The world needs a new way of publishing and distributing longform journalism. We’re still stuck in the era in which the default mindset is that the “bundle” is the best way to share good stories with other people. Magazines, newspapers, homepages, blogs — these concepts make less sense than ever. Today, stories come to us in an ever diversifying number of ways: through email, Twitter, Facebook, community sites, newsletters, chat apps.
Stories that find us in these ways are necessarily dislocated from some of the context that would surround them in their “home” environments. They must therefore be strong enough to stand on their own, with nothing but the recommender’s credibility, the author’s byline, and the publisher’s imprimatur as a first-glance indicator of quality.
A couple of years ago, I suggested that the future of magazine journalism should look like Spotify. I proposed a platform that collects and distributes stories, a centralized, personalized, and socialized reading hub for anyone interested in journalism. Readability, which now has a follow graph and curated recommendations, has come pretty close to that vision, to the point where it has become like a Twitter for longform journalism.
But in this world, it’s not just the concept of the bundle that has to evolve — it’s also the way the stories themselves are published.
We find ourselves in a situation in which traditional models, usually involving a mix of advertising, subscriptions, and events, can no longer be relied upon to sustain quality, independent journalism. In particular, if stories are coming to us as isolated units, publishers face even more challenges in making their pursuits profitable.
The answer, I think, is that publishers need to shift their emphasis to individual story units. The stories themselves must become platforms. Once the story is realized as the central force for reader attention, you can build an experience around it. That experience might include ads, but it might also include software applications, shopping opportunities, financial transactions, and donations.
My idea is that each story should be published on a HTML5 “card” that has two sides. On the front side of that card would be the story itself, with no bells and whistles. It would just be headline, byline, text, and perhaps a large image. That stripped-back experience would encourage uninterrupted reading, which I think is an undervalued quality.
Recently, we’ve all been going crazy Snow Falling the crap out of everything while forgetting that the best reading experience is one that lets you get lost in a narrative; one that induces a state of flow. If you don’t believe that an uninterrupted, plain-text reading environment is optimal, I suggest you pick up a book. Those things are essentially a few hundred pages of nothing but text. And yet, they seem to have done alright over the years.
However, as a reader, I love extra context when I get to the end of a story. If I’ve been moved by a piece of journalism, I’ll often look up the Wikipedia entry for the story’s subject or the chief protagonist. I’ll go to YouTube to see footage of the event in question. I’ll look for other work by the same author, and perhaps even buy one of her books. I might even listen to a podcast interview with the author to find out what she was thinking while she wrote the story. And sometimes, moved by the protagonist’s plight, I’ll donate money to the cause.
All this stuff could live on the back side of the story card. Once you’re done reading the story, you could flip it over, like a record, to find what’s on the other side. So, on the back of a story about a group of hippy surfers who ran a drug-smuggling operation in the 1970s, you might find: a Wikipedia excerpt about the kingpin; a Soundcloud embed of an interview with the author; an Amazon ad for a book written by the same guy; an image gallery showing what the surfers looked like then and now; a Reddit thread that presents a discussion of the crime; and a link to a petition to legalize marijuana. There are other possibilities to include, too, including tweets, Instagram photos, videos, documents, and whatever else you can think of. Each of these elements could themselves exist in cards, all of which could be expandable.
This back side of the card would be the platform part of the product, and it would lend itself to money-making in several ways. For a start, it could host straight-up ads, but that would be the least interesting path. Instead, there could be buttons for donations, to either the author or the cause. There could be cards that show off books, movies, tickets, flights, hotels, allowing purchases to be made right there on the back of the story.
A publisher might also choose to open the back side of the card to third-party developers who might build relevant widgets or apps. Another possibility is that the entire back side of the card could be given over to institutions or schools as a template, so they can plug in specific elements that are relevant to whatever story is on the front side. For example, a teacher might put in a quiz relevant to whatever story they’re teaching a class on. And all of these elements could be dynamic, so content could be added and removed as a story evolves over time.
What we’d be left with is a publishing technology that respects the primacy of the narrative while fully taking advantage of the distributive advantages and rich media potential of the web. It would be a reading experience designed for today, not one forced to fit the economic parameters of yesterday’s media business.
Would it be more profitable than the status quo? Ultimately, maybe not. But it would be more pleasurable. And now, as they watch their newsrooms shrink and their subscriptions shrivel, is the perfect time for media organizations to experiment. They might as well try it before someone else does.