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The Worldcon 75 Newsletter Painopiste and lessons for the future

O generations yet to come! I write to you from a time when the Worldcon was yet young and Helsinki was but a city on the edge of the world, one that scarcely dreamed of its destiny to serve as beating heart of a vast and feared empire.

In those days of 2017 we learned many things, and it is my hope that these words will inspire you new generations as you continue the grand & sacred traditions laid down in these rough days of dragons and steel.

Preparations
  • Plan for two issues a day most days.
  • Do special issues for the Hugos and Masquerade on top of this.
  • Budget for 1,000 copies per issue.
  • Find places where people are likely to be to distribute the newsletter; near the entrance, at the Info Desk and in the Fan Lounge are good.
Planning for the Worldcon 75 (W75) newsletter began in earnest with the May 2017 staff weekend, three and a half months before the Worldcon. I volunteered as co-editor of the newsletter alongside Curtis Jefferson, with production to fall under the Design department run by M. Pietikäinen (art director) and Santeri Vidal (division head). Jefferson was unable to attend W75 and bowed out of the Newsletter team. Vidal was the newsletter’s primary point of contact during both planning and W75 itself.

I had no previous experience running a Con newsletter. I had seen the newsletters at several Cons before, including at Worldcons in Glasgow (2005), Anaheim (2006) and London (2014). I also had some experience with journalistic writing in my capacities as a Wikinews journalist in 2008-9, as press liaison for Occupy Cardiff in 2011 and producing material for the Socialist Party of England & Wales’ media presence in 2009-2014. Lastly, as a teacher holding a PGCE I had received training in preparing learning materials for students who might have undiagnosed learning disabilities.

During the staff weekend, we determined the mission of the newsletter should be to “inform and entertain” with conveying information taking the highest priority. Over the course of the summer we refined this vision into a sense of what items should be given priority due to limited space. We quickly determined that the highest priority would, generally, be for important announcements affecting the running of the Con itself, such as program changes & accessibility information; that second priority would go to social events & similar events announced beforehand, such as parties; and that the lowest priority would go to “gossip” e.g. authors getting drunk at parties.

We decided: a general plan of printing all newsletters in black & white with the exception of the special Masquerade issue; that the first and last days of W75 would have one regular issue, and other days would see two regular issues; and that we would produce special Hugo Awards and Masquerade issues. The total run was 11 issues: Wednesdsay, Thursday AM, Thursday PM, Friday AM, Friday PM, Hugo Awards, Saturday AM, Saturday PM, Masquerade and Sunday, with a special Dead Dog Party issue produced in free time with limited resources on Sunday. Our target word count for each issue was 900-1000 words, with space for one photograph per issue. We estimated 1000 copies of each issue should be produced and ordered paper before the convention to match this amount plus a 50% margin for emergencies.

We planned a series of points for distribution of Painopiste based on pre-convention maps of the site. Most copies were to be delivered to the Information Desk and the Fan Lounge, with some going to the Volunteer Lounge. Our logic was driven in particular by making sure visitors saw the newsletter as soon as they arrived at the Con through the main entrance.

Layout & Accessibility
  • Use fonts that are easy to read and paper that’s easy to read on.
  • Make the design as accessible to a wide range of readers as possible.
A central feature in the preparation of the newsletter was two parallel concerns: we resolved to make the W75 newsletter as accessible to fans with dyslexia & other reading issues as possible; and we resolved to make the newsletter visually impressive and professional-looking.

The Design AH’s experience with several years of Finncons had led to the emergence of a Finncon “house style,” including preferred typefaces & colors, through which Design sought to present a unified visual identity for W75. Consequently Design was able to provide the newsletter with an adaptable, minimalist & clear template design including a custom masthead and footer. This template was produced using Adobe InDesign and some custom graphics.

For my part, I concentrated on the question of accessibility. Early in this process, I noted that while W75 had agreed to follow the SWFA’s document “Accessibility Checklist for SFWA Spaces,” that document contained no discussion on the question of readability. Discussions between myself, the Design AH, the Design DH, and the Member Services DH Vanessa May, resulted in a number of recommendations which were incorporated into the final W75 newsletter. These recommendations were drawn from a combination of personal experience, systematic reviews in academic literature on readability, the British Dyslexia Association’s Dyslexia Style Guide, and the UK National Union of Students’ Disabled Students’ Campaign’s guidance on accessible printed materials.

