Could Digital Publishing Save Longform Journalism?

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With the death of many magazines and the ones that have managed to survive lessening their pages, it’s hard for journalists to find a place for their in-depth articles which often run upwards of 10,000 words. The pieces may be good, but when space is a valued commodity and the subject matter won’t move issues off shelves, editors are hesitant to give pages.

Wired contributing editor Evan Ratliff, New Yorker editor Nicholas Thompson and freelance graphic designer Jefferson Rabb, who previously worked on MTV.com, think they have a solution. The journalism veterans, tired of the constrains that traditional magazines placed on the length of pieces, came up with The Atavista hybrid between a magazine and a book publishing company that would digitally publish longform journalism from established writers. While the pieces would not be packaged around a certain theme or issued on a certain date each month, the stories would come out as individual stories at regular intervals.

“The fact that there’s not a market for (longer writing) is entirely the product of print,” Ratliff said to Techland. The author has written for many publications including The New Yorker and Wired. “The reason that market disappeared is because you can’t find the pages in the magazine to do something that long because it requires advertisers to sustain it, and it’s too short for a book when have to charge $25 for the hardback.”

After completing a 12,000 word piece about a $150 million bank heist, Ratliff realized even though he was an established author he would have a hard time selling his article. Instead, he published Lifted through The Atavist. It is now number two on the Kindle Singles’ bestseller list.

Instead of having a physical product, The Atavist directly releases its material for e-readers and tablets. Each story comes out in two versions. The basic version, available for $1.99 each story on Kindle Singles and NOOKbooks, is a mostly text and picture-based article with audio of the author reading the piece. It is edited Ratliff and the staff of The Atavist, which ensures the quality of the stories published. The enhanced version, available through the The Atavist iTunes App for $2.99 each piece, inlays additional content like videos, timelines, brief biographies and music files to further the reading experience. Ratliff’s Lifted story, for example, opens with security footage of the actual robbery he recounts in his story. The Piano Demon, a story about an African-American jazz musician who made a career in Asia, starts out with a song by the musician being profiled, Teddy Weatherford. “You don’t want to ruin the experience of someone reading by making them listen to that necessarily, but there’s a type of reader who when they read about music they want to hear it,” he explained. “It’s kind of amazing to be able to tap right there and hear what they describe.”

“You give the reader the option to go deeper, but you have to give them the option to turn it off if they want to,” he added.

While all this sounds good in theory, some skeptics are concerned whether the venture will make money. The Atavist offers a four figure advance to each author plus somewhere around fifty percent of the profits according to Rafliff. Compared to the Amazon self-publishing deal, which offers 70 percent of all sales to the author, it’s not a bad offer.

As of now, the co-founder said that the average magazine needs to sell 500,000 copies to break even, and each Atavist story only has to sell a “much, much smaller” fraction of that amount to make a profit.But all the costs of licensing music, videos and photographs can add up and drastically decrease a publication’s revenue – especially one that has to rely on sales instead of traditional advertising. While the issues didn’t come up with the first few stories, Ratliff admitted that it may play a role in which types of stories they decide to work with or what content they can provide. A long profile on a famous musician or director can mean thousands in royalties which The Atavist cannot afford at this time. Working with authors that have no previously published work means taking a risk that the person might not be able to pull off the story or will need more time and editing, something that The Atavist’s limited staff can’t provide right now, which is why they are only opting to work with writers with experience in writing longform pieces and books.

The future of The Atavist remains wide open. Eventually, Ratliff and the other founders would like to offer discounts for people who want to purchase more than one Atavist story or even have the resources to work with previously unpublished writers who have promising ideas. With Amazon offering to publish anyone who wants to write and companies like The Atavist offering pieces with stamped with approval from established journalists, it seems that those who want to write longform journalism may have a new home for their articles.

“There’s this perfect spot where almost no one is publishing anything, and there’s room to find readers at that level,” he said.

More on TIME.com:

Amazon: Kindle Books Finally Eclipse Paperbacks

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5 E-Readers For 2011

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