Q&A: Evan Ratliff of The Atavist

“I don’t really care whether attention spans are getting shorter.”

Last week, CJR released a new report by the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, entitled “The Story So Far: What we know about the business of journalism.” To supplement Chapter Four on mobile, video, and tablet publishing, assistant editor Lauren Kirchner spoke with the founding editor of the new digital publishing house The Atavist, which sells individual long-form nonfiction stories ($2.99 each in Apple app form, $1.99 each in Kindle or Nook form). Ratliff is also the author of “Lifted,” a story that The Atavist published about an elaborate bank heist in Stockholm. This is an edited transcript of their conversation.

When you started The Atavist, why did you choose the mobile platform? Did you choose that format because you felt like this was “the future of magazines”? Or because you just liked the format and wanted to experiment with it?

Back when we started in the fall of 2009, there wasn’t an iPad yet, but there was the Kindle and the iPhone, and so we could tell by our own habits and just by looking around that people were doing a lot more reading on these devices. The idea that you could carry it with you kind of changes the equation when it comes to reading something that’s digital, as opposed to being lashed to your desk, or even to your laptop. It did seem like in the future people would be reading a lot more on these kinds of devices.

Then there was another element that was more on the experimentation side. Some of the things we wanted to do, to layer in different elements to the story—they actually take on a completely different feel when you put them on one of these devices and you can touch them. It seems like a small thing, because if you’re on your desktop computer, you can click on a link. But somehow it’s just a more connected, intimate experience with the text—if you can, say, tap on the name and pull up the character [profile]. Those kinds of things were exciting to us, to experiment with and see if you could develop something that made for a richer experience that wasn’t just shoveling things into it, but that really enhanced the way you read.

What are some of the extra features that these stories have to enhance the text?

The biggest multimedia feature that they all have is an audiobook version. You can listen to the text or you can read the text, and it keeps your place in one or the other. So you can listen to one half of it at the gym, and then read the rest of it when you get home. And then there are a lot of other features that are kind of woven into the text—those are maps, timelines, character profiles, textual footnotes that pop up, and videos that pop up. Some of them have more sound than others; for instance, we did one about a jazz piano player, and there are clips of his music that are all laced into the story, so at different points when you’re reading about his style of playing, you can tap on that and get a little clip of him playing in that style. It also has a soundtrack that’s his music overall. But that’s kind of particular to something that’s about music—it changes the story experience to listen to his music while you’re reading it.

We try to customize them for each particular story—so we’re not just saying, “Well, every story has to have video, even though this one is about a jazz player in 1920 and there’s no video. We’ll just find a video.” It’s more about, “What would make this story a more interesting read?” and then building the features around that.

And readers can also turn off those extra features and just read the plain text, right?

Yes. And that was like the most important button in the whole thing. That grew out of an annoyance that I have with over-linking online—it just drives me insane. You’ll see news sites do this all the time, like there will be a story about a magazine, and they’ll link the word “magazine” in the text. If you click on it, you’ll get a hundred stories that they’ve done about magazines. In what universe would I read a story about such-and-such magazine hiring a new editor, and then want to read every story in your newspaper from the last ten years about magazines? It makes no sense at all!

And there are people who buy our stories who don’t want that stuff. They should be able to not have to deal with it, and just read the story as it’s meant to be read. We’re also publishing on Kindle, and so the text itself is an intact story; it’s the same on both versions. The Kindle one doesn’t have videos and all these extra things, but the idea is that people just want to read a great story. That’s what we’re going for.

What kinds of stories work best in “The Atavist” format?

I should preface by saying that we’ve only been around for a few months and we haven’t published that many stories, so our expertise is based on a very limited sample size. But our philosophy is that the stories should be really immersive, and they should be kind of like “yarns” and tales that people can get really wrapped up in.

Partly because we’re asking people to pay for something. We’re saying “Pay for this story in the same way you would pay for a book, except it’s a lot cheaper, and it’s shorter, and you can probably read it in a single sitting.” So we have to make an argument that it’s different than what they can get on the web. If we were just publishing news stories, I feel like that’s a difficult argument to make. But if we’re promising people that it’s going to be a different experience, because it has multimedia and all these extra things, and also it’s going to be a very engaging story, those are the kinds of arguments that we want to make to readers as to why they should pay for it.

You probably get asked a lot about “the state of reading today” or “the future of reading.” In your opinion, are our attention spans really lower now than they were in years past, or is the way that online content is being marketed to people changing because publishing is changing? Maybe it’s chicken and egg situation. Which one of those do you think came first?

I think my opinion would be in line with the premise of your question—they drive each other. Everybody starts saying that attention spans are lower, so they produce things that are shorter, and then people read things that are shorter, and then everybody says, “See? Attention spans are lower.” So my usual answer to this is: I have no idea. I honestly haven’t looked into the science and research of whether attention spans are getting lower.

