This year, the Byline festival will be bigger and better than before; to find out more, I interviewed Stephen Colegrave, the co-director of Byline.
HOW DID YOU COME TO THE IDEA OF SETTING UP THE FESTIVAL?
We realised that people pledging for our Byline crowd-funding platform for independent journalists were keen to meet the people they were funding and we run a series of events with journalist and other experts/commentators. We wanted to find a way to reach an even bigger audience so we decided to set up the world’s first festival for Independent Journalism a sort of Sundance for Independent Journalists. As an ex-punk and a playwright we thought we were eminently suitable to do this. From the seat we wanted it to be a festival and not a conference with music, comedy and theatre as we wanted attract a wide audience who were against fake news and the rise of populism not just traditional journalists, although they were essential too.
HOW DO YOU GO ABOUT PLANNING THE EVENT?
It is a year long process. At the start we are most focused on money – raising it and budgeting it. The festival is incredibly expensive eventhough all our performers and speakers participate for free. Like most festivals we only expect to break even in year 3. Then the fun bit begins working out the themes and approaching speakers and performers. As the news and events are a big part of the speaking and panel sessions we have to leave enough flexibility in the programme to cope with any last minute events – like last year when we had a General Election announced for five days after the festival!
WHAT IS IN STORE FOR THIS YEAR?
We are expecting twice the number of people from 3000 to 6000. Importantly we are now in partnership with Frontline Club and we are relaunching the festival as Byline Festival with Frontline Club. They are great partners and there members include some of the greatest names in journalism and their worldwide freelance journalism community is a great asset.
We have a circus big top as our biggest venue this year which will take more than 1000 people standing and more if the weather is good. With the help of the New Orleans Fly Circus Space is helping us create a spectacular show on our themes of a better press. Hugh Grant, June Sarpong, John Sweeney, Bonnie Greer, Luke Harding, Carole Cadwalldr, John Cleese and many more are already signed up.
We are running the festival for an extra day and night and will accommodate more than 150 speaking sessions, 100 workshops, 12 plays, 90 music acts, as well as comedy and spoken word.
WHY DID YOU DECIDE ON THE FESTIVAL FORMAT?
We wanted to reach a wider and younger audience. We are keen to appeal to all types of people who are part of the media of the future from bloggers, to YouTubers, film makers, journalists and also to make sure a wider population appreciated the importance of a free and quality press and the importance of supporting it. We felt this was the only way to get out of the echo chamber of traditional journalist events. Also we want it to be a platform for other organisations that share our aims and vision to be able to connect with a wider audience.
WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT THE IMPORTANCE OF HAVING AN INDEPENDENT AND ACCOUNTABLE PRESS?
I wish we had one! I think that neither Trump nor Brexit would have happened if there had been one, nor would their be so much racism and misogyny.To us there cannot be democracy, truth or justice without one. This is why Peter and I are so determined to make Byline a force to be reckoned with.
WHAT HAS THE STUDENT REACTION BEEN LIKE TO THE FESTIVAL?
Excellent so far. Many volunteered and also they really appreciated the workshops and the chance to join in the discussions as well as hear from leading journalists. This year we are looking for students to be reporters for each of the sessions. We are keen for as much feedback from student festival-goers. To encourage students to come we have a specially discounted ticket that currently is £35 versus £120.
DO YOU HAVE ANY PLANS FOR EXPANSION?
We want to expand the current festival to 5 days and 12,000 people. In November we ran our first mini festival in New York and want to expand to a full scale festival there. Currently we are looking at California and Berlin. Also we want to create another Byline Festival in the North of England.
WHAT CAN PEOPLE EXPECT FROM THE BYLINE FESTIVAL?
They can expect a change from the commercial music festivals and a much more thought provoking experience with all the fun of a festival in beautiful surroundings. We want them to be inspired to do something they hadn’t done before. Our strap line is: Dance, Discuss, Laugh and Change the World. We want the experience to change them so they can make a difference and that doesn’t just have to be about journalism but about the injustices we see all around us.
AS TO THE MAIN BYLINE WEBSITE: WAS THE WEBSITE MODEL OF CROWD-FUNDING JOURNALISTS BUILT ON THE BACK OF PETER’S EXPERIENCE COVERING THE PHONE HACKING TRIAL?
Yes. Peter was keen to help others do what he had done. He was concerned that so many great journalists were finding it difficult to earn a living and wanted to provide the crowd-funding platform to help this. Also, we are keen to create a more direct relationship between journalists and their readers/ supporters. Of course it was important that there was no editorial control as long as our writers abide by the Impress code.
WOULD YOU LIKE THE MODEL OF CROWD-FUNDING JOURNALISTS, WITH NO ADS, TO BECOME AN INDUSTRY WIDE PRACTICE?
I think it is one model that works and we would like many more people to follow our model and are keen to help anyone who wants to. However I do think there are other interesting models for the future and this is something that is an important discussion topic at the festival.
CAN YOU DIVULGE WHAT BYLINE IS CURRENTLY INVESTIGATING?
We have important ongoing investigations on Russian interference in democracy, the corruption in many parts of the British Press and the British Justice System.
HOW CAN YOU COME TO WRITE FOR BYLINE?
Byline is a curated platform which means that we select the writers on their expertise and subjects. We are always looking for new writers and are pleased for people to approach us with ideas. Once you are confirmed as a Byline Writer you have the passwords to upload articles whenever you want. There is more information. at Byline.com
ARE THERE ANY OTHER PROJECTS THAT ARE UPCOMING THAT YOU CAN TELL US ABOUT?
We have started a publishing imprint Byline Books and have printed our first book In Limbo and will launch our next crowd-funded book in a couple of weeks and plan to have another five or six books by the festival. Also we are working on a very big project that will be a major initiative in news gathering which we are hoping to launch internationally with a partner in a few months – watch this space!