A recent crop of content publications are defying the new standard, preferring to interact with their readers the old-fashioned way: writers write what they want and readers pay to read it
Writing professionally for the web has in the last decade become a fierce contest of clicks, likes, and shares, with some newspapers measuring the merits of their journalists purely by the scale of their digital footprints. Both reacting to (and absorbing) the lessons of the digital ecosystem, a recent crop of content publications are defying the new standard, preferring to interact with their readers the old-fashioned way: writers write what they want and readers pay to read it.
What follows is a list of six such startups that could be disrupting the direction of journalism, or maybe just creating a niche of websites for long form writers and the readers that love them. Regardless, there is evidence of an arc of increasing business acumen, starting with the simple activity of publishing unknown authors and eventually delving into advertising, partnerships, and even consulting.
One, Byliner, was acquired by digital publishing platform Vook this past year; another, Atavist, has its own publishing tool, Creativist, that supports multimedia storytelling; and Narratively boasts its own Hollywood representation in case some movie-worthy stories come through. The draw, love of literature, may be old-fashioned, but the directions are all new.
- Latterly – Latterly, a Bangkok-based startup dedicated to narrative journalism, recently made waves by declaring on its website that they don’t care about clicks and they won’t monitor traffic. They’re trying out an ad-free, community-based model that will revolve around subscription fees ($3/month or $8/three months), revenue from donors, and a Kickstarter campaign planned for November 18th. Co-founder Ben Wolford, a journalist by trade, is premising Latterly on the model of subcompact publishing, that readers will increasingly only pay for what they want to read rather than subsidizing sections they always skip. Ben promises four “journalistic narratives about people confronted by changes or pushing for them” each month.
- Atavist – NYC-based Atavist bills itself as “the best nonfiction stories on the Web and in your pocket” and publishes stories that range from 10,000 to 20,000 words. Premised on their platform agnostic publishing tool Creatavist, each story is a multimedia experience involving video, audio, graphics, and interactive features. So far, fans of Creatavist include TED Books, Pearson, and the Paris Review; and investors like IAC have helped Atavist raise $5.4 million over three rounds of funding. Readers can buy a three-month subscription for $7.99 or a year for $24.99 in exchange for one new release each month.
- The Big Roundtable – NYC-based The Big Roundtable wants to be a purveyor of “wonderfully-told nonfiction” where “writers can think like novelists, but act like journalists.” Rather than charging fees, the site asks readers to give story-specific donations and is transparent about the breakdown: TBR earns a 10% commission, PayPal earns 2.9% plus a $0.30 fee, and the rest goes to the writer. TBR was founded by journalism heavyweight Michael Shapiro in 2013 and launched after a Kickstarter campaign raised over $19,000.
- Byliner – NYC-based Byliner became known in 2011 as the “Pandora of Nonfiction Reading” because of its access to thousands of existing stories on the web and its recommendation engine. The ease and swiftness of publishing stories attracted award-winning heavyweights like Nick Hornby, Ann Patchett, and Carl Hiaasen and the a-la-carte approach to selling stories for as little as $1 each resonated with readers. In 2014, Vook, a digital publishing company, acquired both Byliner and Booklr, a data & analytics software startup. Taken altogether, Vook bills itself as a new model for fast, data-driven, and transparent digital publishing.
- Narratively – NYC-based Narratively publishes one story a day based around one weekly theme (this week’s is “Cats!!!” and the week before was “Lost Legends”). Unlike other startups that see “content” as a commodification of quality journalism, Narratively embraces opportunities to tell branded stories. Since their founding in 2012, they’ve added advertising and sponsorship opportunities, crowdsource the content branding expertise of their 800+ contributors through their Narratively Creative Group, and frequently partner with content heavyweights like Buzzfeed and The Huffington Post. They’re even landed a talent agent to help secure film, TV, and book deals.
- Longform – And then there’s Longform, an NYC-based startup that aggregates new and classic fiction and non-fiction that’s already available for free on the web. The only requirement is that each piece must be over 2,000 words. Founded in 2010, Longform just released a new version of their iOS application last month and hosts a weekly podcast with stories narrated by literary juggernauts. Co-founder Aaron Lammer told me that so far there’s been 107,000 overall downloads of the app. In September, Longform offered an app exclusive of a story featured on Atavist in what Lammer called the first in what he hopes will be a “rich series of exclusive reading opportunities in the app.”