Over the weekend I paid 99 cents for a quality piece of long form science journalism that I downloaded and read on my iPad.
Who published it? The New Yorker? Atlantic Monthly? National Geographic? No, the article is the first of what will hopefully be a long series published online by Matter, which bills itself as “the new home for the best in-depth and investigative writing about science and technology”.
The piece Do No Harm? – 8,000 words long, was about Body Identity Integrity Disorder. People with the condition struggle with the urge to have a limb amputated and either attempt to do the job themselves – or seek out doctors willing to do it for them. It isn’t the first time the subject has been covered in-depth. But the piece is a fascinating and emotive read and would happily sit in the publications I mention above.
But author Anil Ananthaswamy, an established science writer who would likely have had editors interested if he’d pitched the story idea to major magazine titles, decided to publish the story through Matter. In doing so, he is taking a punt on a new outlet for science journalism that competes with the establishment but exists precisely because of the dwindling space for this type of journalism in the mainstream media.
There are several reasons why Matter has a fair chance of succeeding – the same reasons why its founders raised US$140,000 on Kickstarter when they only set out to raise US$50,000. The pedigree of the editorial talent is very good as Carl Zimmer points out in this backgrounder. The platform is flexible, attractive and easy to use, particularly for Kindle owners.
But most importantly, the founders seem to understand what drives people who consume and pay for long form science journalism. Such people appreciate depth and quality and are willing to nurture an outlet that will deliver it over the long term.
Matter invites you to join as a member, signing up to pay a mere US99 cents per month. In return you get invited to online Q&As with the authors as well as Matter events and get to pitch story ideas you’d like to see investigated. How this will work out is yet to be seen – it employs an open source system for filtering ideas from members which Matter is calling “Editorial Board”. I love this level of engagement and as the membership grows I’m looking forward to being involved in the ideas-generating process.
Matter also has the advantage of being supported by a range of high-level names from the world of science journalism and also the tech sector. Part of the buzz created by these people explains part of Matter’s success on Kickstarter.
It is early days for this online magazine. And what it is setting out to do is anathema to the race-to-the-bottom, twitch-stream media populating news websites. But, hell, we need this type of thing, which taps into the crowdfunding model in a way that could make it sustainable.
As Zimmer points out:
If Johnson and Giles can continue to publish stories of this caliber, they will make an important contribution to the world of science writing. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll ascend to Politico-like heights of commercial success and pose a threat to traditional outlets. Politico does some good reporting, but every day it also serves up the political journalism equivalent of McDonald’s french fries–addictive little bits of information about who said what today in the DC hothouse.
I’m looking forward to Matter’s next release and wish the founders and contributors well in what I consider to be one of the most exciting ventures in science journalism to get underway in recent times.