Last week, CJR released a new report by the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, entitled “The Story So Far: What we know about the business of journalism.” To supplement Chapter Four on mobile, video, and tablet publishing, assistant editor Lauren Kirchner spoke with the founding editor of the new digital publishing house The Atavist, which sells individual long-form nonfiction stories ($2.99 each in Apple app form, $1.99 each in Kindle or Nook form). Ratliff is also the author of “Lifted,” a story that The Atavist published about an elaborate bank heist in Stockholm. This is an edited transcript of their conversation.
When you started The Atavist, why did you choose the mobile platform? Did you choose that format because you felt like this was “the future of magazines”? Or because you just liked the format and wanted to experiment with it?
Back when we started in the fall of 2009, there wasn’t an iPad yet, but there was the Kindle and the iPhone, and so we could tell by our own habits and just by looking around that people were doing a lot more reading on these devices. The idea that you could carry it with you kind of changes the equation when it comes to reading something that’s digital, as opposed to being lashed to your desk, or even to your laptop. It did seem like in the future people would be reading a lot more on these kinds of devices.
Then there was another element that was more on the experimentation side. Some of the things we wanted to do, to layer in different elements to the story—they actually take on a completely different feel when you put them on one of these devices and you can touch them. It seems like a small thing, because if you’re on your desktop computer, you can click on a link. But somehow it’s just a more connected, intimate experience with the text—if you can, say, tap on the name and pull up the character [profile]. Those kinds of things were exciting to us, to experiment with and see if you could develop something that made for a richer experience that wasn’t just shoveling things into it, but that really enhanced the way you read.
What are some of the extra features that these stories have to enhance the text?
The biggest multimedia feature that they all have is an audiobook version. You can listen to the text or you can read the text, and it keeps your place in one or the other. So you can listen to one half of it at the gym, and then read the rest of it when you get home. And then there are a lot of other features that are kind of woven into the text—those are maps, timelines, character profiles, textual footnotes that pop up, and videos that pop up. Some of them have more sound than others; for instance, we did one about a jazz piano player, and there are clips of his music that are all laced into the story, so at different points when you’re reading about his style of playing, you can tap on that and get a little clip of him playing in that style. It also has a soundtrack that’s his music overall. But that’s kind of particular to something that’s about music—it changes the story experience to listen to his music while you’re reading it.
We try to customize them for each particular story—so we’re not just saying, “Well, every story has to have video, even though this one is about a jazz player in 1920 and there’s no video. We’ll just find a video.” It’s more about, “What would make this story a more interesting read?” and then building the features around that.
And readers can also turn off those extra features and just read the plain text, right?
Yes. And that was like the most important button in the whole thing. That grew out of an annoyance that I have with over-linking online—it just drives me insane. You’ll see news sites do this all the time, like there will be a story about a magazine, and they’ll link the word “magazine” in the text. If you click on it, you’ll get a hundred stories that they’ve done about magazines. In what universe would I read a story about such-and-such magazine hiring a new editor, and then want to read every story in your newspaper from the last ten years about magazines? It makes no sense at all!