#ONA11 New platforms for long-form journalism (part 1)

The more notes I take, the messier they’ll be in the posting. It’s just a function of the time I have. If anything is unclear /misleading /incorrect (god forbid) let me know and I’ll fix it asap.

Note to tweeps: This panel on long-form journalism also = list of #ff candidates:

– Josh Benton director of the Nieman Journalism Lab  @neimanlab @jbenton

-Evan Ratliff, founder of The Atavist @ev_rat            @theatavist

-Mark Armstrong, founder of Longreads @markarms            @longreads

-Tim Carmody from Wired @tcarmody            @wired

Josh Benton started with an overview of how Nieman looks at this area.

The elements in the process:

1. Creations – Range of sites and missionss: Atavist  http://atavist.net/ and Byliner http://byliner.com/ – to distribute new stuff. Others hold established archives of long-form; and some outlets are  starting to think about repurposing – taking long-form and reassembing into ebooks, etc.

2. Distribution – Established brands eg NYTimes, but more and more other distribution methods too.  Longreads, http://longreads.com/  is an example of appealing to audience that wants long-form through social media (started out as a Twitter hashtag, #longreads). Social media distributes across many publications, etc rather than reader just going to individual locations.

3. Consumption – is also changing. There are new ‘lean-back’ experiences – iPad, etc and apps like Readitlater http://readitlaterlist.com/   and Instapaper http://www.instapaper.com/   – more aligned with moods and times.

Add them all up and it’s a new ecosystem… but it’s unclear if you (also) get a business model to match that ecosystem.

Benton said: Hard to know who’s seeing what, and most outlets won’t/ can’t (see below) release stats. However ProPublica gave him some interesting stats. They put out four Kindle Singles, a mix of free and paid. At 99 cents, they sold 8000+ copies.  What’ interesting here, he says is the degree to which consumer is price conscious: You’d think that someone who spent the money to buy a Kindle would be ready to spend $1.  Kindle owners are people who put value on reading.

Then there was a graphic on ReadItLater statistics for what people save and read. It was hard to read from where I was sitting… but it seemed to say :

-when people save stories, they read them afterwards;

-the overwhelming majoring of stories saved and read are 250 words or less (is this really true? will ask around). The graphic showed a rapid decline in readership between 250 and 2000 words.

And with that, he said, over to you…

Evan Ratliff:

Founder of The Atavist –a for-profit company started about 2 years ago – “a year ago we got serious” and put up the first stories in Jan. 2011. “We produce what’s often described as long-form, though I will talk about whether we want it called that.”

Publish stuff that’s shorter than books – sold through Kindle Singles, iBook, Nook and through/inside an app. They’re best known for their app, because it includes a lot of multimedia stories.  Inside the text, “We have timelines and characters that pop up – something we get a lot of attention for.”

They started by reacting against short news – slave to ads, page counts.

Why they don’t like the term “long-form” and prefer to be called “short books”: it’s about the proposition being made to readers.  “When you go to them and say, ‘Here’s something really really long for you to read…’” That got a big laugh. “Journalists like that but many others don’t!….That said we often talk long-form, because that’s where we came from.”  Atavist publications are mostly text, sometimes photos. On most platforms they cost $1.99, but in the app it’s $2.99  “because there’s more multi-media. “

Question most often asked– “which I’ve already declined to answer” – is how many copies they sell? They’re prohibited from telling by some platforms, but “we pay authors a fee. Smaller than typical, but we split sales, which is generally half. And we have authors who have made great deal more than they would have selling to a mag. some less. It’s a bit of a hybrid model” – in the book word you’re taking a risk , going for royalties, and in a magazine you go for a flat fee. Atavist does both.

They focus on strong narratives and character-driven stories. These can take weeks/months to report, like others. He gave an example of a profile ont eh director of “Look Who’s Talking” and his recovery from a series of bad turns in his life.

“We don’t do a ProPublica (investigative) approach as a rule, though we have sent people to Sudan, Papua New Guinea, Egypt. We think we can approach serious topics…” The idea is that you can use their small-scale model and make not just enough to cover expenses but profit.

They have low overhead – maintain a small office of 5 or 6 people. Everything is fact-checked and copy edited, but they use freelancers, keeping costs down as much as possl

How he describes their model: “Each story is an entrepreneurial venture,” in which Atavist goes into business with the writer.  Seeing more and more stuff like this happening, he says – seeing a shift toward writers who are more and more able to “go their own way” and not just work for larger organizations.

Income: As with any new venture – helpful to have multiple income streams. We also have a CMS we license to other organizations, so we have a two-part business: we make a tool for other publishers, and some of the money goes back into the journalism.

–> Next post: other panelists Mark Armstrong and Tim Carmody, and the Q&A

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