When the online magazine Matter launched its Kickstarter campaign in February of 2012, the two founders, Bobbie Johnson and Jim Giles, laid out a very clear vision of what their new publication was aiming to accomplish. “MATTER will focus on doing one thing, and doing it exceptionally well,” they wrote. “Every week, we will publish a single piece of top-tier long-form journalism about big issues in technology and science.”
In just a couple of days, the project raised $50,000, its initial goal. Three days later, it had $75,000. Nine days after its Kickstarter launched, it broke $100,000. By the end of the campaign, more than 2,500 people had chipped in to a pool of $140,201.
Raising that much money was a truly impressive feat, enough to warm the heart of any fan of ambitious journalism—“it’s like puppies flying out of unicorns riding rainbow skateboards,” Choire Sicha wrote at the time. Most Kickstarted journalism projects raise no more than few thousands of dollars. Even other big success, like Tomorrow the Magazine, which later in 2012 raised just under $45,000 (to produce a single issue), and Civil Eats, which last year raised almost $101,000 to maintain the site through 2014, didn’t reach quite the height Matter managed. More than two years later, Matter is still the most successful journalism-supporting Kickstarter ever by a margin of tens of thousands of dollars.
Last week Kickstarter gave more of its site real estate to such startups, establishing a dedicated category to highlight journalism projects seeking support. And Matter, now owned by the publishing platform Medium, relaunched as “a new magazine, about almost everything,” with a story on Britney Spears’ stint in Las Vegas, an essay on covering race in America, and an extremely long interview with BuzzFeed founder Jonah Peretti.
The pitch that the Matter’s first supporters—many of them ardent fans of science journalism—backed in 2012 has morphed dramatically enough that the publication being delivered no longer much resembles the original project. This is a danger of Kickstarter: “Some projects won’t go as planned,” the site warns. This is a pitfall not just for projects that fail, but for ones that succeed well beyond their initial hopes. Matter is in a position to publish more ambitious journalism than it ever was before. But that hasn’t assuaged the disappointment of some original fans who feel that not only is Matter no longer “doing one thing,” it’s no longer doing anything “exceptionally well.”
“I think there’s genuine sadness,” science writer Seth Mnookin told CJR. “Matter was a noble project that a lot of people believed in, as evidenced by their Kickstarter campaign. ‘How Britney Spears went to Vegas and became a feminist role model’ or ‘Unpaid intern files class action lawsuit against LA Clippers’ was not part of those original, noble intentions.”
Johnson, now a senior editor at Matter, gets the sentiment. “I understand some people took [the Britney story] as a ‘fuck you,’” he said. “It was not that…We want to surprise people. And sometimes surprising people—sometimes you surprise people, and they laugh. Sometimes you surprise people, and they get a bit mad.”
The difference between a fun surprise and a failed one, though, often depends both on how well you know your audience (not everyone likes surprises) and on how much dissimulation the surprise requires. And Matter’s founders weren’t particularly transparent about what was changing.
In April of 2013, after Medium acquired the company, Matter wrote to its readers, “If you already know what we do, don’t expect big changes yet.” That “yet” now seems like an important qualifier: “What will change in the short term? Nothing,” Giles
Now that the grace period of “yet” has expired, some readers are now quite curious about what had happened to the idea they’d first backed. “I just hope this doesn’t mean that they’ve decided that high-quality longform science journalism isn’t popular or lucrative enough to be worth focusing their energy on,” wrote Brian Owens, a science writer who was a Kickstarter backer, in an email. There was a signal that this could be the case: As Matter geared up for its reboot, several science stories were spiked.