Matter’s vision for long-form journalism

By Felix Salmon
February 23, 2012
launched on Kickstarter. It's called Matter, and it's going to be home to long-form investigative narrative journalism about science and technology.

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Yesterday morning, a very exciting new journalism project was launched on Kickstarter. It’s called Matter, and it’s going to be home to long-form investigative narrative journalism about science and technology. “No cheap reviews, no snarky opinion pieces, no top ten lists,” they promise. “Just one unmissable story.”

They hit a nerve: as I write this, some 31 hours after the Kickstarter campaign was launched, it has already reached $44,395 of its $50,000 goal, with 569 backers. That’s an average of almost $80 each. “People are giving way more than I thought they would,” said co-founder Jim Giles when I talked to him today. “We have tapped into frustration with the way the internet has promoted quick and cheap journalism and bashed longer-quality stuff, or at least undermined the business model that used to support that sort of thing.”

Matter will surely exceed its $50,000 goal, which is great news, because the more money it raises the better. In the first instance, the $50,000 will be enough to get a nice website up and running, and should also pay for the first three stories on the site. With more money, Matter can get more ambitious: commission more stories, for one thing, but also start building an iPad app which would live in the iOS Newsstand. Or maybe something on Android, or both. There’s a lot of opportunity out there.

This is an old-school Kickstarter campaign, where people are raising the money they need to create something great. It’s not one of those campaigns where donors are essentially pre-buying the product in advance: this isn’t about buying stories before they’re published, or buying subscriptions before the publication even exists. “We’re asking people to make an investment in a sustainable platform for really good journalism,” says Giles, “not to buy a whole bunch of articles in advance.” (That said, anybody pledging $10 or more will get the first three stories, $50 gets you the first six, $100 gets you the first ten, $300 gets you the first 50, and $1,000 gets you a lifetime subscription.)

Once Matter has launched, readers will have the option of buying individual stories for 99 cents each — the Kindle Single model, basically — or buying a subscription. It’ll be monthly at first, and then weekly, assuming everything goes according to plan.

The stories themselves are going to be really good, I think. Matter’s founders, Jim Giles and Bobbie Johnson, are both first-rate journalists, and they’ve quietly amassed a list of really good writers and editors they want to work with. They have a smart model: rather than soliciting detailed pitches, they’re more interested in writers coming to them with vaguer ideas. The writer then gets matched to an editor very early on — before the piece is even formally commissioned — and the final article comes together as a collaboration between the writer, editor, and publishers.

I like this model, because one big weakness of long-form narrative journalism is that it has failed to embrace everything the web is capable of. Writers get commissioned to write X thousand words on Y; they then hand in a document written in Microsoft Word, which goes through a few rounds of editing before getting laid out to a greater or lesser degree. (Ben Hammersley is really good at diagnosing this problem and suggesting how to begin solving it.) I’m optimistic that Matter’s editing process will help its stories be much richer than most of what we’re seeing today.

Matter is coming into a world where companies like The Atavist and Byliner have already broken important ground, and where willingness to pay for content is clearly going up. It’s entirely natural, online, to disaggregate things like magazines, and have a blog over here be really good at what would in a magazine be the front-of-book stuff, while a subscription site over there specializes in features.

And while Matter is quite narrow in what it wants to publish — chiefly long-form, narrative, investigative news stories about science and technology — it’s quite broad in terms of how it intends to distribute that content, and what kind of models it might embrace along the way. For instance, Giles is very keen to work with newspapers, who might help underwrite some of the cost of reporting these stories, in return for being able to break the news in them. Matter would then give those stories the long-form narrative treatment. Or maybe the same story could just appear in both places, if the newspaper covered the costs of the reporting.

In any case, this is a great project, and I’m pretty sure that a lot of the readers of this blog would love to support it. Most long-form journalism these days is political, with much of the rest being in the art-and-literature field. There are thousands of amazing stories in science and technology; I can’t wait for Matter to start uncovering them.


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And a thoughtful response that provides an alternative view on this Kickstarter initiative that is admittedly much more cynical:

Posted by morsels | Report as abusive

$50,000 to get a website up and running and three stories? That’s ridiculous. That should run the site for a whole year! I don’t know where you’ve gone looking for websites, but my website software (WordPress) was free and costs $250 a year for the domain name and hosting. What planet are you living on, Felix?

Posted by FifthDecade | Report as abusive

This is a bunch of well off sci tech types making an NPR-style donation to help produce articles they’ll want to read. Not bad, and not to criticize the demographic (heck, I’m probably part of it), but it’s not a business.

Want to raise a bunch more money? Call back the same people and offer them a prerelease of Neil Degrasse Tyson’s COSMOS sequel for $1000.

Posted by Faraday | Report as abusive

This sounds both dubious and woefully underfunded. In the traditional print days, we started a tech publication with $3 million and were considered underfunded. Granted, a third of that went to printing and distribution, but still.

From the Morse opinion: >>It means that a top quality writer who commands 75 cents per word . . .

Sigh, I commanded over a buck a word in my tech freelance heyday, and never considered myself one of the top people. This speaks to either the decline of writer incomes, or the decline of content value. I suspect both.

Posted by Curmudgeon | Report as abusive

“the $50,000 will be enough to get a nice website up and running”

To give the exact opposite critique of FifthDecade, $50k is a criminially low number for any sort of large scale web property that can handle any decent amount of traffic, not to mention iOS or mobile development.

Posted by bkmacd | Report as abusive

Felix, Greek media are reporting that a group called “Euroshareholders”, which apparently represents retail investors in a bunch of countries, is asking for the PSI deal not to apply to them. ( asp?id=2142128)

And Venizelos (finance minister) apparently said on Thursday in parliament that Greek retail investors would be reimbursed in some way, but “not in the framework of the PSI”.

Could you make a post explaining how this is supposed to work? I was under the impression that the whole thing was voluntary, and had to be so that investors wouldn’t sue Greece for breach of the pari passu clause. If they hoist the swap on all private sector investors (but only them), how does Greece expect to win in the courts?

Posted by a.soffronow | Report as abusive

I pay $149 a month for Rackspace cloud sites (cloud server solution) – its elastic and will expand and contract bandwidth according to the traffic volume hitting your site. My point is, I agree with the comment that said $50k is a ridiculous amount of money to build / launch a website.

WordPress = free / or a few hundred for premium theme
Customization: let’s say high end, $500
Cloudsites: $149 per month ($1788 yr)

Now what do I do with the other $47,500?

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