What’s the MATTER?

A Kickstarter-funded longform narrative science journalism site launches

MATTER, a Kickstarter-funded longform science journalism project, launched on Wednesday with its first article, written by prominent science writer Anil Ananthaswamy. Just shy of 7,800 words, it tells the story of a man, “David,” and his struggle with Body Integrity Identity Disorder. Basically, David desperately wants to cut one of his legs off. He’s helped on his quest by a fellow BIID sufferer, “Patrick,” who had his own leg amputated in 2003.

It’s a good read and a great choice for MATTER’s first story. People who hate their own limbs and pay thousands of dollars to have them removed in a sketchy Asian hospital? An Internet underworld of people who find amputees sexually attractive? How can you not spend just 99 cents to find out what that’s all about? MATTER may decry the “top ten lists” and “snarky low-budget journalism” clickbait that site founders claim are now the hallmarks of many other websites, but there’s no denying that an article about voluntary amputations is going to attract a similar sort of morbidly curious reader.

MATTER’s initial Kickstarter funding of $140,000 is well over its $50,000 goal and certainly seems like a lot of cash. But writers like Ananthaswamy don’t come cheap, nor, I’d guess, were the travel expenses he incurred to report this story. MATTER wants all of its articles to be this in-depth, for its writers to go to them. “This kind of journalism is expensive,” Giles admits. The cost is slightly mitigated by MATTER’s low overhead (and, in the future, MATTER will offer writers a choice between a flat fee per story or a lower fee with a share of story sales, similar to the Kindle Singles business model, which could lower the upfront per story cost to MATTER). But whether or not this kind of journalism is sustainable at just $0.99 per story remains to be seen. Just one day after launch, it’s too early to draw any conclusions, Giles says, but “‘encouraging’ is a fair description.”

One thing Giles can be certain of is that MATTER has an engaged, passionate audience; thousands of people gave at least $25 to the Kickstarter campaign, allowing them to be on its editorial board. Buying a membership also grants access to the board. It’s a way of keeping the readership engaged, Giles says: “It’s more like you’re becoming a part of MATTER.”

MATTER’s website was built using the Django Web framework. Giles says they decided to go with a responsive, “app-like” design that would work across all devices rather than creating separate apps — a strategy other startups, such as Quartz, have also implemented. The site has that clean, minimalist feel that’s the current news website design trend, allowing for an “uncluttered,” focused reading experience.

So far, we haven’t seen much by way of multimedia in MATTER’s only article — there are a few photos, though the fact that everyone involved with the story wanted to remain anonymous limits the photography to crutches, amputees from the waist down, and stock photos of scientific research. Giles says he’s interested in incorporating more multimedia elements in MATTER’s future articles, but only if that content will “enhance the narrative experience.”

There are still a few kinks to be worked out — some of the photo captions were weirdly formatted on my iPad version of the story, for example — but that’s to be expected with freshly launched product like this, and Giles hopes to have everything fixed within the next few days. Then it’s onto MATTER’s second article, which is set to premiere next month.

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Sara Morrison is a former assistant editor at CJR. Follow her on Twitter @saramorrison. Tags: ,