Longform project’s founder: ‘We want to see if there is a way to help get to Yes’

April 3, 2013
Category: Uncategorized

Columbia University journalism professor Michael Shapiro made a minor splash last week by announcing a crowd-curated longform journalism program called The Big Roundtable. Shapiro sought $5,000 in startup costs, and reached that goal on Friday.

The project aims to collect longform stories that have not been able to find traditional publishers. A succession of committees will select Big Roundtable stories, eventually offering some to readers for $1. I asked Shapiro to share some of the nuts and bolts of the now-funded longform publishing experiment. (This conversation took place via email and has been very lightly edited.)

Who will be staffing your primary and secondary committees?
The project is built on a cooperative, which now numbers 50 but which I would like to now grow up to 100, and then beyond. Those initial 50 are primarily people I know — the logic being it is better to fail in front of people who will forgive you. But we need to open the cooperative to more voices, more backgrounds, and more tastes. The operation of the project is to be comprised of a paid staff. Again, this is envisioned as a business-as-laboratory, which means editorial, engineering, computer science folks. As well as business.

How will you locate writers and stories?
Anyone can submit a finished nonfiction narrative — think nonfiction novellas, of perhaps 5,000 to 30,000 words. I say finished because those represent the stories writers NEED to write. The first 1,000 words of those pieces are sent to five members of the cooperative. If one in five says ‘I’d read more’ … we send the same preview to another five cooperative members. If one in five of them says they’d read more, then we have a story that has attracted an audience. And only then does it get sent to our editor-in-chief, Mike Hoyt, the executive editor of Columbia Journalism Review and really the best editor I’ve ever worked with.

How will those writers be compensated from those $1 per read sales?
We will sell via our own website — the better to gather data that Amazon would otherwise keep for itself. And we will compensate authors at the rate of a dollar for every story of theirs purchased. One model we’re thinking out is the idea of a subscriber/patron, in which those patrons get a set number  of stories as part of their subscription, and those fees are allocated, in part, to the authors — a guarantee of a fee for their work.

Will any of that $1 fee be allocated for infrastructure?
It won’t. Which is why we’re seeking funding from grants, and perhaps investors. The Big Roundtable is, at its core, designed to be a research lab for the longform revival, with all that we find shared.

Will you be soliciting contributions of orphaned stories, or will you accept pitches?
Our idea is to change the existing author-publication dynamic. The wonderful thing about having a pitch accepted is that you are guaranteed a fee, even a kill fee. The bad thing is that to get paid in full you have to satisfy a gatekeeper — editor. The bad thing about writing fiction is that you have to write the full story and then hope someone will buy it. The good thing is that in writing it you had only to please the reader. Our goal is to find a balance between those two, to free up writers of big nonfiction stories and, in so doing, make good on the stalled promise of the new journalism revolution, which in the decades since its birth has fallen prey to form and convention.

What if a story doesn’t end up selling to the audience? Is the writer out of luck? Is there a flat fee available for accepted submissions?
Those stories that don’t attract that 1 in 5 readership do not die. Instead, we offer the writer the chance to approach members of the cooperative, to see if there is perhaps a sixth or seventh of eighth reader. Maybe the first 5 were wrong. And if the story still doesn’t attract a following, perhaps that writer can seek out members of the cooperative for advice, editing to make the story all it might be. If the existing order is built on working toward No, we want to see if there is a way to help get to Yes.

Does your committee get paid at all?
They don’t. But they do help one another launch their work.

Will the editor who corrals the stories be involved in content decisions? Narrative direction? Will they have any say in what gets offered?
Anyone can send us their stories. It will be interesting, as one of our early experiments, to see who submits and what we see. The one quality, after all, that makes people pause from clicking or swiping, is surprise. We’re looking, eagerly, to be surprised.

I read that the group of readers will initially be kept small to remain manageable, but what are the goals of TBR? Do you see it as a  potential model for making micropayments for content viable?
The goal is to understand how readers find, read, fall in love with and share stories. And how, with greater knowledge — based on quantitative and qualitative data — we can all make decisions about stories that will allow writers to get paid for their work. The best possible outcome for the BRT is to help spawn competing projects, that use our data to launch. More great stories for readers written by more writers with stories they need to tell.

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