Matter’s Growing Pains, and the Value of Preparation

20 November 2012 by Matt Shipman, posted in Uncategorized

This is more of a note than a fully evolved post, but it’s a good reminder of the value of preparation. I’m talking about the recent (very public) growing pains of Matter – a new, online outlet for publishing long-form, independent journalism that focuses on various aspects of science and/or technology.

I love the idea behind Matter, which published its first story this month, in large part because I love long-form articles when they’re done well. They are captivating.

However, it’s not enough to have a good idea. You have to execute.

In this case, that means that it’s not enough to have a good reporter doing good work and writing a good article. You need to be able to put that article into the hands of people who want to read it. Matter apparently plans to publish one article per month and, in order to be self-sustaining, charges a nominal fee ($0.99) for each of those articles. The customer then gets access to the material. No problem, right?

Not necessarily. At least one early customer has had a heck of a time accessing the debut article, and even more difficult time figuring out how to ask for help. That’s not good. And to make matters worse, that early customer was Paul Raeburn – a well-known, and well-regarded, figure in the science journalism community. Raeburn wrote about his troubles with Matter here. And, when customer service didn’t resolve the problem, he wrote about it again here.

If you didn’t click on those links, let me tell you where they go: to the Tracker blog of the Knight Science Journalism program at MIT. If you’re a fledgling science journalism outlet, it’s not good to get bad press in an established outlet that is read almost exclusively by science journalists. (See my last post, on how to respond to mistakes.)

I hope Matter irons this out and goes on to become successful, because whether you call it “new journalism,” “online journalism” or simply, as I do, “journalism,” we can always use more of it (assuming it's good). But there’s a lesson here for anyone involved in launching any science communication effort: be prepared.

Whether you’re planning a presentation or a new blog, you need to try to think of everything that can go wrong. You may not come up with a solution in advance, but at least you won’t be startled if it happens. And if you can’t think of everything (and no one can) make it easy for your readers/followers/audience/customers to ask you questions.

And if you are rolling out a new blog, Web site, etc., make sure to test drive it. Make sure it works the way you want it to work. Then get a friend to test drive it, preferably the least tech-savvy friend you have. You want to identify any rough spots before your audience does.


4 Responses to “Matter’s Growing Pains, and the Value of Preparation”

  1. Khalil A. Cassimally Reply | Permalink

    I can totally understand Raeburn's frustrations with Matter but I think his criticism was a little misplaced. He writes for KSJ and is clearly in a position where he can affect the views of many many people. With this in mind, I thought it a little bit over-the-top to pinpoint exclusively to the shortcomings of Matter while disregarding commenting on the journalism that Matter has attempted with its first #longread, which is surely the number one priority of both Matter and its readers (and KSJ Tracker's readers).

    Also, Matter is a startup and they're experimenting with a new model. If things don't go totally as planned, I think we should more understanding. Of course we should provide feedback but let's cut them some slack for a little while.

  2. Matt Shipman Reply | Permalink

    I completely agree that the most interesting and important aspect of Matter is the fact that it is exploring a new mechanism for providing (and supporting) in-depth reporting and long-form writing about sci/tech news. And I'm not bashing them for having growing pains -- these things happen.

    I'm a fan of Matter, and I think it IS exciting. And, because it garnered a great deal of attention before it even opened its doors (so to speak), the expectations were great. All of that contributes to my thinking this is a great opportunity to talk about the need for a very critical self-appraisal before launching any new initiative that involves an external audience.

  3. Akshat Rathi Reply | Permalink

    I don't like people who whinge. Especially those who wield a lot of power. But I also think that Matter got lots of backing on Kickstarter, so even though it is startup they had a lot of responsibility from the very beginning. A good help mechanism is a must.

    That said, Bobbie responded to my queries very quickly. I wish with all my heart that Matter succeeds. :)

  4. Matt Shipman Reply | Permalink

    Agreed. I think everyone who cares about the future of science journalism, particularly long-form science journalism, wants Matter to succeed!

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