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How to apply best-of-breed storytelling principles in a digital world

Evan Ratliff is the co-founder, CEO, and editor of Atavist, a media and software company that produces a digital storytelling platform and an award-winning magazine and e-singles publishing arm, The Atavist. 

Atavist is unique in that only publishes a single story per month. But it’s always a long and interesting read and it’s beautifully designed. Evan and his team strongly feel that writing and designing on the web shouldn’t feel like a chore. “Our goal is to enable creative individuals and organizations to produce beautiful and shareable stories, attract new audiences, and build business around their work—without knowing a line of code” - that’s the proclaimed mission of Atavist.

At the Digital Innovator’s Summit (20-22 March, Berlin), Evan will explain how he built a thriving home for deeper stories, beautiful design, and innovative publications. Save hundreds of Euros on the final delegate rates for the Digital Innovators’ Summit by booking with our Early Bird offer – ending soon. 

In this interview with Ulrike Langer, Evan talks about the longform, the importance of design and what inspires him in storytelling.

The Atavist Magazine is one of maybe a dozen websites proving that not all content needs to be “snackable” in the digital age. What does it take to make longform successful? 

Evan Ratliff: Well, there are different ways to define "successful," in the context of longform storytelling. If you define it to mean producing great writing and design, then it takes the work of a small editorial group -- smaller than you might think: a reporter/writer, an editor, a designer, a fact-checker -- and enough resources to make sure that they can all do their jobs well. We've always been committed to trying to produce the highest quality journalism, and to spend the time to do it right, so for us it's also staying focused, doing 12 stories a year, and trying to make them all memorable. 

If you definite "successful" to mean financially successful, it's a trickier question to be sure! We've combined our editorial operation with a software platform so that we have a different revenue engine than just the stories themselves. We also do a lot of work with Hollywood to find film and television homes for the stories. It is a model that we've made work for five years, and the software and our audience are growing, but we're still working to find the best way to keep it sustainable into the future. 

In biology, an atavism is an evolutionary throwback. What is the meaning of “Atavist” in publishing? 

For us, it means applying some of the older principles of storytelling and journalism -- deep characters, a gripping plot, double checking all of the facts -- in the context of the digital world. 

How many stories have been published on Atavist since launch and what kind of stories have been the most successful?

We've published 56 stories over five years. There is not a clear pattern to the ones that have been most successful, except that they have some kind of emotional or character hook that seems to draw readers in and cause them to not want to put the story down. 

Your site’s design has been compared to “Snowfall” - setting new standards for publishing platforms. How important is design for longform storytelling? 

For us, it is essential, just as the design and style of a print magazine is central to its identity and story-telling. We always want to use the design, and whatever digital elements make sense -- whether video, interactive elements, sound, or visuals -- to help bring the narrative to life

The Atavist portfolio of publishing tools is free for authors to use - so what is your business model? 

Atavist platform is free to use at the most basic level, and a lot of writers and organizations use it for all kinds of storytelling for free. But we also have paid tiers, for creative professionals, for teams and classrooms, and for large enterprises. At those levels, users can work in teams, brand stories as their own, build full publications, and develop with their own code on the platform. Our users range from organisations like the United Nations to educational institutions like Harvard and Stanford, to of course publications like Mental Floss magazine and even those in Germany, like Süddeutsche Zeitung. 

Do you see a potential pitfall of too much multimedia? Stories that are so overloaded with multimedia elements that they actually don’t enhance but diminish the reading experience?

Of course, any type of design can be turned into bad design with overuse. The same is true in print, with crazy fonts and colors, as it is in digital, with video and parallax scrolling. We are very grounded in clean design, so everything we do around a story is carefully considered as to whether it can add something to the experience. Our platform is built to encourage that as well, for our users. The focus above all should be the story and the reader. 

Do you advise authors on how to best use Atavist?

We try to show the way with our own stories, and with examples of the best uses of the platform. But we also don't confine our users to any particular approach. The whole idea is that they can create beautiful designs to fit their stories, without having to do any coding, very simply with the tool. 

Authors can choose between publishing “singles” or offering subscriptions. Which model generally works best for which kind of content? 

I think it varies considerably, but the short (and maybe too obvious) answer is that for single-copy-sales of any kind of content, what you are selling needs to be compelling enough to be marketed entirely on its own. That's a difficult proposition. For subscriptions, you, of course, need to be producing enough content that it's worth readers putting money up for the right to access all of it. For The Atavist Magazine, subscriptions serve partly as a way for readers to just support what we're doing when they love it, whether or not they may read every story in a year.  

What kind of storytelling inspires you personally? 

There are so many things happening all over the place right now, even though the word "storytelling" has been a bit cheapened over the last few years. I look to documentary film for inspiration all the time -- something like The Jinx, on HBO, was an incredible story this year. And there are amazing new things happening in audio and podcasts right now, like Serial. I'm astounded by how inventive and compelling that work is. 

For more on the Digital Innovators’ Summit:

DIS website

• Preliminary programme

Speakers confirmed to date (with more to be added soon)

• Get discounted tickets with our Early Bird rate – ending soon

Useful links: 

Examples of the best uses of Atavist

Serial podcast

The Atavist: Changing Digital Storytelling (Inc. Magazine)

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