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Multimedia storytelling at The Atavist: One year in, how’s it going, Evan Ratliff?
It’s been a little over a year since The Atavist debuted as a groundbreaking digital platform for long-form multimedia storytelling. Narrative journalists had been bemoaning the shrinking storytelling acreage, so this app-based venue was met with substantial interest. “E-books are more than a publishing platform,” as New York magazine referred to the genre, “they’re a whole new literary form.”
So, is it working?
We asked Evan Ratliff, an Atavist founder, that question the other day when he dropped by the Nieman Foundation for a visit. Here, edited for clarity and length, is some of the conversation between Ratliff and fellows, staff, guests and Paige Williams, who teaches the foundation’s Narrative Writing seminar.
Williams: Let’s start with an explanation of how The Atavist works.
Of the three people who founded it, two of us came from the magazine world, so we have a very magazine-heavy perspective on how we approach things. One of them is myself – I was a freelancer for 10 years – and the other one is Nick Thompson, who’s an editor at the New Yorker and was my editor at Wired. The third guy, Jefferson Rabb, is the most crucial person. He’s the guy who actually builds everything you see. He’s the coder and the designer and he’s the person without whom we couldn’t do any of this because we’d just be assigning stories and not have anywhere to put them.
Our original idea didn’t have that much to do with multimedia. We just wanted to find a place to tell long stories. You’ve all probably experienced or are intimately familiar with the decline of word counts. I’ve only ever worked in magazines. I never worked for a daily newspaper except in college, so I came into journalism wanting to write 10,000-word stories. That’s what I thought everyone got to do when they got to a certain stage of their career. Come to find out that what used to be the 10,000-word story, if it ever existed, was now the 3,500-word story.
I had just done (“Vanish”), about when I tried to disappear. It ran at about 14,000 words, and I just felt like this is what I want to be doing. But there was no place to do it. So we thought, “What if we created something online that would allow us to (publish longer stories)?” We started looking at these phones and tablets. I had just moved to New York and I was reading on my phone on the subway. We started saying, “Maybe there’s something we could build for this.” We ended up with (The Atavist).
We assign stories basically just like a magazine. People send us pitches. The outside limits are 5,000 to 35,000 words. Everything is heavily narrative. The multimedia component also grew out of (“Vanish”). Over the course of it I gathered a lot of media, but in the end there was nothing really to do with them because the magazine just didn’t have the resources to build some elaborate construction that included the videos as part of the story. So we had this idea, “What if we took that approach with stories but integrated it into the narrative?”
So what you’re looking at now is our iPad app. The one for iPhone looks the same. We also sell the stories as text-only on Kindle. So we sell them on Kindle, we sell them on Nook, basically as books. “The Kalinka Affair” is our most recent. It looks just like a short book. It’s probably 30 to 50 pages. It’s designed like a book. There are no images in it except for the cover, for a variety of highly technical and financial reasons. The multimedia versions we only sell in our app, or in iBooks we sell a version.
Dina Kraft: So you call it an e-book.
Yes, an e-book.
Carole Osterer: Is the text-only version available in the multimedia version? It wasn’t clear on your website.
Yes and no. This will answer that question. So, “Lifted” is a story that I wrote when we started out. It’s about this robbery in Sweden. These guys stole a helicopter and broke into a cash depot with $150 million in it.
Carlotta Gall: I bought that on my Kindle.
Ah, so you read the text.
Gall: I bought some photos as well.
Early on we were putting photos in the Kindle (version) but we stopped doing that because they were charging us fees for how big the file is, which we didn’t know until we got the (financials) back and said, “Why aren’t we making much money on this?”
