This news is exciting to me on a few levels — eight years ago I had my first introduction to Atavist when I met a journalist named Evan Ratliff for coffee at Housing Works in New York. He showed me the first pieces of what became a bold new platform for long-form storytelling, which he created with co-founders Jefferson Rabb and Nicholas Thompson. At the time I had just started Longreads, so we shared an interest in seeing a revival for long-form journalism on the open web.
Fast-forward to today and we’re thrilled to have the Atavist and Longreads teams now together under the WordPress.com banner. Atavist’s publishing platform will be moving over to WordPress, and its award-winning magazine The Atavist will continue to serve up outstanding in-depth storytelling with a new feature each month, under the editorship of Seyward Darby. Also joining the team is Atavist CEO Rabb and head of product communications Kathleen Ross.
I chatted with Rabb, Darby, and Ross about what’s next.
Jeff, Seyward, Kathleen, we’re excited you’re here! You’ve had a terrific run over the past eight years — leading innovation around the design and process of multimedia storytelling, winning many awards along the way — what are your hopes and priorities for Atavist moving forward?
RABB: Thank you, I’m thrilled to be here! My number one hope in joining [WordPress.com parent company] Automattic is to bring everything we have built and learned to an audience that is orders of magnitude larger. I’ve spent the past eight years honing a toolset and sensibility for digital journalism, and now I’m excited to put this to use for a mass audience. When these are integrated into WordPress, I am hoping we will have an unbeatable product for storytelling and journalism. There are many fascinating challenges and problems in journalism today, and now more than ever I want to be part of the solution.
DARBY: I’m also excited to be here! I’ve been at The Atavist Magazine for the last 15 months, and it’s the best job I’ve ever had. The list of things I love about our publication is too long to include in full, but some highlights are the intimate collaborations with creators, the anchoring belief in the timeless power of cinematic storytelling, and the commitment to nurturing the next generation of long-form writers. Certainly, we work with big-name journalists, but we’re also a magazine that supports up-and-coming narrative writers who want to take a swing at a really, really big story. I love nothing more than helping someone crack the code on a 15,000-word feature’s complex structure. (I’m a big fan of Post-It notes and story trees, and of fist-pumping to no one in particular when an article section falls into place.)
Moving forward, the magazine’s foundational priorities will remain the same: We’ll tell great stories, design them beautifully, treat our collaborators well, and have a lot of fun in the process. My hope is that, by combining forces with WordPress.com, we’ll get to push the boundaries of our projects: dive into more multi-part narrative investigations, produce more original video or audio where it makes good sense, improve the diversity of our roster of writers and artists, and provide journalists with the resources and time they need to report the hell out of topics they’re passionate about.
Winning awards and getting our stories optioned for film/TV, which we also have a strong track record of doing, will be goals, absolutely, but never at the expense of providing a quality experience to every person who contributes to or reads The Atavist.
Tell us about some of your favorite stories you’ve hosted.
DARBY: I’m proud of every story I’ve shepherded as the executive editor, so it’s hard for me to pick favorites. The most successful Atavist stories share the same key ingredients: a propulsive, satisfying narrative, rich characters, and scenes that make readers feel immersed in the world the writer is describing. At first blush, Kenneth R. Rosen’s story “The Devil’s Henchmen,” about what is being done with the bodies of the ISIS dead in Mosul, doesn’t seem to have much in common with Amitha Kalaichandran’s “Losing Conner’s Mind,” about a family’s quest to save a child from a rare, fatal disease; Allyn Gaestel’s “Things Fall Apart,” about an over-hyped art installation in Nigeria; Mike Mariani’s “Promethea Unbound,” about the tortured life of a child genius; or David Mark Simpson’s “Not Fuzz,” about a millionaire hotelier who moonlights as a serial police impersonator. Yet these stories all have compelling plots about everyday people whose lives are shaped by sheer will and unpredictable circumstance. You can’t put them down because you want to know what’s going to happen.
