Does the world really need more science journalism? Matter says yes, and thousands agree

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Last month, two journalists launched a new science and technology journalism project called Matter. Using the crowd-funding Web site Kickstarter, Jim Giles and Bobbie Johnson asked donors to help them raise $50,000 to start a venture that, every week, will publish “a single piece of top-tier long-form journalism about big issues in technology and science.” Giles and Johnson met their initial goal in less than two days and have now overshot it by a mile. By the time Matter’s Kickstarter campaign closes tonight, its total haul will have exceeded $128,00 in pledges from more than 2,400 backers – a phenomenal sum.

Now what?

First, this is an astonishingly positive statement about the future of science journalism. I gave to the project because Jim is a friend and former coworker, and because I love good science journalism and want to support it. The fact that so many other people also apparently feel the same way says that there is a healthy demand for science journalism – a welcome statement in light of the beating that the journalism industry, and science journalism in particular, have taken in recent years.

Second, I’m thrilled to see someone injecting science journalism into the “future of journalism” conversations that have been thriving elsewhere for quite a while now. Experiments such as the Knight News Challenge have not had much of an impact on science journalism – they were largely meant to help backfill the huge void in local news coverage left by the decline of newspapers, and many of the folks leading the future-of-journalism conversations these days come from mainstream broadcast, magazine and newspaper outlets where science journalism was never a major part of the picture. We science journalists have eagerly embraced new technologies for conducting and disseminating our work. But until now, we haven’t led the conversation about new models for funding that work.

Now, Matter is sparking a lively debate over whether its new model is worth supporting; journalists are asking whether there is need for more long-form science journalism, whether Matter can make enough money to survive without donations, and whether Jim and Bobbie can make it work.

I don’t know whether Matter will succeed or fail; that will depend a lot on the quality of the journalism that it publishes, and on the reading environment that Jim and Bobbie are building for various platforms.

But I think the project’s 2,000+ backers have affirmed that there is demand for more long-form science journalism. Yes, there are any number of outlets that publish this type of work. But many of them aren’t focused on science, so the science stories they run must pass through a filter that can be more receptive to some subjects (the human brain) than others (climate change; environmental stories without a happy ending; biology that doesn’t involve cute animals or human medicine). This can be good, leading to compelling storytelling that happens to be about science. But it also means that a lot of science stories with great narrative potential are filtered out. I’m curious to know what would happen if people who truly loved science, tech and long-form journalism controlled the filter.

The debate about whether Matter makes business sense is more complicated. The publication will ask readers to pay just 99 cents a story, and new pay models that offer long articles for small amounts of money would seem to prove that this is worth trying, as Felix Salmon has pointed out. David Dobbs, for instance, a science writer most of the time, earned about $55,000 through December by selling his 35-page, nonfiction Kindle Single My Mother’s Lover for $1.99 per download through Amazon. Dobbs split those earnings* with the outlet that originally published his piece, The Atavist, another new and thriving platform for long-form pieces that supports itself partly by licensing its publishing platform.

Science and tech are niche markets, but with these pay models, that’s ok. Production costs are low enough that you don’t need to reach a mass audience to make money, at least in theory. Jim and Bobbie will soon find out whether they can truly bring in enough money in these niche markets to support expensive long-form and investigative work.

And then there’s the question of whether Jim and Bobbie are the right men for the job. Or, as one commenter, Stephen Morse, opined, “If the journalists responsible for this project were so great, they would already be household names after years of science and tech reporting, but they are not.”

This is just silly; the only journalists who are truly “household names” are TV hosts, and many of the journalists whom I most admire are probably completely unknown to Morse, since they write for publications like my employer, Nature, which isn’t widely read by people who aren’t interested in science.

It is true that making a project like Matter succeed depends on a whole host of factors – marketing savvy, community building, technology development, advocacy, blind dumb luck – that have little to do with journalism chops. David Cohn, founder of Spot.us, a crowd-funded community reporting project that was sold in November to American Public Media, has written a lot about this, and his example is a strong refutation of the notion that you have to be a famous journalist to succeed at project like this work; he was hardly a “household name” when he started Spot.us with a Knight News Challenge grant back in 2008.

It seems like part of what’s driving the criticism of Matter is disbelief at Jim and Bobbie’s audacity in trying to support journalism by – wait for it –  asking people to pay journalists to do journalism. I know it can be hard for us journalists to maintain our sense of self-worth, when we’ve been hearing for years now that most people think that anyone from “citizen journalists” to robots to artists like Mike Daisey can do our jobs just as well as we can. If nothing else, I’m glad that Matter has had the temerity to smash that myth.

*Update, 3/26/2012: Thanks to David Dobbs for clarification, added post-publication, that he split these earnings with The Atavist. Matter’s final take through Kickstarter was $140,201 from 2.566 backers.

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Image: Screenshot of Matter’s Kickstarter page, taken on 3/22/2012.

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10 thoughts on “Does the world really need more science journalism? Matter says yes, and thousands agree

  1. Erika, great and bold post; I’m so excited for Matter. I’ll be paying 99 cents, over and over, and I can’t wait to see what subject matter Jim and Bobbie choose each time they write.

  2. @Ed, @Meagan, Erika is all about bringing the bold, and breaking the rules!

    I’m saving up my 99 centses right now – and given this morning’s arrival of the New Yorker’s latest style issue–yawn/yech–I’m going to be happy to pay the buck just to filter out most of what comes with my traditional “bundled” subscriptions. Besides, I can still get my snark, cute puppies and quirky lists online for free, right?

  3. Great piece, Erika! After watching magazines falter for years, I really see this as an important new trend. I think it could really revitalize serious long-form journalism.

  4. The Guardian? Nature? He’s right, who are these “web-celebrities” and what makes them qualified to write about science and technology? For that matter, who’s ever heard of Stephen Morse?

    Seriously, thanks for summing up this exciting project. I don’t know if it oversteps the personal/professional boundary, but it would be interesting to hear what qualities these two will bring to a digital venture.

  5. While I wish the team at Matter the best, I kept my wallet closed when they asked for money on Kickstarter. I have nothing against longform science journalism or paying for content. Instead, they never closed the sale, since they never advanced beyond a vague discussion of what kind of longform science and technology journalism they would publish and who the “really great” writers they’re planning to use are. They couldn’t show me what they were trying to sell me.

    For the money they sunk into that nice video, I suspect they could have produced (or gone a long ways towards producing) a sample article and said, “Hey! Do you want to see more of this? Then help us out!” But, at least to me, the use of the flashy video instead of providing details regarding the publication gave the appearance of emphasizing style over substance. If they can prove me wrong once they start publishing, I’ll be more than happy to be a paying subscriber. They didn’t give me enough information to convince me to a be a donor, though.

  6. Erika, this is a fantastic piece. Sorry, and who’s Steven Morse? To question Jim’s journalism chops make HULK SMASH.

    I love their idea of making the internet put its money where its mouth is– and then ending up with a wad of cash. I’m excited to see where it goes.

  7. Jeff, I understand your position. It’s probably easier for those of us who know the founders or have worked with them to contribute to the project in the absence of a prototype.

    I can understand why they might have chosen to wait until they have some cash in hand to develop the prototype, however; imagine how lackluster the response might have been if they had developed a slapdash prototype on a shoestring. Professional video does not have to be very expensive to produce; a working interface or a well-produced story might have cost considerably more.

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