So in the Kindle version it would’ve started (with the text-only) Chapter One. In the iPad/iPhone version it starts with the actual surveillance footage from the robbery, which I got from the Swedish prosecutors when I went to report the story. They gave me a DVD with all the footage on it, and I edited it into this sort of condensed version of the guys breaking in. They use a sledgehammer. For some reason the cash depot with $150 million in it has a skylight, which they just smash their way through. And they had a ladder; they had measured it to fit. They’d designed it all based on a heist movie that they’d watched. It’s very dramatic. There were actually cameras inside the cash cages. And so our idea was that this is the real lede to the story, this is the lede as we really want it to be. If you think of this as a lede that’s going to hook somebody and never let them go, it’s hard to do better than this. You can, of course, (do it) with brilliant prose; it’s just a different approach to how to tell the story. (After the video) you’re dropped into Chapter One, where it’s a month before, and two guys are sitting on a bench, plotting this.
To answer your question, (on the iPad/iPhone version) you can get clean text and photos all the way through without links, without any distractions. It’s all about the story. If you see on the side here, there’s a little gray triangle and this thing on the left that says “online extras.” If you tap those you get little bits of text that raise up, which can be anything. Predominantly for us they’re characters, footnotes, maps and timelines.
Anna Griffin: Are you planning that kind of thing as you’re writing or do you think about it afterward?
Generally we do it afterward. Our approach is so new and strange that we have reporters treat it different ways. Some of our writers really get into this stuff, so they’ll show up with everything they want to go into the story, and then other ones could care less.
Griffin: What’s your preference as an editor?
I like it when they care. So I’ll just show you a few other things in different stories. “Piano Demon” is about a jazz musician from the 1920s and ’30s whose name was Teddy Weatherford. He was at one time one of the most famous jazz musicians in the world. And then he was this kind of lost character who went abroad, and he was very famous in China, and then he went to India and he died. This reporter Brendan Koerner had come across him and found all this research on him and spent months and months and months researching, and he also found his music. So his music is laced into the story. It’s the soundtrack, which can play along with the story.
Adam Tanner: Do you have to buy the rights to the various pieces of music?
In some cases yes and in some cases no. These are orphaned works, so for these we’re in some way taking our chances. But because Brendan Koerner probably spent more time trying to track down this guy than any person on earth I’m pretty sure (Weatherford) has no descendants.
Tanner: What about the classical piece (of music) at the start of the heist thing?
That was composed by Jeff, one of my co-founders; he’s trained in music composition. There are audio clips laced into “Piano Demon,” so if you see him talking about ragtime there’s a clip of him playing ragtime. That’s an example of where Brendan was sort of like, No I don’t want that clip there; there’s a better 15-second clip. We had days and days of back-and-forth about what were the appropriate clips.
Sometimes we’ll do just fun things. “Island of Secrets” is by a writer named Matt Power. He writes for Harper’s and other magazines. This is about – he went to Papua New Guinea to track this guy who was trying to find tree kangaroos on this island in New Britain. We made a kind of in-house animation that’s this sort of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” style. So we try to mix it up. We did a memoir, “Mother, Stranger,” by a writer named Cris Beam. She teaches at Columbia and she’s written about juveniles, and we got her to write about her upbringing, which was very, very dark. Hermother was a prostitute and (Cris) left home when she was 14, never saw her mother again, and she only took a few things with her. One of the things she took with her was her diary from when she was 7 years old. (In the multimedia version) you can flip the pages of it. People are really moved by her talking about the names her mother called her.
We also have audiobooks in every (story), so there’s an actual audio version of the author reading the story. And you can flip back and forth between the audio and the text, and it keeps your place. That’s something you can’t do in print. Book publishers do it, but there’s this sort of legacy thing where book publishers have two revenue streams, the audiobook and the prose book. In (the digital) medium there’s no reason why you shouldn’t put them together and give people the option to do one or the other.
We’re trying to find ways to both integrate the media and to layer in all this other information but also to preserve the power of the story first and also preserve the journalism. Every story is fact-checked, every story is treated like a story at The New Yorker or Harper’s or any other magazine.
