Where to find high-quality journalism on the Internet | Jeff Campagna Interview

Jeff Campagna is an author, journalist, and co-founder of independent startup publisher Compass Cultura. His stories have appeared in The Daily Beast, Smithsonian Magazine, Vice Magazine, The Atlantic’s Longreads, Narrative.ly, and many other publications. Compass Cultura is a subscription-based publisher of high-quality, in-depth stories. Everything I’ve read there so far has been top notch.

I came across a great story by Jeff on the future of travel publishing on Medium (which in itself is an example of the future of publishing). His perspective nailed how the Internet is changing the nature of reporting, news consumption, and journalism’s business model. As an author, this is a topic that fascinates me to no end. I reached out to Jeff and he was generous enough to a share a number of insights on what’s really going on behind the scenes.

Why is the internet packed with top ten lists, link bait, promotional content, and other crappy stories? Where did all the good stuff go?

I don’t think it went anywhere. It’s still there. It’s just buried. I’m not quite sure what the origin of Internet drivel is. Maybe it’s because it’s easy to consume. Like candy. Like pop music. Maybe because it’s just more entertaining than journalism and informative writing. Maybe it’s because, as a species, we are losing our desire to learn. But, good reading is still out here. And good readers are too. And it’s not a case of ridding the internet of all the drivel so that the good readers can find the good reading. It’s about forging the Internet in such a way that users can find the content they want with ease, whatever that content may be.

What does the future of journalism look like? How is technology shaping that future? What is driving the shift?

This is a massive question. I may be a journalist, and also an independent publisher, but I certainly don’t have the qualifications or the expertise to predict the digital outcomes of either. I hope journalism will maintain a certain standard of quality, objectivity and accuracy in an age of speed, anonymity, and openness. Technology is obviously shaping the future of journalism (and everything else for that matter). Users are reading more on their smartphones than on their desktops. This is crazy to me.

How can writers monetize stories? How is this changing? How does business model impact the quality and process of reporting?

There are many ways writers can try to monetize their stories. Patreon, Beacon Reader and Contributoria are all examples of audience-funded (and sometimes even audience-edited) publishers who are embracing the implementation of open journalism in the digital age. I think what they are doing is great. Though I’m not sure if it’s the answer. As a journalist, I still tend to rely on the old system of selling a story to an editor who then packages it for the readership of his or her outlet. I guess I still believe in the old-school approach of branded curation. But not because it’s the best approach. I’m not sure if anyone in the digital publishing world has really gotten it right, yet.

What is Compass Cultura up to? Who are the other top players and what are they doing?

At Compass Cultura, we are doing our best to offer people higher-quality international and travel-based journalism in an easy-to-read, advertisement-free environment. We’re trying to maintain a very tight focus. People have asked us if we license our platform to other publishers (in the way The Atavist licences their platform through The Creatavist) but the truth is, we’re not a start-up tech company. We just want to tell great stories. Compass Cultura uses a sub-compact philosophy. We’re not the first to do so. BKLYNR is another great example of well-executed sub-compact publishing. We are simply applying new trends in digital publishing to the travel-based journalism sector.

Is there an analog for people writing fiction? What new challenges do they face? What new solutions are out there?

Fiction is a very different animal. The Internet is a perfect vehicle to bring back the phenomena of 19th century serialized fiction, but it’s not really being done yet—certainly not by any mainstream authors or publishers. But I think someone should give it a go. The closet relative to sub-compact publishing in the fiction world would probably be Kindle Singles. And some mainstream authors have had success with them. But, fiction is a tough nut to crack.

At the end of the day, what does this all mean for readers? For writers?

At the end of the day, what we are all working towards is a sort of democratization of publishing. Putting the power in the hands of the reader. For the first time in history, publishers can analyze exactly how exactly their readers are interacting with their content. With the invention of the Internet, web analytics and mobile apps, the relationship between content-provider and content-consumer has shifted from being a monologue to being a dialogue. Instead of publishers pushing content to readers, readers are sort of pulling it to them. But, this tool can be used for evil. I mean, web analytics are almost entirely responsible for the horrible state of digital advertising. Clicks, clicks, clicks. Time on site. Bounce rate. These metrics could (and should) be used to improve content quality, not increase ad revenue.

Does your experience as a writer/journalist inform your role as a founder at Compass Cultura and vice versa (i.e. creative <–> business)? Have you learned anything counterintuitive so far?

My journalism background absolutely informs my role as Compass Cultura’s founder and creative director. In fact, my experience in journalism was the fountainhead for the project. Though it sounds crass, we publish the kind of content on Compass Cultura that we ourselves like to read. And I do the same as a journalist. I look for, and write, the kind of stories that I enjoy reading.

What’s the best story you’ve read recently?

Well, I may be biased but, the best piece of journalism I’ve read recently is, without a doubt, Francesca Borri’s article on the remnants of life in Aleppo, Syria. She is a very important journalist and her way of educating readers is honest and poetic—in my opinion, the two requirements of great journalism.

What important question am I not asking?

I think an important question to ask, and not just of me but everyone, is: what kind of Internet do we want? It’s our choice. Though sometimes the internet feels like such a big place, it can’t possibly be controlled. But it can. Do we want an Internet where deceiving native advertising is commonplace and corporate agendas are fed to us without even knowing it? Or do we want an internet that works for us, and not them. An Internet where content is king and high-quality products are easy to find. Of course, both Internets will always exist in some correlation or another. But, to me, the Internet is a castle that you are either building up or tearing down.

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