Deserting the Empire, Nate Beaty/Narratively

The art and business of storytelling

Narratively founder Noah Rosenberg on the criteria for a great story, building a strong community and how ‘niche is the new mass’. Here’s our candid, transatlantic chat.

Oct 13, 2015 · 27 min read
  1. What makes a great story
  2. Building the brand
  3. Journalism and technology
  4. Tips for a successful startup

1. Noah’s storytelling

How did you become interested in storytelling?

From a young age it was instilled in me that stories are an amazing way to experience other worlds, to broaden your imagination, to pique your curiosity, and so forth.

It never really dawned on me, but after she died I thought: this must have had a huge impact on me.

Beyond going to a library and spending time with her, she was always in story mode. When I used to sleep at her house, which was pretty much every weekend, I was always around that story culture. I was an only child as well, so from a young age I liked to talk and was always very curious, asking a ton of questions. My parents never made me feel silly, or that I was intruding for asking questions, they would always humour me. I became a very curious and inquisitive little kid and grew into a very curious and inquisitive adult.

I really started to spread my wings when I got to college and to explore storytelling in all these formats.

I came from a family that was artistic and encouraging of people pursuing their passions and really engaging with the arts and writing culture. They were very embracing of these sort of ‘alternative careers’, if you will. Even when I was a journalist earning $10 an hour, I was made to feel that this was ok, that I would get there eventually, and my family would be there to support me along the way. Certainly, that’s helped. And I was really fortunate to meet a co-founder, Brendan Spiegel, who shares my passion for storytelling.


2. What makes a great story

What makes a Narratively story?

What we look for in a good story is similar to (I hope) what most editors look for:

  1. Is the story teaching you something new? Is it piquing your curiosity?
  2. Is the story forcing you to ask questions? To rethink what you thought you knew?

What’s your process for choosing a story?

  • The connective tissue is the character-driven narrative: Who are the people in the story we’re casting a spotlight on? In fact, that’s the first question when someone gives us an idea.
  • Sometimes the editors will come up with a theme for a week of stories, or we’ll get the idea for a theme by a pitch someone sent in, or a submission. We’ll say “What are the themes of this story? Can we build it into something bigger? What other stories will go along with this?” It’s almost like puzzle pieces, trying to find pieces that work well together, even though they’re all standalone stories too.
  • We’ll put out a call for submissions once every three or four weeks. We have around 2,000 contributors around the world on our email list that work all over the place: New York Times, Getty, Wall Street Journal and The Times (London), as well as smaller publications. I’m proud of the fact that we have stable contributors who work at the top of their game, but that we also have college students working with us. We list five or so themes we’re working on with descriptions for each.
  • The ideas will then come in. We first ask “Does this look interesting?” and beyond that “Has the story been told before?” If it has: “What’s the new angle?” and “Who are the characters in the story?” Generally speaking, the character is a human being, but we’ve done stories before where the character is an island, a place, or something like that.
  • The ideas are already arranged around a particular medium. Someone’s pitching the story as a text piece, or a photo essay, or audio. For the most part, we won’t get back and say “This is a great story, we don’t want it to be an article, it should be a video.” We always work with you. In some cases we’ll go for the text piece and then we’ll integrate multimedia accents into the story, so we’ll add video clips, and so forth. We try and let the story dictate what the medium is and not everyone pitching to us is comfortable working across all mediums.
THE SUBWAY’S NO. 1 CHARMER. Photos by Oresti Tsonopoulos.

How far does data influence the story?

The short answer is not enough, but I think that’s a good thing, as it has helped us really maintain a sense of innocence. When everyone is trying to do the same old crap (pardon my language), we tend to rise above the noise by focusing on quality and marching to the beat of our own drummer. (Here we have an editor using terrible cliches — that would not make it into a Narratively piece!)

One thing that’s interesting, which I’ve come to learn from a lot of other (digital ) publishers, is that the majority of traffic they receive in a given month comes from a couple of stories. Even one story may drive 90 per cent of the traffic.