In terms of the (fee) model, it’s different than either magazines or books. It’s really like grabbing parts from both. We’ll pay the writer a fee plus 50 percent of the royalties. The royalties come after the platform takes its percentage. Most of these platforms will take 30 percent. After that, whatever we get, we give the author half. Which means that if the story doesn’t do well, the authors end up getting paid maybe what they’d have gotten paid to write for Harper’s. A dollar a word is the standard. But the story also has the possibility to do very well and for the writer to get paid, in some cases, several times what they could’ve gotten even at the highest-end glossy.
Williams: Someone ran a story the other day about what authors were earning. (David) Dobbs was in there, some others.
David Dobbs is a science writer, but the story he wrote for us was this thing called “My Mother’s Lover.” It’s a reported memoir. His mother, on her deathbed, revealed that she’d had this affair 60 years before, during World War II, that had altered her entire life in this very dramatic way. So (Dobbs) spent almost a decade figuring out who the guy was and finding his military records – he disappeared during the war – and contacting his family, and then unspooled this whole narrative.
Williams: What’s the (most recent) story?
It’s by Josh Hammer, who used to be (Africa) bureau chief at Newsweek. It’s a story so well known in France and Germany but less so here. It’s sort of complicated, but this French guy was married. He had a daughter. His wife left him for this German doctor and took the daughter with them. And some years later the daughter suddenly died and it came to light that the doctor had probably raped and killed her. This father then spent three decades trying to bring this guy to justice. The German government wouldn’t deal with him – they basically said there’s not enough evidence – so he essentially hired a kidnapper to go kidnap the guy and – well, I don’t want to spoil the end.
As far as the pay model – David Dobbs pitched his story, actually, to Wired. That’s the way I found out about it. He pitched it as: There are these guys who track down World War II remains all over the world and they use all this high tech. It was a very Wired story but they said no. One of the editors told me about it and a tiny kernel of the pitch was, “This is kind of relevant to me because my mother had this affair in World War II and I contacted these people,” and I said, “Well that sounds like a better story to me than the one you’re trying to pitch.” And if he had gotten it in Wired, he’d have been paid, I’d say, a quarter of what we’ve paid him. And that’s just so far.
Gall: Do you know how many subscribers you have?
We have a weird situation when it comes to subscribers because when we’re selling on Amazon we’re selling single-copy sales. On the iPad, we know how many people have downloaded the app, but it’s very, very difficult to tell who is buying what. We actually don’t even have subscriptions yet. That’s something we’re launching in the next couple of months, where people can subscribe to get 10 of these or 12 of these.
Kraft: Over how long, half a year, a year?
Probably over a year.
Kraft: And there’s no advertising on the pages.
There’s no advertising on the pages.
David Skok: Do you keep data on the users? What they click on and their favorite interactives?
We have analytics on everything that everyone does but it’s fully anonymized. In fact we couldn’t not anonymize it because, as I say, they don’t tell us who the people are. We’ve actually never looked at it.
Yeah, and it’s because – it’s experimenting. We’re experimenting with different types of storytelling. It’s entirely possible that nobody watches a video that’s an interstitial chapter, but I’d rather try a larger sample size before I know that. I just feel like we’re putting it all somewhere and building a visualization tool for it, and at some point we’ll go look and see.
Jonathan Blakley: Do you find authors are writing stories with more media in mind?
Now they are. In the beginning it was like pulling teeth to get people to pitch me a story at all because I was saying, “This thing doesn’t exist (but) please pitch me a story.”
But now, yes. At the very least they’ll acknowledge it. They’ll say there’s some great TV footage of the arrest, there’s this, there’s that. We have a guy doing a story in New York who’s a Vietnam vet who’s had a very, very strange life who’s now trying to put on this Shakespeare play. The writer had this whole plan about this video that had been shot and how it will all mix together. I love it when they do it. The rub, though, is they still have to sit down and write a text. They have to be able to write because we have to sell the text version.
