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Narratively Founders Noah and Brendan Sat on a Park Bench and Reflected on 11 Years. You’ll Never Guess What Happened Next.
We founded our company to avoid having to write clickbaity headlines like the one above! So, in honor of our anniversary, we met up to figure out why we’re still running it over a decade later.
Last week, Narratively quietly marked a milestone. It wasn’t our 10-year anniversary, which came and went this time last year with no fanfare during a typically hectic week. Turns out, running a small indie media company is a considerable investment — of time, money, passion, emotion, all the things! — and, well, we buried ourselves in our work and neglected to pat ourselves on the back when we hit a decade. Throwing a party now, for our eleventh anniversary, felt kind of random, so we did the next best thing we could think of: We grabbed a microphone, found a rather idyllic bench in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park and, over solid Mexican takeout, recorded a conversation about where we’ve been, where we’re going and, most importantly, why!? What follows is an edited and condensed transcript.
Noah: So here we are, coming up on 11 years.
Brendan: I still tell people it’s been 10 years! I was actually speaking to a group of journalists yesterday and I said, “We’ve been around for 10 — oh no wait! — actually 11 years.” Eleven somehow doesn’t sound right.
Noah: I mean, it feels like a long time ago that we were packing like sardines into Brooklyn Tavern (R.I.P.!) and Old Town Bar for our pre-launch meetings with dozens of other journalists and storytellers.
Brendan: What was your first inkling? What made you think about this idea and start talking to me about it?
Noah: I’d been working as a full-time freelancer for The New York Times and I’d always gravitated toward human interest, character-driven stories. I found myself as both a reader and a storyteller craving these quirky, underdog, slice-of-life type pieces. And whenever I would pitch them to places like The Times my editors would say, “Cool story, Noah, but let’s put a pin in that and have you go cover this federal court case, or this natural disaster, or this big sports event or fill in the blank.” Breaking news is super important, of course, and I learned a lot doing it, but I found myself growing frustrated that I was filling my reporter’s notebooks and my brain with ideas that I had no outlet for. Often with stories of people I was meeting on the periphery of news assignments.
Brendan: I had similar frustrations as a freelancer. As media went online, there were more and more outlets. I wrote for so many different places! I mean, yeah, I wrote for The New York Times, but I also wrote for, like, “Club Planet.” And, you know, we were in our 20s and that hustle as a freelancer trying to place stories is fun. But it just felt like, even though there were more and more publications, there were fewer and fewer types of stories to write. Everyone was doing the same thing; I’d written so many roundups and top-10 lists and things like that. But same thing: When I would find really interesting characters and feel like, “Oh, this person’s story deserves to be told in-depth,” there was no home for it.
Remember, I met that guy Avishai Mekonen, who’s this Ethiopian Jewish refugee who had this incredible life story of walking across the desert to get to Israel and then immigrating here and living through September 11. And I just knew that people would want to hear his whole story. But it didn’t quite have the news hook to make it land somewhere else. And that was one of the first things I wrote for Narratively.
Noah: I still remember our Kickstarter campaign back in the summer of 2012, and the excitement we felt when we saw in real time that it wasn’t just us clamoring for this sort of storytelling. It was so validating to see that there was a need for what we were creating, that people beyond our core group of freelance contributors here in New York really wanted to participate in this experiment; there were people across the world who cared about these stories, too.
Brendan: The thing that inspired me most early on was the community of writers and journalists. Just sitting around at bars with you and Rebecca White, Tara Israel, Emon Hassan, Michael Premo, Tim Stelloh and so many others talking about our passion projects. For a while it felt like we knew every young freelancer in New York. A lot of them were stringers, who you’d met stringing for The Times or other publications, right? And you guys would just come to the bar after work with, like, the craziest stories from your day. And then everyone would find their one little piece and say, “This is my person who I need to write a full profile on.”
Noah: As you remember all too well, we explored a different theme each week and published one story every weekday, which was verrrry ambitious of us. These were in-depth longform pieces just like we do now! One of our early themes explored unique perspectives on sex and sexuality and my first-ever byline for Narratively came during that week. It was a piece that I had pitched to The Times’s Metropolitan section, and, as usual, the editor basically told me, “Interesting story, Noah, but we have another sex piece coming up in a couple months so I’m going to pass.” And I thought to myself, “This is a really important story about sex workers bonding together, creating their own form of advocacy and business development to protect one another, to better their lives. Who the F cares if there’s another sex story coming up!” I decided I needed to tell it on my own terms. And that’s what we’ve done ever since.
Brendan: One thing that did surprise me is that I didn’t necessarily see Narratively growing from this community of reporters and expanding to memoir, and then getting people writing in from all over the world, saying, “I have a story to tell.” The idea that our community grew to include a woman in Saudi Arabia writing to us and saying, “I’m in this secret all-female book club — can I tell you my story?”
