Three years ago, I was a features editor at Reader's Digest, a magazine with a long tradition of storytelling. It was also bankrupt. Around the same time, my former employer Newsweek was sold for $1.
One day, the editor-in-chief at the Digest suggested I write a story about unemployed workers who reinvented themselves. She told me to call a former colleague to interview him about his new job. And guess what? He was working as a prison guard.
Most of my former coworkers might not believe me when I say this, but three years later, I honestly believe this is an exciting time to write long, entertaining nonfiction narratives. I know this first hand.
Last week, my nearly 12,000-word story The Accidental Terrorist: A California Accountant's Coup d'Etat ($2.99 interactive, $1.99 text only) was released by The Atavist, a boutique publishing house that produces original nonfiction stories for mobile reading devices like the Kindle and iPad. The editors don't have flashy offices in a midtown skyscraper but work out of a Brooklyn warehouse with an exciting startup vibe.
They didn't wring their hands about shrinking ad pages, plummeting subscriptions, and rumored layoffs. Instead, they talked about multimedia, tossing ideas back and forth about which criminal evidence to link to, and where we might get videos and maps.
The Accidental Terrorist is exactly the kind of yarn that is now getting squeezed out of magazines due to shrinking ad pages. It had a dramatic plot and a compelling character. His name was Yasith Chhun and he was a friendly, bespectacled 42-year-old accountant from Long Beach, California, who decided he was going to overthrow the Cambodian government. He had four unofficial wives, loved American action flicks and raised money for the National Republican Congressional Campaign Committee.
This man, it seemed to me, had a story worth telling--he'd lived through the Cambodian genocide, escaped to the United States, earned an accounting degree, and made a million dollars. Then, inspired in part by the Mel Gibson movie Braveheart, he gambled it all on a mad scheme to topple Cambodia's dictator. It was dramatic--there were spies, jungle guerillas, an East German rocket launcher. The FBI got involved. It was a complicated story and for a time I felt I'd never be able to win it the space it deserved.
I encountered Chhun's Cambodian Freedom Fighters the first week I arrived in Phnom Penh to start a one-year stint at the English-language Cambodia Daily in 1999. It was, in fact, my very first assignment. Five men were arrested on the banks of the Mekong River as they attempted to blow up a gas storage facility with a rocket launcher. They were trying to figure out how to fire it when the police arrived and arrested them. To me, this was front-page news.
Years later, my experience writing about Chhun for The Atavist was different. Their process added a whole new dimension to my ability to tell a good story, and dispelled any doubts I had about the future of longform journalism.
The multimedia components of The Atavist platform are perhaps the greatest innovation. And they changed the way I approached the reporting. When I came across memos swept up when the FBI searched Chhun's accounting offices, we could include them in the finished piece on the tablet. The memos beautifully captured Chhun's character and voice.
My favorite part was the links the producers at The Atavist included, like the video clip of Chhun's favorite action hero, Mel Gibson in Braveheart, his face streaked with war paint and his sword raised.
I hope to continue writing for traditional magazines for years to come. But this experience has given me a different perspective on how tablets and e-readers are affecting the future of journalism. Finally, new forms are arising to replace some of the casualties of the tumultuous era of magazine deaths. It's just a beginning, but it's the first good news in a while.
The Accidental Terrorist by Adam Piore is available from The Atavist, through Kindle Singles, iBooks, The Atavist app, and other outlets via The Atavist website.