Do No Harm, by Anil Ananthaswamy. Published by Matter, $.99. Visit Matter for details about formats, purchasing, and membership.
Reviewed by Carl Zimmer
Talk about burying the lead.
Yesterday the Washington Post announced that they were hiring a new editor-in-chief. Reporting for the New York Times, Christine Haughney wrote that the Post made the switch because they were struggling with a steep decline in readership. It's not until deep in the piece that Haughney makes a startling statement:
"The paper also faces fresh competition from online news outlets, like Politico, whose founders include former Washington Post reporters."
Politico certainly didn't bring the Washington Post to its current moment of crisis singlehandedly. But it is striking to me that a web operation started from scratch in 2007 could baloon so fast that it could become a major threat to what was once one of the world's leading newspapers.
My attention was drawn to this buried lead because I've recently been getting to know a new player in the science news business, called Matter. This morning they are launching their web site, and their first piece of long-form journalism. It's way too early to predict whether Matter will become the Politico of the science world. But they definitely are entering the arena with impressive style.
Matter is the creation of two sci-tech journalists, Bobbie Johnson and Jim Giles. I called Johnson yesterday to get the lowdown on the operation. Johnson was a writer and editor specializing in technology at the Guardian until 2010, when he took a payout and walked away. He then teamed up with Giles, another science journalist, to launch a publication that would regularly release long-form pieces about science and technology.
First they spent some time figuring out how to make the business work. "So much of journalism is based on ambition rather than economic sense," Johnson said. "We really want the journalists we work with to get paid."
Taking inspiration from other new publishers such as the Atavist, Johnson and Giles came up with a plan for publishing individual pieces of longform journalism in digital form. To drum up seed money (and to create buzz), they went in March to the place where everyone in search of seed money and buzz goes these days: Kickstarter. Johnson saw it as a way to judge whether their idea had promise. "If we failed on Kickstarter, it would be time to pack up and go home," he said.
They set a fundraising goal of $50,000. "We hit that in 36 hours," says Johnson. Johnson and Giles eventually brought in over $140,000 from some 2500 contributors. Depending on how much people donated, they will receive free stories, a place on Matter's editorial board, lavish hardbound printed editions of Matter anthologies, and more. "We proved that there was something there. Then we had to deliver on the promises that we made," says Johnson.
Seven months later, Matter is now open for business. You can buy a story individually for ninety nine cents. Or you can sign up as a member for ninety nine cents a month to get all the stories as well as benefits like participating in Q & A sessions and having new pieces delivered automatically to your Kindle. You can download a version of the story, or you can just get to it on their handsomely designed site using a browser on a computer, tablet, or phone. (Matter follows sites like Quartz and the redesigned Technology Review in the new trend of eminently readable cross-platform programming.)
I've had a chance to read their first piece on offer, a story called "Do No Harm," by Anil Ananthaswamy, a correspondent for New Scientist. Obviously one datum does not a trend make. But based on "Do No Harm," there are a few things I can safely say that it portends for Matter's future.
The story--which concerns a horrific psychological disorder that makes people want to amputate their limbs--is in the neighborhood of 8,000 words. That's long even for the New Yorker, nudging its way out into that foggy zone where stories are considered too long for magazines but too short for book publishers. It's the space already inhabited by outfits like Byliner and the Atavist, who have published some great in-between stories. They've already proven that good storytelling is not constrained by the limitations of one particular media industry.
Ananthaswamy makes good use of this extra space. People have written about Body Identity Integrity Disorder before, but mostly in the tight confines of short articles. It's easy to slip into shortcut voyeurism under such constraints, or to just deliver a catalog of figures and scientific results. Ananthaswamy delves into the BIID community, where people surreptitiously search for doctors to rid them of legs and arms they consider not their own.
It's a powerful piece of reporting, which is enhanced by subdued yet haunting photographs from Brian Lee. One of Lee's picture shows a miniature skeleton in the house of a man with BIID. It's missing the lower part of the left leg--a picture of how he sees his true self.
One of the most important reasons that the story is so effective is also the easiest to overlook. You have to scroll all the way down to the end and see the credit line that reads, "Edited by Roger Hodge." As in, Roger Hodge, the former editor of Harper's and the current editor of Oxford American. Any writer knows that the story you turn into an editor is not the best that it could be. It's in that exchange between writers and editors that the story bloom. (Full disclosure: DtU editor Seth Mnookin is editing an upcoming Matter story.)
All of this bodes well for Matter's future. If Johnson and Giles can continue to publish stories of this caliber, they will make an important contribution to the world of science writing. But that doesn't necessarily mean they'll ascend to Politico-like heights of commercial success and pose a threat to traditional outlets. Politico does some good reporting, but every day it also serves up the political journalism equivalent of McDonald's french fries--addictive little bits of information about who said what today in the DC hothouse.
The sort of science writing Matter promises to deliver, on the other hand, has to be slow-cooked. But who knows--maybe there's room for McDonald's and for the locavore restaurant. I certainly know where I'll want to make my reservation.
[Update: Link to Matter fixed]
Carl Zimmer writes frequently about science for the New York Times and is the author of 13 books, including Evolution: Making Sense of Life.