MATTER Takes Online Publishing Out on a Limb

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Back in March 2012, more than 2,500 people declared their support for a pretty modest idea: that the world is full of interesting, relevant, important science stories that aren’t being told. No shocker there — that’s pretty much the operating principle of LWON, too, or one of them anyway. But these particular people did something I found quite surprising. They coughed up money, to the tune of $140,000, to support a new venture that would try to bring some of those stories to light. Thus was born MATTER, via the fundraising website Kickstarter, a digital thing that promised to “focus on doing one thing, and doing it exceptionally well. Every week, we will publish a single piece of top-tier long-form journalism about big issues in technology and science … Just one unmissable story.”

Jim Giles and Bobbie Johnson launched MATTER with their first story last week. It’s called “Do No Harm,” and fits into the loose genre of medical oddities — and it will be no spoiler to suggest that the medical dictate is not the only thing violated over the course of the narrative. I know Jim far too well to write an objective review, but that doesn’t mean I couldn’t give him a bit of a grilling about MATTER and the first story, “Do No Harm.” And I can say that you should definitely read it. Seriously. Just as soon as you’re finished reading the  LWON v. MATTER Q&A that follows:

Tom. How many pitches have you received since the beginning, and how many good ones have you had to turn down or put on hold? I want to test the idea that there are many more excellent/important/un-missable science stories than are currently being told. I believe that to be true, but you actually had the chance to find out. What’s the verdict?

Jim. We definitely think there are lots of science stories that can be told using long-form narratives, but which aren’t. That’s one of main motivations in setting up MATTER. The experience directly after the Kickstarter campaign backed that up: we got a steady stream of strong pitches. We reached out to writers we admire, but a lot of proposals came from people who we didn’t know directly. We commissioned four in total, including the one we just published. We definitely got some duff ones too! I guess that’s to be expected. But a more common problem is that writers don’t know what MATTER is about. Now that we’ve got a piece out there, we’re hoping for another influx and, hopefully, it’s now clearer what we’re after.

Tom. It is a weird situation, isn’t it, where you’ve got 2,500 funders who each have their own idea about what a MATTER story should be, and there’s no way they’re all thinking the same thing. Does “Do No Harm” fit your internal pattern from way back when MATTER was just an idea, or did your thinking evolve?

Jim. It does fit our internal pattern. We decided pretty early in the planning process that we wanted to be a news publication, albeit one that uses long-form narratives to deliver stories. (We’re not going to do much explanatory science journalism, because we think there is already a lot of good stuff out there). But those basic ingredients — news plus narrative — will hopefully give us the flexibility to do lots of different kinds of stories, from profiles to exposes to data-driven investigations.

Tom. I’m curious about the decisions behind making this your debut story. I know there were some other options, and that the article’s striking, climactic scene was not in the bag until quite late in the process. How big a sweat was that for you and Bobbie?

Jim. It wasn’t that late in the process. We knew by late summer that we’d have that scene. But it was always a front-runner for our first story. The science content is strong and we’d originally thought that we’d structure the content around another patient that the reporter interviewed. But the final scene is extraordinary, so we’re  really happy to have it in there.

Tom. True, and sorry to be a dick, but isn’t the subject of Do No Harm – elective amputation of healthy limbs – just a tad garish? I mean, fascinating, horrifying, startling etc, but still … did you and Bobbie feel you had to bring the sensationalism a bit to get the ball rolling, or could you have done just as well with a revelatory something about, I dunno, geochronology research and emerging understandings of the Ediacaran Period? Will the Ediacaran get its due in time?

Jim. It’s a sensational story, but I don’t think we’ve been sensationalist in the way we’ve presented it. I liked the fact that the reporter kept the tone calm and let the events set the atmosphere for the piece. And garish? I don’t think that’s quite the right word. I’d say harrowing, unsettling, maybe gruesome. I like the fact that the story had those qualities, but there is no need for every MATTER story to have them. The only essentials are that our pieces be compelling and tell readers something genuinely new about the world. If there is a geochronologist out there with a story that ticks those boxes, tell them to get in touch.

Tom. Take us back to the moment when you were first funded – did the $140,000 from Kickstarter funders feel like a godsend, or a grotesque level of expectation to meet? How many of all the nights you haven’t had to be awake worrying about startup money have you spent awake worrying about those expectations?

Jim. Sure, the extra money ups the level of expectation, and the stress as well. But that’s a small price to pay for raising $90,000 more than we’d anticipated! I’m still bowled over by the response to the Kickstarter campaign.

Tom. You and Bobbie are both experienced writers and editors. I kind of can’t believe you guys didn’t turn this into a vanity project, written, edited, designed etc by the two of you. Instead you’ve used your startup funding to pay other people to do things you could presumably have done yourself. Did you consider the vanity model at some point? How much of your taste and influence are present, anyway?

Jim. I think our stamp is present in the overall aim that we have for every MATTER story: we want each piece to be based around a powerful narrative and to contain strong news value. But beyond that we’re going to experiment with different types of writing and structure. For example, our first piece is quite personal; the reporter’s feelings about the condition are fairly clear. But we’ll also do straight-up reporting, where the reporter takes a back seat. And [Bobbie and I] might do some writing as well, but we don’t have anything planned yet.

Tom. I know you’ve been damn busy for months, but what exactly have you been doing? Is being a publisher as glamorous as I want to believe?

Jim. Depends how you define glamorous. Does it include things like writing Terms & Conditions documents, reading IRS documentation and negotiating clauses of insurance policies? If it does, then being a publisher is every bit as glamorous as you imagine.

Tom. How about the selling part of publishing? After all, you guys proposed something more than just a website with awesome, longform stories about science and technology – you proposed a model to make such a thing financially sustainable. I know it’s been less than a week, but how is the model looking so far?

Jim. So far, so good. But far too early to say anything about sustainability. That’s absolutely our aim, but this isn’t like magazine publishing, where all the sales take place in a week or a month. Our pieces stay on sale indefinitely and it’s not at all clear how sales will change over time.

Tom. And finally, the softball: Is there one thing you were really hoping I would ask, but I didn’t? Because you can answer that, too, if you want to.

Jim. Yes! It would be great if you could ask about our membership scheme. That’s absolutely the best way to support the journalism we want to produce. It costs just $0.99/month and includes every piece we publish, plus freebies like an audio version of each story, as well the chance to join our collaborative commissioning process and help choose some of the topics we cover.

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I’m happy to say I’ve subscribed, and intend to use my commissioning power to get someone on the Ediacaran, pronto. Join me there, at www.readmatter.com, and I promise I’ll vote for your pet topics, if you vote for mine.

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Image: “Capitán Estereotipo,” by Lionel Fernández Roca, Flickr.

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Categorized in: Literature, On Writing, Thomas

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3 thoughts on “MATTER Takes Online Publishing Out on a Limb

  1. Geochronology and the Ediacaran Revolution thrill me to the core and if you write it, Tom, I’ll subscribe for the whole year. I’ll probably do that anyway, as it falls under my new benchmark for expenditures: beer money per unit time.

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