The Chronicles of Now, which launched today, marries fiction and journalism to intriguing effect. Publishing short stories inspired by news headlines, the site invites readers overwhelmed by the news (and who isn’t?) to take a fresh look at what is going on in the world.
During his tenure at Esquire magazine, Tyler Cabot, founder and editor of The Chronicles of Now, edited fiction and journalism. At his new venture, his plan is to publish one short story (typically about 750 words) a week. He’s posted a half-dozen already including Sloane Crosley on Lori Loughlin’s college admission scandal, Carmen Maria Machado on Jeffrey Epstein’s suicide, Colum McCann on Megan Rapinoe’s history-making soccer, and Thomas Mallon on Mike Pence’s (rumored) ouster. Among the 25 writers commissioned are Nam Le, Mary-Louise Parker, Curtis Sittenfeld, Lisa Taddeo, Laura van den Berg, and Jess Walter.
The stories are accompanied by sidebars highlighting salient facts about the news event and links to premier pieces of journalism on the subject. For example, Manuel Gonzales’s “The Extinction Show: Live! One Night Only!” was inspired by “Humans Are Speeding Extinction and Altering the Natural World at an ‘Unprecedented’ Pace” from The New York Times, May 6, 2019. As Cabot writes in his editor’s letter, “The story perfectly encapsulates what we’re doing with The Chronicles of Now: turning a news story that rushed past us in the welter of what we call the news cycle into a work of art that prompts us to take a moment to absorb it; a work of art that sticks with you long after the cycle has moved on.” The story is being co-published by WIRED.
Access is free for now. A podcast is in the works with Pushkin Industries, co-founded by Malcolm Gladwell and Jacob Weisberg. What follows are edited excerpts from an interview with Cabot at the Nieman Foundation where Cabot was a 2014 fellow:
Is it at all a dangerous idea to commission short stories taking off from the news when we’re in such truth-challenged times?
Tyler Cabot: I’d almost argue that we need to do this now. We are in an era where there is so much news, so many headlines. I think it’s really important that we find ways to take a step back and think deeply about these news stories and what they mean. The best way to do that is through art. That’s what I’ve challenged these authors to do. The Chronicles is not meant at all to replace news, it’s made to facilitate it. To get you to think deeply about a story, what it meant on a human level, how it could impact our world and each other, and then want to dig deeper.
What are some of the experiences that inspired The Chronicles of Now?
A lot of it was built out of my work at Esquire. I was there over a decade, and the majority of my time there was editing narrative nonfiction. I also edited fiction, and I remember very clearly the editor in chief saying we don’t just hold a space in the magazine for fiction because we should do that, it needs to earn its place in the magazine. A lot of our push was to make fiction more of the moment. How do we make it so it isn’t a speed bump in a magazine, but something you have to read, something you want to read? We worked on that in various ways, but one of the ways that’s closer to The Chronicles of Now is we commissioned timely fiction.
I edited Lisa Taddeo writing “The Last Days of Heath Ledger,” which was reported fiction about what his last days in New York were like. It was getting all the reporting she could get, and then making it into a fictional narrative, labeled as such.
How have you funded “Chronicles of Now” and what’s your revenue model?
So far it’s a combination of self-funding, and a ton of favors. All the branding and the creative was done by the former creative director of Esquire, David Curcurito, who now runs his own shop. It was like, “This sounds amazing, let’s do it.” The website was built by Cantilever, the team that built the Esquire classic archive for me when I was there.
The authors are all paid. But everyone who helped on the backend, such as my research and copyeditors, either gave me amazing rates, or gave me work for free. It was a lesson in a few things. The biggest is we’d been missing the fun in journalism and magazines for a while. I think people liked the idea that we could all create something that we believe in that’s really cool.
Revenue going forward is trying to apply a lot of lessons that I’ve learned over the last few years from building the Esquire archive and paywall, and the Esquire podcast, things I did at Audible. I want to build a business around a paid subscription and other revenue streams.
Between the projects that you’ve done at Esquire and things you’ve done outside of Esquire, you’ve been a bit of a serial entrepreneur. What’s your best advice to journalists considering launching their own business?
The Chronicles of Now was an idea I’ve had stewing around for probably three to four years. It just happened I had the time and I started. Part of it was actually something that someone told me here when I was at Nieman: the most successful people this person knew didn’t talk about all the things they were doing, they just started.