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Many stories today have some link to the past, however, according to Jim, many of are taught history to accept it as it is. In this episode, we explore Timeline.com’s background and the initiatives they are undertaking to thrive in a narrow publishing niche.

Podcast Transcription

Vahe Arabian: Welcome to the State of Digital Publishing podcast. State of Digital Publishing is an online publication and community, providing resources, perspectives, collaboration, and news for digital media and publishing professionals in new media and technology. Our aim is to help industry professionals get more time back to work on what really matters. Monetizing content and growing reader relationships. I speak with Jim Giles, CEO of Timeline.com, and he speaks about his startup journey, and how they’re trying to thrive in a very niche field, history journalism. Hi Jim, how are you?
Jim Giles: I’m doing good, how are you?
Vahe Arabian: I’m good, thank you. Thanks for asking. How’re things in Timeline these days?
Jim Giles: They’re good. Really exciting time right now, we have a new editor in place, her name is Laura Smith who is one of our senior writers who’s just been promoted to editor. Actually this morning, just got out of a meeting with Laura and our colleagues where we were talking about a bunch of new editorial initiatives that we’re really excited about. So yeah, feels like a good time.
Vahe Arabian: That’s very exciting, I’m sure she’s very excited to take a step up as well. Jim, just for everyone who doesn’t know much about Timeline and about yourself, if could just provide a bit of a background on how you guys are set up at the moment.
Jim Giles: Yeah, absolutely. So, Timeline is a digital publisher, we focus on our website, Timeline.com and our Facebook page, and we’re really all about talking about history in a different way. So we think that if you go and grab a random person on the street and ask them what they think about history, there’s a high chance they’re gonna say that it’s boring, it’s just something, they don’t feel it’s for them. And the reason why a lot of people feel like that about history is that history is often approached as kind of a lesson. You’re told, this is a famous person, usually, a white man from history who did important things, and you should care about them.
And the truth is that that leaves a lot of people cold. We think about history in a completely different way. So when we start thinking about stories we start with today, and we’re always interested in asking ourselves, what is our audience thinking about? What are they paying attention to? What are they talking about and what are they watching? And from there, we then go back into history and search for stories that feel relevant to those contemporary concerns.
So it’s really about making history the story of now, the story of how we got to now, and always thinking about making the stories feel fresh and relevant and relatable, even if we’re talking about events that happened one or two hundred years ago.
Vahe Arabian: With your audience, I guess, having a look at your website and just understanding the direction of it, it seems that you guys are focusing more on women’s history, black history, and white supremacy, and just more about war stories, is that correct? Is that where you find the best for your audience at the moment, or?
Jim Giles: I mean, our audience is very roughly in the 20 to 45-year-old age range in the US, and that demographic is really interested in social justice, it’s a big issue for them. So that’s where we constrain ourselves right now. So particularly in issues in race, gender, and class, and the history of why those things look the way they do today.
So yes, we do a lot of stuff on African American history and race in general, we do a lot of stuff on the history of women’s rights and on the history of LGBTQ rights as well.
Vahe Arabian: Understood. I’d like to delve a bit deeper into the audience, just in a short period. Just to take a step back, looking at your bio, it seems like you also co-founded MATTER, which is a science publication, and that was also a long-form journalism publication as well.
Based on your learnings from that, is that something that you transferred across to Timeline and just decided to focus on history, or how did that …?
Jim Giles: I mean, to some extent, whenever you do a startup, I think you learn, it’s such a crazy experience every time and you learn an enormous amount. It’s just the nature of the challenge. So yes, there’s so much stuff I learn around digital publishing working on MATTER, and also working at Medium, so MATTER was acquired by Medium and myself and my co-founder went to work there, working MATTER inside Medium and also working on the Medium platform itself.
We learned so much, and a lot of that did transfer over to Timeline, but internally, they’re very different things. MATTER was, initially, a long-form science and technology and then it broadened its reach a bit, but it never really had a history focus.
And I actually hadn’t really thought about history journalism until I became involved with Timeline, first as a consultant and then as a CEO. But I spent about a year consulting for the company, and really, over that year, came to realize just how powerful history could be as a vehicle for talking about contemporary concerns. So yeah, I think it was a revelation for me, really. And a lot of it was new.
Vahe Arabian: So you were able to find your niche while you were doing consulting for Medium, is that correct?
Jim Giles: Sorry, what do you mean?