Firstly, we agreed to produce all issues as printed in black ink on pastel-colored paper apart from the Masquerade Issue. The reason for this decision was that people with some forms of dyslexia experience “dazzle” when reading black text on bright white paper; in our venue, the lighting was primarily fluorescent, which would have made this situation worse. We also noted that using different-colored paper would make different issues easy to distinguish. The colors we used were: Lilac, Light Green, Salmon, Pink and Light Blue. Reflective or “neon” colors were particularly to be avoided as they would have made the dazzle problem worse. We used white paper for the Masquerade issue on the basis that this issue would be dominated not by text but by full-color photographs.

We also decided to avoid using shaded or half-tone text boxes, and instead to mark text boxes with black-and-white borders. This recommendation was drawn from the NUS style guidelines and from common practice. This recommendation was not followed in the Wednesday or Hugo Awards issues of the newsletter due to miscommunication; we received no complaints.

The question of what typeface to use was a point of contention among the design team. The central issue was: while certain fonts are recommended or deprecated based on their accessibility, the existence of W75’s established visual identity meant using a new typeface would require breaking this visual identity. At the recommendation of the Member Services AH we agreed to use Garamond 12 point as the body text for the newsletter, but all headlines bylines & footers were printed in W75’s house style. This was, in my estimation, a reasonable compromise which did not sacrifice readability.

One area where we decided to prioritize design considerations was the use of full justification & hyphens in the layout of the newsletter’s body text. Due to the extremely limited space constraints we found ourselves under for the Wednesday and Thursday AM issues, hyphenation was quickly found to be a necessity. Meanwhile, left-justification created visual anomalies in the alignment of body text columns and therefore full justification was chosen as the “lesser evil.”

The question of italicization, underlining and boldface arose frequently. The Worldcon newsletter will, in general, have to discuss books or other works whose titles are italicized according to most style guides. Meanwhile, most guidance for dyslexic readers deprecates the use of italic text. We settled on a convention of using underlining for titles and block quotes, and boldface for e-mail addresses and paragraph titles, in the absence of consistent, definitive guidance one way or another from the dyslexic community.

We also made the editorial decision to avoid special choices in vocabulary. This was a difficult judgement call. On the one hand, Worldcon is a highly internationalized event and many visitors may not be highly proficient in reading English. On the other, as a primarily literary & intellectual event, a higher baseline level of literacy could be assumed. Lastly, re-writing all articles in simple English would have considerably slowed down the editorial process and affected the flavor of the newsletter’s text, particularly that submitted by members outside the staff. While we did not simplify Painopiste’s vocabulary, we did make efforts to simplify long or difficult sentences where necessary.

Production process
  • Have an editor & a layout person work side-by-side.
  • Set up many ways to get stories beforehand, and check them all. A Newsletter e-mail addres is really good
  • Laying out & printing each issue can take up to 4 hours.
  • The most important things are program updates & announcements. Put in parties, con news & gossip if you have space.
  • Be smart about using your printers--if they break you have no newsletter!
Issues of Painopiste were usually produced with by a team of two: an editor in charge of compiling and producing text and images, and a layout person proficient in the use of Adobe Indesign and other Adobe design suite applications. Layout was carried out on a Macintosh with a large color monitor running Adobe InDesign.

Before W75, we decided a pattern of deadlines for each issue: generally we would seek to close content for the AM issue at 10pm the night before publication, and content for the PM issue at 10am the day of publication. This rhythm proved hard to maintain in practice and while we had a considerable excess of material for the Wednesday and Thurday AM issues, for subsequent issues we often found we were able to accommodate submissions up to the moment we started layout.

We had initially planned the process of layout & printing would take about two hours per issue. In practice, layout took two hours per issue, and printing took a further two hours.

Material for each issue was assembled from seven sources. The bulk of material was submitted through the public e-mail address for the newsletter, newsletter@worldcon.fi; this was configured so as to forward all messages to a “Conzine” subgroup on the Basecamp platform W75 used for staff communication. A thread was also established daily on Basecamp for staff to post newsletter items, but this saw far less use.

A small amount of material was also gleaned from the Slack channels established by W75 for open discussion & questions from members.