As for Atavist stories that predate my time at the magazine, I’ll award a few superlatives. Quirkiest goes to Jon Mooallem’s “American Hippopotamus,” about a bizarre plan to alter the national diet. Most Lyrical goes to Leslie Jamison’s “52 Blue,” about the world’s loneliest whale. Most Ambitious goes to Evan Ratliff’s epic “The Mastermind,” about a crime lord whose empire spanned pretty much the whole world. (It’s soon to be a book and TV show.) And Couldn’t Get It Out of My Head goes to Will Hunt and Matt Wolfe’s “The Ghosts of Pickering Trail,” about a family living in a haunted house. I’ll stop there, but I really could go on and on.
ROSS: Before I worked for Atavist, I actually worked right down the hall, so I have been reading the magazine for a long time. To me, the best Atavist Magazine stories are transporting: in “Welcome to Dog World,” Blair Braverman shows us Alaska; socialites head to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, for an early feminist victory in “The Divorce Colony” by April White; and James Verini’s “Love and Ruin” (the title story of our 2016 collection) is a romance and historical epic all in one, and I think about Nancy Hatch Dupree’s library in Afghanistan often. “A Family Matter” may be one of the most important stories we’ve done. Finally, I love stories about spectacular failures, so I have to mention Mitch Moxley’s article “Sunk,” which is about a disastrous attempt to make an epic movie about mermaids; plus, the piece has some excellent moments of maximalist design, including pixelated fish that bob across the page.
RABB: I have a soft spot for the very first stories such as “Lifted,” “Piano Demon,” and “My Mother’s Lover.” In addition to being great pieces of writing, they were the petri dishes in which our experimental approach to storytelling was born. They included ideas such as pop-up annotations, maps, and immersive sound elements. Even though the way we distribute our articles has changed dramatically since those stories were published—back then, they were exclusively on the Atavist mobile app and Kindle—many of the concepts and approaches in them formed the DNA of our company’s product. Developing those first few stories was an exciting and vital time for me.
Finally, I’m wondering what you think about the state of storytelling on the open web today. Where do you think things are headed?
DARBY: There are so many stories being told in the digital space right now, in so many ways, and to so many different audiences. Take SKAM Austin, which D.T. Max recently wrote about for The New Yorker. It’s a teen drama told entirely through Facebook posts, Instagram stories, texts, and other digital scraps and marginalia—a story crafted for its young target audience, based on the way they consume information and communicate with one another. That project is fictional, but there’s similar experimentation happening in the non-fiction space. Certainly, publications are pushing the envelope on transmedia (multi-platform storytelling) and rethinking story structure based on how events now unfold in real time in the palm of your hand. I’m thinking of projects like WIRED‘s story on police brutality, “How Social Media Shaped the Three Days That Shook America,” and National Geographic‘s partnership with ProPublica, “How the U.S. Triggered a Massacre in Mexico.” Recently, I was a fellow at the Sundance Institute’s New Frontier Lab, an incubator for storytellers who work with emerging technologies like VR, AR, and AI. It was incredible to hear the ways that this diverse group is reimagining how to create and deliver narratives. I can’t wait for all of the projects they were workshopping to be out in the world, and I hope to bring what I learned there to bear on my work at Automattic.
That said, I’m a journalist first, and when it comes to technology, I always have this nagging fear that form might compromise substance. No one should tell a story entirely via social media or VR or video just because they can; they should do so because there’s actual benefit—to the story itself, to the audience reached, and so on. I’m reminded of my very first job out of college, back in the aughts. I was a journalist in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, and I also conducted research on media training needs in the region. I met lots of aspiring journalists who said, “This international NGO helped me set up a blog, but I don’t even really know how to conduct an interview or fact-check. Can someone help me with that?” The experience has always stuck with me as a reminder that the basics of great journalism should apply no matter the platform. At The Atavist, we like to say that story comes first, and by that we mean plot and accuracy, then form and reach.