The thing I try to stay away from is sending a reporter out who’s sort of juggling all these (multimedia recording) devices and doing everything worse than if they just focused on one thing. I mostly just want them to go report the way they’d normally report. Like when we sent Matt Power to New Guinea, I said, “At some point gather some high-quality digital audio of the jungle.” We already had an idea that we would use that as the soundtrack. So when you start the story, it’s like a 10-minute loop of jungle sounds. You could debate all day whether it adds anything to the story, but I like it. It’s fun.
Williams: What’s also cool is that it’s original to the piece. You didn’t just pipe in some random jungle sounds.
Kraft: And in a case like that, the photos are very lush and beautiful. Did (the author) take the photos?
Yeah, but as it turns out there was a guy who was sort of incidental to the expedition – he was a herpetologist who was along – who was a really, really good photographer. So we ended up buying his photos.
Jones: Compared to like Harper’s or The New Yorker, can you describe what’s a story that you’d want that you know they wouldn’t want?
I don’t think there’s that much difference. We get pitched lots of stories that have already been to The New Yorker, have already been to Harper’s.
Jones: I wondered that about Brendan’s.
Brendan’s was different because he wanted to do it as a book. The other type of story we get is one where there’s not enough there for a book, where the agent might say, “You know, it’s a great story but you’re not gonna spend two years on this and write 200 pages.” I mean I don’t care about a news peg at all. We’ll do historical pieces. We’ll do pieces that are sort of newsy but that don’t have a news peg. The one that was a (digital National Magazine Award) finalist for reporting was about the Egyptian revolution, but we sent the author, David Wolman, there a month after everything had happened. It just so happened that he’d done a story a couple of years ago about some of the activists when they were completely unsuccessful. He had been tracking them all this time, so we sent him back to reconstruct their role in all the events. It was too late to do an Egypt story in the magazine sense. But I don’t really care about that. The main difference for us is, it’s always narrative first. It’s never topic first.
James Geary: Do you know anything about your demographics? Who’s buying? Are they hard-core magazine subscribers? Are they lapsed magazine subscribers? Are they book buyers? Are they not book buyers?
I’d say we only know anecdotally because we don’t have data on who they are. The Kindle people, which are the majority of the people who read our things, are book lovers, because up until recently if you had a Kindle you just had it to read books. I mean that’s why it’s so much easier for us to sell on Kindle, because people are buying books and then suddenly there’s this thing called the Kindle Single, which is way cheaper and hopefully of the same quality. We’re very much in this community of – I don’t know if you’re familiar with longform.org or Longreads, which is this hashtag on Twitter. They’ve grown really large followings of people who love long magazine stories. We get a fair portion of those. We try to go after people who love magazines.
Skok: I’m very curious about your actual team on the development/design side of things. Also, are you licensing what you built to other organizations or publishers as an additional revenue stream but also so they can take advantage of the multimedia?
The answer to the second question is yes, which will illuminate the size of our team. Our team for a long time was me and this guy Jefferson, who made all this stuff, and an intern, who was the only paid person for a long time. In fact, when we started the only people who got paid were the writers, the fact checkers and the copy editors. Now we have two editors, myself and a part-time editor named Alissa Quart – she teaches at the Columbia J-school and writes for the New York Times magazine – and we have two producers who are full time. They do all these multimedia things and also run all of our social media, our Facebook, our Tumblr. We do promotion around each one of these stories when it launches. We place excerpts and go to blogs. Our copy chief is the copy chief at Outside magazine, who’s an old friend of mine who lives in Santa Fe. Fact checkers: We have a rotation of freelancers. A lot of them have worked at Harper’s and The New Yorker. And then the rest are contract people that we bring in, like an animator or a radio producer, to do sound.
On the business side, which is related to licensing the platform, we have three full-time programmers, and a business development person who sells the platform. So this guy Jeff that I was saying is such a genius, he didn’t just build the actual app, he built this whole software platform that allows us to do that, which we do indeed license to other organizations. That’s like our version of advertising. That’s what pays everyone’s salary while we get to do the thing that we really want to do, which is create stories.