Two articles for the newsletter were submitted as handwritten letters and transcribed into a Word document.

Some material, notably the Hugo Awards information, was provided to Newsletter directly in the form of Microsoft Word documents via USB flash drive.

Most photographs were compiled by W75’s photography team and posted by the official photographer, Henry Söderlund, who processed the photos and posted them in a Google Photos folder. All photographs included photographer credits and Painopiste was assured proper permissions were in place for us to use them. One photograph, that of Hugo winner N. K. Jemisin, was taken from a Wikipedia article on the author, and we made sure the photograph was appropriately licensed, in this case as CC-BY-SA.

The final source of content was the editor himself, i.e. me. On a few occassions I was able to write editorials or other short pieces to fill out space. This content, however, received the lowest priority and was often removed to make way for fan-submitted materials. Much of the planned filler, e.g. humorous “learn Finnish” inserts, was never used.

From Basecamp and the other sources, material was copied & pasted into a Google Document for editing & allocation. Submissions were grouped into a small number of categories: News, Announcements, Events, Parties and Program Changes.

Announcements and Program Changes were the most important. Announcements in particular was the venue for notices from Access and Ops and updates on the space situation, which became acute at W75 due to unexpectedly high demand; Program Changes meanwhile, which were provided dutifully by the Program AH, were of particular importance given the space situation’s necessitization of last-minute room alterations.News, ironically, was a lower-priority category. This section generally included a photograph and reported on events which had already taken place. Parties was a lower-priority item as all parties run as part of W75 were also announced on the W75 website; Events was reserved for fan-run happenings that were not part of W75’s official program.

One frequent submission which we never quite figured out what to do with was the WSFS business reports. These reports, by Kevin Standlee, were always thorough but also usually exceeded 200 words in length. Often they were cut down to make room for items judged to be of higher priority.

Layout often involved last-minute cutting or re-writing of articles for length or clarity. We were fortunate that submitters almost always included key information in articles, so we as editors didn’t have to request further information or seek it out ourselves. The editor & layout person worked side-by-side, with the editor having final say and taking responsibility for decisions.

When the layout process was complete, a copy of the newsletter was published to PDF format and this PDF was circulated by the chairs for final approval and comments; this usually took about 15 minutes, and we operated to the standard that any chair could speak for the chairs’ team in approving the newsletter. Once approval was received, we immediately began printing.

Our printing suite consisted of, initially, three small printers (one color, two black-and-white), printing double-sided on A4. This suite was based in the press room. However, due to high demand--the press room produced some 28,000 pages on the first three days of W75, three times the number expected beforehand--mechanical issues & toner shortages quickly began to plague the newsletter and slow down the production cycle considerably. In particular, duplex printing, where the printer prints both sides of the paper in a single cycle, resulted in frequent jams and lost time. From issue 7 onwards, we began printing single-sided, 500 copies at a time; then putting those 500 copies back in the printer to print the other side of the newsletter. By the final day of W75 we were down to one functional printer.

Before W75, we considered producing the newsletter by bulk printing, which would have been much faster, but this was determined to be prohibitively expensive at 0.20€/copy.

Our initial plan for distribution of Painopiste was to give finished copies to Turva, W75’s ops & security team, and they would have assigned gophers to take copies to the designated locations. In practice, especially given proximity of the press room to the Information Desk, the Design team ended up distributing the newsletter ourselves.

Tone, editorial freedom & editorial voice
  • The newsletter will sound more sincere if it speaks with your voice. Trust your judgement.
  • Use jokes but don’t let them get in the way of the most important information.
  • If it feels right to you, print it, but be ready to back it up.
As editor the biggest personal choices I faced in producing Painopiste were about the tone & attitude the newsletter presented to the world. I decided early on that Painopiste’s content would be personal, and that my own individuality would be present in the newsletter’s tone and editorial attitudes. From my first day as editor, I insisted on considerable editorial freedom in production while agreeing the chairs would get final approval on content.

