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Wall Street Journal / Life - Entertain

All the Nudes That’s Fit to Print: Burning Man Has a Newspaper War

At the offline counterculture festival, ‘burnalists’ battle heat, dust, distractions—and competition. Reporting in polka-dot hot pants.


Jack Nicas

BLACK ROCK CITY, Nev.—The Black Rock Beacon’s morning news meeting started an hour late one day last week. A dust storm the night before blew the newsroom down.

Black Rock Beacon newspaper

Around 11 a.m., while many attendees of the weeklong Burning Man counterculture festival were still awake from the night before, a crew of 10 “burnalists” gathered under a new tent to plan the next day’s newspaper.

The photographer was a blue-haired mailman from Canada. The masthead designer was a San Francisco graphic artist, drinking a beer and wearing a bacon-themed outfit who introduced himself as Francis Bacon. The copy editor was Lawrence Breed, known as Ember, a 77-year-old renowned Silicon Valley computer programmer. “I always wanted to be a pressman and I never got around to it,” he said.

Black Rock City, the alien-like village in the barren Nevada desert that draws about 70,000 festivalgoers each August, is a fully functioning temporary town with post offices, hospitals, a library, a gas station and a department of public works. One thing it lacks, however, is reliable connectivity.

Temporary headquarters of the Black Rock Beacon, a near-daily newspaper at the Burning Man, after its previous tent blew down. Photo: Jack Nicas/The Wall Street Journal

The tech entrepreneurs who flock to Burning Man have fueled the digital revolution that is sapping the dead-tree newspaper industry. Here in the desert, however, they have replicated the conditions that drove the heyday of the printed press.

Burning Man doesn’t have just one newspaper, but two—and they’re engaged in an old-fashioned rivalry.

Adrian Roberts, editor of the alternative BRC Weekly, said, “Two newspapers are distributed [at Burning Man]. Only one is worth reading.” Ron Garmon, a Los Angeles music critic dubbed Rockstar who is a reporter for the near-daily hard-news publication, the Beacon, fired back that BRC Weekly “is like a gossip column written by a 70-year-old blue-haired lady.” For the record, both journalists have pink hair.

Burning Man co-founder Michael Mikel, a 73-year-old technology futurist known here as Danger Ranger, started the first Burning Man newspaper in 1992 and believes print journalism still has a long future in Black Rock City. “There’s something about being in camp and getting that piece of paper,” he said. “A naked person rides up to camp, hands you a newspaper out of their bike basket, and I think that is so cool.”

Burning Man co-founder Michael Mikel, who started the first Burning Man newspaper.Photo: Jack Nicas/The Wall Street Journal

Black Rock Beacon reporters work on 17-year-old Mac PowerBook G3 laptops that can withstand the extreme conditions. Without reliable phone service, reporters have to find their subjects in person, often leaving messages with dazed campmates or taping notes to RV doors.

Editors struggle, too, with distractions like massive art installations, trampolines and open bars on every street. “You send a reporter out on a story, and they see a shiny object and you never see them again,” said Beacon Editor Mitch Martin, 59, a former International Herald Tribune editor who has been reporting at Burning Man since 2000.

The Beacon, he says, “is the last newspaper job I’m going to be able to get.”

BRC Weekly shortcuts the technical hurdles of producing a newspaper in the desert by putting it together before the event. BRC Weekly printed 25,000 copies of its single edition. This year’s cover shouted “The Six Types of People Who Will Ruin Burning Man Just By Being Here.”

Beacon President Alexandra Davies and editor Mitch Martin lay out the next day’s paper in a trailer.Photo: Jack Nicas/The Wall Street Journal

This year, the officials who run Burning Man gave away the Beacon’s prime downtown location—to BRC Weekly.

Burning Man draws tech eminences who have included serial entrepreneur Elon Musk and Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, as well as a crowd of so-called Burners, many of whom shed their clothes and engage in intense revelry.

The Beacon publishes a spectrum of stories, from practical items, such as the sunrise schedule and arrest reports, to lighter fare, like a survey of whether attendees preferred bacon or pie. It also does serious journalism, such as reporting on a man who ran into the event’s ceremonial fire this year, just hours after it happened. Sticking with Burning Man’s ban on commerce—except sales of ice and coffee—the papers are free and lack advertising. Donations, including from the staff, fund the paper.

Reporter Gayle Early with Burning Man attendees at the faux 3:00 post office in Black Rock City.Photo: Jack Nicas/The Wall Street Journal

Mr. Martin dispatched a reliable reporter—Gayle “Curious” Early—to find out why much of the mail sent to Burning Man last year was returned. Ms. Early, a 52-year-old freelance journalist from La Mesa, Calif., spent the day reporting in boots, a dusty cowboy hat, polka-dot hot pants and a sheer top.

Black Rock City is laid out like a clock, with its own ad hoc post offices at 3:00, 6:00 and 9:00. At the 3:00 post office—designed like a giant mailbox with a DJ on the roof—Burning Man attendees who volunteer there told Ms. Early an influx of packages overwhelmed the actual U.S. post office nearby. After gathering some scuttlebutt about the other faux post offices, she hopped on the white furry seat of her bike to set out for the 6:00 post office.

Black Rock City, created annually for the Burning Man festival, is a two-newspaper town.Photo: Jim Bourg/Reuters

There, her story hit a snag. An assistant on duty while the bosses were away said, “I’m not saying a word.” Ms. Early then faced a dilemma: Head back to her tent to make deadline or bike across the desert city to hear from the 9:00 office. She kept pedaling.

However, at her final stop, she found only a 21-year-old Russian jewelry saleswoman from New York attending her first Burning Man. The saleswoman didn’t have any information, but did offer plenty of free postcards.

Ms. Early returned to the Beacon just before deadline, and Mr. Martin agreed to hold the story until Saturday. He and another editor huddled in a cramped trailer to lay out the paper on newer computers that they stored in oversize Ziploc bags to protect them from the elements. They communicated via whispers while the trailer’s owners napped.

Beacon reporter Gayle Early interviews a member of a post-office camp at Burning Man. Photo: Jack Nicas/The Wall Street Journal

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In past years, Mr. Martin and other staffers drove three hours by car to deliver a thumb drive with the next day’s paper to a Reno, Nev., printing plant. This year, they secured an internet connection at another camp, a sign of technology’s increasing creep into the remote event. (The Beacon’s digital presence is limited to a website with PDFs of previous years’ editions.)

The Beacon printed 17,000 copies across five editions last week. Editors picked up each edition in a storage locker in a nearly deserted mining town nearby.

Adult paperboys and papergirls then made the rounds via bicycle. Ms. Early’s husband, Dr. Charlie Hamori, was one of them, and he gathered gifts from readers along the way. One day’s haul included two necklaces, a snow cone, an Old Fashioned cocktail and a piece of Hungarian cake. “This is the best paper route ever,” he said.

Dr. Charlie Hamori, an adult paperboy for the Beacon.Photo: Jack Nicas/The Wall Street Journal

Write to Jack Nicas at jack.nicas@wsj.com