In 2014, we decided to set up digital platform for the young people of Bristol. As part of a talent development programme and as a magazine to amplify young exciting voices in the city, we wanted to see if we could affect positive change among young people. It would be called Rife Magazine. Rife meaning widespread, everywhere, full of life. Rife, subverting the common usage of the word (‘nepotism is rife’, ‘disease is rife’) in the same way Vice and Crack did.
The biggest question facing us when we were setting up the platform that would become Rife Magazine wasn’t: how should a bunch of people in their 30s chat to young people? It was, why are we, a bunch of people in our 30s, chatting to young people?
If we were going to run a site that presented issue-based articles about things important to young people, spanning politics (local, national and international), social issues, arts and culture and frivolous fun shit, and use those articles to push positive activities for 13-19 year olds in Bristol, well, who better to write it than its target audience?
Let me back up.
Rife Magazine, and her twin sister, Rife Guide, are both aimed at 13-19 year olds in Bristol. On the magazine, we cover everything from the aforementioned politics, social issues, arts and culture, to more fun listicles, like ‘Dessert Island Discs’, an investigation into the best music to listen to when you eat your favourite puddings.
Watershed took over Bristol City Council’s virtual youth service in order to create something young people actually use and engage with. Watershed is known for its creative, collaborative and risk-embracing co-producing attitude to projects. I had recently moved to Bristol and was looking for a creative project to get in to. Interestingly, I’d been hired once, to go into a Young Offender’s Institute and do an inspirational talk as a writer. The day was…terrible. I was awful. The kids were difficult. I didn’t know how to handle them. But I walked away from that experience realising the value of youth work and what the potential for my role could be. So I was really into the idea of creative youth work as a way of putting back into my community.
The first thing we did, before we even had a name for the platform, was to invite a bunch of young people in-house to consult with us on how they used the internet, and what they wanted from a new platform.
Without giving our secrets away, I’ll tell you the three best things I’ve ever learned about working with young people. These are really important, and will help you to not be ‘patronising out-of-touch 1950s stoic dad’ around them should you ever need to do a school visit, run a workshop or make a thing. Ready?
Tips for working with young people:
- They know more than you. Ask questions. Listen. Without judgment or feeling like ‘it was better in my day’.
- Pay them. Feed them. Respect them. Snacks go a long way. Money goes further. If you feel uncomfortable paying young people for consultancy, maybe ask a large advertising/brand consultancy firm what its day-rate is.
- Jeez, look, there isn’t a number three. Okay? If you struggle to talk to teenagers, you probably don’t remember being one.
The way we work on Rife is simple: I don’t decide the content. We have an in-house editorial team who does that for me. We offer 6-month paid jobs, where 18-24 year olds come and work with us. I mentor them, help them to create digital content, make videos, tell stories and promote those stories on social media. Because obviously, in a world saturated with content, the worst thing we can do is create something and publish it online and then take the rest of the day off to watch Netflix. We have to push the content out, seed it with key influencers, manipulate the metadata and source the right imagery.
The ideas generated by our in-house team is very much based around what’s important to them. I try to balance the content between the personal and the external, the things they are knowledgeable about and the things they are curious about. Often, we run lists and guides to help other young people create things, like set up businesses, go freelance, ask to be paid when someone tries to commission them by telling them it’s ‘good for their profile’.
Every Wednesday, we have an hour meeting to go through the next two weeks’ content schedule. We go through what’s happening in Bristol at the moment (constant travel chaos, a new mayor, Massive Attack’s first gig in near decades,), what issues are irking/delighting our content creators and what other youth projects are up to that might be of interest and spark off a piece of content. We build the schedule, based on ideas pitched. I work with the guys to shape the ideas into pieces of content. Often this involves turning a piece from a vague abstract idea into a story, sourcing interviewees, igniting hot takes and working on production plans for videos.
The genius of this set-up: a broadcast standard set of video equipment provided by Rife, a platform built on a simple wordpress, all the social media accounts we can muster, and a board of post-it notes filled with ideas. We’re only as good as our ideas. The way to keep this momentum fresh, and keep our journalists excited on projects, is to keep the ideas visible, the potential for a new exciting project prominently displayed, and work on a selection of long and short term projects. This means that our journalists can try new things, get better at things they can already do and always feel like the next new thing is around the corner. This set-up allows us to be flexible, adaptative, reactive and also keep the focus on the content. Because we’re only as good as our content.
The learning points for me as a writer, and as an editor, and as a youth worker, have been largely around thinking young people think this and that. It’s been challenging and inspiring to see how brave, adaptive and opinionated they are. How, if you give them the freedom to develop their own voices, where their opinions are valued above all else, then you have a happy, enthusiastic and hard-working workforce who hold a mirror up to Bristol. Getting the team to sit in alongside Watershed’s larger creative department, gives them soft skills like understanding larger more long-term creative strategies, as well as how to conduct yourself in a professional manner. It also means that their opinions, their thoughts and their feedback directly effects all of Watershed’s planning.
This chaotic and collaborative method of working means that we can cast a large net over Bristol, dealing with localised stories and projects as well as covering the larger cultural implications of Beyoncé’s new album. The trick for me is to have a flexible approach and to not be afraid of having no content – because, if there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s this: in the right environment, one that is creative, supportive and collaborative, we are never short of ideas.
Nikesh Shukla is the author of the critically acclaimed novel Meatspace, the Costa shortlisted novel Coconut Unlimited and the award-winning novella The Time Machine. He is also the editor of a forthcoming collection of essays by 20 BAME writers, called The Good Immigrant. He wrote the short film Two Dosas and the Channel 4 sitcom Kabadasses. He is the editor of Rife Magazine, a digital platform created for and by 13-19 year olds in Bristol.