Will an App Rescue Long-Form Journalism?

For the creators of the new Atavist app, story is everything.

While most of his fellow writers and editors were wailing and wringing their hands about the death of print, journalist and Wired contributing editor Evan Ratliff got excited about the possibilities of what was next.

"Certainly no freelance writer could look around and say things are the same as they were 10 years ago.” Ratliff says. “But to survive at all as a writer you have to possess, below the fear and cynicism obligatory for the profession, some basic belief that people are enticed by great stories. If you start at that end, and then think about the new possibilities for small, or independent, outfits to try new types of storytelling, it looks exciting instead of depressing."

Holding fast to his belief that stories matter, Ratliff stepped away from the computer and set out to find new ways to tell them. First, there was PopUp Magazine, produced with a team of creative pals in the Bay Area, and billed as the "world’s first live magazine" where Michael Pollan, Peggy Orenstein, and Mary Roach among others have shared works in progress, random digressions, or current obsessions with captivated audiences four times over the last year and a half. Now, expanding his story-telling flair in yet another innovative format, Ratliff has launched The Atavist, a boutique publishing house producing original nonfiction stories for digital, mobile reading devices.

It’s not enough to throw text on a device and call it new, as Ratliff and his Atavist team, Co-Founder Nicholas Thompson, and Creative Director Jefferson Raab, were well aware. With The Atavist they’re hoping people will be drawn again to long-form journalism and to make that happen, they’re bringing stories to life in a way that most other apps haven’t quite mastered. When you open Brendan I. Koerner’s gratifyingly lengthy nonfiction story, "Piano Demon," (downloaded for Kindle, iPhone, iPad or Nook for $2.99) you’ll hear jazzman Teddy Weatherford, the story’s subject, tinkling the ivories. Click on highlighted areas throughout for more and more context in the form of sound clips, footnotes, photographs, illustrations, and maps, all elements you wouldn’t experience the same way on the printed page. Says Ratliff, “It creates something that is entirely focused on the reading experience, letting the reader control how much of that they want to see, hear, or explore."

While Rupert Murdoch (the man behind another much discussed new app, The Daily), has focused his sights on making people pay for something they’ve long gotten for free, Ratliff approaches things from a different perspective, "You have to make an argument for people's money; they don't owe it to any publisher to buy what they put out. So we're trying to make that case on tablets and e-readers: This is a compelling story that you will get lost in, at a length and in a form that you can't find anywhere else."

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