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July 6, 2022, 10:10 a.m.
Audience & Social

Prism aims to make wellness stories more accessible, less cringe

“It’s not pictures of beautiful women doing handstands on surfboards.”

It still creeps me out that the Instagram algorithm knows what I’ll click on, buy, or sign up for far too well. My Explore page is a dangerous place for my wallet, full of videos about skincare, pretty nail designs, interesting salad and fresh fruit juice recipes, makeup product reviews, and, probably, a lot of Goop-y misinformation about health and wellness.

I work pretty hard on work-life balance and making sure that being a reporter isn’t my only personality trait, which is probably why I got served an Instagram ad for Prism, an email newsletter that focuses on making wellness information more accessible and the idea that “wellness” — however you define it — is an imperfect and nonlinear process.

Its mascot is a troll-looking circle with a high ponytail named Pat, which feels incredibly poignant right now, so I obviously and immediately signed up and reached out for this story.

Prism is a product of Parallel L.A., a creative studio that works toward making wellness more accessible through startup investments, brand partnership, and content. (Don’t confuse this with Prism the news site, which I’ve also written about before.) Prism is editorially independent from the rest of the company, one of the lead partners Jocelyn Florence said, but it received some startup funding from Parallel.

“We all have this shared interest in making wellness more accessible,” Florence said. “If wellness content always feels like medicine, you’ll get a core group of people who self-identify that they pay a ton of attention to what they eat, or they work out every day, etc. But if you’re trying to bring wellness to people who don’t necessarily always think about it, making content that’s a little bit more entertaining and a little bit less judgmental, a little bit more open-minded, is an important part of that.”

Prism’s aesthetic is very anti-aesthetic by design, Florence said. Its emails and illustrations are colorful, but not overwhelming. “It’s not pictures of beautiful women doing handstands on surfboards,” Florence said. The personal essays often focus on individual wellness experiences, while reported pieces center on issues that impact collective wellness, like climate change.

Though delivered primarily through email, Prism is set up more like a zine. Florence and general manager Evelyn Crowley said they went through a few iterations of packaging but ultimately settled on email newsletters designed as “parcels.” Each parcel is focused on a specific theme that curates stories and personal essays from a range of writers.

The first parcel, titled “The Reset”, revolves around feeling better emotionally, mentally, and physically, and launched in May 2021. You won’t find anyone trying to push green juices, expensive skincare, or instant-feel-better products, but instead, thoughtful, intimate stories from writers like Mallika Rao, John Paul Brammer, Alicia Kennedy, Morgan Jerkins, and others. All of the stories also include audio versions.

“We have been really deliberate in choosing who our contributors are, tapping people who don’t necessarily brand themselves as wellness experts,” Florence said. “I don’t think Mallika Rao’s followers on Twitter are necessarily there for wellness content. But if she posted that she wrote an essay in this publication that’s focused on wellness, they might go to it. We think strategically about who our contributors are, how we’re engaging with them, and how we’re asking them to engage with their audiences.”

The second parcel is the Meat Issue, all about the complexities of meat consumption today, sustainability, and plant-based diets. Food writer (and vegetarian) Alicia Kennedy is the guest editor-at-large and many of the stories are evergreen, including an essay that delves into the performative masculinity of cooking meat and a guide to what all the labels on meat packaging really mean. The issue is a month-long series, with two newsletters going out per week. The month starts a few days after a reader subscribes to the newsletter, sort of like a newsletter course, rather than news updates.

In the first edition’s letter from the editor, Kennedy writes:

I’ll start by being transparent about my own diet (I’m vegetarian) and why I signed on for a project that includes those who eat meat. That’s because I believe how we seek wellness and balance is personal. There’s no one-size-fits-all plan for eating that will make everyone feel great, nor will there be one way to eat that works with everyone’s cultural traditions, nutritional needs, geography, or income. And while there’s no denying the effects of the meat industry on the environment and that it has played a role in climate change, I’ve learned that it’s unrealistic to think that everyone is going to become a card-carrying vegetarian tomorrow.

What I hope to do in this four-week series is illuminate the issues around meat, plant-based eating, climate change, and health, and help readers find their own way with deeper understanding. There are many messages in the media about how to eat the right way. The Meat Issue is about helping you find your right way toward a diet that is sustainable on every level.

The stories in the current parcel are currently only available to read after a reader subscribes in their inboxes, but Florence and Crowley said they make special links available so the writers can share their work on other platforms. They plan to put the second parcel’s stories on the website once they launch the third one.

“We think of our newsletter as the central product, so we think it should feel a little special,” Crowley said. “To have it replicated on the site before we have something new to give you in newsletter form feels a little less special.”

Florence, who previously worked at Quartz, said that there she saw how important it is to build and maintain an audience organically rather than relying on social media and other platforms. Quartz built its brand on newsletters, which generally allows for having a deeper, more engaged relationship with readers. For Prism, the newsletter format lets the team focus on sending readers stories that have something to say, rather than driving to drive people to a website.

But Prism’s audience already wants more from them, with requests funneling in for more stories about sleep. Right now they’re working on the third parcel and getting to a quarterly publishing schedule. They’re also looking into requests for a podcast. Crowley said that the podcast format lends itself well to Prism’s overall mission in opening up dialogues about wellness and bringing in new voices and perspectives.

Florence said that while they have the startup money from Parallel, they’re exploring different options for revenue. Prism has a small merchandise store on its website and down the line they could help create content for Parallel’s other brands. They’re also thinking about clearly labeled and ethical advertising (think: mental health apps offering Prism readers a discount code), hosting events with Prism’s writers, paid communities, and sponsored parcels. The goal is to keep its main stories and parcels free for all.

“It shouldn’t cost you a lot of money to feel well,” Florence said.

POSTED     July 6, 2022, 10:10 a.m.
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