Why I’m betting my salary on Latterly magazine

The narrative journalism startup everyone thinks might fail — but desperately hopes does not

Ben Wolford
Oct 17, 2014 · 4 min read

I decided to go into journalism when there wasn’t a word for click bait. The idea of writing an intentionally deceptive headline would’ve been appalling.

It was 2003, and the industry was still generally seen as pure. Years later, editors imposing story quotas would tally my bylines, and I would leave newspapers hoping to find the freedom to report deeply and write liberally as a freelancer.

That hope evaporated when I realized how difficult it is to make ends meet in Brooklyn on journalism alone. I ended up leaning heavily upon blogging and copywriting to make my rent payments and support my craft beer habit.

Christina and me

So after nearly a year, Christina, who’s now my wife, and I moved to Southeast Asia, shored up our finances and created Latterly, a magazine for narrative journalism. It is the culmination of several trends in disruptive digital journalism and, I think, will be the most successful small journalism startup of the year. Or at least of November.

Or at least it better be. Because I’m paying journalists from my own pocket for the first issue Nov. 18.

Journalism has weathered its nadir, and the trade is making its redemptive ascent, improving both the quality of the work and the sustainability of its production. Latterly is part of this upswing.

We’ve incorporated a few promising concepts into our model, and they are part of the reason I feel so confident that this experiment will succeed.

1. Narrative

Narrative journalism combines the standards and goals of journalistic reporting with the devices of literature. It doesn’t have to be long (or longform, if you prefer), but it does have to be story-like.

To put it another way, typical news reporting sticks the most important information in the first few paragraphs. Narrative journalism leaves the reader in suspense until the end. Journalists such as Ira Glass and David Finkel have perfected this art and have helped to popularize it.

Now, narrative journalism is everywhere. Newspapers, especially the Timeses of New York and Tampa Bay, continue to crank it out. New media projects have sprouted, including Epic, Serial and Narratively. Longform and Longreads have boomed mostly just for curating it.

Latterly will set itself apart in this space in two ways. First, it will be one of the only narrative magazines with an international scope targeting a global English-speaking audience. And second, Latterly will focus on stories that are newsworthy, but not necessarily in the news. We think readers have a larger bandwidth for international storytelling than many editors give them credit for.

2. Subcompact publishing

I used to subscribe to GQ because I liked reading one or two of the feature stories in the back. But I was paying for a lot of other stuff, like how to fold a pocket square, and the first dozen pages were ads.

The idea of subcompact publishing, elucidated here by my mentor at Compass Cultura, is probably the future of all publishing. Why should my subscription to The New York Times, for example, subsidize the food and sports sections I never touch?

Subcompact publishing tosses the fat and saves the lean cut — in Latterly’s case, four features per month — for a lower price.

3. Ad-free, reader supported

The cost of a Latterly subscription is $3 per month or $8 for three months. We’re still working out the details of how much access people get for free, but it won’t be much. Fortunately for us, more good journalism is going behind paywalls. Already, dozens of people have signed up for Latterly, proof that readers want to invest in the idea of quality journalism.

We’ve declared ourselves ad-free so emphatically because we want to avoid potentially corrupting commercial influence over our journalism. We also don’t like the idea of selling our readers’ attention to companies.

Instead, we’ll be accountable only to our community: namely, the subjects of our stories, the journalists who tell those stories and the subscribers who make it all possible. We will solicit feedback from everyone along the way and use it to make each month’s issue better than the last. Eventually, as others have done, we will publish our finances so anyone can see how we use each dollar.

Essentially, Latterly is crowd-funded journalism. To support the costs of the first few issues, we’re launching a Kickstarter campaign alongside our Nov. 18 launch. This will be our only seed money, and 100 percent of it will go into the pockets of our freelance writers and photographers.

We want Latterly to be a place where narrative journalism will feel safe. The stories won’t compete with ads for attention. We won’t govern our pieces for length. And the design of our website, like Medium’s, will be minimalist.

That’s how Latterly works. But as I told VentureBeat, “right now we’re selling an idea.” A writer’s success or failure comes down to the words.

Can we make your heart beat faster?

Ben Wolford is the editor of Latterly magazine. The first issue, along with a Kickstarter campaign, will launch Nov. 18.

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