The Art and Science of Digital Storytelling
The Art and Science of Digital Storytelling
Columbia Journalism School and ASME Panel Discussion
May 2, 2014
Victor Navasky, George T. Delacorte Professor in Magazine Journalism and Chair of the Columbia Journalism Review
At a panel sponsored by ASME and the Columbia Journalism School to celebrate the 2014 National Magazine Awards, top magazine makers explained how they use digital media to create and translate “stories for the screen.” As magazines expand online by providing multimedia features, videos and live coverage, publications face the challenge of creating content that is engaging yet true to their brands.
VICTOR NAVASKY: Hello, everybody, I’m glad you’re all here. We’re honored to have our special guests today, the editors who make National Geographic, PEOPLE Digital, and The Atlantic possible. I have bios of all of them. I don’t think I’m going to read them to you, but I may bring them up in the course of our discussion. They’re all distinguished folk—PEOPLE’s website is the most successful in the industry of all these magazines, The Atlantic is a great magazine and continues to be so. It recently, in the last few years, moved to Washington, D.C., having been in the cradle of literary culture up in New England for many years. And I don’t know if it’s the oldest “what” in the country. Not quite, Harper’s is a little older as a monthly. The Nation was found in 1865, it’s the oldest weekly. And National Geographic is a continuously beautiful publication and continues to sell across the board in the multimedia world and in the new world and in the online world.
What I have invited each of our guests to do this morning is to just speak for five minutes about their own publications in the area of the art and science of digital storytelling. But really, that’s an invitation to talk about what a magazine is in this changing world, as things change so fast. For the three of you, you should know the curriculum of the school has just changed this year for the first time. For years it was a skills curriculum, where you concentrated in broadcasting, print, newspapers, magazines or digital, and now it’s a multi-capacity curriculum. Everybody takes modules and everybody takes a little bit of everything, although the students still do their master’s projects in their area of primary interest. And that is causing all kinds of peculiar ripples and learning opportunities and I think it’s happening at journalism schools across the countries. And so, we’re very lucky to have you here.
JANICE MORRIS: I’m the editor of PEOPLE Digital. I’ve been there for about 12 years now, but before that I was with newspapers and worked a little bit in magazines. But the past 12 years have been slowly digital, and I’ve seen the site transform from being really just celebrity news, celebrity database kind of site, into a site that is getting a lot more traction with human interest stories, a lot more traction with live event coverage and is really more relative to the magazine itself. And with PEOPLE—where you have such a broad spectrum of coverage, where the first few pages could be just stars on the red carpet and then you’re going into a story about an adoptive family with a special-needs child and then bouncing back into Style Watch—it’s all over the place. So we’re trying to do the same with the website and capture new readers, new users.
We have about 44 million uniques right now, coming through a lot of different places. Most of them land on the homepage itself, and that’s where you see probably the most variety of content. It’s just like the magazine, where it’s going to be that mishmash of stories. With that said, I was thinking about the topic of this panel, and it is quite broad, because really it is what we do every day and what we’ve been doing with the site for more than a decade now. But it made me think about the types of stories that we do and we really do it in two forms. It’s not going to be what James is going to talk about or what Bethany has to say about long-form stories or the types of stories that have a lot of visual components, but we are the masters of short-form. By short-form, I mean, sometimes it’s 200 words, 300 words. A long story may be 500 or 600 words. And it could also be in photos. There’s a lot of visual storytelling that’s happening at PEOPLE—photos, videos—and there’s a social component to that. So what we’ve done with the site is set it up so that the short-form is really good for live event coverage. When we’re on the red carpet, we’re doing it in video, we’re doing it in quotes from Twitter, from Facebook, across all the social platforms, and we’re using them as a source of reporting.
The other way that we look at short-form is taking some of those longer pieces of the magazine and teasing them out through the week or taking a story that we would call ongoing, such as the very important story of George Clooney’s engagement. It’s not just the news that he’s engaged. There are probably five, six, seven other bumps we could do with it, which could be talking about who is this woman, how long have they been together, who are all of his other past loves, let’s look at all of his hairstyles through the year. There are a lot of different ways you can approach a story like that and carry it through the week so that it supports the magazine. Those are the two ways I say we’ve been approaching short-form. The other thing that’s become really important is social storytelling and how we’re using social media to tell a story in a way that can reach readers on, whether it’s Tumblr, whether it’s Facebook, whether it’s Twitter, but reach them in a medium that they’re familiar with, using the types of, either posting or multimedia posting, that you wouldn’t normally get on the site and how we bring those back in. So that’s kind of a summary of how I’m seeing digital storytelling overall at PEOPLE.
