Formats Unpacked: Pass notes

How a newspaper column became the de facto structure for formats like this

Hi All,

I’m obsessed with stories that unveil where people draw inspiration from. If you subscribe to the Storythings newsletter you’ll know that I’m always sharing articles like Steal Like Wes Anderson, or Kirby Ferguson’s Everything is a Remix, and Austin Kleon’s Steal Like An Artist. So I couldn’t help but smile when Rob Mansfield pointed out in today’s unpacking how similar Formats Unpacked is to Pass notes. It’s a fair cop. Well spotted. I’d tell you why it’s been so influential but that’s what Rob is here to do.

Rob started his career as a magazine journalist and has spent the past decade heading up digital and content teams in the charity sector. He also curates a fortnightly email newsletter of interesting and entertaining stories that I’m sure you’ll all love. 

Over to Rob…

What’s it called?

Pass notes (Newspaper column)

What’s the format? 

Well, it’s this…

Eh? I don’t understand

Ironically, the format used on Formats Unpacked has been unknowingly influenced by Pass notes.

OK, clever clogs… let’s be a bit more specific then. What is Pass Notes?

It’s The Guardian’s way of covering a particular topical issue in 400 words, without resorting to writing a specific newspaper article about it. Think GCSE crib notes for a Shakespeare play in a newspaper column format.

I’m guessing there’s a history to it?

Indeed there is. The Guardian didn’t actually invent Pass notes. It originated in the short-lived, but oft-lamented Sunday Correspondent in 1989, but when that closed after just 14 months, The Guardian effectively appropriated the idea.

Right, I’m getting there now… so what’s the magic that makes it special?

Finally, you’re back on track with the proper questions. OK, quite simply, it allows people to get a handle on any current subject – from politicians to pop stars, black holes to boccia – in less than a minute, but in a humorous way. In fact, the comic element is its killer feature.

There’s also never been a writer byline, which means some of the newspaper’s best writers have written them over the years. Former editor Alan Rusbridger was one of the first writers, while other contributors were Matthew Norman, Catherine Bennett and Lucy Mangan, to name but three. This enhances its staying power and, between 1992 and 2005, Pass notes appeared every day on p3 of G2, The Guardian’s weekday supplement.

Hang on, it’s 2020 now. What happened in 2005?

For some unfathomable reason, someone at the newspaper decided the format had run its course and axed Pass notes.


Calm down, that’s all in the past now. Common sense prevailed and they returned in 2009, almost as if it had been a dream.

Any favourites?

Sadly, many of the brilliant, early ones have never been digitised, but more recently, this Loose Women one was rather amusing, as was the one about Princess Beatrice’s hat. Ironically, its main legacy is this Q&A format that is ubiquitous online.

So is that it?

Yes, although each one usually ends with a poor joke or a wry observation, but then I’m no comedian.

You can say that again!

Thanks Rob,

The Guardian is really on it when it comes to deep-but-short formats like this. I love How We Made. That and This Much I Know collectively they’ve influenced the shaping of this - along with many other things.

When narratives are combined with solid formats like this you build audience loyalty. I frequently find myself reading about the making of a song I don’t particularly like simply because I know How We Made will surface some facts or information that makes me reconsider how I feel about it.

At a time when the constant stream of new things demands so much of our attention the idea of creating simple, repeatable, formats that people choose to return to feels like a much better option than campaign thinking, which requires audience building from scratch every time.

Thanks to you all for coming back every week, saying nice things, and unpacking your favourite formats. If ever want to write about a format do get in touch.

See you all next week.