Revolutionizing Journalism, One Download at a Time


If there is one common good that has arisen from your subway commute–aside from saving energy–it’s greater access to long-form journalism. And not just the latest issue of The New Yorker kind. All the popular apps and sites that point readers toward those 10,000-word gems of literary non-fiction originated out of a long Brooklyn commute into Manhattan. Instapaper, which lets you save an article to read later on your mobile device, and Longform and Longreads, which both curate and promote these good reads, were all launched by men who read on the subway. Says Longreads founder Mark Armstrong, “I think Brooklyn (and the subway commute) has been a big influence on this current revival of long-form content online.”

And now, The Atavist, a smart new platform for literary journalism, has joined these upstarts. Each story is peppered with multimedia features and is available for download onto your iPhone, iPad, Kindle or Nook, for $2.99 to $1.99 a pop. The idea for it came out of a discussion in 2009 between two Brooklyn writers and editors, Nicholas Thomspon and Evan Ratliff, who saw the potential for delivering in-depth articles in a new way. Ratliff had just moved here from San Francisco, and had already noticed how many people were reading saved content on their phones during their commute. Despite all the news available to us at any given moment, they felt there would be an audience for a new style of writing–one that borrowed from print but made the reading experience richer.

“I think that ventures like Longform, Longreads, and Instapaper hint at a population of people who actually do want more engaging stories, they just don’t necessarily want to read them sitting at their desk at work,” says Ratliff.

A map from Piano Demon on The Atavist;

The Atavist adds something revolutionary to this long-form revival in that it commissions original stories from seasoned writers and then inlays them with bells and whistles such as video, audio, asides, maps, and graphics. It’s like The New Yorker on steroids. When reading Ratliff’s current story on The Atavist, “Lifted,” about an elaborate heist of a cash depot in Stockholm, I was able to go back and forth between the text and the “inline” features to locate the towns mentioned in the piece, see photographs of all the characters, and learn the backstory of why Stockholm is such a target for international thieves.

Says Max Linsky of Longform, “One of my favorite Atavist features has to do with the subway…Because the audio and text are synced, you can listen to a story while walking to the subway, pick it up at the same point and read it while on the train, then put your headphones back on and listen while you’re walking to wherever you’re headed. Blew my mind when I first heard it.”

For writers, The Atavist offers a new home for work they might have difficulty placing in the one or two magazines their stories are suited for. Pieces you might find in Vanity Fair, Harper’s, Mother Jones, Wired or Outside all share a kinship with The Atavist, though it is more like a small publishing house than a digital magazine.

Even the terms of the writer’s fee are more similar to the book advance (though with a few key differences). The Atavist offers a flat fee for stories upon acceptance, which is also used to cover reporting expenses. All the download revenues are then shared equally with the writer, so there is a potential to earn anywhere from a respectable fee that a magazine like Harper’s might offer, to a more lucrative $2 per word rate. Even the fact-checkers and copy editors are paid for their time. “We’re proudly one of the few start-up news ventures where almost all of the money goes to writers or the people who make their copy better,” says Ratliff. The Atavist is even working with someone in L.A. to assess the movie potential of each story.

Other than a strong group of collaborators, the operation is pretty bare bones–there is no office, save for the bars on Atlantic Avenue. (Henry Public was the preferred spot for editorial meetings until they tired of the rude staff; now their default is the Waterfront Ale House.) But just last week, they broke even on their first two stories, meaning their current revenue will fund future pieces. Coming next: a story by novelist Nicholas Griffin about tropical explorer and ant expert Mark Moffet, “The Indiana Jones of Entomology.”

Stay tuned at

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