Vahe Arabian: Sorry, I guess in terms of understanding history journalism and getting used to history journalism, were you able to find that niche, that growing need for audiences to read about social justice while you were at Medium, or how did that …?
Jim Giles: No, so I left Medium in the summer of 2014 and was consulting for a range of publishers, and Timeline was one of them. So I spent about a year, just as a consultant to Timeline, so helping them grow the business and helping them refine their editorial strategy.
And it was during that time that I really began to think deeply about what they were doing and how history could be used, what history journalism was, and what it could be. But even when I took over as CEO, which was in January 2016, our editorial mission then certainly wasn’t finalized, it really took six months to kind of hone.
And I think like most publishers, that’s a combination of editorial experience and feedback from the audience, so you’re trying new things, and then you’re asking yourself, do these feel right? Am I proud of this content I’m producing? And what does the audience think? What kind of comments are we getting, what kind of raw viewing numbers are we getting?
And that’s like a constant intricate process, and for us, it took probably about six months to establish the formulation that I just described.
Vahe Arabian: I understand. And so in terms of identifying the social justice charges, it’s through that feedback that you mentioned. With the current content now, how do you guys view storytelling to contextualize history and tie it back to the present day?
When someone reads the stories now on Timeline, what’s the feedback that you’re getting at the moment from your current audience?
Jim Giles: I mean, it’s really interesting, very gratifying. I would say the most common comment that we get is, why did I not know this already? And so we found that when you tell the stories of remarkable people who come from marginalized groups, you tap into a real appetite for those kinds of stories, obviously from people from the same group, but more broadly, and I think there’s a strong sense that this appetite is really coming from a sense that the history of America as it’s told conventionally is told very narrowly, and there are whole swathes of people and places and events and ideas that have either been downplayed or completely ignored.
So, here’s a great example. We did a story in 2016 about this amazing African American motorcyclist, a woman named Bessie Stringfield, who at the age of 19 in 1930, rode across the United States on a Harley Davidson. So, that was an extraordinary feat that we’re talking, the pre-interstate system here. So it was quite a feat for anyone to ride across the country on a Harley, even much more so for a young black woman.
She would turn up in towns and she would be told there was nowhere for her to stay. She, at least once, was deliberately knocked from her bike by another motorcyclist, but she made it across, she performed stunts at local carnivals along the way to pay her way.
So her story’s incredible. We know our audience found that absolutely inspiring, the video we made about her has been watched more than 20 million times. It has attracted thousands of views. And since we told that story, other publications now have started writing about Bessie, and in fact, Bessie Stringfield now has an obituary in the New York Times, just came out a few weeks ago.
So I think that’s a great example of a genuinely remarkable person whose story was largely ignored, really, until we told it. And it was largely ignored because of who she was because she was a black woman. And black women, in general, are one of several groups whose histories have not gotten the attention they should have done.
Because of the power structures in America. And so to go back to your point about what do people say, when we write about people like Bessie, we get comments every time saying, “I wish I’d learned about this person in high school. I should have learned about this person. How many more people are out there like this that I haven’t been told about?”
And we love hearing that because that means we’re doing our job, and we’re sort of creating a new way of talking about America that feels, I think, very relevant to the struggles that we have today.
Vahe Arabian: And how are you currently set up to be able to uncover these new stories and people then have their stories heard, and how do you find these stories in general?
Jim Giles: I mean, I don’t think we have any magic, it’s just research. We have gotten really good at knowing where these gems are hidden in archives, in libraries, but I think a lot of it is just, this is our job and this is what we focus on every day. And I think we’ve gotten really good at it. But it’s not like it’s not a type of content form that didn’t exist previously and it’s not like our research process is radically different, it’s just this is what we choose to focus on.
Vahe Arabian: I understand. But does anything, like you said how current events, trying to tie it back to current events the history, contextualizing it, how much of a role does that play in the research that you guys take?
Jim Giles: So, we don’t tend to look at the headlines of the day and respond to them. That’s actually something that we tried doing, and it’s very hard to do that in a consistent way. So, for example, as we’re recording this, the big story is James Comey’s book, which is out today, and the argument that that has started with President Trump.
That’s not something, we don’t sort of run off when we see those headlines and say, okay, what’s the story we can tell that feels relevant to us? That’s the story that we’ll pulley their way, that particular thumb pin in President Trump’s largest story.
We’re more interested in the bigger trends. So, a story that we did respond to quite extensively was the Me Too movement and the Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment issues, because that was an issue that stayed in the news for months and really hasn’t gone away, it’s still having a moment.