NAVASKY: What happens to fact checking online?
MORRIS: You’re getting right into it! I would say this is like working at a small-city newspaper where you’re responsible for your own stories, your own facts. I don’t have any fact checkers. I have reporters and writers. I have editors. And everyone is responsible up the chain with making sure what we post is correct, that even names are spelled correctly. I don’t have copy editors. Everyone is working on their own, so a lot of trust goes into it.
NAVASKY: I assume print has fact checkers?
MORRIS: They do have fact checkers, but the beauty of online is you can go in and make corrections, whereas with a print publication, it’s there forever.
JAMES BENNET: I’m James Bennet. I’m the editor in chief for The Atlantic. Maybe I’ll start with the fact checking question, quickly, because last night was the annual National Magazine Awards—National Geographic took home two—and it was hosted by Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski, and at the outset, they said if anybody mentioned the fact checkers, at that point they were going to cut them off. Had The Atlantic been lucky enough to win last night, which is was not, the first thing I was going to do when I got up there was congratulate our fact checkers, not thank them, but congratulate them, because they are still core to what the magazine does, and they are among the hardest-working people at The Atlantic, which is saying something. That said, we don’t have fact checking online. It is a different environment and I agree with what Janice said. I was a newspaper reporter for many years. I was never fact checked and felt the burden of getting things right very heavily on my shoulders at all times. The speed at which we have to move in the digital environment simply prohibits the kind of work that we do in the print product while enabling us to do all sorts of new things that we’re going to talk about today. The other great advantage, of course, is that you’re fact checked by your users in real time. Our posts are living posts, and we go back into them and correct them and are transparent about that, when we change things and acknowledge an error. So it comes back to journalistic value. I’d actually love to hear, Victor, how you guys teach that stuff here.
I guess for my table-setting portion of this, I’ll pick up on the portion that Victor left off, because it does bring us around to how we think about the art and science of digital story telling today. The Atlantic was founded in Boston in 1857 by a group of writers, Ralph Waldo Emerson, James Russell Lowell, Henry David Thoreau, Harriet Beecher Stowe, who had a number of goals in mind. They wanted a place to publish themselves. They thought there was an emerging American voice in letters and they wanted to capture that. They wanted to entertain people. And they were excited about—this was on the cusp of the Industrial Revolution—and they thought that the country was changing and they wanted to drive that change they were excited about, fundamentally optimistic about the future.
We look at the old pictures of them in black and white and they have beards, all of them. Even Harriet Beecher Stowe seems to have a beard. But they were radicals and they wrote a statement of purpose for the magazine that all of our people go back to constantly. And it didn’t say their goal was to publish a print magazine. It said their goal was to entertain people and to promote what they called “the American Ideal” and, as they put it, as “of no party or clique.” To me that’s always meant independence in the broadest sense, not just politically, but unconventional in their thinking and not bound by tradition. And they would promote the American ideal. They didn’t say what that meant, but their first order of business was to seek the abolition of slavery, which was a radical cause, even in Boston in 1857. And they had the chutzpah to think they could actually bring it about and they actually did. So a few years ago, when we were relaunching the magazine and thinking about how we should approach the digital environment, we spent a lot of time going back to that history and really learning from it.
The fundamental purpose of The Atlantic is to identify these big ideas that are relative to our audiences, push them out in any way we can. And what’s so exciting about this time now is because, back then, the most effective way to do this was a print publication. It actually still remains one of the most effective ways to do it. One of the most effective ways to do this back then was to publish big, long stories. That is still a really effective way to get a really provocative idea across. Some ideas can only be delivered still in that medium. However, today we’re lucky enough to have lots of other tools to do this work. And so we’re doing live events, we have three websites now and a very large digital newsroom, and all of it is kind of bound together and all of our work is, as a result, digital. It’s in the magazine but lives also online, and everything we do in the event space lives online, and we create a lot of stories every day, digitally, and all of it is joined together with this fundamental orientation. A kind of sensibility and sense of excitement and possibility of change and an eagerness to kind of get big ideas out there to our readers as quickly and as powerfully as we can.
