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.


A funny thing happened to my copy of a limited-edition newspaper

This is not just any newspaper.

It is a signed, numbered (23/100), limited-edition copy of “Immanent in the Manifold City“, crafted by James Bridle with the generous assistance of Newspaper Club, Graphics category winner in the Design Museum’s Designs of the Year Awards.

I left it on the sofa while I went out to work.

When I came home I discovered that someone had used it like, well, any newspaper. For scribbling on.

Now I understand why tabloid sub-editors abhor white space.

As It Is To-Day

The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there. And so I’m loving the safari around the world’s largest city and capital of the British Empire, afforded by Chris Heathcote’s inventive Newspaper Club debut As It Is To-Day.

Chris has been feeding Newspaper Club’s editing software Arthr on a diet of old London press cuttings from the 18th Century to the 20th. The result is a delightful gallimaufry (my all time top new word of the week): here the city is described at the height of its pre-eminence in 1851, there is a reflection on the sad fate of Cleopatra’s Needle by the 1920s.

My own favourite dish gives a taste of the hazards of the 1790s “On Walking London Streets,” a 14-point list of instructions for avoiding pick-pockets, horse-drawn traffic and falling slops. I love the idea that the characters of my 1794 stories were moving through a million-person city for the first time. Was this their missing manual?

Also, an umbrella was considered “a machine”. So too, in the right hands, is a newspaper. You can buy it here.

On newsprint: the potency of cheap paper

This post was going to be all about newspapers, but the more I thought about it the more I realised that before writing about the news I have to explain the paper, specifically the cheap, low quality paper we call newsprint.

It’s a fascinating story which, I think, explains why short-run, nichepaper projects such as Newspaper Club are so deliciously disruptive.

After all there have always been easier formats for getting messages out to people. For decades there was the mimeograph, then the photocopier, and desktop publishing, books, leaflets, A4 newsletters and “vanity-published” books. Rarely did the newspaper form get a look-in on anything other than, well, news.

To understand why that is, we should consider the trade-offs. This involves a graph, with no numbers, but stay with me, please.

Continue reading On newsprint: the potency of cheap paper

Print’s not dead, it’s just evolving

“Is Print Dead?” was the provocative title for David Parkin’s Leeds Media Breakfast Briefing the other day. If the answer had been yes, I guess we’d all have had to wolf down our croissants and get back to work. Thankfully as a newspaper business editor turned online start-up entrepreneur, David treated us to a more sophisticated  perspective, and a more leisurely breakfast.

David and I trained together on the Newspaper Journalism course at the University of Central Lancashire. It was the 1990s, but only just. Al Gore was still busy inventing the Internet, and only halfway through term two did Professor Peter Cole obtain some Amstrad word processors so we could ditch our manual typewriters.

On qualifying, I quickly succumbed to the lure of noo mejah, but David stuck with ink and paper for a decade longer, rising to become business editor of the Yorkshire Post. He quit less than a year ago to launch The Business Desk for Yorkshire and has already set up a second office covering the North West from Manchester.

David and his team are clearly making an impression among their target audience of regional business leaders. They’re successfully translating all the basics of good journalism from paper to screen, and relishing the same aspects of online that I love too:

  • freedom from press deadline tyranny – a big frustration as a newspaper journalist, says David, was “inability to get the news to our customers quickly,” especially as “evening” papers now hit the streets by mid-morning
  • the intimacy with a niche audience – for the Business Desk this means high quality readership for advertisers and high quality comments, like when Ken Morrison retired and senior regional business-people added their own tributes on the site
  • … and the instant return-path of online comments and web stats – “as a newspaper journalist I hoped and guessed who had read a story. Online you can see who’s doing what minute-by-minute and react.”

David still sees a role for newspapers as vessels for more reflective writing, and even as mementoes of major events like 9-11, though this seems at odds with the gutting of editorial budgets on smaller titles forced to go free to survive in the new landscape. Many media brands born in another age still seem to obsess about whether online is there to support print or vice versa. Which is the bubblegum and which is the baseball card? Do their readers really care either way?

And I’m not sure that David really engaged with the challenge from a number of breakfast briefing questioners, including me, that print retains a sensual superiority over electronic media. Need a flexible, sub-milimetre-thin, 1200 dpi interface? One that costs pence not pounds? You look in the R&D lab, I’ll be in the chip shop.

As I’ve said here before, I’m convinced that newspapers have gained a lot already from new media and they could be on the brink of another breakthrough – driven this time by print on demand, personalisation and seamless return-paths, such as mobile barcodes. My bet is that they’ll also learn from bloggers to be less lecuturing, and more local. For a deliciously disruptive vision of how to do it, take a look at the hand-drawn, limited-edition and all-round gorgeous Manual Newspaper project.

But here’s the biggest contradition of all in the Business Desk’s story. Denied coverage of his launch by the erstwhile colleagues with whom he now competes, David deployed some smart guerilla marketing tactics to introduce the new service to the commuters of Leeds and Manchester. His chosen media: printed coffee cups, printed beer mats, printed napkins, printed posters.

Is print dead? No, but it’s certainly evolving…

Newsprint bird

I have seen the future and it folds

Ten years ago I worked in a declining industry. Regional newspaper readerships were aging, as papers struggled to connect with their communities. Staff cuts and inflexible new technology at the paper I worked on meant we had a 9:30am press deadline for some localised editions – which rather made a mockery of the word “Evening” on the masthead.

Like many others in my generation of journalists, I quit print for a new media. The new media would be all the things that the old one was not. It would be instantly updated, interactive with its audience, and free to access. In the future the new media would become mobile, contextual and relevant. It would be like having someone come up to you in the street with the information you needed to know, exactly when you needed it.

Funny how the future arrives in the most unexpected form. For me it was just outside Edgware Road tube station, about 3:45pm, when a man came up to me in the street and handed me a copy of The London Paper.

Now I’m not going to go into a debate about whether this one is a better put-together product than the other contenders in London’s free paper war. To be honest, the design was faintly reminiscent of my student newspaper – lots of boxes and tints, and over-quirky headline fonts.

But what blew me away was the immediacy of the content. There’s something slightly Harry Potter about seeing the latest Tube information in print as you’re about to enter the station. And how refreshing to let readers vote by text on whether the comment writer should be allowed to pen another column. I’d gone for years thinking those things were the special domain of the digital media, yet here they were in print, in the palm of my hand, with the ink coming off on my fingers and everything.

The sense of everyday magic was compounded by the way the paper was delivered: no shouting unintelligible manglings of the title; no fumbling for loose change at risk of being mown down by bulldozing commuters intent on walking at exactly 4.2 miles per hour. Just a guy in a fluorescent vest offering the paper so I could take it without breaking my stride. He was standing strategically, moments before the point at which I’d need to put my hand in my pocket to pull out an Oyster card and thus be unable to take a paper. This user experience is what sets the bar so high for mobile content.

I’m not sure what all this means, except that to paraphrase Winston Churchill (I think), I used to think newspapers knew everything. Then I thought newspapers knew nothing. Now I’m amazed at how much they’ve learned.