How long-form journalism is making a big come back – an interview with Jim Giles, co-founder of Matter

The co-founder of Kickstarter funded journalism project Matter talks about how long-form content can be monetised - and on why it's time to end the trend of short, quick to produce pieces and pageview chasing in online journalism. He also tells us that whilst community is integral to any online publication, nobody in the industry has cracked it.

Matter Kickstarter

The crowd-funded digital journalism project that raised $50,000 in just three days almost trebled its initial target, bringing in more than $140,000 in a month-long funding round on Kickstarter. Originally founded by journalists Jim Giles and Bobbie Johnson, the project received widespread media attention. We spoke to Jim Giles a few weeks back on the problems they’ve identified with online journalism – namely science and technology journalism as it stands – and on how they’re planning on fixing it.

Why short, quick to produce pieces have dominated online journalism

How has online journalism changed over the time that you’ve been involved in it?

A very crude history of online journalism is the success of short, quick to produce pieces. The include opinion pieces, blog pieces, gadget reviews – and various systems for aggregating those pieces – so sites like the Huffington Post. Largely the business model that’s dominant in online journalism, which is advertising based on page views has driven that. It’s just this one sort of content which has of been ‘privileged’ in a way – and then there’s a whole other area of more meaty, long form feature-length content which you can get online but it hasn’t really found its own business model, it hasn’t found its own niche. The magazines that are still doing it I would guess are still funding it through their print sales.

Printing Press

Are print sales a loss leader? ...or are some online publications a loss leader, where a print alternative is also published?

So are print sales a loss leader?

There’s no native online model doing it. That’s a big problem because, whilst I love that stuff, that long-form material, it’s also – at a very fundamental level – what we need to understand the world and what we need to participate in democracy, it’s what we need. Really analytical, in-depth content needs to be written extraordinarily well to be gripping, otherwise no-one reads it in the first place. If you don’t have those ingredients you can’t really understand what’s going on and make informed decisions. This is why everyone’s been fretting about the impact that the web is having on journalism.

The app store model makes online purchases relatively painless

This is the kind of thing that’s been worrying everyone – and then two things have changed recently. One is that tablets have become enormously successful. I know in the US tablet ownership doubled just over the last Christmas. It’s extraordinary growth. The great things about tablets is that people use them in a totally different way, they use them at the end of the day or during sort of longer, more contemplative periods of reading. There’s a great survey by the Pew – one of the Pew organisation that puts numbers on all of this – and they found that people read longer pieces, and really critically, they pay for those longer pieces and they’re prepared to pay. That’s probably due in large part to the App Store model that makes purchases relatively painless and it’s got kind of got people in the mental framework where they think ‘yeah, I can, I’m comfortable with spending one or two or three dollars on something online’. It sort of feels okay in a way that it didn’t pre-tablet. So that’s change number one is tablets, change number two is the emergence of business models based on single-article sales, and The Atavist and The Byliner are the pioneers here. They are a big inspiration for us. I’m not privy to their sales figures but my understanding is that they’re selling; they’re doing pretty well.

The Byliner

Jim Giles describes The Byliner as a big inspiration for Matter

We don’t have to sell crazy numbers of long-form pieces to break even

So what The Atavist and The Byliner are doing is sustainable?

Yeah. When we used what intelligence we do have on their sales and we looked at the cost of producing the material we want to produce, that was the kind of eureka moment. Where we thought ‘this works’. We don’t have to sell crazy numbers of long-form pieces to break even, and if we price them at 99 cents I think that’s just going to be attractive to people. It all suddenly felt doable. And that’s kind of where, that’s how we came to the idea of actually, Matter could work.

I think if we focus on business model first, it will work. We’ve established that it’s to do with this page-view chasing model and in turn the advertising model. Do you think some of the reason for this kind of page view chasing isn’t so much because it’s a lucrative market or because it’s an easy option for publishers, it’s actually because of the advertisers and the agencies which are encouraging this concept because the only real measure of success is the page view. They’re gaming content with these galleries, they’re gaming it with quick bait and things like that. Some of the work you have to do is to convince advertisers or convince companies that sponsoring long-form content will have a higher impact and a better return on investment than sponsoring cheap page views – you have to convince advertisers and sponsors that just because an article gets tens of thousands of page views doesn’t necessarily mean they care about the adverts or they’re actually, you’re getting a return on investment from them.

Publishers should be monetising experiences in different ways – not just measuring pageviews

So it’s more about the mindset of the advertisers?