While my background is not Finnish, my own sense of humor tends to align with what is often considered Finland’s national character in jokes: deadpan, grim and subtle. Thus, I avoided “joke” articles entirely, instead focusing on adding flavor in headlines, very short introductions to articles, or individual sentences. Moreover I decided that certain subjects such as access or ops matters should be conveyed as straightforwardly as possible, both for reasons of respect and to be inclusive to new members not necessarily accustomed to the “con culture” of in-jokes. The parody newsletter Offpiste, produced by some fans from Britain and the Netherlands, complained, “all the jokes ave been surgically excised from the official newsletter.” We retort: the jokes were there, they were simply too subtle for Offpiste’s team to notice. We apologize for the subtlety.

Moreover I am unable to deny the intrinsically political character of the convention; pretending to be neutral is, in my opinion, a far worse politicization of published content than presenting one’s own standpoint and being able to defend it.

Thus, when the 2017 Hugo Awards were won by women authors in the majority of categories, with women of color winning many of the most prominent awards, it was entirely appropriate to take a journalistic tone in the Hugo special issue highlighting this fact, and to include a highly-politicized quotation from the Best Novel winner, N. K. Jemisin, where she discusses the impact of racist attitudes toward black authors. Moreover, to the best of my ability to tell, an attitude in favor of diversity and inclusiveness is entirely in line with the majority of W75 members--or else the Hugo Awards’ results would have gone very differently.

Taking such stances caused no significant backlash until after the publication of issue 8, the final regular issue. Near the end of W75, Finnish railway VR’s workers announced a strike on the Monday and Tuesday following the convention in protest against government plans to privatize the state railway system. Issue 8 included a message of support for the VR Railway Strike from a member of W75 and the announcement of the circulation of a petition by myself so more members of W75 could show support for the strike. This material was approved by the W75 committee without any objection. Nonetheless, one leading member of WSFS raised vocal objections after the fact to the content of issue 8, claiming the material “violated the WSFS constitution” and that I as editor was giving a platform to “special interest groups.”

This stance against issue 8’s announcement was rightly judged to be absurd. Firstly, long-established fans should remember to be sensitive to the cultures of Worldcon’s host countries--some three-fourths of Finns are union members, and an overwhelming majority oppose the government’s plans which provoked the VR strike. Secondly, there exists a broad consensus among the fan community that some “special interest groups,” particularly those facing special oppression, do indeed deserve promotion through Worldcons; no objection was raised whatsoever for example to Geek Girls Finland (Nörttitytöt) announcing their events and their political message of gender equality in the newsletter in three separate issues.

Someone might try to argue the converse: what if some “alt-right” special interest group, the infamous Puppies of many bitter flavors for example, had prepared some announcement? Would I have run it? No, I would not, and I would have vehemently resisted any such attempt. The question of the newsletter’s politics is not one of some mealy-mouthed mindless “balance.” We are here as participants in fandom because we picture what might be. I am proud to follow in the footsteps of Frederik Pohl, Judith Merril, Iain M. Banks, Kim Stanley Robinson and China Miéville in striving to make real the future of liberation we all, as fans, imagine.

Ideas for the future
  • Create guidance for future cons about accessible printed materials
  • Make a large-print version
  • Can you get cheap bulk printing through work or university?
  • Integrate with social media
  • Do what you can beforehand
  • Where does the newsletter fit?
Having been through this wondrous and intense experience of editing the W75 newsletter I can say I am proud of the work we did and I am grateful to all those named herein, and many others, for producing what I feel was a superb newsletter. Nonetheless there are some areas where I feel that, given more time & thought, we could have done even better.

The area of accessibility for readers with additional support needs should be clarified & set down in guidelines. The absence of such a standard for cons is a puzzling one and I think that with minimal reflection, we could quickly revolutionize fans’ abilities to engage with the content conventions produce with a minimum of barriers. One item which has been drawn to our attention: while light-colored paper was the correct choice, we should have avoided shades of red and green as these appear as grey in the most common form of color-blindness.

A simple thing we could have done to overcome many accessibility issues, which we did not think of until it was too late: we could have produced a large-print, plain-text edition of the newsletter in a limited run for each issue. This would have overcome almost every conceivable problem with accessibility in typefaces & layouts.

Bulk printing solutions could have gone differently. While high-speed one-color Risograph printers seem rare in Finland, other locations may be a bit luckier in finding one. People with access to bulk printing through offices or universities may be able to produce issues cheaply or for free by making use of these resources.