NAVASKY: Let me just ask you one question before we hear from Bethany, if I can. I mentioned, as did you, that The Atlantic, for years, was based in New England, the cradle of our literary culture, and you’ve moved to Washington. Aside from the inconvenience of moving anywhere, did that move change the experience of this magazine in any way that you can talk about that you’re aware of? Because it seems to me, in principal, all the new media has made moving more possible on the one hand. On the other hand, it matters. Washington, D.C., is not Boston or Cambridge.
BENNET: I joined the magazine right after it moved, so I was never part of the Boston office. And the reason the magazine was moved was the owner, David Bradley, who is based in Washington and owns other publications, and he was collecting them all under the same roof. So much change has happened at The Atlantic in the last few years that it’s hard to know what to attribute to geography. I would not actually attribute very much of it to geography. Part of the challenge at The Atlantic is resisting the centrifugal force of Washington. We are not a political magazine. We are not a Washington magazine. We’re a general-interest magazine, and I’m still a believer in having editors in the same space, but I’m a big believer in having writers elsewhere and not in the office. And we do in fact have writers scattered across the country.
NAVASKY: This is a good place for Bethany to start, having just been told geography doesn’t matter. National Geographic person, here we are.
BETHANY POWELL: Hi, my name is Bethany Powell, and I am the design lead for the native app for National Geographic magazine. I don’t work in the daily space. I work in the monthly space and we publish every month on the iPad, the iPhone and the Kindle Fire. And the primary part of my job is to work with our creative director, our maps edits, our photo editors and text editors to repackage the stories for the screen—working on user activity, the way that we package our videos. And I think the most interesting part of this is we want people to interact with the content. We have all this amazing content, but if it isn’t presented properly, people will just pass right by it. So I have a few examples, I’m not sure if now would be the proper time, but I can go through my iPad and show a few examples of how we’ve gone from print to digital.
So we recently celebrated 125 years of National Geographic magazine, and part of my job, as I said, is to work with editors to re-conceptualize and represent what appeared in print. Like, for example, this gatefold appeared in the print magazine, and to translate that onto screen. And here’s how we did that for the 125th anniversary issue. Any kind of tablet device is a very obvious format for video, and one luxury National Geographic photographers have is time. We’re very long-form. Photographers will spend between four to six weeks on average in the field, and recently a lot of our photographers have also been shooting video. This is how the print story appeared, and Erika Larsen, the photographer for this story, also shot video, and it is a great example to show how the strength and quality of her video was just as compelling as the still images. And what was great about this too was that this video wasn’t just within the National Geographic bubble. We were able to post it on our YouTube site and we do have a lot of different channels for our content. So we have people who look at National Geographic magazine on the web, who subscribe to the app, who just look at our channel on YouTube or Instagram. So this was a great example of the video.
We also use video as a design element as an introduction to some of our stories online. This was a story about a group of explorers who were exploring the cliffs off of the northern cost of Oman, and the main photographer for this story, his name is Jimmy Chin, and all of them had their cellphones and were Instagramming. And the photo editor for this story, Sadie Quarrier, became very excited by their Instagram photographs, because it gave a really personal account to this story. So this was the first time an Instagram photo was published in National Geographic magazine. When we launched our iPhone app, we included audio recordings for all of our stories. We wanted people to be able to plug their iPhones into their car on the drive home and listen to the feature author read the entire article, and we don’t do that for every story, but I just wanted to play a quick clip from Garrison Keillor’s recent article on Minnesota, which he wrote for National Geographic. [Audio from presentation.]
So when the reader came to the first page of the story, that was the audio play. I would say the biggest challenge is how we can take our maps that were originally conceived for print and make them accessible for someone who is looking at the content on a 1024 x 768 screen. This is how the graphic appeared in print, and this about how the lunar eclipse affects lion attacks on humans. The way that we felt that we could break it up over the iPad is to first introduce the title on the first page with an explanation about the graphic, a small graphic, and then when you swipe to the second page, it’s compressed from one page of a lot of information over to two.
