Meet Deca, the latest journalism cooperative

Deca's first offering. (decastories.com)
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Nicole Levy

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Most freelance writers operate as lone wolves, pitching stories in a high-risk and increasingly lower reward field.

But a new co-op of nine journalists with pedigrees from The New Yorker, The Atlantic and other prestigious titles, and with nods from the Pulitzer Prize committee and the National Magazine Awards, has banded together to edit and promote each other's stories. Launching today, the project, called Deca, will also pool resources to meet the expenses of members' in-depth reporting. It takes its cue from photojournalists who popularized cooperatives in the 1940s and 1950s, an era of similar technological change but long predating the days when members could communicate through Skype, Gchat and email.

Deca will take more than good will and team spirit to succeed, said Marc Herman, a member who lives in Barcelona, Spain. He hopes that the cooperative model, splitting among its international members revenue from stories sold on Amazon and on Deca's new app, will keep everyone engaged. (The group’s members, including Tom Zoellner, Stephan Faris and McKenzie Funk, report and write independently and have never actually assembled as a group in person.)

At launch, Deca is far from the only online outlet for long-form narrative pieces. A number of platforms, such as Narratively, The Big Roundtable, Beacon Reader, Matter, The Atavist and Byliner, have cropped up in recent years, publishing in-depth reported work with a narrative bent. Each has its own business model, from venture capital backing to the collection of donations.

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“Everybody is trying to figure out some sort of model right now, and a combination of models that can fund this kind of journalism,” said Erika Hayasaki, an assistant professor of English who teaches a class at U.C. Irvine called “Narrative for the Digital Age” and edits for Narratively. “I think it’s still too early to say what’s definitely going to work.”

Pulitzer Prize-finalist Mara Hvistendahl said she chose to publish Deca’s debut title, And The City Swallowed Them, with the group because she wanted the room to explore her subject at a novella length. Hvistendahl's piece is a true-crime story about the murder of a Canadian model in Shanghai and an investigation into China's fashion underworld and criminal justice system. “I might have had success pitching the idea to a magazine had I tried, but no magazine was going to hire me to write a 20,000-word piece,” she explained in an email.

In-depth, time-consuming reporting of the type Deca intends to support costs money. The New York Times and ProPublica’s famed Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation into a New Orleans hospital where 45 patients died during Hurricane Katrina cost $400,000 to produce, for example.

According to Hayasaki, “the longform digital startups, I don’t think they’ve figured out how to put that kind of money together.”

“It really varies for the writer how much money you can make,” she said. “A lot of times, it’s a big gamble, or you have to find some other source of funding to do your work upfront or just make a living.”

Like The Atavist and Byliner, which is reportedly looking for partners amid financial woes, Deca will sell its monthly stories as e-books, or Kindle Singles, through Amazon. Deca singles will cost $2.99 each, a yearly subscription $14.99.

“We are very selective, and we do get a lot of submissions from a lot of people and a lot of publishers, and we are committed to selling only the best work that we read and see,” said Amazon Kindle Singles editor David Blum. Amazon Kindle Singles, which now receives 1000 submissions a month and technically has unlimited space, has published 624 pieces since it opened its store in January 2011.

Seventy percent of the revenue from the sale of Kindle Singles will go to the Deca cooperative, which will in turn distribute a dividend to every writer from the group's overall sales each year.

“We can kind of even out the natural sales fluctuation, the way book publishers do,” said Herman, acknowledging that some of the cooperative's stories will sell better than others.

Deca aims to cover half of each author's reporting costs in the future; in the meantime, members have been footing the bill for their own work, and coordinating a Kickstarter campaign to crowdfund $15,000 for startup costs. 

That campaign is perhaps the key to decoding Deca's name, a prefix denoting a factor of 10. Although it launches with nine members, Herman said in an email, “We initially were thinking 10 members, 10k word-ish stories.” Instead, the cooperative has embraced the baseball metaphor of the “tenth man,” a reference to the fans who will, hopefully, fill the stands each game.