Noah: I love that story so much. Another thing we didn’t anticipate early on was that such a big part of our business would become adapting our pieces with Hollywood partners. From the start, we were regularly getting emails from TV and movie agents, literary agents, producers and screenwriters all saying something like, “Hey, I love your story about the secret life of a Manhattan doorman,” to use one example. “Have you thought about adapting it into a TV series?” I think I speak for both of us when I say I’m excited for the day when all our hard work in that sphere pays off and we actually see something on screen! We’re getting very close. Seems like there’s always a pandemic or a strike or something that, you know, gets in the way! But that’s life, right? And I think in some ways it wouldn’t be natural for us, having championed so many stories about underdogs overcoming obstacles, to not have to really fight to leave our mark.
Brendan: Well, for all those reasons, it feels really good to have paid subscribers now, right? I mean, we talked for 11 years about whether or not to have a subscription model. In the beginning we were tempted, but we kind of felt like, “Our work’s not gonna get out there if it’s behind a paywall.” And it's been such a struggle for everyone in media because we as an industry really screwed up going online and giving everyone in the world all the content for free. And people got this mindset that you don’t pay for articles online. It’s been a long haul, but it’s finally changing. I think due to a lot of the mainstream leaders in the field like The New York Times and The Washington Post building successful subscriber models, but also Substack and other platforms creating a space where it feels like a really exciting and rewarding thing for a reader to support a publication. We both look at the subscriber count countless times a day. It’s because it just feels so good to see it tick up by even one person, to have someone taking a minute to say, “Yeah, I want to pay to support this journalism.”
Noah: I think you hit the nail on the head, Brendan. The subscriber model is also allowing us to go back to our original vision of just telling stories that slip through the cracks and deserve to be told. Subscribers supporting our storytelling means that we don’t have to chase what Hollywood wants or what brands want. It allows us to stay independent and just do this ourselves and trust our gut and be surprised by what our writers are bringing us and listen to what our readers are saying.
Brendan: It feels a little weird to say, but it feels like we have more of a sense of ownership now, you know what I mean? It would be an overstatement to say the company got away from us, but we grew in so many directions that oftentimes it almost felt like we weren’t working for ourselves — which is frustrating when you’ve founded your own business.
Noah: Very true. And you and I have both managed to carve out the time to write our own pieces for Narratively now. It’s empowering that Substack has provided a platform for us to kind of regain our own voices, while continuing to champion others.
Last question from me: We’re still here 11 years later. A lot of our contemporaries who started like-minded media companies over the past decade-plus — many are not here anymore. What do you think it is about Narratively that has allowed us to endure?
Brendan: We’re just really stubborn, haha. I mean, to be honest, we have just kept going. I think part of it is that our community of writers has continued expanding around the world and just keeps bringing us stories that always surprise and inspire us. I always tell people that what I love about Narratively is that usually you’ll get reeled in by reading the headline and say, “Whoa, that’s really weird. I’ve never heard anything like that. What’s the deal with that?” But then you actually read the full story and you understand why the people are into that subculture or that thing that seems so foreign to you. So I think our stories help you understand parts of the world that you didn’t understand before.
Noah: And our team has always had heart. We’ve been able to attract some really great people and I know you and I are both always very encouraged when we hear from interns, editors or other employees that this is the best job they’ve ever had, that they really feel appreciated and impactful. We’ve always led Narratively with a very democratic philosophy, where everyone has a voice, no matter who you are. We’re a storyteller-run company, and everything we do, whether it’s our longform stories, adaptations for Hollywood, podcasts or our newsletters, we want to ensure is executed from an authentic, story-first mentality. What are stories if not reflections of the people they’re about and who write them?
I’ll close by just saying I feel a tremendous amount of gratitude for the people who have worked with us, and also for the thousands of subjects who have entrusted us with their stories all these years. It’s not easy to be on the other side of the reporter’s notepad or microphone, sharing your deepest, most intense feelings, insecurities, vulnerabilities or hopes.
Brendan: And I think that comes down to trust and community. One thing I’m really excited about is building on our community even more. That was what attracted us to Substack in the first place. We’ve talked about introducing Narratively classes, writing groups and writing critiques, and finding other ways to bring the community of subscribers together in the future. I know a lot of our subscribers are writers, or are people who’ve never published professionally but have a story they want to tell. So, we want to find more ways to pair those people up with writers, or to work with first-time writers to publish their story. Like Laura Green-Russell, who had never had a story published before — at least not since she wrote a profile on her horse for a magazine when she was 10! — and then won our Memoir Prize last year. To be able to help her tell her story that had been inside her for 30 years and needed a place to come out, that was just so powerful.
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Noah Rosenberg is the Founder and CEO of Narratively.
Brendan Spiegel is the Editorial Director and Co-founder of Narratively.