A forest in the south of England might not seem like the most likely place to go to discuss the future of journalism, but thousands did just that this summer when they descended on the Sussex countryside for Byline’s inaugural journalism festival, Byfest. Byline’s Stephen Colegrave sat down for a chat with our writer, Em Kuntze, about the importance of collaboration and innovation in journalism and why sometimes a fresh perspective is what’s needed.
Stephen, before we get onto Byline Festival itself, can you explain a little about the platform that shares the same name?
Byline.com is a curated, crowdfunded platform that publishes really good quality, independent journalism. Peter Jukes took over the platform just over a year ago and asked me to come and help run it. Peter is relatively well known as a dramatist but also covered the Levenson enquiry and hacking trial where he created a new way of funding live tweet court reporting which opened up the idea that this method of funding journalism might be a sustainable one.
Once journalists have been through our selection process they can upload stories whenever they want and – as long as they conform to the Impress code – they have complete freedom of speech as to what they write. There are no editors looking over their shoulders – though obviously if they breach the code we can take them down – but we can’t change what they write: we don’t edit.
if you come into a discipline from outside of it, you find a way to encourage other people from outside that discipline to get involved as well
How does the crowdfunding element work?
Like all crowdfunded platforms we offer certain perks and rewards according to how much you chose to pledge and, as we’ve seen with Peter’s own crowdfunding experience, there are a large number of people out there who support good journalism and want to support its continuance. We also reach people through our publishing arm and various live events, and that diversification both helps us reach more people and creates a sense of financial sustainability too.
It’s interesting the way you’re embracing the live, collaborative and engaged elements of journalism – how does this set you apart from the mainstream media?
Well, you have to begin with the fact that we’re not traditional journalists. Within Byline there are a lot of journalists, yes, but Peter is a dramatist and I’m an old punk, so we bring a different perspective. Like so many other things, if you come into a discipline from outside of it you find a way to encourage other people from outside that discipline to get involved as well.
In terms of collaboration, we started doing events with Byline.com long before we started thinking about the festival and every few weeks we’d get a hundred people or so along – mainly journalists, but others too – and we’d run a panel session. What we found was there was a real hunger from journalists to actually get together, share information, share ideas and talk about the stories behind the stories. As the journalism industry moves towards people working on contracts and freelance and not in a busy newspaper office, there’s less opportunity to actually collaborate, which is something that’s easy to overlook and is probably why things like Frontline club are doing so well.
Was it that social element that drove the idea of a festival?
We created lots of partnerships with people like the Frontline Club, Open Democracy, various different student associations and lots of universities got involved so the idea was very simple: bring them together somehow. There are lots of academic conferences about journalism and independent journalism, but we wanted to take that idea and put it into a more informal atmosphere where people can meet and discuss the issues at hand. We decided to not only run with these interesting talks and workshops, but also facilitate more of a festival experience. We were fortunate to meet a really nice chap who owns Pippingford Park, which is a 1000 acres of ancient forest in Ashdown Forest and he very kindly agreed to let us hold it there. That was the first weekend of June this year and 3,000 people came along, which was great.
How was the festival set up?
We had several big tents, one of which we called the Data Zone, which was home to discussion about digital data; another called the Echo Chamber, which focused a lot on social media, we had one called the Media Circus, which was actually in a circus tent and then there were lots of workshops where you could do all sorts of things from learning how to do old school investigative journalism, to learning about encryption, to more tongue in cheek things about how to write. It was a massive cornucopia of things going on and we made sure that there were at least eight different sessions or workshops going on at any one moment so nobody could see all of it: we quite liked the fact that people then got together in the evening and talked about what they saw at the festival and compared notes. We tried to make it as exciting as possible, really.
Next year’s festival is already in the planning (24-27 August 2018) – will you be following a similar format?
We’re going to completely confound people this year by doing exactly not what people might expect: it’s going to be something completely different so we’ll have lots more things that people haven’t even thought about, because that’s what we like doing. There’s also the fact that journalism is responsive so we can’t really plan too far ahead because just don’t know what issues we’ll be dealing with by next summer.
Whilst it’s a really fun thing for Peter and I to put together, it’s a serious business as well because we believe it’s a way to potentially reach thousands and thousands of people and get them interested in journalism and get them engaged with journalists and journalism in all of its different forms. It benefits journalists too because they’re actually able to get in contact and in discussion with their readers, which has never been so important and isn’t always that easy.
The time is right for a really golden era for journalism. It might not look like the journalism we have become familiar with, but the opportunity is there for those who want to seize it.
Why do you think there’s a need for these alternative forms? What’s the problem with journalism at the moment?
It’s incredibly underfunded for various reasons, but I don’t think it’s always journalism’s fault: I think that journalism itself is finding it very difficult to actually engage with people and if you want good quality journalism, journalists need to be able to make a living and I think that’s getting incredibly hard.
Most people know that, though. Really, the question is: what are we going to do about it? We’re incredibly optimistic and we think there are all sorts of ways that people can produce good journalism and make a living out of it and also for people to support it and find it and read it.
The world is changing and these problems are not exclusive to journalism, they’re evident in all areas of media and culture: the music industry went through this and TV’s going through this now. It’s in flux and you’ve got to keep checking in and seeing what’s working and what isn’t. Whenever you’re in that area where things are being reinvented and changing, I think it’s really good to have lots of voices and lots of ideas brought to bear on it, but we need the space to make that happen.
Something that strikes me when you’re talking is something the Emily Bell said last year, which is that journalism is that’s endlessly self-referential. Do you think it’s too inward-facing?
She’s absolutely right. I think it’s a bit like publishing: journalism has operated for a long time on a 19th century model and when you look what changed in the 80s, people just came in to buy up the press and make it more efficient. They didn’t actually do anything about the product in terms of how it was actually being consumed.
I think that part of that was down to the people running these newspapers and newsrooms: as with most creative and media professions, it’s still pretty entitled and middle class. There are lots of people who would like to get involved with it and whose contribution would be valued, but I get a sense that the people at the top of the tree are trying to cling onto their power and the past and it’s not always easy to break into that system if you’re on the outside of it.
Despite that, I get a sense that you’re optimistic about the future of journalism…
Yes, I am. The excitement should be thinking about how we can jump into the future and try something new. With a different, fresh approach we can reach more people, more quickly and actually engage them and we should be doing that. The time is right for a really golden era for journalism. It might not look like the journalism we have become familiar with, and we have to deal with the monopolies that are still around, but the opportunity is there for those who want to seize it.