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July 20, 2017, 9:30 a.m.
Reporting & Production

First Look Media’s Topic.com is leaning on video and illustrations to tell stories (and break out of the news cycle)

“It’s not that I don’t think there’s validity in following the news cycle, but it’s a very competitive space. I don’t think we’re interested in competing in it. We’re interested in creating an experience that’s reflective of the culture, but not reactive to it.”

It was circa 2010 when Anna Holmes says she started to fall out of love with digital media. The web, once an exciting place where discussion could flourish, had, in Holmes’ view, become home to a series of parallel monologues as people increasingly talked at each other. Hot takes had taken over the web — including Jezebel, where she was editor — and become increasingly identical and predicable. Nuance, she believed, was slowly dying.

Holmes hopes that Topic.com, her new project at First Look Media, will help rekindle her love for the web. The consumer-facing publication, published monthly, is designed to be the antithesis of the kinds of publications that induced her disillusionment: Rather than focus on text to tell stories, Topic.com is highly visual, and will be built around video, photography, and illustration. Furthermore, the necessarily extended development times of these visual projects means that Topic.com is, almost by nature, largely removed from the news cycle. As with magazines, this will give it time to breathe and produce longer, more considered work, Holmes said.

“It’s not that I don’t think there’s validity in following the news cycle, but it’s a very competitive space. I don’t think we’re interested in competing in it,” Holmes said. “We’re interested in creating an experience that’s reflective of the culture, but not reactive to it.”

Each issue (or “storytelling package,” as First Look Media has called them) of Topic.com centers around a specific theme. The first issue, titled American Psychosis, focuses on the complexities of the American experience: Hip hop artist Jean Grae proposed a new national anthem, while an illustrated story from Julia Rothman and Joshua David Stein covers the surprising reality of small ethnic enclaves around the United States. The August and September issues will be titled “Female Trouble” and “Rashomon,” respectively. Holmes said that there’s not yet an art or science to how Topic.com will decide on each month’s theme, though the team is drawn to ideas that are relevant to certain times of the year (such as July 4th with the debut issue, which focuses on themes of patriotism). Other ideas are drawn from relevant projects from creators that Topic.com wants to explore. Still others, such as an animals-focused issue slated for sometime next year, are simply those that the team is interested in building a storytelling package around. (Independent creators will be the lifeblood of Topic.com. The site’s masthead features just 10 staffers, but the team will rely on new and established independent creators to provide the bulk of Topic.com’s content.)

Topic.com is the product of First Look Media’s titular entertainment studio, Topic, which officially went live earlier this year. Unlike the nonprofit operations at First Look Media, like The Intercept, Topic and its related operations are charged with building the company’s revenue operations in part by financing and distributing independent projects such as the documentary Nobody Speaks, which follows the Hulk Hogan trial that helped take down Gawker. The documentary premiered on Netflix this month. Topic itself is platform-agnostic: its productions will live on a variety of platforms, including movie theater screens, podcast apps, television, and, of course, Facebook and Twitter.

How Topic.com fits into First Look’s overall business ambition is still unclear. When I asked Holmes about the site’s revenue plans, a PR rep chimed in: “Right now, we’re really establishing the brand and making a connection with the consumer.” Still, the rep said, the door is open for Topic.com to partner with like-minded advertisers down the road, a possibility that feels like a good fit for the studio and publication’s approach.

It’s worth pointing out that while Topic.com shares the editorial DNA of the journalism-inclined Intercept, the site “isn’t a journalism brand,” according to Holmes. Some stories do feature reporting, but just as many are scripted videos or other creations based on real stories. It depends entirely on the route taken by the creators.

This focus on the creators gives rise to what Holmes expects will be one of the big questions for Topic.com going forward: pushing the the publication’s own editorial voice without overwhelming the voice of the creators. “This is really about them,” said Holmes.

POSTED     July 20, 2017, 9:30 a.m.
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