If I read something on Gawker and then click through to the full-length article of something on The Atlantic, it will be seven thousand words long and I read the whole thing – clearly a totally different experience. Publishers should be monetising those experiences in different ways, and at the moment I don’t think really anyone really knows how to do that, and I’m sure that advertisers know that  – but at the moment I don’t think publishers and advertisers have worked out a common metric for understanding that engagement and pricing it accurately. I’m not an expert in this, but if you read Ken Doctor in Nieman Lab he has talked about different metrics that take account of  engagement or even actions that people take.

The Atlantic

"Reading a full length article on The Atlantic is a different experience"

What metric are we talking about, opposed to page views?

Do they click through, do they purchase. This is going to evolve, but because this is in such a state of flux we didn’t really want to pin any hopes on it. You can see from our Kickstarter appeal we’ve been pricing months-long sponsorships at three thousand dollars, and that’s not because we think they’re worth three thousand dollars it’s just because sponsorship wasn’t a big bet for us at the beginning, and so it made sense to offer it as a Kickstarter incentive and try and get some money up front and then just see how things evolve.

On the paywall – we’ll be implementing the least worst solution we can find, hoping that someone comes up with something better

On the paywall – is there a future for the pay wall and in cases where a pay wall might work in what cases are people willing to pay for journalism? Do you have to have an element of specialism? What does your proposition have to be? 

You can’t do any of this unless you have a sustainable business model, and we were led to the paywall model because that was the one that seemed sustainable for our content. If something changes, like an advertising-based model that works comes to light, and if we can do it in a way that doesn’t introduce horrible conflicts of interest, and broadens our readership, still making us sustainable, we’d do it. No doubt about it. But yeah, we have to start with a paywall, you have to make it as frictionless as possible. There are no good solutions at the moment, I don’t know why. Felix Salmon is the expert on this, he’s written about it. We’ll be implementing the least worst solution we can find and hoping that someone comes up with something better.

100 percent online as a business model from the word go

Surely if there were real demand for long-form content now would the big players in the industry, the big publishers who have the recourses to do this at the drop of a hat, would they already be producing it? And what evidence do you have for this untapped hunger? Is there a real frustration for in-depth content online?

Those people are transitioning online as well, thanks to tablets, and they want this stuff and I’m sure that inside Conde Nast and the like, people are thinking really hard about making that transition and making the content work, and we know they are because. The New Yorker has a digital edition, for example. It’s the reason why I think something like what we’re doing is exciting is because it’s 100 percent online as a business model from the word go, whereas the big publishers face a tricky situation in which they’re still very reliant on magazine sales and advertising. I think is fair to say the way they’ve done the transition is not always totally in the readers interest. They implemented it partly based on their print legacy, whereas we’re starting wholly on what works for a native online reader.

Is there any publication currently that focusses entirely on exposes and investigations?

No, I don’t think there is and it’s interesting to ask why. It may be a cultural thing, maybe there’s just not that demand in sort of the British readership, but I think it again comes back to the economics – this stuff is expensive to produce and if you’re going to put it in a print magazine you need to sell a lot of those magazines to break even.

We want to take the long-form investigative cultures of one set of magazines – and apply it to science and technology

What is your agenda – and do you have any particular political stance?

We don’t have an allegiance to a particular political spectrum, but we do have an agenda. The agenda is just based on a few ideas.

One is science and technology is playing this enormously important role in shaping our future, and we need to ask some serious questions about it. We need to ask those questions in a way that is completely engaging, otherwise people won’t follow through with the question, they won’t really engage with it. You can write a five thousand word piece on genetic engineering that they’ll want to read – that’s easy. But to find a way, to find a narrative to help people engage with it is more challenging, and to investigate it you do things like freedom of information requests. This is more challenging. We want to ask hard questions about science and technology, because science and technology is important. But we’re not cheerleaders for science and technology, we want to probe it and ask questions about it.

What do you see as the current state of science and technology journalism? What do you think the issues facing, online and offline, this kind of area of journalism are, and how are you going to ‘disrupt’ that area of journalism?

I think in a sense the answer to that is what I would’ve given pre-internet. You’ve kind of got this two sets of publications. You’ve got the things that specialise in science and technology - Nature and New Scientist, for instance, and they are culturally primarily about explanatory journalism, and I say primarily because New Scientist has run some extraordinarily good investigative pieces and if you ever look at some of the stuff Peter Aldhous does, for example, it’s fantastic and we would love to run that kind of stuff in Matter.