Skok: Has anybody approached you to buy you?
Yeah, at the very beginning but maybe we gave off strong signals that we were not for sale. We never raised any money at the beginning. We started with our own money, and part of the reason was that we went to see a venture capitalist and showed them this software, the first thing they said was, “Why are you wasting your time on content? Why don’t you sell this (platform) and make a bunch of money and then you can do whatever you want?” And we just thought: We never want to deal with that again.
Williams: The platform allows you to make changes: add pop-up corrections or updates, epilogues.
And it creates these very interesting new-media dilemmas. I don’t know if any of you saw that Jonathan Franzen said e-books were evil, and everybody made fun of him, but actually the thing that he was really talking about was the fidelity of the text and the ability to change it over time. Which we completely have here. We could change anything and just whitewash whatever happened, so we have to have our own editorial standards. If we correct something we put one of those pop-ups in: “This has been corrected for such-and-such.” Not for typos and things like that, but for substantial corrections. We’ve added epilogues, so like in the Swedish heist case some of the guys went to trial and prison, and so I had an epilogue about that. There are all these things you can do. You can have an open-ended ongoing story or book, and some of the people that we license to are looking to do those sorts of things. They also use it for educational textbooks. TED conferences are producing a line of books.
Raquel Rutledge: What sort of volume are you dealing with and where do you anticipate being in the next year with the number of stories?
Right now we have a pretty good pipeline of assignments. We have 12 pieces assigned, I think. Even when we get a bigger pipeline we won’t accelerate too much because we do like to give (each story) a little publicity, a little runway, like they’re small books. I don’t want to start shoveling them out. I’d like to keep it monthly. We don’t want to overdo it. I recently had to justify that we were a magazine because we were submitted for the National Magazine Awards. Nobody said anything. And then we got picked as a finalist and people said, “It’s not even a magazine, they’re like books!” And my argument is, It’s like a magazine where one story has taken over the feature well. Which has happened: Hiroshima and things like that. I think it’s an okay argument.
Tyler Bridges: The different ways you’re bringing in money – can you elaborate on that?
Editorial revenues are predominantly from Kindle and Apple. Nook, they’re not keeping up right now. Kindle launched Kindle Singles, so they’ve really created a forum for this length of work. They’re assigning their own stories and those (writers) are also doing well because they get the whole percentage. So, Kindle and Apple. And then our licensing revenues are probably five or six times the size of our editorial revenue. Most of what we do runs on the licensing revenues, and pays for the editorial. In terms of growing, we’re kind of in the middle of trying to figure out what we’re going to do this year, but we’re really, really conservative. We sold over 100,000 copies last year and it would be nice to double that, and we’d like to double what we do on the licensing side, so that’s kind of our goal this year. We’re doing okay so far.
Williams: Is there editorial quality control with Kindle Singles? Do they fact-check?
I’m pretty sure they don’t fact-check. I actually don’t like to discourage people from doing Kindle Singles, though, because the guy who runs it is a longtime magazine writer, was an editor at the Village Voice, is a good friend of mine, and they do edit and they certainly copyedit. If you go there, you’re getting 70 percent of the royalties. It’s exclusive to Amazon, so you’d have that, and I don’t know what their fee situation is. I don’t think they pay a fee to most (authors), so if you want to cover your reporting costs, then it’s a matter of how much you want to lay out of your own money. Sometimes we’ll cut the royalty and pay a much higher fee. So writing for us is more akin to writing for a magazine whereas Kindle Singles is closer to a book model.
Tanner: We had Gay Talese come to speak some months ago and we did a back-of-the-envelope calculation on his latest New Yorker story as to time invested to the fee he received –
Never do that.
Tanner: – and we concluded he’s better off working at McDonald’s.
I usually say Starbucks.
