Nieman Foundation at Harvard
Are you willing to pay for Prepare to be asked before year’s end
ABOUT                    SUBSCRIBE
March 24, 2015, 5:40 p.m.
Reporting & Production

Atavist revamps its publishing software to push design and readability to the fore

“There’s an expectation now that it doesn’t have to be painful to publish stuff online.”

The web made it easier for anyone to put their writing out in the world. But what happens after the crowd gets used to becoming publishers? They want it to look good, naturally.

“There’s a stronger emphasis on design than there was before,” said Atavist CEO and cofounder Evan Ratliff. There’s no shortage of options for digital publishing, which means the real differentiation now is how easy it is for users to create an elegant design and an enjoyable reading experience, he said.

That’s one reason the software maker and magazine publisher has relaunched its web-based platform with an emphasis on simplicity and customization. As people have become more accustomed to reading online, larger publishers are focusing developers and designers on creating more immersive and intimate reading experiences. Atavist aims to give individuals and small organizations similar tools to produce writing for phones, tablets, or ebook readers, Ratliff said. The platform has more than 26,000 users, ranging from individual writers and colleges to companies like The Weather Channel and Esquire.

“At a basic level, it allows someone who is not a programmer to create a story online that looks beautiful,” he said.

The new version of the Atavist publishing software is based around building blocks. Stories are assembled with a Lego-like structure where text, photos, audio files, and social media embeds are sorted and stacked on one another. The software supports media from places like YouTube, Vimeo, Twitter, and Soundcloud. The drag-and-drop function lets you tinker with assets as well as design elements, letting users create block quotes or parallax effects, for example.

“We felt like we had a very powerful system you could do a lot with. But the creation experience wasn’t fun, and we thought we could do that,” he said

When Atavist launched in 2011, the company wanted to distinguish itself as a tool for writing made by writers. A step aside from free publishing tools like WordPress, Blogger, or Tumblr, Atavist was aimed more at longform features than the daily blogging cycle. But the marketplace for online publishing has only continued to grow with newer entrants like Medium and Svbtle.

Atavist rolled out a tiered version of its software under the Creatavist name in 2013, letting users move up the ladder from free to paid options offering improved features and customization. Media companies like Boston public radio station WBUR used Creatavist as a sort of project-based CMS, which let them flex out features they couldn’t use with their own platform. (The Creatavist name is now being retired in favor of just “Atavist,” while the magazine formerly known as “The Atavist” will now be “The Atavist Magazine.” These are the necessary branding gymnastics you must endure as a “platisher.” Apologies for using that offensive term.)

Ratliff told me they wanted to change the CMS to make it less template driven and give users more freedom to shape their stories. Since the software can output everything from article layouts to ebooks to entire magazines, users wanted more control over the layout of their work, he said. “There’s an expectation now that it doesn’t have to be painful to publish stuff online,” Ratliff said.


In changing its software, the company recognized its old platform may not have served the needs of all its users. If you’re a company like The Weather Channel or Esquire, you have access to photographers as well as developers who can build on top of the platform with CSS. For individuals, it’s more likely you’re pulling photos from Flickr or other media available off the web.

The tiered system will continue with the revamped Atavist software, starting at free and moving up to $250/month, which now includes more monetization options at higher levels. One of the benefits for individual writers using Atavist was the revenue you could generate off sales of an ebook. Now users will be able to sell individual stories or implement a digital subscription system for their work using the platform. Ratliff said The Atavist Magazine is planning to introduce a metered paywall next month.

California Sunday Magazine has used the Atavist software since launching last fall. Jim Ray, technology director for the magazine, said they were looking for a content management system that gave them flexibility to create stories that are beautiful on the web without having to reinvent the process for native apps in iOS or Android. Working with people with a background in magazines and publishing didn’t hurt either.

“As a media organization looking to get started, they were the ones who understood the problems and situations you’re going to run into differently than a pure technology company might,” he said. (The two companies also share a connection in Pop-Up Magazine, where Ratliff is an editor.)

Originally, his work involved creating a series of templates on the platform that reflected the design elements of the printed magazine. Ray said they’ll begin experimenting more with the design now as the “blocks” make it easier to find new ways to build stories.

On top of the design and development features, Ray said the biggest need the magazine had was a system to create relatively frictionless digital subscriptions. “One of things that’s important to us is to show value in what we do and give people an opportunity to subscribe,” he said.

The same could be said for The Atavist Magazine itself, moving away from a model where the only way to read stories was by subscribing to the magazine. The benefit of the meter, as many news organizations have discovered, is that it can substantially increase the marketing and promotion of your work. The trick comes in converting those people to paying subscribers.

“We wanted to get people more interested and invested in The Atavist as a magazine, and the meter is a way to do that. We can have people show up and read great long stories,” Ratliff said.

The reinvestment in both the magazine and software comes after Atavist Books, a joint venture between the company and Barry Diller’s IAC/InterActiveCorp, was shuttered at the end of 2014 after just two years. Diller, movie producer Scott Rudin, and publishing veteran Frances Coady invested in the project and a new entity called Brightline that worked with Atavist to develop ebooks and physical books.

A spokesperson for IAC told Publisher’s Weekly last fall that “the market for highly innovative enhanced full length literary e-books still heavily relies on a print component and has yet to emerge.”

While that particular Hollywood connection might not have fared well, at least 11 Atavist stories have been optioned for film and TV, according to Ratliff. Along with software sales and subscriptions, managing the entertainment rights to Atavist stories is the company’s other main source of revenue.

Overall, Ratliff said increasing the number of subscribers will be important as a means of amplifying all the other parts of the business. Having a big readership leads to more interest in the platform as well as the writers, he said.

“Now is the time when we try and blow it up and make something bigger, on the magazine audience, the Hollywood deals, but also the platform side,” he said.

Photo of printers blocks by Danny Akright used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     March 24, 2015, 5:40 p.m.
SEE MORE ON Reporting & Production
Show tags
Join the 60,000 who get the freshest future-of-journalism news in our daily email.
Are you willing to pay for Prepare to be asked before year’s end
The cable news network plans to launch a new subscription product — details TBD — by the end of 2024. Will Mark Thompson repeat his New York Times success, or is CNN too different a brand to get people spending?
Errol Morris on whether you should be afraid of generative AI in documentaries
“Our task is to get back to the real world, to the extent that it is recoverable.”
In the world’s tech capital, Gazetteer SF is staying off platforms to produce good local journalism
“Thank goodness that the mandate will never be to look what’s getting the most Twitter likes.”