How longform science magazine Matter will become a sustainable business

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Update: Chris Unitt of Made Media has just posted an interesting — and orthogonal — take on this story.

A couple of days ago a Kickstarter to launch the new longform-only science magazine Matter popped up. Less than two days later, the project has already reached its goal of $50,000. In the meantime, I found myself intensely curious about the business model of Matter, because (I realize now, rightly) the project’s Kickstarter page did not include an explanation of how Matter will make money beyond this initial bolus of money.

Similar thoughts inspired Stephen Morse to write “Why I will not donate to this Kickstarter campaign that purports to save journalism and why you shouldn’t donate to it either.” It’s a systematic error of screed-writers (I’m one of them) to assume that a flaw in a project is inherent in it rather than in our perception of it, so rather than pile on I reached out to Bobbie Johnson directly.

“What’s your business model?” I asked. Here’s his response. I’ve highlighted the parts I find most interesting.

There are a few particular things we are going to keep under our hats because we think they’re going to be our secret to doing really well, but sharing the central part of it is something I’m happy to do — not least because, frankly, it’s not rocket science.

We’re going to sell the stories and a small, discreet amount of advertising. Stories will be available as e-books, on tablets, and maybe apps later on if it makes sense. The stories also live on the web behind a wall for a short period, before going out into the free world when our right to exclusivity with the writer ends.

That’s it.

It’s not crazy: The Byliner and The Atavist have blazed a trail to some degree. There are plenty of others looking at this space in the same way. And we think if we can get the economics all in the right place, and build out now — rather than wait until it’s so blindingly obvious that everyone and their brother’s doing it — we can bring in enough revenue to remain afloat.

Now, of course the basic contradiction is obviously the cost of production versus the amount of income you can claw back. Stories need to bring in more money than they cost us. And sure: big, investigative pieces cost money. But in fact, if you choose the right people and the right investigations, you can get enough hits to keep you in the hunt.

Through the research and intelligence we’ve gathered we have a very good idea on what we think strong, timely, well-written stories sold in the right places (Kindle Singles, ibooks, etc) will do. We have worked hard to bring the costs of producing stories down. That’s made easier by the fact that, say, we don’t have legacy infrastructure to service, we have a very focused amount of output, we don’t have an existing print business to compete against (like many magazines and their websites), we hire writers and editors in small teams on a project-by-project basis, and we pay competitive — but not insane — rates. Plus we don’t plan on pulling a salary unless it’s highly successful.

Including all of our extras, legal bills and so on, we think we’ve brought our unit costs down to a point where MATTER can wash its face by selling a reasonable amount of stories. And we think over time the market is going to grow larger, giving us the chance to pull some extra levers… all of which makes doing it now a smart move.

To be honest, that’s it. There’s nothing more complicated than working really hard to know the market and understand where we can find efficiencies in production… and then actually trying.

Of course, it’s no surprise that people are going to take potshots. But they’re mainly based around a set of false assumptions. We don’t think it’s going to be a mainstream smash; we don’t think it’s going to change the world; we don’t think we’re going to out New Yorker the New Yorker; we don’t think we’re going to be billionaires. But we do think, done right, we can offer something valuable and remain sustainable in the medium term.

The other big error is mistaking the Kickstarter appeal with an investment pitch. Going on KS was not meant to be a validation of our business model: we’ve done plenty of that with the smart business people we’ve spoken to. It was meant to be a litmus test, for ourselves, of whether there was appetite in the market for what we want to do. I think we’ve proven that point well enough.

We’ve spent thousands making a slick video to sell snake oil? No. We just realised that success on Kickstarter takes some hard work and a coherent campaign that doesn’t waste time banging on about business model shit when what people really want is to get a feeling of what they’re buying into.

That’s not scamming anyone, that’s not being too slick: that’s knowing your audience… which, frankly, is what this whole endeavour is about.

23 thoughts on “How longform science magazine Matter will become a sustainable business

  1. I’m always open to experiments, but I do think Stephen Morse’s made a couple trenchant comments.

    One is, is there really a dearth of this kind of reporting out there–which is a key pitch from Matter? When local newspapers pull out their reporters from the state house of representatives, I can see a clear absence being created, and it’s great that some reporters are trying to fill such holes. (See for example ctmirror.com here in Connecticut.) I see no such glaring hole in sci-tech. I can point you to all sorts of interesting reporting on science and technology in print magazines and newspapers, as well as stuff on the web. The one example I can think of is climate reporting, which has dwindled away in recent years. But, again, there are still people writing about climate already–will a couple dozen pieces a year make a big difference?

    The other issue is cost. One reason that investigative journalism is scarce these days is that it takes money–money paid to journalists to work on this stuff for months at a time, money for traveling and lodging, money to pay people in farflung places help the reporter get where they need to go, get what they need, etc. If the folks at Matter have stumbled across the secret, then bless their hearts. But if they have, I have to wonder why they needed to go to Kickstarter to ask for donations.

    I say none of this to diminish what might come of this. I just think there are serious questions to answer for any new project in journalism.

  2. To follow up on Carl’s points…

    I don’t think there is a hole when it comes to solid news about sci/tech in newspapers. But I do think there is a dearth of investigative work on those topics. Ditto for narrative-driven long-form work on sci/tech. And these are the things that Matter is about. With the notable exception of Wired, which other publications focus on this kind of material?

    As for cost, yes, we know it’s expensive. Sometimes very expensive. We’ve been crunching the numbers for months now. But when you do the sums, it looks like a model based on single-article sales can work. Just look at The Atavist. I’m not privy to their accounts, but I’ve heard some sales figures and been impressed. Their success is one reason we think Matter can be sustainable.

    Any why did we go to Kickstarter for donations? I think the last 48 hours shows why! We’re building an audience, generating debate about the future of journalism, making friends…and, through the incredible support we’ve had, have raised enough to start work on Matter.

    Jim Giles, Matter co-founder

  3. Thanks for your reply, Jim. I will look forward to the results of your experiment. Traditional magazines try to make money by building up a following of people who are ready to buy a bundle of articles every month, week, etc., for a set price. If I understand correctly, you, like the Atavist and Byliner, are unbundling stories and trying to make a business out of selling them individually. There’s a whole lot of uncertainty in how each story will fare, and you have to then deal with that uncertainty when making a budget for the stories your are assigning. That seems tricky to me, but it would be great if I were wrong. When a magazine writer like David Dobbs has a big hit with a piece like “My Mother’s Lover” (this was piece that got rejected by magazines; instead of just a flat fee, Dobbs gets royalties and has done quite well, far surpassing what a magazine would have paid) we writers definitely sit up and take notice.

    As for other magazines that publish at least some long-form science work, there’s (takes in deep breath) Smithsonian, National Geographic, the New Yorker, Discover, the Atlantic, the New York Times Magazine, Science Magazine, Playboy (at least they published two of my pieces!), Orion, Slate (thousands of words on lab mice), Technology Review, Scientific American, Popular Science…

    Which is not to say that you may crush them all. I’m just saying they’re there.

  4. That’s a long list of excellent magazines. But how many would you describe as doing *investigative* long-form? For me, it’d be The New Yorker and NYT Magazine. Two superb magazines, but sci/tech is a relatively minor focus for both.

    There is a bigger point here though. We’re not claiming to have invented a new form of journalism. We’re just seeking a business model that can sustain the journalism we love — long-form, in-depth, investigative — in the online era. All the magazines you mention are trying to do the same thing, but I think it’s fair to say that it’s not easy. We know that other outlets, particularly newspapers, have had to cut back on in-depth journalism. That’s why it’s worth trying to build a new business model that is focused 100% on online readers.

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