We’d give it a more narrative format, but it’s dynamite what he’s done. I used to work at Nature, I think we did some great stuff there. So it’s not saying that there isn’t investigative stuff in those places, but I don’t think it’s the first thing that they think about, it’s not the core of their mission.

Then you’ve got another group of magazines that are brilliant at long-form narrative writing and run some just wonderful investigative pieces, so that will be the New Yorker, Atlantic - but they come from a more arts, literary background. Again, they do some wonderful work, New Yorker did a piece on Julian Assange which was the best thing I’ve ever read on WikiLeaks and it was even before people realised how strange Assange was and why he needed to be understood. But it’s not their main thing, it’s not the main part of their culture. So that’s kind of, that was a big motivation for us regardless of the distribution method, was that we wanted to create something that took the long-form investigative cultures of one set of magazines and apply it to science and technology.

The answer is tablets

How many people do you think genuinely can, or are willing to read an article that’s seven thousand or ten thousand words long on a computer screen?

I think that the answer is tablets, and that’s actually something I should’ve said at the beginning when I answered your question about what’s changed. You’re right; it’s not just advertisers creating an ecosystem where publishers had to publish your stuff. People didn’t, by large, you don’t stop in your lunch break and think ‘oh, I’m gonna read the New Yorker piece’ on the same screen that you’ve just been doing some deadly dull spreadsheet work, it’s a bad experience.

If you go into people’s homes their computers are still on their desk, it’s a work environment. Tablets change all that and we know that from the usage surveys. The role of computers is changing. I don’t have a TV, for example, so I’ve just become used to using my laptop and my desktop as some sort of TV. I just bought a Macbook Air and it’s a work machine but it’s such a beautiful light machine that, I’m  happy to read stuff on it on the sofa as well so I think it’s all changing. Tablets are the biggest driver and so that’s why we think people have an appetite for long content on screens now.

The New Yorker

So, what kind of demographic and audience are you going for? Tablets are coming down in price and so there’s a low barrier to entry from a practical standpoint – but do you ever think that truly long-form content can ever have mainstream appeal, or do you think that long-form content will only appeal to a certain demographic and certain audience?

That’s a really, really interesting question. The statistics that we’ve got are sales of purely print-only long-form magazines, those are the cleanest numbers we’ve got. The New Yorker is the obvious example. The action is really in those feature pieces. And then there are things like Harpers as well, who are famous for really literary long form. The New Yorker sells, I think has a subscription base of a million, Harpers’ I think is like two hundred thousand. Something like Wired where it’s less clean guide as obviously their front half is much more powerful, I think they sell about eight hundred in the US, or of the US edition anyway. So that, is that mainstream or not? I don’t know.

I suppose it’s more a question of kind of reaching that tipping point – you need to reach a point at which you can scale the business up and become profitable. Especially if you’re relying on the subscription model, you’ve got to reach a certain audience level, and especially online.

Fifty thousand dollars isn’t a lot of money

So with regard to the money you raised through Kickstarter – where is it going? How long will it last? How much will your average piece cost to produce from start to finish?

Fifty thousand dollars would allow us to build a basic website and commission our first free stories. We want to build an app as soon as possible. – we just can’t do it initially. Fifty thousand dollars isn’t a lot of money, if you want to build a website and you want to get a great report to go on at least, at least, that might take them two months. It’s not a lot of money. None of whatever we raise, is salaries for Bobby and I.

Why does it cost $50,000, and what are your visions with the actual website?

I could point you to sites that we admire and they’ll give you some idea of the quality of the experience we want. I really love the way that the New Yorker implemented their product on their iPhone app. Readability is fantastic. You can see there’s a common theme there in that they put the reader first, and it’s all about producing an uncluttered experience to allow maximum engagement with the narrative. This is the sort of experience that we’re trying to capture.

What makes one of your potential pieces cost so much to produce?

You need experienced reporters and they charge a lot of money, and you need to give them quite a lot of time. That’s it, basically. You’ve got skilled people working for a long time. And you also need very skilled editors, you need photographers, maybe. You need designers, very original artwork. Not sure if we’ll be able to do all that initially, but that’s what we’re aiming for.

A crowdsourced editorial board – you can enter new ideas into the mix and other people will vote on them

What’s the thinking behind this collaborative, almost crowd-sourced editorial board? 

The idea is deceptively simple – it looks like it’s very simple but it’s not. All sorts of people, not just to say what they like, to say what they don’t like, so it’s this kind of very subtle tweak that makes this much more like the real world. It forces you to prioritise, not just say you like one thing. It also allows you people to suggest things, it’s not just like you come to the thing as a passive voter, you can enter new ideas into the mix and other people will vote on them.

