From Telling, a New Multimedia Story Platform: "Information Does Not Want to be Free"
It's been nearly three decades since Stewart Brand famously told Steve Wozniak at the first Hackers' Conference that "information wants to be free."
And, over that time, there's been a radical shift in how we access information, including the best stories by the best storytellers. Generations have grown up expecting all of these stories to be free all of the time.
Now, a feisty little startup in San Francisco wants to reverse that trend.
Telling, which launched in January, releases one long-form article (as text and audio) a week, mainly non-fiction but also some fiction for a subscription fee of $5/month.
I interviewed Creative Director Mitra Parineh and CTO Avanti Prahlad about how their multi-media, storytelling platform works and why they are challenging the free-content model.
What is Telling?
Mitra Parineh: Telling is a media company focused on excellent storytelling– the kind that makes your pulse pick up and your palms sweat. Funny, sexy, clever, heartbreaking–we believe in the raw power of stories told well, one at a time, to a captivated audience.
How does it work?
MP: Subscribers purchase Telling for $5/month–the cost of a cup of San Francisco coffee. Each week, they are treated to new stories, podcasts, and art from Telling artists, all of whom are professionals in their field. Currently, we publish fiction and nonfiction but are looking at poetry, at radio plays, at letters and serialized fiction–we want to innovate in this space until we find a form as perfect as the novel was to print publishing.
What is the mission?
MP: Ultimately, what we want to do is create excellent media for the Internet–to find out what the ideal media is for this medium. I began and eventually dropped out of a PhD program in which I was researching this very subject–media and medium, how one affects the other. Since this medium is so new, exploration is just now getting underway to create truly awesome text, listening, and visual experiences in the digital world.
Why is it needed?
MP: Oh, this generation reads so much! They just read things of such poor quality. People are constantly on the prowl for great reading, listening, and other media. In generation "share," a continuous media stream loops back and forth between people, but very little of it seems to satisfy. Magazine columns are cut short, blog posts are clipped, tweets can only contain so much, and as a result, readers go hunting for more. They look at ten or twenty articles in a day; they read the comments section; then they flick through social media channels to find more.
If Telling can offer something satisfying, something that maintains a user's curiosity and challenges them, engages and entertains, we're providing a way for people to get through their days, their commutes, their good times and their really bad ones. Even the links we provide with a story–a feature called the Editor's Links–are thoughtful, handpicked readings, pictures, or videos, not just something haphazardly tacked on to a story.
Why a subscription when so much content is free?
MP: Part of our mission at Telling is to "stop the bullshit." In other words, to put an end to mindless content by offering its opposite: Purposeful content. The fee we charge each month is small (~$1 per story) and pays our writers, illustrators, and radio contributors. But we insist on it because it preserves the content. There is a difference between what you'll get at Telling and what you'll get on a blog, and you're paying for that difference. HBO, with its premium content and premium charge, has been a good model for us.
What other small sites, that you're aware of, are pursuing paid models?
MP: Matter is tackling long-form journalism in a great way, and The Magazine seems to be creating a similarly admirable model, and all charge subscription fees.
What other sources of long-form, high-quality stories are out there?
MP: Literary journals, some print magazines, public radio, and a few of the other long-form journalism models are offering quality content. The difficultly is that they are not always accessible. My own parents don't know what a literary journal is and I've been published in at least a half dozen of them. Telling is a way of bringing that richness to everyone who is online–which is everyone.
What can you tell us about your authors, audio producers, and illustrators?
MP: They are fantastic! Our authors come to us from literary, journalistic, and academic backgrounds, though we are open to receiving writing from anyone of any background. That said, we are highly selective in our editorial process since our first order of business is to produce exceptional media.
The illustrators, sound production people, and voice actors are professionals who have been so kind as to trust us with their really beautiful work, and they're great cheerleaders for the project. We've been blessed to work with the kindest and warmest group of creative people.
So, how does Telling work from a technical perspective?
What does early usage data indicate?
AP: Early usage data indicates that readers are excited by text and audio integrated within each story. People listen, audio stories are convenient and we intend to innovate here. Though it is very early, we have insights into how people are reading our stories, how far they get into one story, how many times they open a story, etc. This information, coupled with user feedback, drives Telling's product development process.
How is the experience on mobile devices?
AP: The experience is simple, elegant and fast. HTML5 coupled with modern technologies on phones and browsers deliver a beautiful experience.
It looks to be designed for tablets, specifically the iPad–is that correct, and if so why?
AP: Telling is an entertainment app built for modern lifestyles. We want to deliver content on devices that people spend most of their time on, and in a format that is conducive to busy, mobile lifestyles. Current trends, as well as our own data, show that more people are reading (and listening) on their mobiles and tablets and thus, they are the focus of our design efforts.
What the big challenges with presenting long-form stories?
AP: There are four key challenges in presenting long-form stories: Pagination, bookmarking, audio-text synchronization, and offline access– all of which Telling aims to solve for. Version One of Telling's web app offers readers pagination, bookmarking, audio and text formats.
How will the platform be evolving in coming months?
AP: We intend to focus on audio-text synchronization and improve our offline access capability. We are also interested in building out a platform so users can purchase individual stories and in introducing features that will drive user interaction with our editor and contributors.
Note: Last year, when she was an editor at Hyperink, Mitra Parineh edited our ebook, 30 Startups to Know Now.
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