Backers will receive a range of rewards, such as joining Matter's 'editorial board'

Credit: Matter

Just over a week ago journalists Bobbie Johnson and Jim Giles shared their idea for a new digital journalism project, which would support long-form journalism on science and technology issues, with the world via crowdfunding platform Kickstarter.

They had hoped to test the water to find out the level of support for such a project, and it seems they got their answer. In just 38 hours the project had reached its $50,000 target, which will cover setting up the project website and commissioning the first stories.

"We certainly never expected to get the response we did," Johnson, also European editor at technology site GigaOM, told

"If we were out there to prove there was some public interest in what we were doing I think hitting our goal in 38 hours proved something, proved some appetite for something out there. Now we're ploughing ahead and trying to see how far we can take it."

We spoke to Johnson a week after the project went live on Kickstarter to find out what exactly Matter is, or will be, who is putting the thousands of dollars behind it, and why did the pair decide to take the crowdfunding route in establishing the project?

According to Johnson, he and Giles – a freelance journalist in the US who has written for titles including the Economist, the Atlantic and New Scientist – had both "come across the same problem" working as freelance journalists last year, that there had been "a real constriction in the number of outlets able to commission big stories" related to science and technology.

"At the same time we'd been talking to friends and colleagues who seemed to be sitting on stories of substance and importance and yet found the same dead end.

"At the same time there's really been a lot of people talking, people who want something meaty. I was thinking about these things and I mentioned it to Jim and it turned out so did he. So about a year ago we had the first conversation: what can we do, rather than sit back and complain, to fix this?

We thought 'here's what feels like a relatively untested opportunity to use material of weight and substance in a format that only operates digitally'Bobbie Johnson
"The first thing we realised was print is a very expensive proposition, so we started to think 'are there ways to do this digitally?'

"The web is an amazing, powerful tool and so much has happened online ... I suppose we thought 'here's this, really what feels like a relatively untested, opportunity to use material of weight and substance in a format that only operates digitally'."

One of the ways he felt Matter could tackle the issue of noise online is to follow a 'less is more' mantra.

"The way I feel about a lot of journalism is there's just too much stuff going on, lots of outlets trying to be all things to all people, or certainly a lot of things to a lot of people.

"The flip side to it is I think if you start to focus and really try and do almost as little as you can to produce as few stories as you can but make those stories more valuable, then maybe that can work."

But this left one big question to be answered, he said: "One thing we didn't know was whether we were just talking to an echo chamber".

The pair turned to Kickstarter, an online platform which describes itself as a "funding platform for creative projects".

Under Kickstarter's terms "a project must reach its funding goal before time runs out or no money changes hands".

But just two days in and Matter had already reached its $50,000 target (at the time of writing its total is just over $85,000), with more than 1000 backers.

This includes six "corporate-level" sponsors who put forward more than $3,000, and in return are told their "brand will be the only sponsor on our site" and that they will receive "stories and email alerts for an entire month".

Other rewards include becoming "a Matter co-pilot", which applies to 12 backers who have pledged more than $1000. These backers "get the chance to be a guest editor, joining our team on an assignment and helping us shape a story from the very start", the project says on its Kickstarter page. 'Co-pilots' will also get free access to all stories produced by the project.

There are also rewards for lower-level backers. Those pledging more than $25, currently totalling 459, will join Matter's "editorial board".

"We're going to run a radical, first-of-a-kind experiment in collaborative commissioning using All Our Ideas so that you, the readers, can help make our reporting even more brilliant," Matter says on its Kickstarter page. "Plus you'll also get the first three stories, a web shout-out and a postcard."

Looking ahead the project hopes to launch at in the Spring. The aim is to bring together the "writer with a great story to tell, with a story editor with really deep experience in turning that into a great long form narrative".

"We're involved all the way but we'll let the experts do what they're good at," Johnson said.

The plan at the moment is to publish a single story each week on the website, which will be behind a paywall, and stories will also be distributed on other platforms, including tablets and the ebook format, he said.

Matter screens

According to Matter's project page on Kickstarter the paywall pricing is likely to be "around 99 cents per story".

"Subscribers will get access to every story that comes up and we'll offer people the chance to buy it.

"There are lots of interesting models ... we're trying to go for something a bit more news focused and which really tells stories that can drive the news agenda or reveal things we don't know about the world.

"We're experimenting with a lot of different things at this point but that's the basic plan."

As for the decision to take the crowdsourcing route, the idea is that backers who have "shown a commitment" to the project will be shown commitment back, he added.

Most of the reporting and stories come out of Silicon Valley, or Boston or London. We want to broaden the scope and broaden the depthBobbie Johnson
"They [backers] won't suggest every story and they won't be responsible for commissioning and editing stories necessarily. But we do think there's a vast amount of expertise out there in the world, in the sort of stories that don't get covered properly ... Still most of the reporting and stories come out of Silicon Valley, or Boston or London. We want to broaden the scope and broaden the depth."

By engaging with those backing the project, which he says include journalists, publishers, technologists and scientists, Matter will be able to "tap into a real brains trust of people who can really suggest ideas and keep us ahead of the game."

"We're not going to claim this as a massive revolution that's going to change the universe. But we think there's enough of a market for what we're doing ... We feel we can help supply that need and do it in a way that maybe will help journalism a little bit, maybe will help people think a little bit more broadly about how they can produce material in the future."

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