Matter shows a Kickstarter risk—the project you back may not be what ultimately emerges

As Kickstarter gives more prominence to journalism projects, one crowdsourcing success story has disillusioned its funders

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 told Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon. “We don’t want to change the business model yet.”

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.

Longform science journalism is popular enough that, in the past few years, a number of new publications have begun competing to produce it. Aeon, which covers some of the same topics Matter does, launched in September of 2012. The online and print magazine Nautilus came online in April 2013, just around the time Medium acquired Matter. This March, UK-based Mosaic went live. All of these publications are betting that there’s an audience for science and tech stories. Whether these stories can earn their keep online, though—whether producing longform science content is lucrative enough—is less clear. Nautilus and Mosaic both have had support from foundations; Mosaic is published by one, the Wellcome Trust.

Matter’s original business model, on the other hand, did not pan out. One of the original hypotheses—that there was a community of people prepared to pay for science and tech stories and that Matter could reach them—was not valid in practice.

“That community turned out to not be large enough. Reaching them and getting them to read our stuff was a lot harder than we thought,” says Johnson. He says, though, that the decision to spike science stories, “doesn’t really mean anything other than that story wasn’t working for us” and that, of the 50 or so features Matter is currently working on, 40 “were either stories that actually were assigned under the old Matter, the pre-existing Matter, or would be a kind of newer commissioners that would be a straight fit for that.”

But, even to fans of Matter, none of this was really clear.

“If they came out and said, ‘Look, things change, funding is tough, and we’re going to go in a new direction; we’re going to try to continue to do some really good longform science work but that will be incidental and not integral to our overall mission,’ I think people would be much less upset,” Seth Mnookin wrote.

Faced with disappointment and criticism, the Matter team also chose to parry and thrust, rather than lay down their swords and have a conversation. When Matter’s new editor in chief, Mark Lotto, described a new Kickstarter journalism project, Deca, as “Like @readmatter for people who hate new @readmatter,” it felt like an unnecessary jab.

“Supposedly he was saying nice things about Deca, right? Which I suppose he was. But he was also flicking a noseful of snark at everyone who worried about where he was taking Matter. I mean, you hear of worries from readers loyal to your magazine, some who funded the thing, and you belittle it as hate?” wrote David Dobbs, who writes about science for publications including National Geographic and The New York Times. “It’s no way to answer a groundswell of informed concern about your publication.”

At this point in the history of media on the internet, it’s almost unbelievable that a publication would make these sorts of mistakes in an encounter with “the people formerly known as the audience,” as journalism professor Jay Rosen calls readers. As financial supporters and colleagues, Matter’s audience was never going to be a passive group of media consumers. By raising money through Kickstarter, Matter had asked potential supporters to back their idea—to have a stake in its future. “If you look at where we are in three months time, the shape of the product will be much more apparent,” Johnson says now. “The quality, depth, and rigor will be apparent, and the ambition will be apparent, as well.” Let’s hope we’ll all be pleasantly surprised.

Sarah Laskow is a writer and editor in New York City. Her work has appeared in print and online in Grist, Good, The American Prospect, Salon, The New Republic, and other publications. Tags: , , , ,