So in that case, we went back and we really looked at the history of sexual harassment in the modern workplace and we found what we think is the first organized campaign against sexual harassment incident, which was in 1974 I think.
We found the first front-page story in a national newspaper about sexual harassment and we interviewed the journalist that wrote that. And that’s a more natural way for us to respond because it’s a much bigger story. We’re a small team, there’s 10 of us, so we can’t be chasing every day’s headline.
Vahe Arabian: No, definitely, and I think that’s what plays your strengths in creating long-form journalism as well, so I appreciate you clarifying that. Do you think, in terms of looking at past history journalism, when people think about history, I think the assumption is they think about History Channel or Discovery, or think about the documentaries and the videos.
Do you think that, in your opinion, that has played a role in how history journalism has formed, or it maybe has shifted just to video, or what’s your thoughts on how history journalism has shaped today?
Jim Giles: I mean, I think a lot of history journalism, if you go back five or 10 years, that’s what I’d say, it’s not really a phrase. History journalism isn’t a phrase people use, it’s not really something they’ve thought about.
But if you go back and you look at content about history, a lot of it was made for people interested in history. And that’s one of the reasons why I think people feel like history isn’t for them. Because of that. It’s made for people who already were interested in learning about Napoleon or Abraham Lincoln or whoever.
And I think what we’ve seen over the last five years is the emergence of a new kind of historical storytelling, which is the kind that we pursue. We’re not the only ones that do this. The Washington Post has a great series called Retropolis. Retro Report is a video series that appears on The New York Times and elsewhere.
There’s a semi-regular newsletter called Bunk, which is great. So I think we’re seeing an emergence of a new kind of historical storytelling which I hope we’re very much at the forefront of.
Vahe Arabian: How do you think about staying at the forefront? Is it the fact that you guys are on Medium that helps you with your distribution, or how do you answer that question, I guess?
Jim Giles: Medium has been a great home for us. It’s not a huge boost in terms of distribution, we get some traffic from within the Medium network, but like most people, we’re looking at social and searches are our main drivers. And if you ask how do we want to stay at the forefront, it’s just continuing to innovate really, and I think that’s true of any digital publisher.
This is why publishing is such a fun place to be right now, even though the insecurity is very high and there’s a lot of anxiety and that’s a real thing, but there’s also an amazing amount of freedom to innovate. We’re a small team, so it’s wonderful, we can come up with ideas and we can start building in the afternoon if we all get excited about it.
And that’s how hopefully we’ll stay at the forefront. It’s not even, that’s how we stay at the forefront, that’s just how most digital publishers have to operate right now because things are changing so quickly, and we’re in the process of continually refining our product.
Vahe Arabian: And speaking about your product, you’ve got the support Timeline page and it has the monthly subscription. How do you go about trying to develop a sustainable business around trying to get more subscribers?
Jim Giles: Yeah, well, we call them members actually, there’s no paywall. But the membership scheme is very much in beta, so we’re still experimenting with the kind of different messages that we can use to talk to members and try to understand the different things that might motivate our audience to support us.
I am hoping in the next year that membership’s gonna evolve into a really useful revenue stream for us. The other things that we’re doing, we have a partnership on the education side, so we work with a company called Nearpod, that takes our articles and builds lesson plans around them, so we have a deal with them.
And we’re also starting to do sponsored content. So, we’re very happy in the last few weeks to have done a promotional series for a film called Beirut starring Jon Hamm, a man of fame. The movie which has just come out is set during the Lebanese civil war, which was a very bloody but also very complex historical period, and the distributors of the movie would kind of recognize that the history behind the film was a really important part of the film and wanted to do some storytelling about it.
And they approached us, ’cause they really liked the way that we do historical storytelling. So we did a series of photo-essays and videos about the Lebanese civil war that also helped promote the movie. And so that was our first for a inter-sponsored content, but again, that’s something that we’re really gonna be pushing hard to build out over the next year.
Vahe Arabian: So that’s, I guess, more towards trying to build up these partnerships and revenue streams, trying to find other opportunities to help, beyond the subscription, to help you make a more sustainable business. Is that correct?
Jim Giles: I mean, I think all young digital publishers have to be scrapping, and we’re constantly looking for new ways in which we can bring in revenue. But you don’t want to be trying too many different things at once.
So our big focuses right now are building out membership, pushing hard, doing some more work on the education side, and closing further branded content deals.
