“Matter: Long-form digital journalism that breaks all the rules” - Bobbie Johnson at news:rewired

Martin Belam by Martin Belam, 6 December 2012

Bobbie Johnson’s discussion of long-form journalism start-up Matter was the talk I was most looking forward to at news:rewired today. He didn’t disappoint.

“I’m not preaching. I’m just telling you some stuff that we found out.” - Bobbie Johnson at news:rewired

Bobbie Johnson made the point that compared to a lot of the large news and publishing organisations on the agenda at news:rewired, Matter was just two people and barely three weeks old. He explained that the service “publishes long-form investigative journalism about the future” which could roughly be described as science/technology, and that they sit in a weird place between being a web publisher, a book publisher and a magazine publisher.

He also said that what they have done is basically the opposite of all the received wisdom about online publishing — they only publish long pieces, they don’t publish very often, and they expect people to pay for content. They had, he said, taken the iTunes model of blowing up the album into tracks, and applied it to the magazine. Once you don’t need all the filler to support the advertising pagination, he said, you are left with great standalone features.

Bobbie had three key points to make:

Crowd-funding is about emotion

When they put Matter up on Kickstarter, they got a great warm fuzzy reaction from the general public, and a quizzical stare from most journalists saying they were crazy or demanding to know what their business model was. One critic even called them “snake-oil salesmen”.

Bobbie said that the key to crowd-funding is to appeal to people’s emotion. The people who fund the project are buying into a community, and doing something to help what they perceive as important. “I don’t like focus groups, but customers are useful” he said.

Long-form isn’t print

Most long-form digital journalism lifts design tricks from print — and that isn’t at all what is needed in digital. Bobbie used the pullquote as an example. It is a great visual device to catch the eye when you are flicking through a print magazine. It isn’t so useful when you are 4,500 words through an online article — you want to get everything out of the way of the reader so that they can get the story finished.

Instead of over-designing they’ve had a focus on making long-form be digital, with comfortable font sizes and a lack of flourish. Magazines do great design work, Bobbie observed, but we are not doing the same work. Blogs are great, he said, but he doesn’t see why they should be the definitive native online publishing format for story-telling.

Mobile is bigger than you think

The rise of mobile usage was a recurring motiff throughout the news:rewired day. Bobbie said that, contrary to the assumption that long-form has to be big screen, about a quarter of Matter’s traffic comes from iPhones and iPads. “We do a shit-ton of reading on our phones” he said, since they are the devices that are with us most of the day. They’ve made their site responsive, so that you get a decent reading experience whatever device you access their stories with.

Is it working?

Bobbie was a little coy on sales figures, but said they were in the thousands. It is a bit complicated, he said, because all the Kickstarter funders have free access. They want to treat each story like a project, and have them all break-even. He said the first Matter story was about halfway to break-even after just three weeks, which sounded like pretty good going to me.

3 Comments

Not all mobile is created equally. For longform, the iPad IS a big screen, as would be the Nook, Kindle, iPad mini, etc. Tablets & ereaders are natural longform screens; smartphones are not.

We may not *think* the smartphone screen size is good for longform reading, Staci, but that's where a lot of it takes place. I certainly pile through a lot of long pieces on my phone on trains, in queues, waiting for meetings and so on -- because it's the device I have with me everywhere.

It's going to destroy our eyes, but it's what's happening: we're seeing it in the traffic data (and since we do nothing but longform, it's pretty easy to sift out where reader intentions are)

Oh, and thanks for the kind comments Martin :)

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