November 27, 2013

While most online news outlets worry about their mobile-first strategy, Matter is trying to create a web-first reading experience. It doesn’t publish a print edition, present a bundled collection of news articles or host advertisements. It has no pop-ups, banners or complicated navigation menus — just a clean, lightweight layout that lets the story stand on its own.

Since its November 2012 launch, the site has offered human-focused, long-form investigative writing about science and technology – a flavor of journalism that’s largely disappeared amid the Web’s cost-cutting strategies and attention-deficit design.

“We’d hear about stories people wanted to tell that were crying out for narrative treatment,” co-founder Jim Giles told me when I visited Matter’s San Francisco office in August. Matter’s stories have ranged from body integrity identity disorder to Silicon Valley’s “charisma coach” to Tutankhamun’s DNA.

Writers of such long-form stories had very few places that would publish them, Giles said — candidates were limited to The New Yorker or Harper’s Magazine. And if none of those publications took a piece, Nature, New Scientist or Scientific America were unlikely to publish a 6,000- to 9,000-word effort.

With no need to support a legacy print product, Giles and co-founder Bobbie Johnson built a hybrid model — e-book meets magazine — promising a new reader experience.

“All writing publications at some level want a reading experience that’s so amazing it’s like you’ve lost track of the world around you,” Giles said.

Paying the bills

Matter has tried to create a reader experience that’s different from that of other websites, but struggled with a problem its competitors know all too well: how to pay the bills.

Matter’s original model centered on publishing a story each month, protected by a paywall. Readers could pay 99 cents for access to the story online or as a Kindle e-book, or subscribe monthly for the same price.

“Ninety-nine cents felt like a nice price in the App Store where people are used to making a decision to buy something without too much cognitive effort,” Giles said last summer.

But the paywall undermined Matter’s efforts to increase visibility, Giles said, leaving the site facing a dilemma: It was difficult for people to grasp the type of content Matter published if they couldn’t see it, and they wouldn’t pay unless they could sample that content first. And, of course, with so many news sites offering free content, it’s difficult to train readers to pay.

Despite a successful Kickstarter campaign — Matter raised its goal of $50,000 within 48 hours and eventually raised $140,000 — it couldn’t generate enough revenue to justify its paywall. In an email, Johnson said subscriptions were “good” but slower than the site needed; while e-book sales gave Matter a solid “long tail” of content for readers to discover, Giles recalled that having an e-book emerge as a hit proved “harder than we thought.”

After a year of trying a subscription-based model, Matter announced last week that all of its stories will be free.

“Ultimately, we’d seen our stories do very well when they were outside the paywall, and thought it would be better to capitalize on what we’d done best,” Johnson said.

That also means an end to selling Kindle singles, which can’t be sold because the content is free elsewhere.

Matter also announced it will move permanently to the Medium publishing platform, eventually abandoning its old website. Medium, co-founded by Twitter founders Evan Williams and Biz Stone, acquired Matter in April, though Matter declared its business model and editorial focus will stay independent from Medium.

New experiments

In another change, Matter readers can now enjoy “substantial pieces weekly,” Johnson said.

Matter’s hope is that publishing weekly will help keep traffic consistent — Giles said most of Matter’s traffic came in the first three days after publishing a story — and help make the site habit-forming for readers.

Giles and Johnson are now trying a membership program involving reader donations, similar to how NPR affiliates generate revenue.

Looking back at Matter’s experiments so far, Giles said he’s been surprised by Matter’s difficulty finding content.

“I’ve talked to a lot of writers who say, ‘Oh yeah yeah, I heard about you,’ ” he recalled. “Well, we’re here and we have money — pitch us. I can pay you to do the work you want to do. I thought you’d be coming to me.”

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