This is another fun user experience where we recently launched a food series, and every day online we are publishing food facts every day, so the reader can—on the iPad we curate this, since we only publish monthly. We curate this, just says “Food Facts,” but the reader can tap on the icon to see the fact, which is a fun user experience.
NAVASKY: Bethany, before you came to National Geographic, you were designing books and editing photography books, and before that you went to the Yale School of Design. Was putting this multimedia thing together something that you learned on the job and invented, or did you have experience with that before?
POWELL: It’s a little bit of both. The M.O. of the Yale Design School was that we were media agnostic. So we would take an idea and it was part of our curriculum and we would make it work in print, we would make it work on the web, we would make it work in a video. So I became very excited—actually, this is my second time working at National Geographic. I worked there first when I was out of college and then went to graduate school, spent a few years freelancing, and then when I knew they were launching the iPad edition, I approached the creative director, Bill Marr, and begged for the job, because I knew that this would be the place where you’re really doing both. You’re coming at it from a print perspective and trying to make it work online.
NAVASKY: Well, this is very exciting. Now, I’m going to open up to questions again. So, any—
AUDIENCE MEMBER: So I have a question, because I’m on a mission to find an answer, so the question is first about the business side. I would like to ask more about the editorial side, if time permits, but the question is about the business side and what kind of metrics you use to evaluate the viability of the publication or the articles. So I wonder if you could give something specific. Like an old rule of thumb for newspapers was that a thousand readers would support one newsroom staffer from the ads that a thousand readers could generate. So is there some kind of metric or benchmark that you use? And then also, what are the things that you would give as advice as benchmarks to try ensure the viability of a digital model?
MORRIS: I think what you’re asking is how do we measure the number of staff members against how successful the publication is, in terms of a dollar amount? The numbers that we use to show the overall size of the publication, we use two different ones. We look at comScore. comScore is more of an official reporting unit where they’re looking in some super secretive way. There’s some super-secret black box they have where they come up with numbers to measure different categories in the industry, so there could be a category for PEOPLE. For example, we’re in the entertainment category. I’m not sure where The Atlantic falls. So there’s a news category. There’s probably a sports category, I don’t know. But for entertainment, we always look at where we fall within our competitive set. And some of that is what we consider our competitive set, and then the rest of it might be overall this idea of a competitive set.
So for us it’s really looking at Yahoo’s celebrity vertical, how big are they? Where is MSN’s entertainment vertical and where do we fit into that? Generally, within that competitive set, we fall within the top five, but you are competing against the portals. You are competing against some other big standalone sites, so there are different ways of looking at it, and you have to figure out how you’re going to describe that to the advertiser and put it in context for them.
So other metrics to use within that—it’s not just the number comScore will give you of your unique users, and for PEOPLE it’s about 20 million or so on average and that’s across platforms. But you’re also looking at your engagement time, which can be really, really important. Because someone can have, they can go out there and say, “I have 30 million unique users on comScore,” but they each only spend 30 seconds on the site. So when you’re talking to an advertiser, you want to be able to say that on average, your user spends 10 minutes on the site. I think that’s a really important one to include.
As far as looking at the overall business, it is the health of the site measured in unique numbers, and you can use your own unique reporting tools as well. We use Omniture. So, aside from comScore, there’s Omniture analytics. Other people use Google analytics. I think there are a few other companies out there that you can use for your own site. We also take a look at how much we’re selling in, say, individual sections, and if there’s one that’s really selling wildly to different advertisers with custom programs, we might have more staffers because we’ll need more content. If we find that there is one area that is not selling very well, maybe it’s time to sunset that vertical. At other points, you’re also looking at, well, what’s the reader value? If it’s something core to the PEOPLE DNA, we would never sunset that, even though it might not sell. I use the example of crime stories. No advertiser wants to be next to a horrific crime story. But people really like getting deep into those human-interest stories, and we’re still going to deliver that, even if it doesn’t hit some number against an aspirin seller.
BENNET: Our approach is very similar to the one Janice just described, right down to the same analytics tools. ComScore, because that’s a publicly available one that the advertisers use. Omniture is what we use internally. The only thing that I would add in terms of—I mean, there’s so many metrics that we look at. Nothing at all like the ratio like you described, to support one’s staff, we just don’t use that kind of—
NAVASKY: Could you explain what comScore is for those of us who don’t know what it is?
