Longform Startups, New York and Beer

Last week I contributed a photo essay to a startup called Narratively.

The images are from a project I’m working on about urban decay and renewal. Above are a few of them and you can read my thoughts about the how and why of it all by visiting the site.

Below is an email Q&A with Noah Rosenberg, Narratively’s founder, about what Narratively is, where he hopes it goes and why an editorial meeting can be thought of more as a soiree and less as a formal gathering. — Michael

FJP: What is Narratively? Why did you start it?

Narratively is a digital platform devoted to original, true, in-depth and untold stories. We avoid the 24/7 news cycle—and all the politics, gossip, entertainment and breaking news therein—in favor of the rich, multidimensional narratives that capture the spirit of a city. All too often those human interest stories are overlooked, especially in a bustling place like New York, where we launched our first edition in early September.

Each week Narratively explores a different theme about New York and publishes just one story a day, told in the most appropriate medium for each piece. So, Monday might yield a longform essay, followed by a short documentary film on Tuesday, a photo essay on Wednesday, and an animation on Thursday. Fridays, we run a section called the “Park Bench” where we curate meaningful responses we’ve generated from our audience throughout the week, and we publish behind-the-scenes elements from our stories; the “Park Bench” is all about featuring different perspectives on each week’s theme.

Our digital presence at www.narrative.ly, a mobile- and tablet-friendly website, is just the beginning. We’ll enrich the storytelling experience through monthly e-books, apps and events that feature live storytelling by our subjects and contributors, panel discussions, and film screenings. We’re also considering publishing a very high quality print edition.

FJP: What’s your future goal? I hear you want to expand into different cities?

The big-picture goal is to have a network of Narratively editions in cities across the world. We’re learning that people thousands of miles from New York are interested in our stories—in part because New York is a one-of-a-kind town, but also because Narratively stories are timeless in a way, and they resonate regardless of geography.

Our vision is to be able to cross-promote stories between our editions so that, say, someone in New York can read a really colorful tale about an 80-year-old tugboat captain in Beirut, while someone in Beirut might be presented with a similarly engaging and high-quality narrative about that captain’s NYC counterpart.

FJP: Do you consider it a “local news” endeavor?

On the face of it, Narratively is devoted to local stories, though I wouldn’t say they’re “news.” There are so many outlets devoted to covering the next big headline, and there’s some interesting longform innovation happening on the national and international stage, but not enough happening on the local, city-by-city level—and that’s where we figure in. But while Narratively produces stories that have some geographic connection, they’re bigger than just local news; we’re crafting stories that have a very long shelf life, stories that you can pluck from our archive a year or three years from now and still find meaning and value in.

FJP: What’s been the hardest thing to do as a startup?

The startup process has been exhausting but also incredibly fulfilling. Discovering that there are people out there, and lots of them, who believe in what we’re doing has been a validation of all of our hard work and “crazy” ideas. But it’s also a slow process, especially as we get off the ground and need to ensure that everything is running smoothly. There are so many possibilities for us—I just wish there were more hours in the day. But I’m confident that, with time, we’ll continue to push Narratively further and further.

FJP: The easiest?

We’ve been very fortunate to have a big, active network of supporters—from our generous backers on Kickstarter to the bloggers and journalists who’ve covered us along our journey. It’s so exciting and rewarding to receive the emails and tweets of encouragement that we’ve been getting from all over the world. The startup process would be a lot more tiring if we’d been doing this all alone. But social media and Kickstarter have turned it into a communal effort.

FJP: The most unexpected?

We’ve been pleasantly surprised by Narratively’s appeal beyond New York City. Our dream has always been to create a network of editions across the world and we’d imagined and hoped that we’d someday generate a global appeal, but the fact that it’s happened so quickly and so soon is a tremendous relief and a huge encouragement.

FJP: When I met you for your weekly editorial meeting you held it at an outdoor bar in Brooklyn. How does beer lubricate the editorial process?

We like to refer to our weekly editorial gatherings as more “soiree” and less “meeting.” They’re very informal affairs that are as much about story-generation and feedback as they are about forming bonds within our passionate group of contributors. I’ve always loved bringing new people together and it’s been so rewarding to help foster friendships and connections all in the name of good times and great storytelling. The beer and the bar snacks are just a backdrop to some energizing discussions about important stories that would otherwise remain untold.

Images: Selected photos from Built to Rust, by Michael Cervieri, via Narratively. Select to embiggen.

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