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What we learned in the first year of MATTER—and why we changed the way we work

Nov 27, 2013 · 5 min read

Since MATTER officially launched in November 2012, we’ve learned more than we ever expected—and we expected to learn a lot. There’s the straightforward stuff about running a business, building products, working with a large base of freelance staff, that sort of thing. Then there’s the other, surprising, angular stuff: being bought by another company, for example, was not something we’d ever considered… but it’s turned out great for us, our writers and our readers too.

Some of the things we’ve learned factored into our recent decision to remove the MATTER paywall, publish more frequently and move the entire service to our parent site, Medium. I thought I’d share a few of them with you.

Why? A lot of the journalism business is based around gut instinct, and the insights that people do have are often clutched close: after all, why share a piece of information if it’s your competitive advantage?

Frankly, that’s one big reason that mistakes get made again and again. I hope that if we share a few things we’ve seen then others won’t make some of the same mistakes we have… and maybe they’ll enjoy some of the same successes we have, too.

So here are three observations I’d like to share. None of them are revelations, but understanding the shape of these things, and their complexity, has been very important for us.

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People Have Low Tolerance For Barriers—Of Any Sort

We started out with a pretty straightforward pitch: there are lots of big, tough stories out there that need to be covered—but the current strains of the market mean that lots of stories get left behind because they aren’t seen as money spinners. That resonated with a significant number of people, but in the end, our efforts to build a readership were severely hampered by the paywall. Communicating why we were asking for payment was never easy.

We aren’t out-and-out product builders, so the old MATTER website was a long way from perfect. But it was pretty good: well-designed, robust, and while there is always friction you can remove, we had solid conversion rates. But even when we introduced pretty radical sharing options (allowing everyone who subscribed to MATTER to share stories an unlimited number of times, with their friends) we saw surprisingly low pickup. Over the year we added thousands of new subscribers, and by and large people who read our stories really appreciate what we do. But to make things work, we needed to grow faster. Perhaps any barrier can be too much of a barrier.

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But Visibility is Your Biggest Problem

It’s not only readers who are intolerant of paywalls: other media organizations are, too. When you’re subscription-only, you have to do a lot of legwork to make your stories marketable: the sort of thing that could be picked up by other outlets. We think our stories are, generally, pretty newsworthy (our piece on the natural gas scandal that nobody’s talking about, for example, won a major award). But it turns out that other outlets—from major news outlets to solo expert bloggers, and everywhere in between—are pretty reticent to write about, syndicate, or even link to, paywalled material. We’ve had some good support from partners like The Guardian and The Atlantic, but those relationships are hard to build.

At the same time, we were out of step with the rhythms of the web. In the early days, we struggled to put out one story a month—but the web doesn’t care about your schedule. Without producing more material, we felt we could never really be in tune with the way people wanted to read us, or cover a broad enough range of stories to make sure that there was something of interest to any potential reader. We aren’t stupid enough to think we’ll be the only publication anybody reads, but we knew we needed to publish enough to keep pace with people’s habits and interests.

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The Window for Kindle Singles is Narrowing

One of the things that got us excited about producing long-form journalism that we could sell was the advent of Kindle Singles—Amazon’s platform for distributing ebooks that are longer than the average feature story, but shorter than the average book. We thought it could be a major branch of our business if we did it right.

We’ve launched many of our stories in Singles (here are a few) and they all tick over… but in all honesty, we haven’t yet had a hit. This may be a problem at our end, and no doubt we still have a lot to learn, but it’s also a reflection of a major shift in Singles towards fiction. The best-seller list in Singles is now dominated by big-name fiction writers who have discovered it’s a great distribution and marketing tool for a product which is pretty easy for them to produce. Non-fiction feels pretty crowded out, and I’m hearing similar stories from other publishers. It’s clear to me now that our belief that, over time, this would become a stronger platform for selling non-fiction was wrong.

That’s not to say people don’t want to read ebooks: in fact, one of our most successful decisions was to add ebook downloads and Kindle delivery to our Membership package. But that put us in conflict with the platforms in a way we didn’t fully comprehend.

All of these things factor into why we’re tackling our second year in a different fashion to our first. MATTER still operates as an independent unit inside Medium, and we are determined to crack some of the tricky problems that a new generation of web publishers face.

And that’s why we’re changing.


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