BENNET: It’s like the Nielsen rating system but for digital traffic. And it is equally mysterious in its methodology, and we always think we should be scoring a lot higher than we are, but everyone feels that way. Another metric that matters more and more—anything that helps gauge your performance in the social space. This is probably something we’re going to talk about, but we all think as much about publishing on Facebook these days as we think about publishing on our own platforms, and so shares per post and reach and those sorts of things matter a great deal. Circulation matters a great deal to me too. Newsstand sales still matter. I mean, we pay attention to all of these things. In the end, the bottom line matters. Profit matters. We need to be able to make a profit at The Atlantic. In our long-form stories, to have to have some kind of visual engagement that is more than just text that will hopefully keep readers scrolling.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Hi, my question is for James. I read The Atlantic’s articles a lot. Actually, I love the general-interest ones, and I actually go all the way to the end, and sometimes I wish there weren’t so many interesting ones because it’s so much time away from everything else. I really enjoy the narrative on those, and I’m thinking, do you plan to expand that section? Because I’m assuming, other people, my friends, et cetera, I post them, they also get a lot of reads, and what’s your advice for pitching stories that are general interest to The Atlantic?
BENNET: Thank you very much for reading The Atlantic—I appreciate that. The answer is that we are doing more and more of it, and it’s part of what’s wonderful in this environment. We continue to do big pieces, narratives, essays, profiles. Those are the foundation of everything we do at The Atlantic and are central to the magazine. But we’re doing more and more of that purely in the digital environment, big pieces that actually never appear in print unless someone prints them out at home. Bethany’s right—you can see people dropping off and it can be depressing to watch that happen. But on the other hand, over the past two years, we’ve seen growing audiences for big pieces online, longer works on the digital space. Thanks to the social network, people are more likely to share their big pieces with a powerful argument that are well-designed. I think they do it because they like those pieces, and they feel they’re contributing something of more value to their friends when they share them. I think there’s probably an element too that it makes them look better if they share a piece like that. I’m grateful that they’re doing it.
Just to step way back for a second, we have, and it’s such ancient history for you guys, but there was a period, a few days ago, which was the search-driven years of digital media, which was a race to the bottom. It was all about optimizing your headline, and it didn’t really matter what was below that, because you would spike in the search engines with a post that was optimized for that. As human beings have displaced search over the past few years as the No. 1 referrer of traffic, I’m sure this is true at all our publications—that is a kind of virtuous cycle, because people share good stuff. I include good cat videos in that too. We created, a few months ago, a digital template to do purely the sorts of pieces that we’ve been doing in the print magazine for 150-odd years, now only digitally. They’re often quite long. We have the ability to host video and much more photography on this template. It’s responsive and you can read it on your phone or in any format. We blew out the right rail and increased the white space in an effort to create a more satisfying reading experience. It’s been great—our readers like it, our writers love it. Because it means when they want to go longer, when a story merits it, they have a much more appealing framework to put it in.
How to pitch? Come up with an interesting story. It’s not a very helpful thing to say. Remember that a story is not a subject, and it’s not a topic. I was a writer for the New York Times Magazine’s Adam Moss many years ago, and when I used to pitch him stories, one of his first questions was “What’s the headline?” That is, and I have borrowed that, among other things, from him, and it is a very useful exercise to, at the very beginning, to crystalize what the argument of the piece is. I will say for The Atlantic, we are interested still in pure narrative, but we are more interested in stories that have a big idea at the center of them, that make some sort of argument persuasively. Whether we disagree with it or not isn’t relevant. If you can make the argument and it feels honest and it’s of consequence, then we’re interested.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Can you talk what made your recent cover story about children living dangerously such a success?
