Further reading on The Ghost in the Cell
At the end of each MATTER piece, we give you a list of references — both academic papers that relate to the story and further reading if you’re eager to find out more about the topic we’ve covered.
This month our further reading included a Scientific American piece by Eric Nestler, whose work we refer to, on the "hidden switches in the mind" ($). Then there’s this Nature piece on epigenetics and a New York Times column on "why fathers really matter".
But of course it doesn’t stop there.
Reader Briggio pointed out this TIME story on a study showing women who were abused as kids are more likely to have children with autism, and there’s also an intriguing study on inherited traits in plants.
Ask not what the crowd can do for you…
Last night I spoke at the Hacks/Hackers London meet up as previously advertised. Others on stage included John Bracken of the Knight Foundation (via Skype) and David Leigh, the award-winning investigations editor of The Guardian. The subject? Business models for journalism.
It’s obviously a big, scary topic. It’s also one where people don’t actually share very much, so it was edifying to hear (and speak) about terrible things like spreadsheets and expenses and sustainability. And what’s clear is that there are no answers and many answers all at once: John admitted that Knight wanted to do more to make journalism projects viable beyond its philanthropy; David outlined a future of donor-sponsored investigative journalism that was both important and terrifying (because, as he pointed out, free-spending donors suddenly have a lot of indirect power over editorial).
(photo courtesy of Juhi_Tweets)
I chipped in by talking about how, at MATTER, our relationship with our supporters has helped us test and improve what we do as a business and a service — and all with sustainability in mind: things like our Kickstarter campaign, of course, but also product development (supporter feedback is why we added audiobooks for our Members, but have stepped back from offering them deals) and (with our co-piloting programme and our collaborative commissioning process). It was a lot of fun and people seemed to get something out of it.
Charming, funny, story from @readmatter at hacks & hackers tonight. This is the (2nd) closest I’ve seen to the future of journalism.— Martin Alderson (@martinald) March 20, 2013
Best thing about the night, though, was the tremendous audience. They were full of great questions and helpful advice about ways we could make our payment services work better for us, get stories funded, and try to push what we do in new and interesting directions.
Watch this space.
Phil McKenna on Uprising, part II
From the time you started reporting to the final edit, did you find that your initial thesis changed? Became more nuanced? If so, how?
Hardly a week went by where Ackley and Phillips didn’t make some new exciting discovery on gas leaks or the role gas played in killing trees. At the same time Ackley was embarking on these epic road trips across Pennsylvania’s fracking country finding really high methane concentrations where there shouldn’t have been any leaks.
At times it was hard to figure out what it all meant and what were the key turning points, but the initial thesis — gas may be worse than coal and this odd couple, the gas man who struggled to do the right thing, and the professor, were off to find the answer — never changed.
Can you talk a little bit about the editing process? How different is the final piece from your first submitted draft?
I filed my initial draft for Dan Baum and Margaret Knox in August 2012. They had me write the story in chronological order from start to finish just as Dan would file any story for the New Yorker. The end result, with significant editing from Dan and Margaret, was unlike anything I had written before and was superb.
By the time the story was slated to run in February, however, it was already a bit stale. Bobbie and Jim rightly had me do additional reporting, including a trip to DC, to bring the piece up to date. More significantly, they felt the story needed to cut to the chase quicker than could be done in a strictly chronological telling.
The piece was restructured significantly resulting in a piece as good if not better than the original edit and I think a better fit for MATTER. Readers will invest in a slow build-up piece if it is in the New Yorker because they know the payoff will be worth their while. I think a new publication launching in the age of Twitter, however, has to be more upfront about its significance and where the story is heading to draw in new readers.
We now support PayPal
One of the regular questions we’ve been asked since launch is whether we can offer some alternative way to pay for stories or membership.
Sometimes it’s because people don’t like handing over their card details to us (actually, we use the well-regarded Stripe for processing payments, so we never actually get your card details). Sometimes it’s because they get levied extra, annoying charges for buying an item in dollars (sorry). And sometimes it’s just because, well, they can’t — thanks, international banking system!
Well, we know this is important, and we had hoped to get something in place by the time we launched. That didn’t happen, but we’ve been beavering away behind the scenes to get it working, and now — finally — we can say that it’s up and running. You should now be able to purchase MATTER stories or join our Membership program using PayPal.
Hopefully that will make life easier for a lot of people.
Now: what else can we do to improve?
What is longform anyway?
