While We Were Here – turning a festival into a newspaper


While We Were Here is a 16-page free souvenir newspaper with a print run of 4,000. It was put together by a small team of volunteers during this year’s Greenbelt Festival. It included a 4-page black and white comic pull-out in the centre of the paper. You can download a copy of the main paper or the comic in PDF formats.


Greenbelt Festival takes place over four days at the end of August every year at Cheltenham race course. There’s no accommodation on site that’s not under canvas – so the newspaper team were camping out on the course along with about 20,000 other festival-goers. We appropriated a small box that’s normally used for watching the races and turned it into a newsroom, with two design Macs and three or four laptops at any given time. There were not enough chairs, the carpet went half-way up the walls, and we were constantly watched by pictures of small men on large horses.


In total there were ten people involved in making the main paper. We didn’t have much to do with the comic guys – they did their own thing and arrived perfectly on time with all their spreads in PDF form. Our team was brought together by Matt Patterson as hands-on managing editor and James Stewart as hands-off. I was the editor. James Weiner and Paul Abbott worked on data and infographics for the paper. Ben WeinerWill Quirk, Geraldine Nassieu-Maupas and Oliver Mayes made up our design and layout team, and Wilf Whitty dealt with some last-minute front-cover design issues.

The rest of the team were primarily design-minded folks and I was (as far as I know) the only one with newsroom experience. As a result partly of that and partly the fact that I’ll organise anything if it stands still near me for long enough, I took charge of content planning and making sure we had something interesting, well-written and appropriate for print on every page.


As a tangible souvenir, something to commemorate the experience of being at Greenbelt for those who were there and something to express a little of what it was like for those who weren’t. Something that’s separate from the blog or the Flickr stream or the Twitter conversations, a document that physically exists and can be handed around families, shown to children, given to grandparents, in a way that the internet still can’t.

And, in a very real way, we did it because we could.

When. How.

I was one of the last of the team to arrive on site, on Friday morning. At 2.30pm the team met for the first time and found out our general brief. Over the next four hours we hammered out a page plan for the paper, focussing on what we felt were the major themes and events from the Festival that people would recognise and want to read about. We decided who would be covering what in terms of writing content specifically for the paper. I briefedthe Festival’s photographers about what we’d need and when. We made up a flat plan and stuck it to various pictures of horses, and I wrote up a schedule working backwards from our hard deadline – 6pm on Sunday.

We made the paper in just over two days. The design team did a lot of work on Friday night and Saturday morning putting templates and grids together, while I did vox pops and got quotes from various festival punters. I started to put content together on Saturday afternoon, which is when it became clear that we couldn’t use most of the content from the two people who were blogging the festival over the weekend. One person’s writing was very long-form, personal and intellectual, while the other’s was very short-form and timely – both made for great blog posts but wouldn’t work in print. I started roping in people to write reviews and snippets of content, as did managing editor James Stewart. The infographics team finally managed to get hold of some data they could use and started drawing golf buggies in Illustrator.

By Sunday lunchtime we had about half of what we needed copy-edited and in formats ready to put on the page, and we had two neat infographics ready to place. I spent the next three or four hours writing, helping choose pictures, deciding what content needed to go in which boxes, copy-editing and being very rude to other people’s work so it would fit in print-sized boxes, while next to me the layout team collaborated to pull it all in to InDesign and make it look perfect. By about 4pm we had collected all the content we needed; the next two hours involved me pacing around the newsroom, making sure we had everything in the right place, picking different pictures when the ones we had didn’t work out, and occasionally taking a seat and making changes to the text or the design when things simply wouldn’t fit right.

Matt started uploading it at about 6.45pm. Network sloth meant it finally finished at about 8pm. The printers in Peterborough turned their presses on for about a minute and a half, and we had a print run of 4,000 copies. Four hours later thanks to some strangers who drove through the night for us, it was back on site ready for the first copies to be distributed at the last show of the evening.

Lessons learned.

