For 10 years, The Atavist Magazine has been a pioneer in digital storytelling, publishing one incredible true story every month. The publication has been recognized for its commitment to in-depth longform journalism and creative, elegant design. It has received many accolades, including a National Magazine Award and a Livingston Award. Most recently, it was named a finalist for a 2021 Dart Award.
In 2018, the publication was acquired by Automattic, and this April, it moved to the company’s Newspack platform.
In this Q&A with the Newspack blog, Editor in chief Seyward Darby answers questions about the magazine’s move, its sleek new design, and what’s next for the publication.
You moved from the Atavist publishing platform, which you had used for a decade, to Newspack, which is built on WordPress.com. Why did you switch? What were some of the challenges of switching to a new CMS?
Since Automattic purchased The Atavist Magazine and the Atavist publishing platform three years ago, the plan has always been to move our content to WordPress.com. It just so happens that, in the same timeframe, Newspack launched. The fit was a bit of a no-brainer: innovative digital magazine launches new design — and a new decade of publishing — on an innovative digital publishing platform. That said, anyone who’s ever switched a publication’s CMS knows it isn’t easy! There are always unforeseen challenges, setbacks, and hiccups. In our case, we were lucky that the developer who built the Atavist platform, Jefferson Rabb, also led the build for Newspack. He created a migration tool to get our existing content from Point A to Point B, while our art director, Ed Johnson, was hard at work creating an entirely new look for the magazine, using various tools and features available on Newspack.
We had some late nights and long weekends to meet our deadline, with assists from Automattic’s editorial team when migrated content needed a polish or fix — for instance, story headlines didn’t wind up where they were supposed to be, like they took a wrong turn on the way to the party, and we needed to get them to their intended destination. I had a big spreadsheet of everything that I wanted to make sure we checked before going live. (I am a perfectionist.) I’m so pleased with the result of everyone’s hard work.
What are you most excited about now that Atavist is on Newspack?
I’m most excited about a few things. First, Atavist can now be a showcase publication, highlighting just how dynamic Newspack is for publishers of all sizes, producing all kinds of content. Second, I’m thrilled to be part of the Newspack network, which is now some 101 publications strong. I’m looking forward to learning from them and hopefully partnering on projects to amplify the reach of great journalism. I was nerdily excited to introduce myself in the Newspack Slack and offer Atavist as a potential co-publisher of stories. (I’m an extrovert, in case that wasn’t obvious.) Third, I’m really glad we’re inside the WordPress.com ecosystem. There’s so much support and creativity, from developers, designers, and all the other people working in the space. Plus, we’re now using the same CMS as our sister publication, Longreads, which offers cool opportunities for collaboration.
Atavist’s story design is intentional and sophisticated. Even subtle visual elements — chapter numerals, styled pull quotes, colored backgrounds — enrich the narrative experience. How did your team approach the redesign?
We publish once a month — that’s it! Each issue is a single longform story, and each story is a singular reading experience. Our story designs are crafted to be immersive and evocative; you get lost in them, in a good way. We wanted the new overall design of the magazine to reflect this aesthetic vision, to be at once streamlined and bespoke. Art director Ed Johnson was guided by one main principle: Focus on the story. We’re not pursuing endless clicks around the site, but rather appreciation and careful attention from our readers. We pared the magazine down to its essence, crafting a sturdy yet literary design that highlights our most recent issues, while also making it easy to peruse our archive of more than 100 stories.
Can you talk a bit about the general anatomy of an Atavist story on the new site? What blocks are essential for building your stories?
The bones of Newspack are already very strong, and it’s easy to build on them. We routinely use the Cover, Paragraph, Image, Pull Quote, and Separator blocks — the basics of most any news story. Then we tweak them with Custom CSS to adjust everything from cover image size to background color to pull quote style. How much Custom CSS we use depends on the art director’s vision for a particular story. One consistent usage is in the customized display of the Accordions block at the top of each of our projects; if you click on it, the block drops down to reveal our masthead — that is, the names and roles of everyone who worked on the story.
We set as our default font in Newspack as a new typeface called Triptych, which consists of just three variations: a Roman, an Italic, and a sans serif Grotesque, which together form a distinct, unadorned whole. Typeface designer Ellmer Stefan of the Pyte Foundry calls his creation a mule, because it’s “confident and hardworking.” (We agree.)
What other Newspack features are you using on the new site?
We’re taking advantage of many built-in features. We use the Newspack Newsletters plugin to send an announcement via MailChimp to our subscribers each time we publish a story. We use Jetpack to track our analytics. And thanks to WooCommerce, we’re able to use the Hand-Picked Products block, which we use to sell Atavist subscriptions.
How can new readers support the magazine?
Readers can support the magazine by becoming subscribers. They’ll get one story delivered to their inboxes each month for a year, and access to our full archive of more than 100 acclaimed pieces. Every Atavist subscription directly supports the work of freelance journalists. We split subscription revenues 50/50 with our writers through our royalties program, and the half we keep helps us fund future stories. Automattic matches every dollar we make from subscriptions with two dollars that we put toward new projects. Long story short, the money we make from subscriptions goes to great use. And it’s only $24.99 per year to sign up.
Anything else you’re looking forward to this year?
Definitely! On June 15, we’re launching our first-ever narrative podcast, No Place Like Home, in association with C13 Originals. It’s about the theft of the ruby slippers from “The Wizard of Oz,” from a small museum in Minnesota, and the 13-year quest to get them back. I’ve been working on the story for three years with journalist Ariel Ramchandani. We’re very excited to put it out in the world, and to be flexing our muscles in a new medium. It will be available wherever you listen to your favorite podcasts. Here’s a preview:
And then we have loads of great stories coming down the pike: investigations, forgotten history, true crime, and more.
Explore The Atavist Magazine for your next great read.