It makes sense that they would be. But the people who are making decisions based on that, I don’t think they’re doing it based on actual research, either. I think they’re all doing it based on anecdotal experience. And my anecdotal experience is that lots of people still read The New Yorker magazine, and lots of people still read nonfiction books. And if we could get even a fraction of people who read the bestseller nonfiction books to read our stories, we’d be very happy and we would have a very nice sustainable business of producing long-form journalism. So I don’t really care if attention spans are going down in the world overall or not.

That is a great answer. When you visit news websites, do you have an opinion about how they could do a better job with multimedia, based on what you’ve learned working on The Atavist?

People use multimedia in different ways. I actually think The New York Times has incredible multimedia. With their interactive graphics, I don’t even know how they make that stuff so quickly. There are so many examples of really great stuff out there. I think the curse of publishing is that you’re just trying to bring as many people as possible to the page. And if I had a complaint, it would be clutter—they’re just offering all these different things in your field of vision at once and you don’t know where to click. But that’s just bad design; that’s almost a truism.

For us, I think that the thing we try to stick to is if we’re going to have a video that’s going to play a big part in the story, it really has to be part of the story. So you really have to gain something by watching it; it has to advance the story in some way and make it better. So the problem online is that everyone’s trying to do multimedia, and there’s a tendency to just do something because you can. I don’t necessarily think that’s bad, if you have a website and you think, “Well, maybe people will click on this, so let’s put it up there.” But I think we just wanted it all to be integrated in a way.

And what do you think of the iPad and iPhone apps you’ve seen? Do you have an opinion about how newspapers and magazines could do better in the mobile format?

Well, we’re really small and experimental. I think people often want me to say that the big-magazine apps out there are really crappy, that they’re not doing it right. But it’s more like, I have empathy for them, because we’re trying to do it too, and it’s very difficult. You have to answer questions like, “Should it be a floating page, or should it be scrollable?” That’s like a huge debate that people have—and there’s no answer! People will say, “No, it has to be pages that flip. That’s what people like.” But they don’t know what people like. That’s just what they like.

So I actually like a lot of the magazine apps out there, and I like that they’re trying different things. If there’s a problem with them, it’s that sometimes they’re required to translate directly from print into an app, and that’s very difficult, because it’s a completely different experience. The best ones don’t do that, though. I like The New Yorker app. I like the Wired app. I like the Popular Science app a lot. I actually like The Daily. I think that what The Daily did in terms of sharing stories, which everyone makes fun of, is actually quite clever.

One more question, back to The Atavist. I assume that these stories are very expensive to produce, not just journalistically but also because of all of the design. How did you decide what to charge for each story? I’m also curious about the decision to sell the stories individually, rather than selling subscriptions.

They are expensive to produce, relative to the things that are very popular to get into now, which are mainly short opinion things. Short opinion is the cheapest thing to produce; long journalism is the most expensive thing to produce. We’re trying to confront that by having this smaller model, where we’re kind of in business with the writer. So we’re paying the writer something to do it—to cover their expenses and also to give them a fee—and then we’re splitting the revenues with them, in the hopes that we can make back our money that we’ve paid them, we can make a profit, and then they can make the kind of money that they would’ve made if they had done it for a magazine.

The decision to sell them individually is in part derived from that, because if you bundle a bunch of stuff together, it’s difficult to tell what each author should be paid. And we want our readers to know that every time they buy a story, a significant portion of what they’ve paid is going directly to the writer. That’s one of the difficult things about a magazine—if you were doing to do that, how would you split it up? So that’s part of it. And also, we really do think of them like short books. There’s this length that almost never gets published in print, that now people can do digitally. You can see other people doing it now—there’s Byliner, and Kindle Singles is all about this. There’s this length that is sort of new, to produce things like this at this level.

The price is sort of derived from a proportional size to a book. So if you look at how much an e-book costs, and then you look at the length of our story versus the length of a traditional book, then the price kind of comes in there. Then there’s a price difference between the Kindle version and the app version, because the app version has all the multimedia while the Kindle is just the straight-up story.

That revenue-sharing plan kind of reminds me of the book industry. An author gets a book deal and gets an advance, and then writes the book, and then gets a share of the profits afterward.

One difference in our setup is that they don’t have to make up their advance. Traditionally, a book writer wouldn’t get a dime—I know this, because I wrote a book and I didn’t get a dime—until they make up their advance. In our case, we actually want the writer, from the first day, to be getting money. Partly so we can make this argument to readers that the money that they are paying is not going to some publishing executive, it’s actually going to a writer who has two kids and lives in Portland, Oregon, and just loves doing these stories.

I would imagine this is a very popular system with your freelancers. Have you been inundated with submissions since you launched?

I have, yeah. If there’s a word that’s stronger than “inundated,” that’s what I am.

Well in that case, I won’t keep you any longer…

Can you please make sure to tell people—because I’ve been a freelancer for ten years, and I hate when I pitch a place and never hear back, and now I’m doing that to other people—I’ve got piles and piles of pitches and I can’t even respond to them, but I’m really, really trying as hard as I can to get back to everyone.

Will do.

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Lauren Kirchner is a freelance writer covering digital security for CJR. Find her on Twitter at @lkirchner