  • Planning is vital, much more so for print than for online journalism. If a blog post doesn’t go up or goes up late, few people will notice. If there’s a hole in your print paper, they definitely will. Thematic planning for something like this is crucial too – content should fit together, images should complement each other, pages should balance. That’s impossible to do with slapdash content delivered at the last minute.
  • Briefing, therefore, is another crucial element. You can’t simply say “Write me 450 words about the music scene.” You need to make deadlines clear and make sure you’ve agreed which bits of the music scene are necessary. You need to talk about tone, audience, readability, style, voice. You need to make clear what’s needed, even when you’re both up against deadline, so that the content you get back is useful and takes the minimum of editing or rewriting.
  • Build in redundancy. One of the reasons the paper worked well despite some of the content-related setbacks we had is that we did our best to get hold of more content than we needed – about half as much again. If I was doing it again I’d be shooting for twice as much, if not more. If it’s not used in the paper, it could go online; if it’s something that works better online, we wouldn’t have to force it into a print style. And if it doesn’t turn up, it doesn’t matter.
  • Get data well in advance. Infographics are awesome but they can’t be created without data. If you have a tight deadline and you’re including data-driven charts or graphics, that’s the bit you should sort out first. We didn’t, and that’s why we only have two in the paper.
  • Basic newspaper design skills are invaluable, even if you’re not a designer. If you’re planning content for pages, you need to understand how boxes fit together on a page, how headline size and positioning alters layout, what a baseline grid is, the difference between a 3-col and 4-col layout for a page, and a dozen other little things that don’t bother you while you’re writing but that become vital as soon as you’re laying out. You need to know the rules, what they are, how they can be bent and when they can be broken. Otherwise you end up coming in and asking questions like “Are we really wedded to a serif font?” and “Do we really need to lock to grid?” half an hour before final deadline. (Yes, this happened. No, it wasn’t me.)
  • If you’re distributing content across multiple channels, a convergent newsroom is potentially a huge timesaver. This would have prevented completely the problems we had with last-minute content and having to repurpose pieces that were not right for print in their original forms – but it takes a lot of advance planning. Having a pool of writers – not necessarily bloggers or writers for print, just writers – who could be briefed individually by the blog editor and the newspaper editor, and whose work could be pulled to be used in one or both formats, would have been very valuable. Doing the same with images and video could mean a converged team in three parts: content creators at one end, putting their work into a big pool; editors in the middle, picking out the best of the bunch or the most appropriate for their medium; and distributors at the other end, feeding that work into the newspaper, the blog, Twitter, Flickr, Vimeo, the various other channels including feeding out to the magazine shows and round-up events on site – and making it easy for the press office to pass out the best of what’s on offer too. I think this is the biggest thing I’ve taken from the experience – I grok convergence much better now I’ve seen it from the editor’s point of view.

Greenbelt and Home Sweet Home – storytelling in tiny towns

I’m off to Greenbelt Festival at the weekend, and this year I’m on the team creating a print newspaper for the festival.

I blogged last year (when I was just starting out here) about the newspaper they gave out at the festival – a 16-page freesheet called While We Were Here, made possible only at the last minute with sponsorship from Hewlett Packard. It used content that was already online, sourcing images from Flickr and text from blog posts, in a neat reversal of the print-first view you (still, sadly) often see in traditional newsrooms, and it was available for download for free online as well as handed out on-site. It was – is – a wonderful souvenir of the festival, as well as being an excellent way to convey the intangible experiences of the festival. Because it was created by people right in the thick of things, writing from-the-heart blog posts/I-pieces and not carefully detached articles of traditional journalism, it does a much better job of conveying the atmosphere of the weekend than any events listing or simple description could.

Since reading and enjoying While We Were Here last year, I’ve had some experience creating newspapers from scratch on my own. I made a miniature four-page newspaper as part of a performance/installation/community experiment called Home Sweet Home by theatre company Subject to Change, consisting of a tiny cardboard suburb where people from Norwich built their own mini houses, flats and businesses, using the community billboard, radio station and postman to create stories. I built a tiny Evening News newspaper office complete with tiny clay journalists and mini bundles of newspapers, and I ran a breaking news service (on a billboard made of card and matchsticks) for three days.

The paper itself was a four-hour job in InDesign using the Evening News print templates and masthead to create something faithful to the design of the paper I was representing. The stories were a more complicated proposition. Some folks volunteered bizarre tales and information themselves in letters; others created things I found fascinating, so I wrote letters asking for more information. Many stories came from the community noticeboard, which became an outlet for frustrations and campaigns as well as plenty of advertising. It was important to create a souvenir, something tangible people could take away, and to give people who hadn’t been there a flavour of the absurdity of the event – and part of that was treating very silly stories with the seriousness I would if they were real. The skills you need to gather stories in tiny cardboard towns are, it seems, the same as you need in big concrete cities – sharp eyes, a willingness and ability to engage and converse, the ability to go where people are talking and listen to what they say.