The role of social media in conventions is still being explored. While there will probably never be an absolute substitute for a printed hardcopy, we could have integrated the newsletter better with W75’s social media presence. For example, the newsletter itself or newsletter pickup points could have displayed QR codes linking to the website where electronic copies would be available. Given enough resources, we could have even prepared eBook versions which people could subscribe to. Lastly, as each article was prepared it could have been distributed to the W75 social media team and tweeted out.

One refinement we considered, but which was rejected due to complications and timing, was of pre-printing the masthead of each issue as part of our pre-Con printing run. This would have allowed us to produce the header in full color cheaply, with the body text of the newsletter produced as an overprint. This would have required completing the design a month before W75 as well as meaning paper designated for Painopiste could not be used for other purposes in emergencies.

Lastly, con organizers should consider where exactly the newsletter fits in their organizational tree. Painopiste was produced under the Design Resources team for W75, and we benefitted from access to layout expertise; but if we were estalished under the Publications or Outreach teams, it is possible we would have had more access to writing expertise or to interconnections with social media.

This is supposed to be fun
  • Running a newsletter is a time commitment. Make sure you enjoy it.
I greatly enjoyed my experience running Painopiste. It was an opportunity for words I’d written or had a hand in writing to reach thousands of people, and thereby to enlighten & entertain them. Moreoever considerable weight comes with playing such a visible role in a Worldcon: I really feel myself to be a part of fandom history, and this fact motivated me to do the best I possibly could and to get the best out of my colleagues in producing Painopiste. Nonetheless it was a significant time commitment which, necessarily, came at the expense of taking part in W75 in other ways. If you are going to be the editor for your newsletter, you should be certain beforehand that you will enjoy it and are willing to put in the hours, and you need to start assembling your team to make sure you’re not left on your own producing it. Fandom, like consciousness, is a collective activity--do what you do for yourself and the people around you, to build up the community in common exaltation. There are not many higher callings in life.

Comments

  1. One comment about the notice on the VR strike. For myself, I'm not too concerned about the content in the notice, but I think it was a mistake to sign it as "Editor", since that implied it was the official stance of the newsletter.

    It is one thing for the chairs and the newsletter to take a stance on eg the Puppies, since that is part of a political question that directly impacts the con, but this is an issue that lies entirely outside the topic of Worldcon 75.

    Having produced newszines at several Swecons, I'm fully aware of how much work it is to do, and I've tried to be clear that it is I that is the publisher, not the con, but the situation is a little murkier at a Worldcon or similar large con where the newsletter is produced by a team and needs lots of resources.

    ReplyDelete
  2. The VR strike directly impacted the Con in that Monday and Tuesday were lots of members' travel days. I think a deeper question is the extent to which the newsletter is the voice of the Con committee, versus an independent journalistic voice commenting on the Con but nonetheless using Con resources (to write the question more grandly than it deserves, this is the same issue facing a state broadcaster like YLE or the BBC).

    ReplyDelete
  3. Oh dear, you did have a rough time of it, didn't you? I wish you had managed to get hold of me beforehand (Eemeli has my mobile number, the silly sod should have put you in touch!), I could at least have warned you against duplex printing (and letting other people use your printers/toner/paper: it's about my only hard rule before I'll take on a newsletter).

    We looked very closely into ebooks for Loncon, and I think may even have produced a couple of issues that way, but there was absolutely no interest: as long as you have a clean pdf, it's much easier for most people to use.

    I've been wrestling with the future of newsletters / interaction with social media thing for five or six years now, and I'm no closer to figuring out what the end result is going to look like. I do think that paper newsletters will be going the way of voodoo boards, and I actually lobbied a bit for next year's Eastercon to try the experiment of not having one (I had this grand plan involving TV screens...), but if the thing that will replace them exists yet then it's not currently obvious to me. If you have any ideas before Dublin, let me know....

    Flick

    (Hmm. I wonder what 'Ilmoita' means? I guess I'll tick the box and see!)

    ReplyDelete
  4. Flick! I'm glad you saw this. Please do get in touch with me! I'm the only me on Facebook.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm afraid I'm the only me not on Facebook! I'm flick on Dreamwidth (and LJ, but I didn't accept the new ToS so I don't know if email sent / comments left there will get to me these days), or anything sent to an internet-fairy.org email address will get to me.

      Delete

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