If there’s anything you should get from Noah Rosenberg’s story, it’s that you should probably keep a notebook next to your bed — the brilliant thought that strikes you just before shut-eye could very well turn into a viable business. In Rosenberg’s case, his feverish, middle-of-the-night scribblings became Narratively, a multimedia platform dedicated to the human interest, slow-burn storytelling he’d always had a passion for and feared would disappear along with shrinking newsroom resources. He still has that notebook, by the way.
Narratively recently celebrated its two-year anniversary and so much has been accomplished since it first appeared on the Web. The site was placed on Time‘s “50 Best Websites of 2013″ within a year of its launch, its contributors have been approached for book deals, iconic pieces like “The Secret Life of a Manhattan Doorman” have attracted Hollywood’s attention, brands reach out to members of Narratively’s network of about 1,000 freelancers for high-quality content production, and people around the globe continue to flock to Narratively to read and watch its original content.
And of course Rosenberg is brimming with more and more ideas to tap into an even broader audience. Think spinoff sites like Narratively [Insert Name of Major City Here], Narratively Sports, Narratively Tech, or Narratively Food; iPhone and Android apps; Narratively Film Studios; a book; and more. “I think because of our ability to find these stories in unlikely places and to really tell these stories in a beautiful, meaningful way, we’re finding this wealth of opportunity, and we’re really excited about what the future will hold.” Rosenberg chats with Mediabistro about his on-the-job journalism training, Narratively’s beginnings and his plans for expansion.
Name: Noah Rosenberg
Position: CEO and editor-in-chief, Narratively
Resume: Started off as a broadcast associate for CBS News. Moved on to The Queens Courier, where he was a staff reporter, ran the video/multimedia/digital department, and was the founding editor-in-chief of Long Island City Courier Magazine. Was a product manager at Univision Interactive Media. Has worked as a freelance video/print/multimedia journalist for outlets such as The Wall Street Journal, GQ and The New York Times. In 2012, launched Narratively, a multimedia platform for untold, original stories that has since grown to include the Narratively Creative Group, a network of freelancers who produce and manage content for nonprofits and brands.
Birthday: November 12, 1982
Hometown: Stamford, CT
Education: BA in English and Spanish from Tufts University
Marital status: Married
Media mentors: Jeff Jarvis and Jeremy Caplan, both from the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism
Best career advice received: “I don’t know that anyone actually said this to me flat-out, but I think the best advice I would give someone else… is just to keep working hard and follow where your interests and abilities and your passions really intersect.”
Guilty pleasures: Cheez-It crackers, cheesy television (such as The CW’s Hart of Dixie) and peanut butter
Last book read: The Secret Race by Tyler Hamilton
Twitter handle: @NoahSRosenberg
You’re a writer, videographer, photographer and now CEO. How did you master these different skills?
I always tell people that I never went to J-school. My J-school was essentially working for The Queens Courier. I was sort of this virtual one-man band that was one day going out and reporting on a school shooting in Queens, the next day kicking off a five-part multimedia and writing series about Holocaust survivors living in Queens, and then covering some political rally. So I would be running to assignments wearing a digital camera around my neck, notepad and pencil shoved into my back pocket, and video camera in hand. [Those were] my formative years when it comes to my journalistic and storytelling and media training. I was out there kind of learning as I went along.
What were some of the highs and lows of being a self-taught journalist?
I did a lot of art growing up, whether it was painting or drawing, so I always had this love of visuals, and I think that helped me when it came to dabbling and teaching myself different formats of storytelling. The high is, of course, getting that fantastic story and writing the piece beautifully, or producing the piece beautifully and being completely happy with it. There are other times when you’re working in hostile situations, whether that’s literally a war zone or running out to the scene of a grisly murder in the middle of the night. It’s a really difficult thing to have to knock on a parent’s door when [his or her] son has just been killed and ask for a comment.
Throughout it all I learned there’s much more to a story than just the headline and oftentimes when you’re working for newspapers, even if they’re the best newspapers in the world like The New York Times, there isn’t enough space or time to go into these stories in the in-depth way I would think the story really merits and deserves. So that was part of the inspiration for Narratively.
What’s your advice for people who want to adopt your can-do work style and attitude?
I think it helps to constantly be thinking of ideas. I have no shortage of ideas and things I want to accomplish. At the same time, it’s very important to have priorities. You could easily get sidetracked and instead of devoting 50 percent of your time to one thing you devote 10 percent of your time to five different things. Stay focused and tap into the wealth of ability and resources around you. It’s important to not only have passion yourself, but to instill that passion in other people. [Narratively] very quickly became a team effort, and we’re really tapping into the ideas and the energy and enthusiasm of so many people around us.
What was the first action you took after you had that fit of inspiration about Narratively?
When I first came up with the idea for Narratively, or the very early idea, I hadn’t worked for any of the big-name outlets. But [eventually I started] working for The Wall Street Journal, and doing some work for GQ.com and a number of other big organizations. So I thought to myself, ‘Okay, I finally have some semblance of credibility, I have a great contact list, the media landscape is continuing to shift. People are consuming content on iPads now and they want more long-form, in-depth stuff, and if I don’t do this now I’m never going to do this.’
I approached Brendan Spiegel [editorial director and co-founder of Narratively], who was doing a lot of freelancing for very big media outlets: The New York Times, New York Magazine and Travel + Leisure. I respected his work. I sat him down one day and basically told him what I was trying to do and he was more or less, ‘Yes, where do I sign.’ And a similar experience happened with someone else and the three of us would get together over beers in Brooklyn and chat about what this thing would become. We’d get together every two weeks for about a year and essentially those meetings grew from two, three of us to five of us to eight of us to 12 of us.
It was very much this kind of communal effort where I was tapping other journalists I admired, and if you look at our team now we have about 1,000 freelancers around the world.
Which Narratively story has moved you the most thus far?
That’s like asking me to name my favorite child. I think some of the stories I connected most to were some of the early ones we rolled out the gate in the early days of Narratively when Brendan and I were editing and doing everything around the clock for weeks and weeks and months and months straight without sleeping.
One of the early pieces I think was a very strong and moving piece was a story by a guy named Danny Krieger, who wrote about his mother’s struggle with terminal cancer and her desire to look into [aid in dying]. It looked at sort of the state of [this movement] in New York City. It was called “Going Gently Into That Good Night.” It was journalistic in a way because it looked at all these organizations doing this sort of work and also looked at other patients, but he used the story of his mother as a personal window and entry into the story.
How has Narratively’s LA expansion been going?
That’s been going really well. The initial model for Narratively three-ish years ago was to [launch] as a New York section or a New York site, then six or 10 months later have an LA site or LA section, and then roll out these different verticals slowly. We realized, though, that would be an expensive approach. Also, the types of stories we’re publishing aren’t necessarily the types of stories you need to live in a particular city to appreciate because they are human-interest pieces. Within four or five months of launching, we started to become much more global and [take] submissions and pitches from elsewhere. But we also wanted to strategically build up a roster of contributors in a few key places, LA being one of them.
So we appointed Erika Hayasaki to be our LA editor. Given the opportunity and interest, we could spin off the LA section to its own separate site where we’re doing more stories than one a day. Until then, we’re trying to build up our content pool from LA. We also now have an editor overseeing a sort of virtual Midwest bureau. We definitely see a few key areas where we already have a large audience and want to continue growing that audience and see where that takes us.
Related: How To Pitch: Narratively
Janday Wilson is a storyteller based in the greater New York City area. You can find more of her work at jandaywilson.com.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.