Vahe Arabian: So, what’s some of the audience initiatives and lessons that you can provide to our listeners around developing a membership product, something that you’ve learned so far?
Jim Giles: Yeah, I mean, the best, if anyone listening is interested in building a membership product, if you haven’t done already, I would recommend checking out Jay Rosen’s project at NYU around membership. I think it’s called something as simple as the Membership Project, and it’s an amazing resource.
They’re continually interviewing publications that have membership schemes and publishing reports and blog posts about what they’ve learned, and so I learned a ton from that. What we’ve learned from talking to our audience is, it seems like the motivation to support us is very much around the mission, to the value that we bring to the world by doing our journalism.
People don’t seem particularly motivated by things like access to exclusive content or the chance to talk to our editors or the chance to give us more intimate feedback on what we do, which were all things that we thought they might be interested in.
It seems like it’s a kind of a simpler decision, just like, yeah, I like the work you’re doing and you’re making the world a better place, so I’ll be willing to support you. I would say that is our hypothesis based on initial feedback, but we’re really in the beginnings of our membership scheme, and I think one thing that we’ve learned, particularly from the Membership Project is you’ve got to keep talking to your members.
And you’ve got to keep trying to find out why people sign up and why they don’t sign up, and use that as data when you refine what the scheme looks like.
Vahe Arabian: Jim, how long have you been focusing on the subscription and when do you think it would be fine for you to say, okay, I think we’ve got something here, let’s just try to wrap things up?
Jim Giles: On the membership side?
Vahe Arabian: Yup, the membership side.
Jim Giles: I mean, I think we need our membership to number in the thousands, and it does not, we’re not at that level yet. We didn’t expect to be, we only launched a couple of months ago, but I guess if we get to the end of this year and we’re still nowhere near getting close to a thousand members, then that’s looking bleak. We would have to rethink.
But I think the potential is actually much higher, looking at the size of our audience, we have millions of people viewing our content every month. We get fantastic comments, such positive sort of feedback comes in so regularly, that I do think that there’s a big potential to bring in, to build a membership scheme that’s got 5,000, 10,000 people in it and that’s where we want to be.
Vahe Arabian: And just for people who are starting out in journalism and digital media and who are interested in covering history specifically and working in startups as well, what’s your advice to them?
Jim Giles: I mean, I don’t know if I have particular advice for writing about history, it’s such a small field, but I think my advice to people interested in doing startups is always, just think really hard about what else is out there, and ask yourself, what value am I adding if I create this thing?
Because the barrier to entry in journalism basically disappeared with the advent of the internet, and certainly with the latest stages of the web. And that led to massive proliferation of publications, many of which, really, were just chasing audience via … Almost sort of like taking advantage of quirks of social media platforms.
Like oh, Facebook is gonna send me all the traffic, so I’m gonna create something that gets me a lot of traffic on Facebook. Those publications have now disappeared, and I think a much better question to ask yourself is, what value can I add? Not can I get a lot of traffic by doing this thing on this platform, but am I providing people with a type of content that doesn’t exist? Or maybe does exist, but isn’t done very well? Or isn’t done in this new, original way that I’ve got?
And if you’ve got something powerful and original, then put that at the heart of your business and build everything else around it. And try to make the traffic work. I mean, nothing works without an audience, so ultimately, that’s what matters. But if you start with a trick that you think’s gonna get lots of audiences, then, odds are it won’t work.
Vahe Arabian: Understood. Just one final question. Are there any technologies or branches that you’re looking at exploring at the moment to help you with the build, your storytelling, and just overall Timeline offering?
Jim Giles: I don’t think we’re looking at any technologies that people aren’t already using extensively. I mean, we’re a small team, so there’s 10 of us here. So we don’t even do Instagram stories, for example, which would be a great thing for us to do.
So if I had more resources and more stuff, there isn’t like a brand new untested tech that I would jump to deploy, I would actually just put more time and energy into doing things that are already out there and already proven to work, but which we have not had the resources to explore.
Vahe Arabian: Makes sense. Well thanks for joining us, Jim, appreciate it.
Jim Giles: Not at all, thanks for having me on.
Vahe Arabian: Thank you for joining us on the State of Digital Publishing podcast. To listen to past and upcoming episodes, feel free to visit us on all major podcast networks, iTunes, SoundCloud, and more. We’re also on social media and feel free to visit our website, Stateofdigitalpublishing.com, for exclusive news, background information, resources, and our membership subscription. Until next time.