We’re not quite like that right now. All of the stories are great, but they can probably see a much bigger audience than they do and we’re working on that.

What’s the most popular Narratively story?

One of the most popular storis of all time, if not the most popular story, is one called Nick Brown Smelled Bull about an amateur psychologist from the UK who had debunked this psychological theory that was previously thought to be ground-breaking. This amateur says “That’s not how it is”, and proved them wrong. That story was a long piece, 6,000 or 7,000 words, and it got linked all over the internet, curiously by a number of conservative right wing blogs. They saw this character as someone who was saying, “Screw you!” to the man, and taking things into his own hands. That’s perhaps why it became popular in that orbit.

LEGENDS NEVER DIE. Photo: Jonathan Weiskopf.
LEGENDS NEVER DIE. Young Harold getting into a taxi. (Archival photo courtesy Gunars Elmuts)

Are those the stories that have been most powerful for you?

So many of them have. It would be like asking me (if I had kids) to pick my favourite child. I would say, as a rule, the stories I remember the most are the ones I have personally edited, worked on, or had the ideas for.

I’m a storyteller and it’s been over a year since I published my own story on Narratively. As we grow and have more people helping with the business side, I can be more involved in the actual story creation.

When a father’s son becomes his daughter. Illustrations by Esther Hong

3. Building the brand

It’s been three years since Narratively launched, what have you learnt along the way?

We’re actually planning a third birthday right now. I recently started getting notifications on LinkedIn saying “So-and-so liked your work anniversary status” and it was kind of cool to get that acknowledgement. Even though I had a crazy busy day, in the corner of my screen I kept seeing these reminders come up of what we’ve built and how far we have come, so that was great. It’s been a phenomenal process, I’ve never been prouder of anything in my life than of what we’ve built here, and the people we’re working with around the world to bring these amazing stories to life.

  1. Perfecting our revenue. The business model essentially, what we’re doing with brands. So, we have two parts of the business. One where businesses hire Narratively to produce stories for them, that’s our creative agency, we call it Narratively Creative. Because of the high quality of content on the website, and because of the authenticity and fresh approach we take, we’re hearing from a lot of other brands that want to hire us to produce content for them. We’ve done work for everyone from the Wilson Center, helping them launch as a digital publication and producing stories for them, to creating blog posts for Chevy the car company, and so many brands big and small in between. The second part of what we do with brands is sponsorship, getting brands to advertise on our website. Recently Square Space, the tech company, became our premium sponsor. So, those are the first two key priorities — audience development and defining what we do with brands.
  2. Overhauling the website. As great as the website looks and as awesome as it’s been for us, it’s time for us to update things. We have so much great storytelling in our archive which we can be refeaturing and want you as the reader to be able to discover.

If we hadn’t been so focused on those three things we might not have been in such a good position as we are right now.

Have you started making changes to the website yet?

We started doing little changes, but we haven’t done a big overhaul of the site in about a year and a half. It’s not that the site doesn’t look good, we get great feedback all the time, but I think we can do a better job of signalling to readers what it is that we do, and showcasing different content along verticals or categories, really perfecting the discovery aspect. A story we published three years ago is still very valuable and interesting today and in some cases it can be more interesting because of what’s happening today, because of a news event.

You want readers to care about the people behind the news?

The reason I thought it was important to create Narratively is because I would be on an assignment for the New York Times (covering a news event in the middle of the night, a homicide, or what have you) and would meet an amazing local character who deserved to have his or her story told. Of course, that person couldn’t ordinarily fit into a short news item, so I would go back and pitch my editors a feature on this person and often it was 50/50. I got to know what sort of stories they wanted, but even when they said “Yes” to that story I was lucky if I got 800 words for it.

What has been the biggest challenge?