Tanner: So based on your experience, is it ultimately just a labor of love that never pays off big time?
I mean it just depends on what your standard of living is, I guess.
Tanner: So if you love extreme poverty this is the way to go?
Extreme poverty? I feel like anyone who says, “I want to be guaranteed a six-figure salary,” they probably didn’t get into journalism in the first place. But if you were to do – well let’s take this new story, “The Kalinka Affair.” (Hammer) is an incredibly professional guy. He knocked that thing out, did all the reporting, all these interviews, all these court documents, and turned in a clean copy, and the whole process took probably three months overall. And he was probably working on two other stories at the time. He could make 35 grand off this story. And if he does another four features this year … I think that’s a pretty good salary, for my standard, but that’s not for everyone. And then again we might have (stories) that continue selling for a lifetime. There’s ones now that sell 1,000 copies a month and they’ve been out for six months.
Williams: To me, that’s part of the attractiveness of this: There’s potentially no end point.
I definitely don’t want to make out like I think it’s some panacea for long-form writers to make a living. Hopefully it’s something alongside of – these writers are all writing for Wired and Harper’s or have a book contract, or they’re working for this sort of set of magazines or websites, and (this is) something that fits in with whatever else they do. But it’s always true for these type of reporters, including myself, and including Paige I’m sure, that you end up getting obsessed with it and you end up spending twice the amount of time than you should have, for the amount of money you’re being paid.
Gall: We had some publishers come recently and they said they’ve tried to do the multimedia for their books and so far they’ve found the expense is not worth it. Are you doing it because you think it’s the future or just because you like it, or do you think you can make it pay?
I would say the reason we’re doing it is mostly that we like it. I would also say, though, that we hear publishers say that all the time. The main reason is because when the iPad first came out and when apps first came out publishers were paying 50 to 100 grand or more to people to build an app around a book, and shooting all this video for it and doing interactive games, all these things. You have to sell an incredible amount to make your money back. There was this Al Gore book by this company called Push Pop Press, which was our biggest competitor on the platform licensing side, and it got bought by Facebook after they produced this one book. It must’ve sold 500,000 copies, because it’s really, really, really elegantly done in terms of the interactivity. They spent a lot of money and definitely made it back many times over. So it’s just a matter of how you allocate your resources. If you do it without too much overhead then you don’t have to sell that many to make your money back.
Gall: And then why did you go into this? Is it because you feel magazines were going to finish, or is it because you wanted to be an editor?
Neither of those. I still don’t want to be an editor.
Although maybe it’ll make me less neurotic if I ever were to get back to writing. It was more out of frustration. It wasn’t that doomsday: “Magazines are dead.” I actually don’t think that. I think magazines are viable, partly because a lot of them have gone back to doing longer pieces, in-depth pieces. That’s what they can actually sell. The short stuff is harder to sell because you can get it for free online everywhere. I did it because if you want to pitch a story that’s just a great yarn and you think maybe it should be 10,000 or 15,000 words, there’s five magazines you can pitch it to and, in the case of The New Yorker, there are hundreds of people pitching them every single day, and they take like two freelance stories at best. The web has infinite space.
Osterer: Did you say who’s licensing your platform?
It’s kind of a motley collection. We license it to journalism schools, so Columbia (licenses it), and Dartmouth Business School licenses it to do case studies. Pearson, which is the gigantic textbook maker that owns Penguin, they’re building a big educational thing with it. TED conferences is launching a line of books. And we have some start-up magazines, so people are actually launching a new sports magazine on it.
Kraft: What’s the appeal, do you think, of this specific format, and how many pitches are you getting per month and how many are you taking?
The appeal to me or to the public?
Kraft: To the public.
