‘Times’ freelancers make a bet on long-form local journalism with new site, ‘Narratively’

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Noah Rosenberg (center) and his band of journalists. (Senait Debesu)
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On a recent Thursday evening, Noah Rosenberg and a dozen other journalists in their '20s and '30s were huddled around a skinny picnic table at a Greenpoint beer hall called Spritzenhaus. The topic was death.

One of them was working on a feature about what it’s like to live in an apartment where the previous resident met some sort of tragic end. A second idea being kicked around was to do something about the old potter's field on Hart Island, a resting place for 850,000 souls just off the eastern shoreline of the Bronx. And another one of the writers was working on something about assisted suicide, a topic for which access to potential subjects was proving difficult to arrange.

“I think we should still push,” Rosenberg said. “The more they get to know you, they’re gonna want you to have as strong a story as possible.”

The macabre conversation carried on for another 20 minutes or so. Then Rosenberg switched gears. 

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“So let’s talk sex now,” he said.

The group meets up every week to plan for the launch later this summer of a multi-platform website called Narratively. (That’s narrative.ly, as far as your browser is concerned.) 

Rosenberg, who came up with the idea for Narratively a few years ago and has been slowly developing it ever since, said there were already five weeks worth of content lined up. Each week will revolve around a particular theme. Sex and death obviously fall on the provocative end of the spectrum, but wonkier motifs like New York waterways and "obscure New York pastimes" are also on the schedule. 

The site will publish just one story a day. Monday might yield a 5,000-word narrative; Tuesday an interactive media presentation; Wednesday a video documentary or photo slide-show; and so on. The editors will solicit feedback and submissions from readers throughout the week, culminating in a curated melange of user-generated content by the time Friday rolls around.

Rosenberg, a 29-year-old New York Times freelancer with wide eyes, thick stubble and brown hair that he usually ties back into one of those au courant man buns, recently completed a fellowship at CUNY’s Tow Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism, where he spent four months drafting a business plan for the nascent venture. 

“The goal is to get a launch sponsor, raise some seed money, start generating revenue, and eventually do this full-time,” said Rosenberg. “There’s not really a platform devoted exclusively to in-depth narratives about New York. I realized the power of these stories and I wanted a place to do them 100 percent of the time.”

At the moment, Rosenberg works out of what a colleague described as a “cloffice” in the Fort Greene apartment he shares with his girlfriend. He is Narratively's founder, publisher and editor-in-chief. He also reports, writes and oversees video and photo production, as well as being the point person for marketing and publicity. He has been joined by a managing editor—fellow Times contributor Brendan Spiegel. Their plan is to get Narratively off the ground with the help of a Kickstarter campaign and a handful of experienced New York freelancers who are willing to work without a paycheck until funding trickles in. (Assuming funding does, in fact, trickle in.)

“Narratively is a digital platform devoted to original, true, and in-depth storytelling about New York, with plans to expand to additional cities,” reads a description on the site’s launch page. “Through writing, photography, documentary video, animation and interactive media, Narratively distills New York—one story at a time.” 

Not long ago, the proliferation of A.D.D.-enabled websites like The Huffington Post and Business Insider seemed to augur a future in which most digital journalism would be served up in small bites rather than five-course meals. But the increasing number of new, usually small entries in the long-form field has challenged the orthodoxy of dominant digital content practices like iterative blogging, aggregation and ubiquitous slideshow assemblage.

Apps like Instapaper and Pocket have made it easy to turn 5,000-word features into smartphone-friendly subway reading. A steady stream of marathon-length articles has lately been flowing into readers' hands via Twitter and Tumblr thanks to curators like Longreads, Longform and Byliner.

Kindle Singles has become an industry success story, logging more than two million mid-length e-book sales in its first year. And just a week ago, news came that a group of Silicon Valley titans including Eric Schmidt and Marc Andreesen gave The Atavist $1.5 million toward its mission of publishing works of digital non-fiction that weigh in heavier than a standard magazine piece but lighter than your average book. (That's pocket change in the venture capital world and the The Atavist is also licensing digital publishing software; but it's noteworthy as an investment in content because these investors are allowing The Atavist to pursue their editorial ambitions.)

It's a bit early to tell where this trend is going, but it's definitely a trend. And Narratively is poised to capitalize on it.

“In some ways, the sites that have pushed the boundaries of short-form are so good that the only way to go is in the other direction,” said Evan Ratliff, The Atavist’s co-founder and editor-in-chief. “When it comes to grabbing people’s attention for just a few seconds and maximizing pageviews, if your plan is to do it better than BuzzFeed, you’re going to have a hard time convincing people you’ll succeed at that.” 