  1. I don’t shy away from the money conversation, we’ve had some tough times. Thankfully, we’re in a really good position right now. We’ve always been on the up and up, but when you begin a startup and the audience is relatively small, a lot of work goes into it. Even though we’re only doing one story a day, we’re doing pretty in-depth stories. We’ve had some difficult stretches, some uncertainties around when the next check is coming in. Fortunately we moved on and got through those phases, but it’s certainly a challenge. We don’t claim to have figured it out, but we’re making good progress. Fortunately, we have been able to take a really unique stance when it comes to storytelling and that will hopefully help us in the long run.
  2. The difficulty of prioritising, figuring out the things we should be doing and should not be doing right now, is that there are so many opportunities. Some things are harder to quantify and measure. We started to do an event every two months at one point, which was great, people loved them. But I looked around the room and saw that the same 100 people were coming to every event. This was great, but we realised we were putting a lot of time and effort into doing this and maybe it was too early. We put a hold on it and now in the last year-and-a-half we’ve focused on putting on two big events a year. In fact, we’re kicking off an event tonight. Narratively has a large collection of photos on display at a non-profit, Photoville, in an old shipping container.

We’re much more careful now about the things we say “Yes” to and, as result, I think we’re doing better than when we try to do too much.

Do you plan on doing an event in London?

If you had come to me six months ago and said “Let’s do an event in London!” I would say “Yes, let’s do it!” I would love to now — with the right partner, but we’re trying to do it all on our own at the moment, so finding the right partner is a priority. The vision for the next two years or so is to slowly get to the point where we are doing a monthly event in New York. When I say event, I mean a storytelling event, which can range from film screenings to live reads, and discussions to storytelling workshops — writing, video, editing. But we would also like to start doing conferences, for example having a bi-annual storytelling conference where we bring really interesting visionaries together. With all these types of events, we would love to be doing them on a monthly basis in London, Toronto, San Francisco, Beijing, etc. That is definitely something that’s on the cards. We can’t execute on it today, but we are thinking about it a lot.

How to save an ancient language before it disappears forever. Photos by Rosalie Chan.

4. Journalism and technology

How will changes in technology influence journalism in the future?

For starters, I think the definition of a story and journalism is evolving, for better or worse. Nowadays, there is such a variety of content out there that consumers have a lot of choice, which is great, but it’s often hard to find the stuff that matters. All that really informed our editorial model of publishing one story at a time. For the long run, our plans aren’t to only publish one story a day. We want to grow that, slowly but surely, while maintaining our focus on the quality of the storytelling.

Does ‘the niche’ work for business and editorial?

Absolutely, if you look at the type of sponsors we have on the site right now, they’re absolutely the type of brand that aligns very well with us. They’re very creatively driven, in the scheme of things they’re not a global Fortune 500 company. We work with the type of companies we really feel take the same approach. We respect and admire these brands, and our audience respects and admires them too, because we have the same mentality.

Is there a typical Narratively reader?

There is a ton of overlap between our contributors and our users. The people that are writing for us are also reading Narratively and engaging with us in that regard. That forms a lot of what we do.

You seem to have a structured long-term vision?

Yes, we always had a structure, there were certainly times where we tried to do too much. It’s not that it backfired, but certain things that were more important may not grow at the rate they can. Fortunately, our stories have only got better over time. If we were out there chasing opportunities to do podcasts, events, and the stories were getting worse that would be horrible. But the quality has only gotten better.

Is New York the best place to launch a startup? Could you have started up somewhere else?

I’ve been asked this question before, but it wasn’t until this moment that I’m tempted to say absolutely not. I really don’t think we could do what we did anywhere else and there’s a couple of reasons for that. One, there’s such a culture around journalism and media in the city, there’s no place on earth like it to make connections, meet other journalists, editors, publishers, sales people. The people you need to run and build a media company are all here.

If we hadn’t focused on New York at the beginning then we may not have got enough traction, even though our stories are very different from what everybody else does. The fact we were doing it about New York really set us apart and created a launching pad for where we wanted to go next.

