Public Lab Research note

Collaboratively document an event with a mini newspaper

by warren | March 20, 2018 22:59 20 Mar 22:59 | #15986 | #15986

Documentation can be tough at a big, busy event like our Barnraising! We see this activity as a lighthearted (but hard-hitting journalistic) way to summarize and share in a succinct, low-burden, but regular way, what's going on each day. These mini newspapers were inspired by ones made by Lucia Jazayeri, who does Creative Direction at Clover Food Lab.

Read more on this page.

What you'll need

  • 2-10 people
  • a big sheet of white poster paper
  • a stack of printer paper
  • tape
  • scissors
  • black markers


When I host this activity, I plan ahead to have a public space -- in the main dining hall, in the case of the Barnraising -- where the newspaper layout board will be all day. At the past few Barnraisings, we've worked from a poster-sized, mostly analog paper-based layout over the course of the day, so it's more collaborative, and stories come in on Post-Its placed on the board as they day goes on.

I pre-draw the newspaper title at 2x size (the blown-up size of the poster). Sometimes I leave space for some topically or locally-relevant drawings between and around the lettering, to fill in as the event goes on -- a nearby mountain range, or an alligator when we're in Louisiana.

As in the lead image, a double line is a great place to put the date, the location, and "ISSUE 1" -- you'll be able to overwrite these with some tape and paper if you do more than one day.

image description

The post-its help to keep text at a reasonable length (it's easy to get overly-long submissions), and I usually leave one or two "examples" up there to break the ice, along with a post-it pad and sharpie to encourage submissions.


I usually put the word out ahead of time using a post like this one: #15124 -- it introduces the idea of the Barnraiser, and names specific skills we're looking for. People who enjoy photography, for example, or who like to geek out about pens and stationery, often reply then and help to build a good team in advance.

Example issues of previous papers (find them at the bottom of this page) are an essential thing to hand out or display at the beginning -- it makes explaining what it's all about MUCH easier, and helps people get a sense of the tone and level of finish you're going for.

Daily meetings

At the start of the day, we put a call out for questions and article ideas, and over the course of the day, people can add post-its with article topics to the poster, which we put in a public area.

Brainstorming articles

Besides the usual basic list of "what happened today" -- which can seem a little dry -- we often try to highlight things that were unexpected. Great quotes from different sessions are a good way to anchor an article and make it more narrative, rather than just listing the topics that were discussed.

Finally, some fun content usually makes its way into the Barnraiser -- a horoscope, for example, or a word puzzle, or a gossip column. image description


At the end of the day (after dinner at the Barnraising), I announce that we'll be doing layout -- usually in a public space among other evening activities. Typically only a few people show up at the start, but as we look like we're having a great time, more people join in.

Then (using my persuasive skills from high school journalism) we usually go around and ask people who were in different sessions to do a short writeup -- just a few sentences! It's also good to reach out to people with good handwriting, as we typically hand-write the articles.

Each article should be about half of a letter-sized sheet -- split vertically, and people can pencil in the article before inking it in with a Sharpie.image description

At the end of the day, we fold some printer paper into narrow vertical columns and begin writing out articles (see Daily Meetings, below, for how to organize and facilitate this). Matte scotch tape is great for then taping these down to the columns, but try taking the board down onto a big table first and just laying articles out to see how they'll fit together before committing to tape -- that should be the last step. Leave space for photos as well -- we'll add those later!

We then do a final, inked-in version of the text in Sharpie (this helps ensure the text doesn't get too small), and take a picture with good even lighting.

image description

I usually use Instagram or the photos app to "threshold" the image as well as I can by boosting contrast and brightness until it appears as a mostly white background. Then I open a Google Presentation like this one, drop in the image, and begin pasting in images and using the "mask" feature to fit them into their spots. You can use Image Options to make your images monochrome if you like.

image description


The paper usually takes 2-3 hours to come together, but it could be faster if you want -- we're usually working in the middle of a busy, social atmosphere, and people wander in and out. Usually a few people get more deeply engaged and can be encouraged to "go recruit more journalists" or to just crank out a couple articles. Remember to ask people to submit illustrations -- some folks are more interested in drawing than writing!

I usually print everything the night before, and set my alarm to get up early and distribute them on the breakfast table the next morning. But it'll depend on how your event is set up. If it's a one-day event, maybe you distribute near the end of the day?

This has evolved a lot over the past few years -- there are many ways to do it! I'd love to see some variations and innovations if you give it a try. Thanks!

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People who did this (2)


@AyakoM -- not totally done but here's a start! Hope yours is going well, and eager to see the pictures!

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Just wanted to give a +1 for this post because the newspaper is one of my faves for the Barnraisings. There's something so wonderful about print because it gives things more meaning. Talking is great, but seeing something tangible is the best!

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