New methods of distributing labour online can be very radical and important… but most of the time, we’re simply using connectivity to redistribute work back to ourselves.
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.
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