BENNET: Oh, “The Overprotected Kid.” We had a piece by Hanna Rosin, who is just a phenomenal writer and thinker, and she did a piece about—we called it “The Overprotected Kid.” It was on the cover in April, and she looked at this movement towards building dangerous playgrounds in Europe. Part of the fascination for me was, she looked at the cultural social history of what happened with playgrounds in the United States, starting in the late ‘60s, early ‘70s, with the rise of civil litigation. You had lawsuits that, over time, compelled cities to turn these playgrounds into these incredibly anodyne environments with soft surfaces and no places you could get your head stuck and no place you could take any risk. Funny thing, they’re as dangerous as the old playgrounds, at least, as measured by how many people injure themselves on them. Kids still find a way to do it. But at the same time, kids aren’t learning to protect themselves in the environments outside playgrounds. Anyway, Hanna wrote a piece that combines narrative, social science research, memoir, because it was a story of her own efforts to expose her own kids to this environment. A classic kind of Atlantic piece in that way because it had all of those elements. And it is an example of how a big, long piece—I don’t remember how long, 9,000 words or something—but it’s the most shared piece in the history of The Atlantic, and it has just done tremendously well for us online and really well on the newsstand. Those two things tend to correlate for us.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: This particular Hanna Rosin piece notwithstanding, I understand these days we’re more a culture of skimming in terms of long-term journalism. And people tend to share a lot, even if they’re not reading to the end, at least digitally, which I think is fine, actually. Even if it’s mostly to make themselves look good, it’s great to share. But in terms of digital journalism and digital storytelling, we use a lot of video to do that online, but the metrics tell us that people aren’t watching five-minute videos. They might watch one-minute videos, and we have a lot of pressure from management to make our videos one minute long. I’m wondering if we should redefine engagement, and that it’s okay if they only watch one minute of a five-minute video, that they still get a sense that this is a rich experience, and it doesn’t matter if they’re not watching it all the way through, that they take away something really great and fruitful nonetheless, and that the metrics ought to change as a result. What do you think about this?
MORRIS: I actually think that’s really interesting, because this goes back to an earlier point that was made about the long-form stories. People are spending time on it because there’s suddenly this new-found time that we have, and it’s on our mobile devices. It was a way that we were never capturing readers before, where they were standing in a line or commuting. They have access to just the same amount of media above ground or offline. And I think that’s changing the way people are watching video or reading the long-form story, and also changing the way of how people are introducing these types of different narratives in, say, a table of contents. In your table of contents nowadays, it could be a newsletter format. You’re being reminded that, “Hey, your stories are ready for your 5 p.m. reading, here’s your one-minute read.” I saw this recently in . . . I don’t remember which one, but there was a “Here’s your 1-minute read with a great headline, here’s your 5-minute read with a great headline, and here’s your 10-minute, lean-back moment.” And being able to organize it for the reader and being able to say, “Yeah, here’s your one-minute video, where you can get the highlights, or if you’ve got five minutes . . .” I just saw TIME’s recent billboard documentary on One World Trade, I’m going to spend the time watching that because I’m going to set aside time to do it, and I know that it’s going to be a high-quality moment. Or I can do that one minute on the red carpet with somebody and get a quick fix when I’m traveling. It’s just a different way of spending time and choosing how you’re using that time, and it’s up to us to let the reader now what kind of experience they’re going to get.
BENNET: You mentioned using Vine earlier—how do you guys do that?
MORRIS: We’ve been using Vine as more a reporting tool, but when I mean reporting, I mean live-event capture. So it could be something as really simple as . . . I was watching SNL one night and Leo [DiCaprio] was on and Jonah Hill came up behind him and did the Titanic moment, and it struck me as the moment that everyone was going to start talking about on Twitter. So I Vined it, and instantly it had about 1,000 retweets on the PEOPLE feed. And other ways we’ve been using it is—you know, at Coachella, somebody could capture a few minutes of a song or just . . . we did this one post showing seven different parties and what it was like, and we just set the atmosphere of showing a 360 look of this party, then this party, then this party, and we used Vine to do it. So it’s either that moment that everyone’s talking about or capturing the scene. We’ve used it for the red carpet a lot that way.
NAVASKY: Let me ask a question. Are magazines dead? Print magazines? People are asking, so the other way to ask this question is, for me, do you think the print magazine is at the core of everything we’re talking about here? Or that, as the founders of The Atlantic said years ago, they didn’t say anything about print and it can disappear and we can go on to this new era of online journalism?