That experiment taught me a great deal about what’s important in newsgathering. I hope the weekend’s antics will teach me something new about storytelling. Greenbelt is an entirely different proposition to Home Sweet Home – many thousands more people and much less clear avenues for newsgathering, for a start, plus the fact that the newspaper is likely to be focussed once again on individual and collective experience rather than hard news. (Though if Peter Tatchell’s talk gets really controversial, that could conceivably change.) Although I haven’t yet had a detailed brief from project leader James Stewart – and I’m not expecting one till I get there – I suspect the paper this year will once again function primarily as a record of the experience of being there – and that means a different set of challenges to what I do every day. I’m looking forward to helping to make it happen.

Emergent thoughts on emergent stories

Alexander de grote, in de Hermitage tijdens Museumnacht in Amsterdam After an interesting conversation with @harryharrold and @MrRickWaghorn yesterday, I’ve been mulling a few thoughts on emergent stories and how the social side of the web could make it possible to curate and (to some extent) formalise them.

As @harryharrold pointed out, one of the big problems LARP events haven’t solved yet is how to deal with emergent stories after the fact. Unless you’re physically present at an event it’s next-to-impossible to get a coherent narrative of what actually happened, particularly if it’s a big fest event.

In my experience narratives split into two general categories after LARP events – the big picture and the little details. For some players/characters and events, the big picture is what’s important; they have enough of an impact on the overarching plot  plot and the overarching plot is reachable enough for them to be satisfied with a global grand plot update.

But for most events and most players, what’s important and relevant is the nitty-gritty of their immediate social circle. Who said and did what to whom; the “little” stories of betrayal and intrigue and death and love. And that’s incredibly hard to track.

A big part of what we do at Zombie is making sure that individual players get their stories straight before they forget anything. We have “debrief” sessions so that both the refs and the players can get a handle on the emergent stories that have happened on each run, and we do our best to encourage storytelling online after the game. But that only works because every run is self-contained; with a larger plot edifice and continuing characters such a simple system is simply impossible.

But LARP isn’t the only area to have this problem. Festivals, conferences and conventions do too; in fact any large event where multiple trajectories are possible and no individual experience is large enough to express the story of what happened.

Here’s an idea I was contemplating pitching for Greenbelt this year or next. Hand out 10 relatively smart phones to 10 people, picked as a good spread of the demographics at the event. Kit them out with Twitter feeds if they don’t already have them, photoblogging, moblogging and microblogging kit, basic video, audio and still image hardware, and make it as easy as possible for them to upload anything and everything, wherever they are. Track everything they do, geotagged and timestamped, and from that collate and curate a livecast of the event.

I’d love to see if it’s possible to combine @harryharrold’s ideas on curating LARP stories and map them onto other events too. Emergent stories are popping up all over the place and the social web is making it possible to collaborate and build interactive, explorable maps of events that previously have had linear narratives. The stable social experience is exploding and we all want to choose our own adventure. Perhaps we can apply this to more than just LARP.

Greenbelt: print power online

Greenbelt 2009 Friday

Last weekend I went to Greenbelt, Britain’s least-known and friendliest festival, where I have had a wonderful time being very, very relaxed, and engaging with social media as a consumer.

Rather than blogging my personal festival highlights, let’s talk about the innovations that allowed me to pick up on Monday a 16-page newspaper that went to press on Sunday night, two days after the festival opened, aimed at getting me to engage with Greenbelt’s online content.

Sponsored by Hewlitt Packard, the paper itself is a lovely object. It’s called “While We Were Here” and it’s entirely composed of blog posts, images and links that already exist on the web. In theory, the 4,000 free copies are designed to direct traffic to the web, not the other way round.

I don’t know if it’s working universally. I do know that when I got home on Tuesday I logged on and looked at a fair few blogs – I visited many of the ones printed in the paper and bookmarked or followed the profiles and groups signposted from its pages.

And I can say it worked for me. I don’t know if this business model is sustainable anywhere outside a four-day charity festival using volunteers willing to spend every waking hour (and several that should be sleeping ones) making it work. But I do believe it has legs and it could be immensely succesful to clone online content for web as a way of driving the link economy of an event.