Fun with tight briefs, or how few tomatoes does it take to make a newspaper?

A few months after Orange bought Ananova a bunch of us gathered in a fifth floor meeting room at Marshall Mill to reflect on our relationship with the new parent company.

As the creators of the world’s first virtual newscaster we quite fancied our ability to make our own weather. Now we were expected to fit in with someone else’s strategy. We contemplated a future between the warm embrace of Pantone 151 and the icy grip of Helvetica Neue. Some fretted: would we be reduced to building stuff to order, to colouring in other people’s bright ideas?

Only as the words left my lips and the room dissolved in laughter did the double entendre dawn on me: “Don’t worry,” I said, “you can have a lot of fun with tight briefs.”

Now hold that thought. We’ll come back to it later.

Earlier this year I agreed to talk at two different events on related subjects – TEDxLeeds (November 10) on The Makers of Leeds and Interesting North (November 13) on the amazing story of Matthew Murray and James Watt Junior.

For a while I’d been meaning to do more with the Murray story but never quite found the time between my dayjob, family commitments and general 21st Century noodling. I needed to focus.

About this time (thanks to a mention from Rattle’s Frankie Roberto) I started using Francesco Cirillo’s Pomodoro Technique for time management. The technique, also encountered recently by Charlie Brooker, involves chunking up the working day into 25 minute segments with five minute breaks in between. There’s handy tomato timer widget on my phone that helps me avoid distractions. It certainly makes me feel more focused and in control of my work.

So how many pomodoros would it take to write up the Matthew Murray story to my satisfaction?

  • Based on a sample first chapter to judge the pace I reckoned it would take about 6000 words
  • After experimenting a few times I discovered I could reliably commit to writing 250 words in a 25-minute slot, though this really is just the writing up part, it presupposed that I already knew the content well and also included direct quotations from the Boulton and Watt papers
  • So 6000 words, 250 at a time made 24 pomodoros – one nightmarish day locked in a garret, or as it turns out, half hours snatched from evenings and lunchtimes over a six-week period.

I ended up exceeding my target to about 7500 words, and adding some extra time to structure and polish – in all maybe 30 pomodoros to get to a first draft.

My aim at this point was to get the story to minimum viable product. It still feels very much a work in progress, but this is the most sustained bit of writing I’ve done since my university dissertation, and I enjoyed getting it off my chest.

So here’s the first part of my pair of tight briefs. A pomodoro at a time, I’d managed to write a small book.

“What to do with 7000 words?” I emailed a bunch of people whose opinions I respect on these matters. A newspaper, a book an e-book? The world of on-demand publishing has so many possibilities.

At first I was reluctant to do a newspaper. I wasn’t sure if it would work, or if I could manage the additional time to lay out the pages and make the complex design decisions needed to make it legible, let alone visually appealing.

That’s where Newspaper Club came in. For those who don’t know, it’s a 4IP-funded beta service that helps people print their own short-run newspapers. I’ve marvelled at the concept and bought copies of newspapers by some very smart people.

Newspaper Club allows you to lay out your own paper in InDesign, Scribus or whatever, but the feature that really adds value is ARTHR, their really simple engine for making a 12-page paper with no more than a bunch of words, pictures and a browser.

It was literally the work of a few minutes to generate a test version using my 7000 words, and a few more pomodoros of polishing and proof-reading to get something approaching a finished product. Tim Duckett and Imran Ali generously agreed to fund some copies for IntNorth and TEDxLeeds attendees respectively and before I knew it my 500-copy limited edition print deadline was set.

And here’s the thing. There is no way I could have made this newspaper without ARTHR, not because I didn’t know how, but because I thought I knew too much. Having worked on proper newspapers first with photoset, pasted-up galleys and latterly on-screen page make-up I know how many tiny design decision have to be taken. And every one of those decisions would have been a rabbit hole down which I would have disappeared for days on end. With limited free time and a looming print deadline I could not afford any rabbit holes.

The closer my deadline the more I came to appreciate the creative lack of choice in ARTHR’s interface. No resizing text, no changing fonts (hello again, Helvetica Neue :) Just words and pictures flowing into a four-column grid. I deliberately chose black and white printing, not colour, to further constrain my options.

The end product is surely better for it. Newspaper Club’s tight brief forced me to focus on the content, trusting that the system would generate a far cleaner, more legible product than I could ever have hoped left to my own devices. It was fun, and it couldn’t have happened without tight briefs.

Here’s a sneak preview of the newspaper, which will be available for TEDxLeeds and Interesting North attendees. If there are some left over after that I’ll sell them through this blog. But when they’re gone, they’re gone.

2 thoughts on “Fun with tight briefs, or how few tomatoes does it take to make a newspaper?

  1. Great work Matt – I’m really excited about this. You can add a great video recording and fantastic Prezi slideshow to your transmedia roster for Good Engines too…I still have the iBooks edition we tested out too!

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