Louise Hall interviews Stephen Colegrave about Byline’s festival of independent journalism and why for aspiring journalists it’s the event of the summer you don’t want to miss out on...
So what is Byline Fest all about?
It will be the third year of Byline Festival this year and we set the festival up in 2017 because we felt that the world was changing. It was quite soon after President Trump and the referendum and we were very worried about the increase in fake news and also the weakness of the press in providing information on both sides.
So we wanted to set up a festival which built on our experience of Byline as the world’s largest crowdfunding site for independent journalism and create a festival which would get people to think about the big challenges and the big issues of today and bring together journalists, experts politicians and all sorts of people.
We didn’t want to do a conference but create a festival with all the nice festival things like music and comedy and experiences. This is so that we could reach out of our Twittersphere into a broader group of people and get them thinking about the importance of journalism and of truth and justice.
Our tagline is dance, discuss laugh, change the world. We think that sums up the festival. It should be great fun, you should meet lots of new people and also to have a common purpose which is to change the world and improve truth and justice. And that’s really what it’s all about.
This is your third year running the festival. How do you think the festival had developed over the years?
The first thing is we think it’s probably more relevant than it was when we set it up because we feel that a lot of the issues that we were concerned about that stimulated us to set up the festival about news and information are even more important.
Last year we had the whistle-blowers from Cambridge Analytica and discusses the concerns about interference with democracy through social media. So we’ve found that there’s even more of a need for the festival. We also had a lot of politicians involved, people like Tom Watson who last year announced for the first time that the Labour Party would conduct an investigation into Russian collusion and interference with democracy. So we’re beginning to feel that the festival is growing in stature.
The second thing is that over time we’re trying to make the festival more activist. So this year we’ve got an extinction rebellion stage and I think environmentalism is going to be a really important theme this year. I think that we’ve realised that if you’re going to have a festival about news and the time it’s always going to be relevant but those key themes and issues will change, different things becoming more important than they were three years ago.
We’ve also raised the stakes in terms of music too. So this year we have some really strong headline performance acts such as Pussy Riot, The Feeling, Suggs from Madness, Lowkey. So we’ve got quite a lot of higher level music acts.
What do you think will be the highlights of the weekend?
I definitely think the extinction rebellion stage will be a highlight because we’re going to have workshops where people can train to become activists, learn about how to take part in direct action, create their own affinity groups and decide what actions they want to take. I think that’s something that’s very tangible and will be a highlight.
The other area that’s really important following on from last year is this whole idea of democracy in danger and trying to think much more about how we make sure our democracy is not interfered with in the world of social media and data.
Why do you think events such as BylineFest are important and what are you ultimately trying to achieve by getting people involved in this?
I think we feel that are a lot of people are quite isolated at the moment and disempowered, frustrated and disengaged by the political process. A lot of people are losing hope and confidence in the future of our country. The reason that we think BylineFest is important is to make sure that we can get people together so that they realise there are a lot of other people around who do want to have a much more just society and have media that’s based on truth. Getting 5,000 people together you do realise that you are not alone.
The other thing it does is that it restores people’s faith that we can change society for good. What’s also important is to get out of the metropolitan twitter bubble. What’s great is that we have a lot of people coming who come see the bands and by accident end up wandering into one of the talk tents and then we can never get them out of the talk tents (laughs).
There isn’t another festival around, at least not in this country that is about journalism where young journalists can meet up with older journalists and I think that really invigorates people.
This year we’ve got some great panels looking at journalism like The Beat, which is a collective of journalists of colour. We also have another panel which is relatively young female journalists looking at reporting of foreign policy. The majority of foreign news is still reported by middle aged while men who went to public school who still have a sort of imperial view of what foreign policy should be. So we have people discussing foreign news in a very different way.
The point of Byline Festival is sometimes to shake up some of the norms and get people to think about things in a different way.
So you’ve also recently launched a new platforms Byline Times both online as a website and in print. In a world where we’re constantly being told that print publication is dying, what made you want to start this project?
We launched Byline Times on the 19th of March which was meant to be the day of Brexit. And Byline Times is a news site which is now reaching about 300,000 people per month. We have around 5 or 6 articles coming out every day and they’re very much based on investigations rather than comment.
We launched Byline Times because at Byline we’ve spent a lot of time investigating malpractice across the press and in fact have cost the press something like half a million pounds through our investigations.
So we thought it was probably time to show people what we thought a proper news site and newspaper should be, based on investigations and evidence, splitting fact from argument and that was really important to us.
In terms of the printed publication, what we’ve noticed is a lot of people particularly if they’re under 35 or so are getting their news primarily from social media and what they tend to do is find an article and read that one article. What is being lost is that when you’re reading a newspaper you read one article then your eye being caught by another, maybe something you wouldn’t normally read about but suddenly you find it fascinating. It’s a much more curated experience.
So we wanted to start by producing a monthly newspaper but it will become a weekly newspaper by next year. We see it a bit like vinyl and the record market, we’re presenting newspapers to people who haven’t read newspapers for a long time.
They tend not to be full of gossip or problem pages, it’s quite a concentrated read of good investigative reporting so it’s a little bit different to a normal newspaper. We’re finding that people love it. We know that it will never have the same reach as the news site but we hope to give a different experience to people.
Why should younger journalists or students consider getting involved in Byline Fest?
Young journalists and student journalists are a really important group for us because we’re really keen at Byline for journalism to become much more representative of the country as a whole.
We want to have lots of enthusiastic and diverse journalists involved. In the price of the ticket there’s a very good programme of over 100 workshops. There’s all sorts of things like investigative journalism for beginners, how to make podcasts and how journalists can look after their own privacy: so there’s a whole load of stuff that will be really useful.
We also have the people from the Student Publication Association there and the National Union of Jounralists but there are also lots of talks by well-known journalists and it’s a great opportunity to hear from and meet high profile journalists. If you just want four days to make lots of contacts, do workshops and be inspired to do more, I think it’s a great experience for that.
We also have a lot of students of journalism who volunteer at the festival and we run a competition across the festival where if anyone wants to write any articles about the panels the best article will get published in the newspaper as well.
Finally, what’s one piece of advice you’d give to students looking to get into journalism?
My advice would be to be really excited about it because I think there’s actually no better time to be in journalism than today. My advice would be not to wait on other people, just get on and write a blog, get your social media going and start finding great stories. There has never been a better time to do it because there’s never been an easier time to get that news out there to people.
Byline Fest is taking place from the 23rd-26th of August at Pippingford Park Sussex. Find out more and buy tickets at https://www.bylinefestival.com/