a hard time explaining at parties, but it’s that kind of “making it up as you go along” kind of job. Now I’m calling myself a Digital Producer and Publisher, which kind of captures the fact that I make stuff and curate stuff. But I actually don’t do any reporting anymore, I’ve moved away from that. It was a career choice that I made because it was the easier way to get into the things that I want to do.

TC: Are you nervous about your future?

AW: Yes! [Laughs.] Well, actually, I’m not, though. Because one thing I’ve learned about myself is that I can cope, and I’ll always find something to work on. That was the big thing that stopped me from taking the leap of quitting my job and moving to London to start from scratch. I procrastinated on that for so long, and then I finally took the leap, and now I’m much less afraid of taking that leap again. It’s a lot about knowing that you’ll be able to handle what comes along, as you work out where you fit into your field.

TC: How would you define a personal brand?

AW: I think, in many ways, it’s how people perceive you. But I don’t really like the idea that it’s not so much in your hands. But I think one thing I’ve definitely learned in trying to do entrepreneurial projects is that it really helps if you stand for something. That you have a mission, if you like, or something you’re trying to do or change. I wrote and published a book that was aimed at young journalists who didn’t know how to get into the industry. And a lot of what I was saying was that, yeah, you can apply for the jobs against the thousands of people who are also applying. Or you can realize that now, the internet allows you to make and publish your own stuff, and you don’t have to wait for permission.

But I felt quite self-conscious marketing this book, like, “Who would care what I have to say?” I felt like I was just saying, “Hey, can I have some money please?” But then one day this journalist for the Times, Ed Caesar, wrote an article giving his advice for young journalists, and it was just the most obnoxious article, basically saying that you need rich parents, to live in London, to work for free, and then refuse to leave until they give you a job. It didn’t at all acknowledge that people could step out on their own and do it their way. So I got really angry about it and wrote a response, and it made me realize that I now had a reason to sell this book because I now had a position on something. I had something to change.

That is when I realized that doing your own projects, be entrepreneurial, promote yourself — it helps if you stand for or against something.

TC: How do you feel about Twitter, as far as personal branding?

AW: I made the decision a few years ago to sort of scale back my presence on Twitter. I’ve sent like 12,000 tweets and I’m quite embarrassed about that. I’d take it back if I could — no one should talk that much. There has to be a balance. I think on social media it has to be that right balance of being useful, sharing links, helping people, and also just being a human being. But it’s a necessary thing, because you have to find a way to reach the people you are trying to talk to and, I guess, sell to.

TC: Do you think that there is a good and a bad way to promote your project online? Like, when people are constantly pushing you to “like” or “share” their stuff, it gets grating, but you have to get the word out there.

AW: That’s not how it should work — though I don’t think I’ve gotten it perfect yet. But I think the goal is clear. You should never have to ask people for things, beg them for it, because they should want to come to you. It should be something that they either need, or love, and they come to you because they believe it’s worth paying for. In an ideal world, the best work doesn’t need promotion. And even in the real world, the best work sells itself. There is stuff that goes viral, and stuff that doesn’t, and that is part of the learning process.

It can be very hard to accept, though, that if your online project isn’t working, it’s not good. Because there is stuff that will just share itself, and the internet takes care of your work. But making something that is “good enough” is not something that you can just do. It can take years and years of trial and error, or it can happen with no practice. It’s not something you can control, and it’s not “fair” in that seniority, climbing the ladder sort of way. But I like that, because it’s meritocratic. The internet is quite good at that, with mostly the good stuff rising to the top. Of course, you have advertising companies trying to force it the other way, but the internet is usually quite good at telling what is organic.

But when it doesn’t really work, even if you sweated over it for months and thought it was perfect, you then have to go and kind of tout it around. You have to push it, and that never feels good. But the fine line there is learning to accept that what you did simply wasn’t good enough, and you are not going to make up for it with over-promotion. That isn’t how the internet works, unfortunately, and that is an essential thing to accept.

People will often think that a few extra dollars should go towards more PR or spending more time on Twitter trying to make the right connections, but I feel that it’s far better to go back into the project at hand and try to improve what you’re marketing. Because promotion so easily becomes grating, and people really respond negatively to that.

TC: What do you think of the way people — especially in your field — talk to each other on the internet? The way a lot of it is about back-and-forth, Twitter debates, that kind of thing?

AW: I think that it’s good that journalists can call each other out. That didn’t really happen in the past, and certainly not in real time. It’s great that bloggers can do it as well, because a lot of journalists are very critical of blogging. They think, “They’re all amateurs, where is their media training, their legal training? They’re just going to start slandering people and get sued.” And actually, what we’ve found is that most of the journalistic malpractice is coming from mainstream media, and blogging is actually acting as another check and balance for journalism and reporting. It’s another group to answer to, who will call you out.

TC: Do you ever get tired of all the one-upmanship?

AW: It’s something I really try to keep out of, it’s one of the reasons I try to never be negative. That was a decision I consciously made, I don’t want to turn my attention to deriding other people or publications. So I mostly ignore it, because I find it exhausting. And I find that when I don’t say something at all for a few days on Twitter, my followers will go up. So I think that most people find the tit-for-tat pretty childish and irritating in the long run.

I also decimate the number of people I follow around Christmas every year, which actually sounds quite sad. But it’s great! I went from like 3,000 to 300 one year. And it’s much better for your overall mental health, I think, to be able to concentrate on the people you like who are promoting things you’re interested in, rather than cutting down things they are not interested in.

TC: So what is your magazine about? And does it fit in with your theme of not being critical?

AW: It fits in with that “promoting the positive” theme, I think. It’s about putting the spotlight on things that should be talked about, and giving people a better way to understand them.

Inside The Story talks a lot about the behind-the-scenes work of publishing, digital storytelling, producing, and putting work together online. The subjects can range from the producers to the artists to the publishers, and it’s about really taking the industry apart and looking at the way it’s getting made in the digital world. It felt, in a lot of ways, like the continuation of what I used to do in a more modern format.

TC: And what would you advise people to do who are looking to get into the industry themselves — who want to publish online, or make videos, or start news blogging? What is important for them to know?

AW: Don’t worry about self-promotion any more than making your stuff as available as possible. Because promotion does not work in the same way anymore, and the internet has changed the game when it comes to what gets attention and what doesn’t. Your work, if it’s good, will speak for itself. There are so many people trying to make things right now, and it’s important to keep the angle you have clear and at the forefront, so that people can know who you are and make decisions for themselves. Focus on your craft, and getting better at what you do, and constantly improving. If you’re blogging, and one day you put out five articles and the next you put out none, that’s fine. It should be about the quality. Because you can’t trick people into liking your stuff, you have to make something that people want to listen to.

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image – Adam Westbrook