POWELL: We actually—on Wednesday, a new editor for National Geographic magazine took the helm. Susan Goldberg, who was formerly at Bloomberg, will now be our editor in chief and part of her initiative is for a new mobile approach to the magazine. We have developed a more robust National Geographic news site. [The National Geographic Society] is a whole . . . we have a lot of different digital channels, but National Geographic news is now going to be mostly run by Susan, by National Geographic magazine. So I think the print magazine, the long-form journalism, will always be there, but I do think there’s an exciting new future for new National Geographic news shorter-form stories.
BENNET: I can only say I don’t know. I don’t think anyone can predict. I think right now, print remains a very vital form. There are a lot of people out there who still want print magazines. Our circulation is probably higher than it’s ever been, actually, and it certainly is if you count the number of people who subscribe to us digitally. So they still want to bundle The Atlantic, or ten times a year. Ever since I came to The Atlantic several years ago, from the start, I’ve worked very hard to get us to a point where the answer to that question doesn’t matter. From an editorial perspective, but also from a business perspective, we could feel that the essence of The Atlantic, what we think is meaningful and distinct about it, will be as vital in whatever platforms we can express ourselves as it’s been in print all these years. I try very hard to be agnostic on this question. I love print, and I expect it to be around for a good long time, but I try to be a little unsentimental and agnostic about its future.
MORRIS: The only thing I’ll say is we’re still making an investment in the overall publication of PEOPLE itself. Print is obviously still important, and newsstand is still incredibly important to PEOPLE, but we’re also thinking about how do we get new subscribers? And we’ve really transformed the website over the past few years to be more reflective of the print publication. And one of the ways we’ve done that is not only having the tablet magazine, but taking that tablet magazine and making it available on the web. So on PEOPLE.com itself, you can go in and look at what we’re calling our web application and you’ll find prompts across the site that keeps content for a new login system that is available to certain PEOPLE subscribers who have opted for having the digital availability.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: This is related to what the last questioner asked about, about people’s attention spans. And you talked about the one-minute version, the five-minute version. I was speaking to the managing editor at Vocativ recently, and he said that their research is so confounding, in a way, because what they find is it’s not so much that people only want to watch a one-minute or five-minute video, it’s that across the board, people only want to watch about 60 percent of what they’re watching. So if it’s a five-minute piece, they only want to watch two-thirds of that. And I wondered if, in the print world, there’s a version of that? First of all. And second of all, if you know anything about this and whether you have ways in which you’re countering it.
BENNET: It is important to remind ourselves that what’s changed might not be people’s attention spans or their reading habits, but our ability to measure those things. So we didn’t have these metrics before, and I didn’t know how many people were reading to the bottom of every story in The Atlantic, and I don’t know how many people are finishing Thomas Piketty’s 700-word book on economics that is now a best seller that you can’t even find unless you order it digitally, so none of that addresses your question, which was . . .
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Print readers stop at the jump too.
BENNET: We don’t jump in The Atlantic, probably for that very reason. We simply don’t have that kind of feedback in print. We don’t know . . . like, Michael Kinsley famously did this piece 25 years ago in the New Republic with some big best seller. And he went around to all the bookstores in Washington and put a little slip of paper in the back, about three-fourths of the way through, that said, “if you make it to this point in the book, call me and I’ll give you $10.” And he didn’t get a single call. So I suppose we could do something like that to measure how far people are getting in the stories, but there are other qualitative measures of feedback that we get from our readers on whether they liked the piece or not. I guess we rely on those and our own conviction of editors who feel very strongly that every incremental word has to be earned. Actually, that’s one of the things I worry about in the transition from print to digital, because print is a powerful forcing factor—it imposes rigor and discipline on writers and editors. You can only have so many pages, and that is a very powerful editorial tool to shape a magazine. And when you move to an environment where space is infinite, the possibility for sloppiness and excess are also infinite, and it becomes a tougher proposition to rein that stuff in.
NAVASKY: And, ironically, people think that the attention span is shorter . . . fewer words online than on the printed page, even though you have all this luxury. So, anyway, it’s great that the three of you could be here. We’re very grateful, and we thank you very much.
Transcript edited for clarity. Panel photo courtesy of Lisa Cohen. Cover image courtesy of National Geographic/Video still by Nathan Williamson; When Humans are Hunted courtesy of National Geographic/Fernando G. Baptista and Daniela Santamarina; Chocolate graphic courtesy of National Geographic/Rebecca Hale and Álvaro Valiño