This has just impressed me for a while, and we’re also keen to find some practical way of doing more collaborative commissioning.

Is there anyone else that does anything similar to what you’re planning now?

I don’t think anyone has used all our ideas in the way that we’re gonna use it. It has been used by other sites, news sites, to have readers provide input but not on commissioning. At least that’s what Matthew Salganik said.

Community is really important and I don’t think anyone has cracked it

How important is the community in online editorial? Are you planning on a commenting system, and are you planning on involving the community on a deeper level?

Again, this is something we have wanted to do, but also a really big challenge and I don’t wanna just kinda say ‘yes, we’re going to do that by sticking up a forum or by having comments at the end of the article’ because those don’t feel like very satisfactory solutions to me. You might get a lot of comments, but that’s not the same as having really meaningful engagement across a broad section of your readership. And we’re on the hunt now for a good tool that will allow us to do that and we’re looking at some. Other than to say it’s really important and I don’t think anyone has cracked it.

Alexis Ohanian

Alexis Ohanian - co-founder of Reddit supports Matter in their promotional video

Who do you say does that the best right now, online? I mean, who’s getting there, who do you see as getting closer to that aim?

I don’t know. I mean, the places where you have really good engagement are reddit and Slashdot, and those systems aren’t right for us.

I feel like with Reddit, if you go into the more specialist channels you get better conversations. Matt Haughey was kind enough to do a little piece in our Kickstarter video. He was way ahead of everyone else - Metafilter was founded in 1999. People have got it right and they’ve created these communities. I’m just not sure if any of the ways people have done it are directly transferable to us. This is something we need to do more work on.

Matt Haughey

Matt Haughey was kind enough to do a little piece in our Kickstarter video. He was way ahead of everyone else - Metafilter was founded in 1999.

If you create a genuine community around this sort of material, things are going to happen. I don’t know what they are, because I haven’t really seen anyone do it

The community aspect is really important to us. If you create a genuine community around this sort of material, things are going to happen. I don’t know what they are, because I haven’t really seen anyone do it in a meaningful way around this sort of content. That’s the sort of statement that could make people angry. So I don’t mean to dismiss that, I just mean that as far as the sort of long-form material and the sort of engagement we want goes, I haven’t seen anyone do it. I’m not really sure what happens when you do create that community.

Is a print edition something you’re considering? What do you think it adds to the experience?

I think when you consume something in print it’s still a different experience to consuming it on a screen, even on a tablet. I still like reading books and there will be people that don’t want to, who don’t have iPads, who never want to buy iPads, don’t like reading things on screen. Then there’s those that do read content on screen but they still want a book that they can take on a plane, or take on holiday and consume five of them in a row. It’s still a different experience and if we can find a way of bringing people that content in a sustainable way, we’ll do it.

Jim Giles

Kickstarter is absolutely fantastic because we’ve raised more money than we hoped, we’ve got a debate going, we’ve got, and we've engaged with the audience.

What are your early opinions on how funding a project on Kickstarter has been for you – and what are the implications of funding on Kickstarter? What does this mean for how you’re moving forwards? 

Lots of people on Kickstarter, they basically offer you a product. It’s pre-payment for a product and, which is great and that’s not, I’m not saying that in a negative sense, that’s not our model. You know, you do get some of our products and a certain number of stories for free. We try to offer more, we try to offer ways of people engaging, like through the editorial board membership.

The response has been so fantastic. It’s about the ability to engage – people feel passionately about this idea and it isn’t just a case of, like, ‘oh, here’s some money to make it happen’, it’s like ‘yeah, we’d actually like to help out in some way’. We’ve been having tons of emails from people saying ‘Can I help? I just paid twenty-five bucks, now what else can I do?’

Kickstarter is absolutely fantastic because we’ve raised more money than we hoped, we’ve got a debate going, we’ve got, and we’ve engaged with the audience. It’s been much, much better than we’d hoped.

Flipboard

Flipboard is a social-network aggregation, magazine-format application software for Apple touch-screen devices, including the iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch.

These are very exciting and heartening times for long-form journalism

I will say that it’s a very, very exciting and very heartening time because so many interesting, high-quality things are happening, so the The Atavist and The Byliner I’ve already mentioned. Products like Pocket (formerly Read It Later), Instapaper, Readability, are really exciting. I think that aggregators like Flipboard and Pulse are really interesting too.