If “slow media” needs a poster child, it can find one in Aeon Magazine, an online publication about culture and ideas that marks its first birthday tomorrow. In the space of a year, the magazine, started by a London-based Australian couple who have no background in media, has established itself as a first-rate example of a modern-day magazine, free from the constraints of legacy press and proudly aloof from the pageview-chasing linkbaitery of the Web 2.0 era. It publishes top writers, carries no ads, and encourages readers to save its stories for reading later via the likes of Instapaper, Kindle, or Pocket. Publishing just one essay a day, five days a week, it serves as a venue for considered cultural critiques, thoughtful essays on existentialism, and deep dives on science and nature.
Aeon is, right now, my favorite magazine. It is also, I think, the best example of a magazine built for the age of mobile. It focuses on reading over revenue. It favors contemplation over consumption. In letting its articles travel anywhere its readers go, it pays no heed to the “bundle.”
“We saw Aeon as something of a corrective to the sense that a lot of people have of drowning in information,” says Paul Hains, co-founder and managing director of the company. “We really try to look at the deeper issues, the ideas, and the values that are animating the news, and we focus on those things in particular.”
Standout stories published by Aeon in its first year include Ross Andersen’s 8,000-word report on the likelihood of imminent human extinction, neuroscientist Michael Graziano’s essay about a new theory of consciousness, Mary HK Choi’s paean to her mother, and Jessica Gamble’s rumination on contemporary sleeping habits. The articles, grouped under categories entitled “World Views,” “Nature & Cosmos,” “Being Human,” “Living Together,” and “Altered States,” always run long and are sharply edited (the editorial team includes editors with experience at The Daily Telegraph, The New Statesman, and the Los Angeles Review of Books). While the essays often trade in academic subjects, they are communicated in plain terms accessible to a wide readership.
“We don’t want our pieces to feel abstruse or specialist,” says Aeon’s editor Brigid Hains, who has an academic background, holding a PhD in history and a graduate degree in anthropology. Instead, the publication strives for what the Hainses call “idea egalitarianism.”
The Hainses are a married couple who wanted to start an online forum for what is essentially the antidote to the Twitterized hyper-torrent of information splidgets that now assault us on a daily basis. “Brigid and I had a view that there were ideas and ways of thinking that were under-represented in the cultural conversation,” says Paul. “Aeon as a magazine is a vehicle to create a focus on these ideas and foster discussion around them.”
Paul, who used to work in finance but has an abiding interest in psychology and comparative religion, funds Aeon. He has put up enough capital (he declines to say how much) to last for three years, so the company can focus on the quality of its product without having to worry about money. So if you’re looking to Aeon for magic solutions to journalism’s business model problem, you won’t find it here.
“The longer we can defer making any commitments to a specific business model, the better we’ll be,” says Paul, “because the landscape is changing all the time.”
That means Aeon’s stories are free, even while the publication pays its writers at rates comparable to those paid by broadsheet newspapers. (The founders won’t say exactly what that rate is, but Brigid says 60 cents a word is “not a bad guess.”) It also means there are no ads, and the editors don’t mind if you leave the Aeon website to read a story somewhere else. A link to “Read later or Kindle” is placed on the same line as the by-line and the word-count, a subtle indicator that the story is king, even if it means readers ultimately spend less time on the site.
The content-first approach to modern publishing may turn out to be a winner, even as the business challenges for journalism remain significant and unresolved. Thanks to the distributive networks such as Twitter, Facebook, and email, and the concurrent rise of mobile devices as the mediums to which those networks pump content, the idea of a homepage or a magazine bundle just simply doesn’t matter as much as it did in the print age or the first two decades of the Web.
Stories must now travel on their own, to be judged on their individual strengths independent of the context within which they were originally placed. Soon, if it’s not true already, magazine brands will matter more as marks of quality or tone than they do as gatherers and arrangers of content in a unified experience. By predicating its publishing model on stories that can be pried from the bundle and whose ideas stand on their own, Aeon confirms itself as a bankable brand synonymous with quality and depth. It publishes stories based not on how many clicks their headlines might generate, but on engaging people’s attention for a meaningful period of time. That is the standard to which magazines of the mobile era must aspire.
Of course, unlike other startup publications, Aeon can afford such luxuries, because it doesn’t yet have to worry about making money. In three years’ time, it may be forced to take a less reader-friendly approach in a search for revenue. In terms of business, all Aeon has proven in its first 12 months is that it can fund its own boutique publishing operation. The real tests come as it scales, and when the numbers in the bank account approach zero. For now, traffic on the site seems to be doing okay. Some stories do much better than others, with the most-circulated pieces attracting as many as 2,000 tweets or Facebook likes. But the founders decline to share traffic numbers.
Next, Aeon will build on its brand by launching a companion site dedicated to films (as distinct from “videos,” Paul stresses). Aeon Film will reflect the ethos of the magazine, say the Hainses, with an emphasis on short documentaries. The films showcased will be a mix of material curated from around the Web and exclusives that the company pays to license.
The film vertical, says Paul, will seed the transition from the text-based digital publication to a multimedia product. At that point, Aeon will be one step more unconventional than it already is. It is the magazine that isn’t, the anti-aggregator, the publication that insists on going slow when every other force of the Internet demands that we speed up.
But considering how well traditional models are working in today’s media landscape, unconventional is probably a good thing.