What’s in it from me? Crowdsourced magazines and storytelling
As a child, did you ever imagine yourself waiting for a call from people in need, people who were praying that you’d see their signal and come to the rescue? If so, you might have the makings of a modern magazine writer. And editors for some recent crowdsourced ventures are glad you’re out there listening.
One enterprising editor did call for help in the wake of a disaster earlier this year. When Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano belched an ash cloud over Europe and brought air travel to a standstill, Andrew Losowsky was stranded in Dublin. Having already demonstrated a knack for creating what he calls “experiences” (from pop-up museums to his viral “The Internet is Sh*t” project), Losowsky went to work. He put out a call for other arts and editorial types who were similarly stranded to get in touch with him. Megaphone sites like BoingBoing and Kottke got the word out, and soon Losowsky found himself with a pool of contributors.
Five months later, Losowsky and design director Matt McArthur have delivered Stranded: Stories from beneath the Icelandic Ash Cloud. A compilation of assignments completed during ash cloud exile, the magazine includes a variety of unique contributions — one is a paper craft project, another involves the contributor going about his day as if he were at home. Losowsky detailed how he tried to match the challenges he posed and the professional skills of his exiled contributors:
One person was a novelist who also writes all of the Tom Clancy video games, but as a novelist he writes horror stories. So I asked him write a horror story about being lost inside the ash cloud. Someone else was a writer for the Tate Online, the Tate Museum’s website. I asked him, “What if the ash cloud weren’t a volcano? What if the ask cloud were an artistic happening to make people think about climate change? How would that fit into the history of artistic happenings?” Somebody else from San Francisco who creates hand-drawn cartoons and zines, I asked him to create a mini-zine based on all the modes of transport he’d been on while trying to get back home.
Losowsky used a short survey to capture some of his contributors’ personal stories, from a newlywed separated from her husband to another woman desperate to change her partner’s mind after a breakup. If the final product isn’t fully narrative, he suggests that pieces of the ash cloud’s “uber-narrative” peek through, rising out of the series of smaller stories recounted by those whose lives were disrupted.
Addressing the collective nature of the ash cloud experience, Losowsky also had all “Stranded” contributors complete some common tasks in addition to their particular assignment. Everyone was asked to send in a picture of their bed and to go into a local bar and ask for a “Volcano” and get the recipe for the resulting drink.
Losowsky explained why he chose a print magazine for his format, saying
A magazine is a space which is all about disparate voices and disparate imagery, and trying to create a single flow, a narrative flow, and the challenge of pulling all these things together to create one experience. So I felt that a magazine was a great way to do this. And by doing it with print-on-demand, with MagCloud, what that means is that I suddenly don’t need to buy 2,000 copies to have my own magazine. If I want to make a print magazine, it’s just the time I put into it. That made a huge difference. Otherwise, I’d have made it a website, which for this wouldn’t be right.
For a website, if it’s not constantly updated I think it loses something, whereas a magazine or book is something finished. Yet I would have thought twice about investing a couple thousand dollars of my own money in the hopes that I might get it back. I haven’t had to do that, which has been fantastic.
A month after Losowsky got his inspiration for “Stranded,” a trio of magazine lovers on the West Coast launched their own experiment, in the form of a magazine created out of crowdsourced content over a single weekend. The effort, 48 HR Magazine, drew 1,500 submissions through a dedicated site and impressive word-of-mouth on Twitter. They let observers be voyeurs for some of their editorial discussions and updated site visitors on the process throughout the production cycle.
After some legal discussions with CBS over their initial choice of moniker, the trio renamed their publication Longshot. (Despite its short life, 48 HR Magazine won a Knight-Batten Award of Special Distinction at a Newseum reception in Washington, D.C., this week.)
On the topic of whether the group worried about the limitations on content that result from the short time frame for submissions, Longshot co-founder Sarah Rich told Storyboard:
We have definitely learned that truly in-depth reporting, investigative reporting, can’t be done in the time frame that we’re giving. There have been examples of stories that we’ve published where a lot of the research had been done prior to the call for submissions, but the writing happened in that 24-hour period, or somebody had already written on a topic and so could do something else related to the same subject. We don’t say we can’t do that, although we encourage people to do the bulk of what they’re going to do during the 48 hours.
A number of pieces, even some short ones, in Longshot’s first issue have a storytelling bent. Asked if they were aiming to structure each issue around some larger narrative, Rich described the micro and macro of the magazine’s approach to story:
We are all very interested in narrative, but I don’t know if there’s one narrative arc that goes through the whole issue. So far we’ve had the “Hustle” issue and the “Comeback” issue, and because those are pretty broad, we didn’t lay out the magazine to have a singular narrative necessarily. But I think that the really interesting pieces, the pieces that got us all excited, were ones that were simultaneously narrative and informative in some way. Stories that reached back in some way to some unknown historic event or character – the arctic piece was a great example of that, and Erin Biba, who wrote it, is a very good writer.
The pieces that seemed to strike a note were a combination of elegant storytelling and something culturally relevant, whether that’s historical or current, or even if it’s something about the future. It works even when it’s something light, like trick birthday candles: what’s the science behind those candles, and why don’t they go out? Something educational, a little bit illuminating, and also I think we’re all drawn to the writers who submit stuff that tells a great story.
Rich noted that Longshot’s inspiration came from “Strange Light,” a crowdsourced photographic documentation of a massive Australian dust storm a year ago. (Like “Stranded,” “Strange Light” and Longshot’s “Comeback” issue all took their final form via MagCloud.) Suggesting that the geographical focus of the Aussie project shows a way in which crowdsourced magazines can really excel, she noted the benefits of having some hard boundaries around the call for submissions – whether it’s related to a time frame, a theme, subjects, or commonalities among contributors.
Longshot does pay its contributors, while Losowsky’s volunteers have made it possible for $5 from each issue to go to the International Rescue Committee. We’ll have to wait to see where sales for both end up, but the Justice League of America would no doubt be proud.