Toward the end of my stint in newspapers, the paper I was working for also sold bottled water.
Ben Wolford, the founder and editor of Latterly magazine, on funding quality journalism and continuing to ignore clicks.
What’s your story?
When I was a kid in Ohio, about eight-years-old, I was under the impression that if you wanted to be a novelist you had to be a journalist first. For some reason that idea stuck. I graduated from j-school, and I worked for newspapers in Florida and freelanced in New York City. In 2014, on a bit of a whim, my wife and I bought one-way plane tickets and moved to Southeast Asia. That freed us up in a lot of ways, including creatively. One day we started talking out this idea for a digital magazine, and we quickly built a beta site and solicited story pitches around the idea of ad-free, independent, international storytelling. The interest was almost instant. We funded a Kickstarter campaign to pay our writers and photographers, and thanks to the support of our readers we’re now seven issues in.
You publish stories on subjects you believe that the mainstream media ignore, how is this working out?
Yeah, obviously it’s not that the media ignore the war in Syria or the dictatorship in Egypt or the crisis in Greece. But something I think what gets lost in international news coverage is humanity and context. Humanity, because there’s not a ton of international human interest narrative finding its way into online outlets. And context because, in a lot of countries, readers aren’t often given enough background information to truly understand. There’s a quote I like from a book by Alain de Botton that gets at what I mean: “We don’t know whether anyone has ever had a normal day in the Democratic Republic of Congo, for no such thing has ever been recorded by a Western news organization”.
I see part of Latterly’s job as helping readers to sympathize better with people who happen to live far away.
You care about readers, not clicks, has this proved challenging?
Our business model is based 100 percent on reader support, not ads. So for that reason I’m less concerned about the number of people reading our stories than I am about the type of people reading. I would love to have a massive audience, but we’re a tiny, tiny organization. It’s more useful at this stage to engage with audiences that value the quality of our storytelling on a deeper level. Of course, that is challenging, growing a new brand from scratch with limited resources. But Latterly has come a long way in just seven months.
Which have been the most popular stories with readers and how do you know this?
I’ve got a lot of positive qualitative feedback on social media and from talking to people about stories like Edge of Evil, which details a hostage negotiation with ISIS, and Stolen to China, the cover of our current issue. In terms of most reads, that’s been purely a function of distribution. We co-published the story The New Old Country with Newsweek, and thousands of people read it. Sites like Longreads and others have aggregated our stories, including Until the Sun Comes Up and Everybody Loves Walter, and that’s sent us significant traffic.
Which have been your favourite stories to date?
I love all the ones I just mentioned. Also, Sean Williams, who’s written two stories for us, is immensely talented. And there’s a fantastic piece by Sophie Anmuth in Cairo about a mother whose son disappeared. There are more. I’m consistently overwhelmed by the ambition and talent of the journalists who bring their stories to Latterly.
How has the community evolved?
Our community hasn’t evolved so much as just grown. I would say we still have fewer than 100 truly die-hard fans, but we certainly have hundreds of people who know about Latterly and respect our journalism ethic. More than 500 people have registered for free accounts on our site. A lot of them seem to be in the international space: journalists, NGO workers and the like.
What have you learnt from founding Latterly?
I started this as a journalistic endeavor without giving enough thought to Latterly as a business. So I’ve had to develop an entrepreneurial mind, and that’s been kind of hard-earned. I’m sure I’ve missed opportunities for growth or revenue simply because I’m inexperienced as a business person. I’ve definitely come to appreciate the value of marketing and networking. A lot of the things I’ve had to do to make Latterly a success are nothing more than sales. For journalists, sales is one of the least natural things in the world.
What is it like working on this type of project in Thailand?
I started Latterly in Thailand, but my wife and I have since moved to the Dominican Republic. She’s a human rights lawyer and I’m a freelance journalist, so our lives are a little nomadic. For that reason and because it’s an international online publication, the people involved in Latterly are far flung. Our copy editor is in Las Vegas. Our web developers are in London. The writers and photographers live everywhere. For me, working on a bootstrap news startup somewhere other than Brooklyn is kind of liberating mentally. It’s certainly more cost-effective.
Are you working full-time on Latterly now?
I’m not paying myself for Latterly, so I can’t afford to work on it full-time yet. But I am its only employee, so it’s kind of like having two full-time jobs: freelance writing and editing Latterly. Our production schedule is slow enough, and digital publishing is effortless enough, that I can manage for now. I would like to grow in the coming months, and I’ve explored sources of new funding and potential partners. It’s all early stages right now.
The most important thing for Latterly is to maintain the qualities that make it so valuable — striking photography and compelling stories.
What are your predictions on the future of journalism?
We’re already seeing news publications start to wean themselves from ad revenue. They’re asking readers to pay for premium content and exploring other streams, like research services, crowdfunding and even corporate copy writing. Toward the end of my stint in newspapers, the paper I was working for also sold bottled water. I actually don’t see this as a bad thing as long as it helps pay for quality journalism and the editorial side isn’t compromised.
What else do you consume online and offline?
I read The New York Times and The New Yorker obsessively. I’m a Netflix fan. I’ve lately added new longform publications, like Deca and Newsweek Insights, to my routine. Other than that, I get a lot of tips on what to read from the people I follow on Twitter.
What would be a typical day?
I usually get up around 8:30am and go straight to work, checking emails and social media. It’s nice working from home. The dress code is pants optional. Sometimes I walk to a diner down the street (in pants) and order a Cuban sandwich. There’s some non-journalism writing I do to pay the bills, so I try to get that out of the way. Then the rest of the day I can spend doing Latterly and freelance work. I do miss the camaraderie of working in a newsroom, but I still wouldn’t trade it for being my own boss.
What will you be doing after this interview?
I’m going to take a break, do some push-ups, crack open a beer and sit on the balcony. Then I’m going to start feeling guilty and anxious for just sitting around and come rushing back to my laptop.
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