I think the appeal to the public – it’s like inverting this question that I used to get all the time. People would say, “Well don’t you think attention span has declined and people don’t really want to read this long stuff?” I was always having to say there’s no real evidence that nobody reads anything anymore. Then I realized we could just turn that on its head and say, “They’re short books.” I actually think that is the appeal, especially on Kindle: (stories) at their appropriate length. As a nonfiction writer and as a person who loves nonfiction books (I think) some nonfiction books are too long. A lot of nonfiction books are (published) because (a writer) gets a book contract out of a magazine story and they’ve got to just pump it up.
So the length has a certain appeal. The multimedia is still unclear.
And then pitches: We have a story meeting once a month and generally 40 or 50 (pitches) have come in. We usually talk about 15 or 20 of them at the meeting and then we’ll probably pick two. Sometimes none. Sometimes five. In some ways, as I said, I set this up because I was so frustrated because I was pitching places and it was always like, No, no, no, but we’re so small we’ve created another version of that problem and we have to say, No, no, no.
Other people are also starting similar (platforms). There was another one that started after us, called Byliner. And people out in San Francisco just raised $100,000 on Kickstarter to do a long-form science thing. So I think there’re going to be a lot more of these slightly different models but in the same genre, giving the author a cut of what they sell.
Williams: What do you look for in pitches in terms of the perfect narrative? What elements need to be there for you to say yes?
I feel like after all this time of saying narrative, narrative, narrative, I should be better at articulating what that means, but I’m not, so I come up with tricks for how I describe it. The typical New York Times magazine story, to take an example: They do what people call narrative stories but they’re actually very topic-based. So they’ll pick something like pregnancy, say, and then find a character, and (a reporter) will follow that character, and the lede is about that character and their experience, and then there’s a broader section about science, and then one about policy, and then you get back to the character. That’s not really what I mean by narrative, but a lot of people refer to that as narrative.
Williams: Those are news features.
Yeah. And we get a lot of pitches like that, so I’m always trying to find ways to explain why I said no. The best way I’ve come up with to describe it is: If someone is telling me a story and then they stop in the middle, and I say, “Well, what happens next?” That’s the kind of story we do.
The kind of story where you say, Well, there’s a lot of adoption of Chinese babies in Oklahoma – that’s a really interesting topic, and there’s probably a magazine story in that, but that’s not a narrative the way we want to do it. So we’re always saying characters first, plot first. So, “A” happens, “B” happens, “C” happens.
Jones: And no nut graf.
No nut graph. We don’t want the kind of “Here’s what this story’s about” (graf) but sometimes we’ll have it. Because we can go too far in the other direction, which is just characters doing crazy things. You do want some sort of gravity, significance. We have this story called “Baghdad Country Club,” which was a bar in Baghdad during the war that this British paratrooper opened in the Green Zone. It’s a little bit “M*A*S*H” and a little bit “Casablanca,” in the movie sense, and it’s very light relative to the environment in which it’s set, so we did have to insert these sort of heavier passages about the Green Zone and its relationship to the rest of Baghdad. Otherwise it just read like the writer was ignorant of the significance of the Iraq war.
Alysia Abbott: Have you thought about if a film studio were to say, “We want to make this into a movie?” Has that happened yet?
Yes. We’re actually represented by CAA in L.A. I should’ve said that when we were talking about the author model, because that’s another unique aspect of what we do, which some writers don’t like at all. We split any film and TV options 50-50 should they happen. We have this representation in L.A., so they’d be responsible for shepherding the story in that environment. The good thing for the writer is that they know their story is going to get looked at by some at least marginally powerful person in Hollywood. The downside is, Michael Lewis is never gonna sign up for that, or David Grann. We have one (story) that’s in legal negotiations now and another one that may have some interest. But it’s so random. I know writers who’ve made an excellent, excellent living on top of their journalism by optioning things, and (the films) never get made. It’s something you hope for but don’t really count on.
*Ratliff appeared as part of the Narrative Writing class’ speaker series. A contributing editor at Wired magazine, he also writes for The New Yorker and National Geographic. This conversation was edited for clarity and length. (Disclosure: Williams is an upcoming Atavist author.)
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