OVER the last few years, as we’ve come to realise, the idea of longform journalism has started gaining currency — so much that the word itself now seems imbued with some peculiar form of magic. Jim already outlined the way that blogs, often seen as an enemy of depth, are actually some of the greatest champions of longform writing on the web. Some sites carry it as a badge of honour, like Longform.org and Longreads, while others like Slate or The Atlantic use length as a dog whistle for the intellectual crowd.
Even President Obama got in on the action. Sort of.
But what does “longform” actually mean?
Unsurprisingly, the name encourages people to focus on the length. They may argue that if a piece isn’t over 2,000 words, it’s not longform. Others feel that the bar should be even higher: three, five or 8,000 words.
The thing is, that line of thinking is just a conjurer’s trick that ends up substituting depth for length: if word count is your only yardstick, then it becomes really easy to write really bad longform. We’ve all read enough overwrought, overlong pieces to know that length is no measure of quality.
At the same time, there’s the form. A lot of longform writing adopts a particular tone of voice: a sort of detached, flat, word-heavy sound that makes everything sound like a PBS documentary. It’s not a tone I enjoy, it often drains the emotion from stories and ends up sounding ever-so-slightly pompous — like when you hear a great poet read their most vibrant work out loud and they choose to deliver it in a passionless, intellectual monotone.
The way I see it, longform is not about length or form, but actually about a mindset. Both the author and the reader come together with one ambition: to weave a story that sucks everybody right in and doesn’t let go until it’s finished. The best longform is bewitching, captivating and deep — regardless of how long it takes you to get to the end. I’ve read pieces just a few hundred words long that feel more like longform than others that ramble into the thousands.
At MATTER, we’re not producing short pieces: in fact, all of our articles will be at least 5,000 words long. But they’re that long because we’re choosing stories that take that much space to tell properly. We’re tackling big, complex ideas; deep, intriguing people; twisting, surprising, unknown things. The length is a by-product of that storytelling process, not the target.
And that, to us, is what longform really means.
Bobbie, MATTER co-founder
TIME IS ONE of the most precious resources we all have, and in journalism it’s no different.
Doing the sort of big, investigative pieces of reporting that we love can be a long process: you begin with a seed: an inkling or a tip, that you feed a little. You do a little probing, you let it sit and germinate. But it can often take years for ideas to turn into something fruitful — and thenyou have to go and do weeks (or maybe even months) of reporting and writing and editing to produce the end result.
There’s a perfect example of this over at Nieman Storyboard. That site is a great resource about writing, by the way, and they recently interviewed New Yorker staff writer David Grann about his story "The Yankee Comandante", which ran a couple of weeks ago.
It’s a riveting, spectacular, detailed piece about the mysterious William Alexander Morgan, a restless American whose personal quest ended up with him joining Fidel Castro’s revolutionaries in Cuba in the late 1950s. Go and read it if you haven’t already.
Grann is a writer I really admire, and his interview gives you a real sense of the Herculean effort that can go into producing a story of this depth. Not only was the tale itself more than 50 years in the making, but the process of thinking, reporting and writing started two years ago.
I think I heard about the story maybe in 2010. I looked into it some and then had other projects I was working on. I just kind of filed this away. I also then began to send out FOIA’s to all the government institutions.
I have thousands of pages and I spent a year researching the story, and often when you paint the scene you have multiple (perspectives). For example, in the battle scenes I would have multiple sources from the people who were there and I would crosscheck people’s memories. You have to really drill down on these and make sure you’re getting conformation on people’s memories since it took place a while ago.
I would work on things in sections. Sometimes once I knew what the section was – so if I was focusing on his biography section or a battle scene I’d create an outline and at that point I’d try to draw all the information from all the documents and start to fill in the outline. The outlines are often 200 or 300 pages for a story like this
Not everyone can spend the time Grann does on a story. And, of course, the end result isn’t better just because you spend a long time on it — that’s a mistake that too many people make. But you can’t simply ignore how much effort it takes to produce work of high quality. And it’s the sort of approach we aspire to.
Bobbie, MATTER co-founder
What’s wrong with science journalism?
That’s a broad title intended to provoke a reaction (and for a pair of British journalists, you can be sure that did).
But change the focus a little and what the writer, Daniel Engber, actually means is “why has tabloid science reporting taken hold in Britain?”. In fact keep zooming in and what he really means “why do the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph publish tabloid science?”. And then, as always, there’s the subtext: “…and is it better or worse than anywhere else?”
There are specific reasons why some science journalism is rotten, but in the end most of them boil down to something very simple: the belief among some editors that being read is more important than being right.
But I think the bigger issue is not identifying a problem, it’s looking for an answer.
And that’s an important part of why we started MATTER.
