Posted by: structureofnews | March 30, 2011

The Long Form

The New York Times’ David Carr weighs in with a profile of an interesting business? site? app? built around long-form journalism and multimedia – the Atavist.  It’s an interesting piece, and shows how cheaper and easier technology is allowing the flowering of experiments over a broad range of types of journalism.  In this case, narrative non-fiction:

Welcome to The Atavist. We publish original nonfiction and narrative journalism for digital devices like the iPad, iPhone, Kindle, and Nook. Our stories are longer than typical magazine articles but shorter than books, written by experienced reporters and authors and designed digitally from the start.

The multimedia on stories there – or at least on the one I read, “Lifted,” about a multimillion dollar heist in Sweden – works very well, and is much more seamlessly integrated than at many other news websites, where it often seems like something slapped on after the fact.  Lifted begins not with a prologue or other text, but with security camera videos of the thieves landing on the roof of a building.   It’s like a movie scene.  Elsewhere in the story, maps pop up if you want to know where a place is, a timeline helps organize events, and photos bring people and places to life.

Atavist stories are entirely digital creations, with no glossy paper and no hard cover. That allows us to do some things we couldn’t otherwise—within our own apps—like including a free audiobook version of every one, and allowing you to flip back and forth between text and audio while the story keeps your place. In addition to each story’s unique collection of video and other media, inside the Atavist apps they have what we call inline content: maps, timelines, character lists, primary documents, and links. You can turn on the inline content to find out what’s behind the story, or leave it off to read completely distraction-free. We think each of our narratives will make a great read, regardless of whether you read it on a Kindle or in our own app.

Not bad for a magazine-length story that costs $2.99.  ($1.99 on the Kindle or Nook, but with less multimedia), and from a company that – according to the NYT piece – was put together by a writer, an editor, a programmer, and $20,000.  And quickly.

Before taking on The Atavist, (programmer Jefferson) Rabb had never before worked in Objective-C, the code used to build most apps for Apple devices, but he bought a book about the code and developed a prototype within a month.

But can it turn a buck?  It’s obviously too early to say – the site just launched in January.   The NYT pieces says there have been 40,000 downloads of the Atavist’s app, but that’s not the same thing as 40,000 sales of $2.99 pieces.  And deeply-reported, long-form pieces can take a long time – and a lot of money – to pull off, especially if there’s a reasonable amount of multimedia involved.  (Writers, the Times says, get a fee to cover reporting expenses and then split revenue with the company.)  It’s hard to imagine direct payments like this could scale to a point where it provides a comfortable life for a writer; but then, we’re in a new age of reading and purchasing habits, so who knows.

And the relatively simple content-management system means that writers can do a lot of the work themselves and don’t need to carry the overheads inherent in a larger organization.  More work for them – but then potentially more return for them.

But whether or not this site succeeds, it shows that there’s plenty of experimentation that’s going out there – in story forms and in business models.   And that it’s getting easier to try new things.


  1. […] a specific format; in this case, what they call “stacks.” (There are other long-form start-ups, of course, but by and large they don’t seem focused on keeping  abreast of the […]

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