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A Magazine for Sheffield

We're going to use Now Then to tell new kinds of stories next year – here’s how

Traditional forms of journalism don’t play an active role in creating the better world we so urgently need. We want to do things differently.

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An event on designing better communities at last year's Festival of Debate.

ADVA Photography.

This coming new year will mark a transition for Now Then, the magazine for Sheffield that we’ve published in various forms since 2008. As we approach Christmas and take a break for a few weeks, we wanted to explain where we’re up to with our thinking and talk a little bit about what you can expect to see from us next year and beyond.

Now then mural
Andy Brown

Since 2008 we’ve tried to do journalism better. For us, this has meant investigating harmful things happening in Sheffield and exposing them, while also using our platform to celebrate and spotlight what’s going on in communities across our unique and diverse city.

We thought this approach marked us out from the corporate press, both local and national, who attack communities for clicks, demonise difference, and whose business interests require them to uphold the status quo. We thought we could do a similar kind of journalism, but from an empathetic, progressive standpoint. But with the daunting scale of the complex challenges facing both Sheffield and the wider world, we’ve come to realise this isn’t possible.

Over the past year or so we’ve come to the conclusion that it's not enough to simply commentate on the collapse of earth systems and criticise those in power who are doing nothing about it. Accurately naming the problems we're facing, as a city and as a society, and 'holding power to account' is important, but it can't be where our job ends.

As a publisher, a worker-owned organisation, and a group of people passionately committed to change, we need to be an active participant in creating the better world we want to see. One way we’ll do this is through storytelling – a term we’re starting to use instead of ‘journalism’, with its harmful and extractive connotations – across different platforms, including Now Then, Festival of Debate and Opus Films.

We’re still working out exactly what form this will take. There isn’t an established plan or roadmap, although there are already some amazing people developing storytelling as a practice across the UK, from Civic Square and their Good News of B16 in Birmingham to Greater Govanhill in Glasgow. But it feels true to this new approach to share with you our thinking as it develops. To adapt a phrase we came across through our work with The People’s Newsroom: sometimes it’s okay to publish in drafts.

What is storytelling?

For us, storytelling is a way of making sense of Sheffield and of our world. It helps us understand why events happen, what effect those events have on people who live here, and what we can do about them if they’re harmful, extractive or contributing to the collapse of earth systems. We believe stories hold the power to shift dominant narratives, clear the way for new ways of thinking rooted in care and equity, and act as a point of action and agency for people in communities.

The traditional aim of journalism is for the reporter to be objective – to somehow hover above the story, impartially assembling the facts without emotion. They’re not supposed to let their own background or personal circumstances enter into their reporting, and they’re expected to write about people from all walks of life without prejudice or bias – ‘without fear or favour’, as the New York Times put it.

What we’ve come to realise at Now Then, through conversations with storytellers across the UK, is that this idea of objectivity is fundamentally flawed. It’s a goal that’s impossible to achieve, because as writers our own lived experience inevitably shapes every aspect of how we approach a story – consciously or not – as well as which stories we choose to tell and which we don’t.

So we’re abandoning that impossible aim, and acknowledging what is already obvious: that all storytelling, and all journalism, is subjective. In that subjectivity we might find not only the most critical stories, but new ways to live and make sense of the world.

From extraction to co-creation

Traditional forms of journalism, left or right-leaning, are extractive. Journalists go into communities, extract the story, apply an editorial process to it and publish it in their own outlet, usually for profit. It’s not dissimilar to industries like mining, only with stories, lived experience and, in many cases, trauma as the raw materials. It undermines trust and does a huge amount of harm to people every day.

In contrast, we see storytelling as a way to help communities tell and interpret their own stories. These might be stories of joy and community power, or they might be stories of harm. But they are stories that help us understand our city and our world, and how the current systems that are in place are not serving the planet or us as its inhabitants. So what does this mean, beyond offering out the platform that we’ve built?

Fir vale shops 2
Rachel Rae Photography

We’re increasingly seeing our role as being a facilitator of stories. We’re asking how we can apply our skills to enable people to tell their own stories in the most powerful, truthful and effective way possible. As a group of storytellers, we believe we have the experience to recognise what the essence of a story is and the skills to bring that out. For some of us at Opus this means editorial skills, while for others it involves filmmaking, graphic design or convening events.

Often people aren’t in a position to tell their own story directly – but these are the stories that most need to be heard. Here we’ll act as a conduit to allow those stories to be told through us, as filmmakers, writers and artists.

Sheffield in the doughnut

One of the foundations we’re going to be using for our storytelling next year is Kate Raworth’s concept of doughnut economics. This is the idea that as a society we must operate at a sweet spot where we meet the basic needs of all humans without overshooting our planetary boundaries. The doughnut is divided into sectors – for example, housing, energy and water. Let’s take food: how do we provide enough food for everyone without pushing our planet to breaking point by degrading the soil?

Where you are in the world, the society you live in and your own personal circumstances will determine whether you’re currently inside the boundaries of the doughnut. As it stands, huge swathes of the global north have a meat-heavy diet that the planet cannot sustain – diets that, if rolled out worldwide, would require several earths to support. This is planetary overshoot. At the same time, millions of people in the global south do not have enough food. This is human undershoot. How do we get into the middle part of the doughnut, where we feed everyone without wrecking the planet?