Narratively’s business model falls in line with the revenue strategy being employed at a growing number of digital media companies. It’s a combination of branded content (for example, were the Met to give them money, the site might publish a profile of one of its art-handlers and label it as a sponsored post); ticketed live events such as readings, screenings, and panel discussions; and an NPR-style membership option that would come with free event access and premium content. 

Rosenberg also said he’d like to explore content-licensing and syndication deals, but that’s still a way down the line.

For now he’s focused on locking down some initial funding via Kickstarter, the D.I.Y. startup incubator through which Narratively will launch a campaign in late June. The fact that this route has proven successful for like-minded projects gives Rosenberg cause for optimism. 

Matter, for instance, which was founded “to support independent, global, in-depth reporting about science and technology,” according to its Kickstarter page, raised more than $140,000 this past March. The Classical, an idiosyncratic daily sports site whose Kickstarter campaign promised “long features” like “a 25,000-word piece on Pete Alexander, say, or introductions to particular niches of sports fandom,” raised more than $55,000.

There's no guarantee Narratively will meet its Kickstarter goal, which Rosenberg said will most likely be in the ballpark of $50,000. And that type of dough is hardly enough to keep the lights on for very long. But it would mean Narratively could at the very least start paying contributors, which is something, considering that the types of journalists the site has attracted are indeed the types who are used to getting paid. 

The few dozen reporters, photographers and videographers who have been attending Narratively’s weekly planning sessions are seasoned freelancers, many of them no strangers to The New York Times' metro desk and other sections. Aside from Rosenberg and Spiegel, names that might ring a bell for the paper of record’s New York audience include Rebecca White, Michael Kirby Smith, Chris Maag, Danny Krieger, Robert Stolarik and Jed Lipinski (who is also a regular contributor to Capital). On the tech side, Narratively is being advised by Al Shaw, a news apps developer for ProPublica.

Jeff Jarvis, who runs the entrepreneurial journalism program at C.U.N.Y.’s graduate school, where he advised Rosenberg, said he was impressed with the caliber of writers who are involved. But he was most sanguine about Narratively's editorial strategy.

“The key insight is this idea of following one storyline from Monday to Friday,” Jarvis said. “If that works, it would bring a level of engagement that most news sites don’t have. People come to a story these days through social media and then they leave. Noah’s effort is to really get people coming back every day, and he can offer an advertiser the chance to take over the whole week. It enables a lot more interactivity with the public.”

A Stamford, Conn. native, Rosenberg got his start working for CBS News Productions right after graduating from Tufts in 2005 with a joint degree in English and Spanish. Two years later, he took a job as digital director at the newspaper chain that owns the Queens Courier, a role in which he revamped queenscourier.com with blogs, video and multimedia while still managing to file a few stories for the various print editions each week. By the fall of 2009, he had launched L.I.C. Courier Magazine, of which he was named founding editor-in-chief.

“He’s just a really smart guy,” said Josh Schneps, co-publisher at the Courier’s parent company. “He’s a great writer, but beyond that, he’s very dedicated and hard-working and focused, and I think that will help him in whatever he does in the future.”

In the summer of 2010, Rosenberg left the Courier and traveled to South Africa on contract for The Wall Street Journal to produce video segments about the FIFA World Cup. (Rosenberg played soccer in college and considers himself a “very serious fan.”) While there, he also filed photos and human interest stories for the Journal and GQ. He returned to New York that fall and started stringing for the Times, for which he’s freelanced on “a near full-time basis” ever since, he said. (He may have to scale back if and when Narratively takes off.) Recent assignments have taken him inside a Brooklyn courthouse for the trial of a former mob boss and to a block of East 84th Street that's been home to an elderly Manhattan woman for nearly all 102 years of her life. 

It’s these types of human interest stories that really get Rosenberg’s blood pumping. And when he’s not writing them for the Times, he’s coming up with ways to expand them into weekly themes for Narratively.

“The idea is to think of a story that just has to be told,” he said. “This story is kind of the center of the wheel of a bicycle, and we develop the spokes off of that.”

But it’s not as easy as it sounds.

“The first challenge is that you’ve gotta get the stories,” said The Atavist’s Ratliff. “It’s not incredibly simple to get the things you want at the level of quality that you want; to build up a pipeline. Getting that going is difficult.”

His advice to Narratively and all the other new digital long-form ventures out there?

“What you really need is time,” he said. “Whatever way they can give themselves time and room to figure it all out would be the most ideal thing.”