Long-form Local Stories Find a Home at Narratively

Photos from an audio slideshow featuring an Upper East Side woman who has a collection of thousands of antique eye-glasses. Photo: Elizabeth Herman for Narratively


At a point in online publishing when attention spans can be measured in 140 characters or less, Narratively, a new digital publication that soft launched late yesterday, is gaining notice for its devotion to the details.

Its founder, Fort Greene resident Noah Rosenberg, plans to publish in-depth, multimedia and text pieces featuring some of the most compelling, obscure and untold of New York’s eight million stories. Without column inches to consider, he and his contributors are free to let their creativity flow.

“For years, I’ve had this dream of creating a platform that would capture these really rich human interest stories about the city, stories that might not get play on the front page of The New York Times or the top of an evening newscast, but are still important on the list of stories that add to a city, add to its flavor, add to its diversity,” says Rosenberg.

Print publications devoted entirely to long-form local news stories just don’t exist any longer, and it’s Rosenberg’s hope that Narratively will allow readers to immerse themselves in the types of full-scale, fleshed out human interest stories that mainstream media doesn’t have time for anymore.

The Narratively team in Fort Greene Park, filming their Kickstarter video. Photo: Narratively

“There are hundreds of news outlets in New York, but it often feels like each day they’re chasing the same story,” says managing editor Brendan Spiegel (who also writes To Go, a food column for Brooklyn Based). “We ignore gossip, politics, breaking news…and focus exclusively on the great, untold human interest stories found on every corner of New York.

Each week the website will publish one story a day, Monday through Thursday, all of which focus on a central theme, much like a magazine. “The idea is that each week we’re exploring a different theme about New York,” Rosenberg says. “Monday could be a long-form article, Tuesday a documentary, Wednesday a photo essay, Thursday an animation of some sort. Friday is going to be reserved for curating the discussion we’ve engaged people in over the course of the week.”

The Long Haul is this first week’s theme, featuring “profiles of people who have spent their lives in the business of making New York move,” says Spiegel. Subjects include two female taxi drivers, five art handlers, a piano mover and a professional Ikea furniture builder. “Moving forward, we’re going to have weeks about sexual subcultures, dying in New York, the city’s waterways, and NYC hustlers, to name a few,” he adds.

Rosenberg plans to fully launch Narratively later this month. Right now, he’s working on raising $50,000 in seed money through a Kickstarter campaign, which ends September 10.

While he waits for backers to help bankroll the site, Rosenberg and his team are busy sifting through approximately six weeks of content from the 40 contributors they’ve recruited to the site thus far. The list includes writers, filmmakers, photographers and web designers who’ve worked for publications including New York Magazine, The New Yorker, CBS News, The BBC, GQ magazine and MediaStorm, as well as The New York Times, where Rosenberg freelances.

One of the art handlers profiled in a photo essay this week on Narratively. Photo: Tara Israel for Narratively

Narratively joins a growing list of new companies  looking to introduce digital news platforms focused on long-form or local journalism, like Atavist, a Brooklyn startup founded by Evan Ratliff, Jefferson Rabb and Nicholas Thompson in 2011.

Atavist, which recently acquired $1.5 million in venture capital from investors including  Eric E. Schmidt of Google and Marc Andreessen who was one of the founders of Netscape, marries multimedia and literary journalism by producing longform stories and storytelling software for digital devices. “The whole idea is not to just write a story or tell a story but to make it available to the readers wherever they want to read it,” says Ratliff. “That is the sort of place this type of publishing is headed.”

Though Atavist’s approach initially targeted digital devices like the iPad, its storytelling platform is growing increasingly more attractive online, thanks to advancements in mobile design and HTML5 that make for a richer, more readable experience on your laptop or desktop–a shift new sites like Narratively hope to capitalize on.

“I think it was conventional wisdom that people didn’t like to read long pieces online, that no one would click through multiple pages,” Ratliff says. “There’s still a very large base of people that read books, so you could really never argue that people’s desire to read longer pieces went away. It was more a matter of how do you translate that to people reading on screens. There’s certainly a lot more web-only, longform writing, reporting, design that’s happening now, and there’s no reason why [Narratively] can’t capture an audience. Now, how they’re going to take that audience and make that sustainable is the question.”

Rosenberg actually did a short fellowship at Atavist while he was finishing school–Ratliff even makes an appearance in Narratively’s Kickstarter video. His involvement in the project, however, ends there. “I’m not involved in any capacity,” he says, though he does see potential for success in the new startup. “Right now, they have the space and time to figure out what works and what people like, and I think online is a good place to find out how people react to it,” Ratliff says. “I think they have a pretty prudent approach.”

The success of a second media startup Capital New York, a local-news website now in its sophomore year, also speaks to the potential viability of a local news venture like Narratively. Tom McGeveran and Josh Benson, both former editors at the New York Observer, started Capital NY in 2010 as an outlet for more extensive local news coverage. In several ways, the site might prove a better blueprint for Narratively to follow; its initial funding was a fraction of what Atavist received–a few hundred thousand dollars as reported by Adage–but its popularity has kept it afloat through its crucial first year. McGeveran or Benson were unwilling to divulge any figures, but the site is showing signs of sustainability (according to quantcast.com, it receives roughly 200,000 unique visitors a month, no small feat for such a new site).

Narratively’s platform falls somewhere in between these two more seasoned startups, positioning itself more as a supplementary site than a competitor to other current offerings.

“Really there was no platform that existed to get this sort of multimedia treatment about really rich narrative stories on the local level,” Rosenberg says. “We’re creating a place to exclusively share these types of stories that we don’t think you can get elsewhere on a local level like this.”

Narratively’s future is still contingent on finding funding. While Kickstarter has made potential financing for independent projects infinitely more accessible, campaigns come with one major contingency–they must meet or exceed their fundraising goals to receive the money that backers pledge. Rosenberg says the site will launch in September regardless of whether the Kickstarter campaign is successful or not, though, he’s confident they’ll meet their $50,000 goal between now and September 10 (as of publication they had raised $43,200 of the $50,000 goal with three days to go). At this point, Narratively is not paying its writers or editors, but Kickstarter money is earmarked to help compensate those who’ve already contributed to the site. With the soft launch of the site today, Rosenberg says he’ll start courting additional investors, sponsors and advertisers in earnest.

During conversations in the past few weeks, Rosenberg’s confidence in Narratively as a viable venture was both emphatic and unwavering.

“These are people who are innately curious about the city,” Rosenberg says of his reporters. “They understand that New York has these really rich narratives, these morsels of stories that are really begging to be told and aren’t necessarily going to be told on a traditional media platform, certainly not in a city that’s brimming with eight million people, brimming with breaking news and politics and scandal and gossip. We’re really creating an outlet that is a platform to showcase these stories, to share these stories and to engage the audience because we do love to practice the craft of narrative nonfiction, of true storytelling.”

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