(photograph of Daily Mail used under Creative Commons license courtesy of Jem Stone)
Yes, a lot of what passes for science journalism is junk. But I think that’s in part because we’re increasingly seeing two different modes of science journalism in action — and the gap between them could (or should) be closed.
The way I see it, science and technology journalism tends to fall into a couple of categories. There’s news (“here is something that somebody has discovered”) and there’s explanation (“here is a deep insight into how something works”). Both categories cross a spectrum of different styles, from the entertaining-but-untrue tabloid gawping that creeps Engber out, to the dry, academic, just-the-facts approach, and everywhere in between.
What we realised is that while news can sometimes include an explanation, and explanations can sometimes deliver news, the two rarely combine to produce something that is more than the sum of its parts.
Science and technology are incredibly complex, beautiful, dark subjects that are full of new information and require deep thinking and storytelling. And while there is a lot of brilliant writing out there, the stories that synthesize all of these qualities into one place are far more rare than they should be.
I like to think that we can turn that ratio around a little by creating a very focused, very careful publication that tries to deliver both news and context in the same package. It’s not easy, of course, which is why we have to adhere to a “less is more" philosophy. But it’s possible.
I know the best writers and editors can combine startling investigation work and headline-grabbing news with something deeper and more challenging. They just need a place to breathe. And I know there are lots of readers out there who want to devour that sort of material: they just need a place to find it.
So from my position, then, Slate’s inquiring headline is not just baiting — it’s also a distraction. The real question is not “what’s wrong?”: it’s “what are you doing to make it better?”
Bobbie, MATTER co-founder
Depth, digestion and delivery
I wrote the other day about how one of the important ideas behind MATTER is that less is more. But what does that really mean in practice?
First, it means we can do some big stories — produce really deep, high-quality journalism. Most digital news outlets are focused on the day-to-day, on writing and reporting within a narrow window. That’s often a tough and important job. But it’s part of a spectrum. I’m excited by looking for ways to tell the bigger stories, the sort of stories that are months in the making, for the web.
Second, it also gives our stories room to breathe, and you time to digest them. Most publications like to throw lots of material at you: more material than you (or they) can handle. You might read it obsessively because you’re desperate not to miss something — a condition known as FOMO. More likely, you let a lot of it pass you by: something that doesn’t do the work justice, and just leaves you feeling a twinge of guilt like this:
By producing a limited amount of great material, we’re making a promise with you: you won’t need to spend a lot of time with us, but the time you do spend will be worth it.
Thirdly — and this one’s a bit more insidery — it means we can promote our stories in the way they deserve. You’d be surprised how disposable most news is to editors and journalists, even on “big” stories. That’s because tomorrow, there’s always another story to write, another job to do.
Hopefully, by producing a very limited amount of material, we can deliver each story in a way that works; give it the support and treatment it needs to thrive. Just as a huge plane takes a lot of thrust to make it into the air, our stories will need a lot of support if they are to lift off — and I think we give ourselves a good chance of getting there by treating each piece almost like an individual publication.
Which I suppose, after all, is precisely what they are.
Bobbie, MATTER co-founder
Why less is more
One of the core principles that underpin what we’re trying to do with MATTER is that less is more.
What do I mean? Well, all over the web, and all over the media in general, we’ve seen a gigantic, supernova-sized explosion of stuff. We joke about information overload, but it’s real: a while ago Google’s Eric Schmidt said that we now produce as much information in two days as we have managed in the previous 12,000 years of human history.
For publishers, that vastness has caused its own pressures. What do you do when the world is shouting a million times louder than ever before? The answer for many seems to be to shout back: publish more stories, about more things, and try and distribute them to more and more people.
But does that really make sense? There may be an apparently infinite supply of material; there is certainly not an infinite supply of attention. Being bigger and carrying more stories may not always be the best way to get that attention.
When we were trying to understand how MATTER might work, we quickly realized that it wasn’t just a case that we couldn’t publish big stories every day — it was that we wouldn’t.
We think that publishing a careful, discrete amount of stories is a strength, rather than a weakness, because it allows us to focus on doing the best possible job in all kinds of ways.
For example, we’ve done a lot of thinking about what happens when you aren’t trying to build an online publication that produces 5, 10, 50 or 100 stories per day. What stories become possible that weren’t before? What can you do that turns that lower frequency to your benefit? What can you do that everybody else struggles with? How can you promote the stories you produce? How can you talk about them?
We’ve learned a lot and listened a lot, and we think that less can most definitely be more. I’ll share some more on the ideas of how to make that happen in the next post.
Bobbie, MATTER co-founder