Media start-up hatched at Columbia, ‘The Big Roundtable,’ looks for a new long-form business model

Michael Shapiro. (via Twitter)
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Anyone who has experience writing for magazines can tell you that pitches tend to be approved or rejected based on the whim of any number of editors on the masthead.

What gets one editor excited might not do it for his boss directly up the chain. And even pieces that do get assigned can end up falling victim to caprice, sent to the kill pile if they're not panning out as brilliantly as it seemed they would have when they were conceived.

How many great stories never end up seeing the light of day as a result?

Lots, according to Michael Shapiro, a Columbia Journalism School professor who thinks he's developed a way to publish and distribute orphaned features by crowd-selecting stories, putting them up for sale on a website and paying writers $1 for each copy sold.

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"There are writers with big, true-life stories to tell. There are readers who might want to see them. These two groups of people too often never meet," reads a description of The Big Roundtable, a proposed long-form publishing collective for which Shapiro and his collaborators are raising money on Kickstarter. (One day in, they were more than half-way to their $5,000 goal.)

"For centuries standing between them was a gatekeeper—an agent, an editor, a publisher—who decided what people would want to read based on little more than the gatekeeper’s gut, a hunch, an instinct, a feeling. This meant that too many writers were left without readers. And too many readers left having never been told a story that might have mattered."

The Big Roundtable's solution?

Rather than have an editor or maybe two decide on a story’s worth, we instead present the first 1000 words of that story to a small group of our members and ask them to read—not as editors, or writers, or journalists, but as readers. If any of them finds the story so compelling that they want to share it, we send that same passage to another small group of readers, to see if the story is indeed capturing an audience. 

If it does, only then—only after those readers have expressed their excitement—do we set about fine-tuning, iterating, editing the story so that, in collaboration with the author, we can make it as memorable and compelling as it can be. And when those stories are ready, we make them available for sale, with the guarantee that the author will get a dollar for every story told.

"It's a new way to think of how we get stories in front of readers," Shapiro told Capital in a phone interview. "There are lots of strong journalists who have great stories but nowhere to publish them because a gatekeeper is standing in the way. My hope is that we can make it possible for those writers to find audiences."

On its face, The Big Roundtable might not seem all that distinct from the growing cabal of digital long-form ventures—Byliner, The Atavist, Kindle Singles, etc.—that have cropped to supplement to the traditional magazine model over the past few years.

But Shapiro places The Big Roundtable in a camp of its own.

"I think what's been happening in the digital long-form space has been great," he said. "But they're still using the same model. 'Send us a proposal, we'll pass it around amongst ourselves and see if your proposal is worthy.' Here's the problem with that: at end of the day, they are simply applying the analogue way of thinking to the digital world. It doesn't have to be that way."

The Big Roundtable, on the other hand, already has a back-channel of around 50 "readers" who have been testing out its model in beta form.

Shapiro said he hopes to "build out that audience" while keeping it small enough to be manageable. Those stories deemed must-reads by the committee will eventually be assigned to a single editor, who will shepherd their copy to publication—a 13,000-word Columbia Journalism School master's project about prison laborers who died fighting an Arizona forest fire in the early '90s, for instance. About a dozen such features have been amassed so far.

"What these stories have in common is that no one wanted them," said Shapiro. "But when readers see them they will say, 'This is amazing!'"

Aside from Shapiro, The Big Roundtable's core team includes Columbia Journalism Review executive editor Mike Hoyt and several others affiliated with the journalism school. The relatively modest Kickstarter goal was determined based on estimated start-up costs, Shapiro said.

"What I envision us becoming under the best circumstances is a laboratory for the long-form revival," he said. "I'm not saying this is the only way, I'm just saying this is a different way."