March 27, 2013

Capital New York | Folio
The resurgence of longform publishing has a new ally in a Kickstarter-based project spearheaded by Columbia Journalism School professor Michael Shapiro. The big difference in Shapiro’s model? No editors.

The Big Roundtable, which is more than halfway to its startup goal of $5,000 only two days into its campaign, promises to provide digital distribution to story pitches that can’t find outlets via traditional print publishers. The project plans to provide 1,000-word excerpts to a committee of readers, which will then read the story and decide if it’s worthy of being distributed via email. The stories will be sent to another group of readers, repeating the process to determine if it’s a successful selection. The story will then be sold to readers for $1 a copy.

According to the Kickstarter listing, this project, which includes Columbia-connected journos Mike Hoyt, Anna Hiatt, Rashmi Raman and Anna Codrea-Rado, will free writers “from the constraints of convention in telling their stories and from the commercial needs of editors and publishers, who determine what tales get told.”

Shapiro told Capital New York’s Joe Pompeo The Big Roundtable is “a new way to think of how we get stories in front of readers.” He says “there are lots of strong journalists who have great stories but nowhere to publish them because a gatekeeper is standing in the way.”

Digital formats, too, largely use the same method; BuzzFeed last year hired former Spin employee Steve Kandell to be its new longform editor, and Shapiro points out to Capital that other longform distribution projects do it the same old way.

“I think what’s been happening in the digital long-form space has been great,” he said. “But they’re still using the same model. ‘Send us a proposal, we’ll pass it around amongst ourselves and see if your proposal is worthy.’ Here’s the problem with that: at end of the day, they are simply applying the analogue way of thinking to the digital world. It doesn’t have to be that way.”

The Atavist CEO Evan Ratliff tells Folio’s Bill Mickey his company’s models are evolving, however.

For our own publishing, we’ve pushed more in the direction of visual storytelling, experimenting with selling more film-heavy works and comics. Most of the longform nonfiction online is text, with images and perhaps video or audio woven in. It’s interesting to try and take it from the other end. From our clients, we’ve seen some really traditional places like the Paris Review use the technology to capture the same spirit of what they’ve always done in print. And then other places have pushed into new areas: We work with a gluten-free cookbook and bakery outfit called Babycakes that uses our platform to create an elaborate app full of menus, videos, and games. We also see a lot of diversity on the business side: Some people are selling on a subscription basis, some are selling ebooks as one-offs, and some are advertising based.

The Big Roundtable, meanwhile, won’t completely be without an editing process. According to Capital:

Shapiro said he hopes to “build out that audience” while keeping it small enough to be manageable. Those stories deemed must-reads by the committee will eventually be assigned to a single editor, who will shepherd their copy to publication—a 13,000-word Columbia Journalism School master’s project about prison laborers who died fighting an Arizona forest fire in the early ’90s, for instance. About a dozen such features have been amassed so far.

Previously: Pocket offers publishers ‘save for later’ tools | Longform journalism morphs in print as it finds a home online | What do we mean by ‘longform journalism’ & how can we get it to go?

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Joshua Gillin is a contributor to Poynter's MediaWire blog and a writer, editor and pop culture blogger for the Tampa Bay Times and its sister…
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