How Atavist is winning over publishers

When monthly magazine California Sunday started publishing on the Web last fall, it didn’t opt for CMS standbys such as WordPress or Drupal. Instead, it chose Atavist, a small publishing platform billed by media prognosticators as “the future of storytelling.”

Atavist, which launched as a platform-publisher hybrid back in 2011, hasn’t gotten the buzz of Ev Williams’ Medium, which has become the de facto platform for one-off thought pieces popular with the Twitter set. But it has caught the attention of an increasing number of publishers, which are drawn to the platform’s toolset for its ability to easily let them create eye-catching features. Call it the poor man’s Snowfall.

Mental Floss, for example, recently used Atavist to publish “8 Genius Ideas That Are Changing the Way We Eat,” articles originally published in its October print issue. The Daily Dot, Christian Science Monitor, Esquire and Vice have all also published original stories this way in the past year. California Sunday uses Atavist to publish roughly five long features a month as well as shorter stories. The site also uses the Atavist to publish content it makes for brands, such as a bicycling guide it made for Shinola.

“Our focus is storytelling, design packaging and creating deep, engaging content, not being a social network,” said Gordon Saft, Atavist’s head of business development and operations, on how the platform sets itself apart from Medium. “We’re just giving people the tools.”

Mental Floss on The Atavist.

The increased publisher interest comes six months after Atavist retooled its software with an increased emphasis on design. Atavist also torpedoed its native app in favor of a focus on the Web, which founders Evan Ratliff and Jefferson Rabb said had caught up with the capabilities of mobile apps. (It was also an admission of the difficulty most app makers have in attracting and holding on to users.)

Even the most elaborate print article can be reproduced with Atavist in a few hours, said Jim Ray, California Sunday’s technology director. Equally important, though, the platform supports metered paywalls. Esquire used Atavist to republish a 2003 article about the September 11 terrorist attacks, which asked readers to pay $2.99 before they could read it.

That ease of creation, along with its support for alternate payment methods, has made for a compelling offering for publishers, particularly those who don’t have the resources to build advanced publishing tools internally, according to Mental Floss editor-in-chief Jessanne Collins.

“We’re growing so fast that creating a robust backend and interface where we can produce this kind of long-form stuff isn’t something we have the time to do right now,” she said. “We’re trying to create the type of stories that are elaborate and encourage people to take their time reading them.”

California Sunday’s Ray said that, unlike venture capital-fueled publishers such as Vox and BuzzFeed, small publishers don’t have enough cash or people to create content management able to turn out design-heavy features like Snowfall.

“For practical reasons, it just doesn’t make sense to go that route when focusing on the content and design made more sense. There’s no reason to reinvent the wheel,” Ray said.

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