Doughnut kate raworth

The doughnut of social and planetary boundaries (2017).

Kate Raworth

We’ll be using this as one of the frames for our storytelling, as we believe both of these aims are essential to our future survival: meeting the needs of everyone on the planet while preventing catastrophic earth system breakdown. And ultimately we have to take a holistic view, because all of our planet’s systems, both living and human-made, are interdependent.

Through our storytelling next year, we’ll ask how we can apply doughnut thinking in Sheffield, even down to neighbourhood or street level. What would Sheffield look like if it was inside the doughnut? How would our day-to-day lives be different?

It’s not complicated – it's complex

Both our city and the wider world are shaped by complex systems. These range from food systems and nature systems to our local economy, the wider economic system and the political system. Complex systems are different to complicated systems. Complicated systems – for example, a car engine – may have multiple moving parts, but they are self-contained, with outcomes that are broadly predictable.

Complex systems, like the economy, on the other hand are constantly changing, adapting and evolving, often in unpredictable ways. The same actions within the system can produce wildly different outcomes, based on a whole set of variables which are themselves constantly changing. Complex systems can be stable for a long time and then suddenly change to a radically different state. Think of the way the collapse of Lehman Brothers sent the global financial system into meltdown almost overnight in 2008.

Traditional journalism doesn’t try to explain or even engage with the complex systems that influence almost every aspect of our lives. This means that when you read a news story about food poverty or ecosystem collapse, you’re left with the impression that bad things happen at random or as a result of some cosmic bad luck, rather than due to systemic problems.

Unless we attempt to pull apart these complex systems, we can’t begin to work out the causes behind the problems that we collectively face – whether that’s hunger, poverty or the degradation of our democracy. New forms of storytelling must be rooted in systems thinking and an attempt to explain how problems at a local level – even at street level – are rooted in structural problems which are part of complex systems.

Honest conversations

We’re not having honest conversations in Sheffield. This applies both to the scale and severity of the problems we face, but also the nature of the interventions we need to make to have any hope of solving them. Having honest conversations based on the stark reality of our current situation is the only way we’ll be able to transition to a better future with the involvement of everyone. We all have to be on the same page.

Here’s an example. Research by Dark Matter Labs and Laudes Foundation suggests that to stay within our carbon budget – the amount of carbon we can use while sticking to a 1.5C global temperature rise – we can only build 176,000 homes a year. That’s not in Sheffield – that’s across the whole of Europe. That means that, based on the city’s population size, we can only build 129 new homes a year in Sheffield.

Maria lupan hy97yy3e03 A unsplash

We're not having honest conversations about the need to end fossil fuel extraction as soon as possible.

Maria Lupan on Unsplash.

But we know there is a dire need for housing in our city. Using the model of the doughnut, we clearly need to work out new solutions for housing that meet human needs without breaching planetary boundaries. Building tens of thousands of new homes can’t be part of that solution if we’re genuinely committed to preventing climate collapse.

Our city’s politicians are unable to have an honest conversation with you about this. Some of them will lack the knowledge or the climate literacy. Others will know this to be true, but their national party line (both Labour and the Tories say they want to build millions of new homes a year) or the fear of ridicule from the local corporate media makes it impossible for them to be honest with you about this.

But we’re not bound by our political culture. One of the essential functions of Now Then starting next year will be to kickstart, host and further these honest conversations.

Tying it all together

These are the frames and approaches which we’re using as a starting point to tell stories next year. None are set in stone. We’re very much – in the most positive sense of the phrase – learning as we go. It feels daunting but exciting. We have an incredible opportunity to pioneer in this city a new form of storytelling that plays an active role in tackling collective problems, rather than inflicting harm on our communities for profit.

But our new approach to storytelling is just one part of a much wider Opus project we’ll be kicking off properly in the new year. This will explore what new systems that meet human needs without destroying the planet might look like, and how we can build them right here in Sheffield. So far, the areas we’re interested in exploring are around governance, health and care, finance, nature rights, energy and retrofit, food, housing and imagination infrastructure.

We'll be inviting people across Sheffield, from different sectors, disciplines and walks of life, to join us, and actually build new systems based on justice and equity instead of harm and extraction. The early conversations we've been having around this project have energised people and we think there is a real appetite for this kind of systemic thinking and working in the city. We can’t wait to get stuck in. If you want to talk to us about this, get in touch.

We’re joined in this work by Citizen Network, a global cooperative and established partner to Opus with strong roots in Sheffield, Dark Matter Labs, an organisation of designers committed to systemic change – and, we hope, by many other people and organisations across Sheffield.

The late anthropologist and activist David Graeber said: “The ultimate, hidden truth of the world is that it is something that we make, and could just as easily make differently.” This is an idea we’ll hold as we tell new stories about our city, and ask: What if?

To keep up with all of our work next year, subscribe to our newsletter.

by Sam Gregory (he/him), Sam Walby (he/him)

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