New longform science journalism site ‘Matter’ launches today

Matter, a site that publishes longform stories about science and technology, launched today. The site, which will publish one story per month, is open to people who sign up as members. For 99 cents, they’ll get access to monthly stories, along with ebook and audiobook versions of the story.

Members are also invited to online question and answer sessions with the site’s editors and writers to find out more about the reporting that went into each story.

The site launched with a story about Body Integrity Identity Disorder, which affects people who want to remove some part of their bodies — often a limb or two. Anil Ananthaswamy profiled a man who has the disease and accompanied him when he got his leg amputated in Asia. The 7,700-word story explains a complicated disorder through the eyes of someone who suffers from it.

“This story was put together by great people who worked hard and went the extra mile to do a level of reporting you don’t find in too many places,” Matter Co-Founder Bobbie Johnson said via email.

But will people be willing to pay for it?

Johnson thinks so. He was encouraged after talking with supporters of Matter’s Kickstarter project; it raised $140,201, which was $90,201 more than the goal. “[We] found that they believed doing serious, in-depth reporting was something important and they were happy to pay for valuable information and entertainment. If that comes in a convenient package, even better,” Johnson said, noting that he’d like the site to eventually publish one story per week.

Earlier this year, Reuters’ Felix Salmon said he thinks people will pay for Matter stories because they fill a void:

“I think that the success of the Kickstarter campaign is proof that there’s huge untapped demand for this kind of material — demand which is not being met by the competitors Morse cites, like Scientific American or Popular Mechanics.”

Others aren’t so sure.

After Matter launched its Kickstarter project last February, New York Times science reporter Natalie Angier told me:

“People want substance, and insight, and optimism with a forebrain, and again where can you turn for any of that but to science? But will people pay to read long, provocative, beautifully crafted science stories? And will ‘Matter’ pay writers a living wage to meet that desire? Consider me a hopeful skeptic.”

A recent Online Publishers Association study found that 61 percent of tablet users have purchased digital content, but said they’re more likely to pay for magazines and entertainment than for newspapers and news. More and more news organizations have instituted paywalls and found that loyal readers are willing to pay. The difference between news organizations and Matter is that they already have an established audience that they’ve built over time.

Johnson, who said Matter pays its writers competitive magazine rates, is optimistic the site will attract an audience.

“Look at outlets like Byliner and The Atavist, which do really well from a very similar model: it’s possible, if you make the leap of faith to actually believe what the thousands of people who have told us they want to pay is correct,” Johnson said. “People are prepared to support things they value: you just have to make sure you deliver on your promise to them.”

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  • Saffie

    Thanks for the reply, Bobbie. Your points are all well-taken, and I hope I didn’t come across as unsupportive of your endeavor. No crashing and burning allowed! I’m just one of those idealists who wants information to be as free as sunshine. Maybe some day, eh?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=718395303 Bobbie Johnson

    Hi Saffie. Bobbie from MATTER here. We’re totally aware that helping people understand the world around them is one of the most important missions there is. And paywalls aren’t necessarily conducive to that. Which is why we’re experimenting with a number of sharing options and different ways of distributing our stories. Right now, it’s true we’re focused on getting started in a way that is financially sustainable, but that’s so that we can be in a position to help in the long term – not just for a few weeks or months before we crash and burn.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=718395303 Bobbie Johnson

    Hi Saffie. Bobbie from MATTER here. We’re totally aware that helping people understand the world around them is one of the most important missions there is. And paywalls aren’t necessarily conducive to that. Which is why we’re experimenting with a number of sharing options and different ways of distributing our stories. Right now, it’s true we’re focused on getting started in a way that is financially sustainable, but that’s so that we can be in a position to help in the long term – not just for a few weeks or months before we crash and burn.

  • Saffie

    The decline in science literacy, especially apparent among religious fundamentalist who have embedded themselves in Congress, is worrisome. I’m concerned that putting thoughtful and substantive science writing behind a pay wall puts more distance between the “knows and the know nots.” Writers need to be paid, and I’m not suggesting that Briane Greene should have given away The Elegant Universe, but I wonder if the preacher is increasingly turning to the choir. If there’s any field of enquiry more in need of open-sourcing, or better, public and philanthropic funding, it’s science education – for primary schoolers and adults alike. Science needs to free itself from the realm of esoterica.