Life in a town where the sun don’t shine. Photo by Meredith Meeks.

5. Tips for a successful startup

What’s your tip for being productive?

  1. Emails. I find it helpful to start my mornings without opening emails right away. I give myself as long as I can, maybe 10.30–11am latest to not look at my emails. That way I can be more productive. I probably get around 1,000 emails a day and maybe 50% of them are ones I need to respond to. You get down a rabbit hole when you respond to someone, make your way through the inbox, and by the time you get to email number 37 the first 36 have responded to you, which then prompts another response. A lot of it is important stuff, but a lot of it can wait too.
  2. Delegate. It’s only now that I’m beginning to have the luxury of doing this, delegating to others. Even now, it’s a very small team. We have a massive freelance base of about 2,000 people, but in terms of our full-time staff it’s really only myself and Brendan my co-founder. We have finally brought on part-time people who help with ad sales and partnership/audience development, so that’s helping to take some of the day-to-day business stuff off me. We also have an amazing group of part-time and freelance editors, who put in an incredible amount of work, and they’re really the ones who keep this thing going. And, of course, the storytellers themselves. Without that core team of editorial staff we wouldn’t be here right now. I put in a lot of hours still, but for the first year-and-a-half I was probably working 18–20 hours per day in the week and 12–14 hours a day on the weekend. That’s got much better thanks to the great team we have.

I honestly don’t feel like I go to work, I feel like I’m doing what I love and building a foundation for others to do what they love. It’s been an amazing, humbling process.

What’s your advice to someone following your path?

In many ways, I think I’m the perfect person to be doing what im doing right now. Don’t get me wrong, I never in a million years planned to be running my own media company. If you’d asked me five years ago I probably would have thought I would have been reporting for some big media outlet now and travelling and telling stories, I would be happy doing that. But this is an idea I had that never would have gone away had I not acted on it. Obviously, I have the journalism background, but I’ve always been very entrepreneurial as well and come from a family of artists and entrepreneurs. As a little kid I always had ideas for things I wanted to create and a ton of story ideas. Bringing those two worlds together has been really exciting. Of course, it’s been a big learning curve as well, but in many ways I think that I’m an extremely optimistic person.

Is there a Plan B?

My first response was “No” because we’re doing well and we’re growing, but realistically anything could happen. We might not become the next Vice, not that it’s my goal anyway. So, I think the reality is that I’m building such a wealth of experience first and foremost, contacts also, and really learning so much about the media landscape, and about building my own business. I’m completely confident that if I am not involved with Narratively in two years, five years, ten years, then I would absolutely be able to find other great work. I hope I would be in a situation where I could take some time off, write a book, do those kind of things too. That’s how I look at it in terms of the Plan B. I’m doing what I love doing now, so it’s hard even to think about that — as much as my wife would like me to be thinking about it more. We’re only getting better, which is a great thing to be able to say and be able to believe three years on.

Who has inspired you?

My family, to a huge degree. They made it so that I was confident and comfortable and knew I could turn to them. I don’t come from money, it’s not like my parents are funding Narratively. They gave to my Kickstarter campaign, as many other people did, but I did this all on my own and I think they respect that. It helped to know that they were being supportive of me, that was always very important.

What makes a good CEO?

I’ve always relished the position of being a leader. As a young person I was always the captain of the soccer teams and things like that. I’m very proud of the fact that I’m able to rally people around me and without having done that, without having brought this amazing group of people with me, we wouldn’t be around today. But I also think it took my vision and my news ability to be able to spell it out and show them what was possible.

How do you switch off?

It’s tough to, as I’m so excited about all the things I want to accomplish. I like being active, I’m a big runner and cyclist. I’ve got a foot injury and haven’t been able do this in the last four months, so maybe I haven’t had the chance to decompress the way I normally would. Hopefully I’ll get that on the radar soon.


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