Building a new media brand in any sector is difficult, but expensive experiential writing about travel, history, art, and science is even harder to churn into a viable business. Atlas Obscura's intentions are pure, but it will take viral connection with a younger generation to guarantee its longevity.
Atlas Obscura was launched in 2009 as a platform where travelers, explorers, and the curious could post stories about their strange and fascinating experiences around the world.
The brand, which grew quickly and now has about 1.5 million monthly site visitors, is ready to take its project to the next stage.
Last week, founders Joshua Foer and Dylan Thuras hired former Slate editor-in-chief David Plotz as the company’s first CEO. Now they’re going out to raise funding with plans to transform Atlas Obscura from user-generated travel stories into the National Geographic of the digital age.
Although Plotz comes from the editorial side of the fence, he has some clear ideas about what it takes to make money online: His recent missive 76 ways to make money in digital media went viral. In additional to traditional advertising, which the site already runs from brands like Acura and Dos Equis, Plotz sees clear revenue opportunities in native content and branded events, the latter of which Atlas has already found early success.
Skift caught up with Plotz to learn more about the evolution of the brand and how it plans to compete by leveraging original reporting, a curious attitude, and Plotz’s digital expertise.
An edited version of our interview is below:
Skift: What role is travel going to play in the new Atlas Obscura?
David Plotz: Our strong belief is that Atlas Obscura has the potential to become, for our and our children’s generation, what National Geographic was for our parents’ and grandparents’ generation: A defining media brand around wonder and discovery.
The reason we think this is based on what the site is now. With essentially no resources, it’s built an audience of almost a million active readers and a really loyal social media following, a community that engages and creates content for it, and a tremendous amount of good will.
Our sense is that if we invest in it, and do it judiciously and wisely, we can grow in a few significant ways. One is to make the user-generated platform even better than it is right now. You can’t really enter anything on mobile and it’s very hard to share any of the user-generated content. Another part of it is building the content. Right now most of Atlas Obscura is places entered by readers and edited by staff. There are also articles written by freelancers. Our bet is that if we really invest in this, if we hire the right editors and the right writers and the right video producers, we can start to create great original content, with a mix of aggregation, around the idea of discovery and wonder.
We’re going to concern ourselves more broadly with subjects that people feel wonder and awe and a sense of discovery around. Space and discovery and food are the kind of subjects that we might expand into so the Atlas will not just be curious and wondrous places but amazing ideas around history, geography, cities.
We’re glad that people will use Atlas Obscura to plan travel, I hope we have lots of great travel brands associated with us and I think we’ll be highly useful to people in travel, but what we really see this as a much broader opportunity. Atlas Obscura is not going to be a travel site, we’re really a bigger brand.
Skift: What proportion of the site’s content will come from original staff, user-generated content, and aggregation?
Plotz: It depends on how easy we make it for users to create things and how much they create. What users want to do really depends on how attractive and valuable the product is. Atlas Obscura could be an incredibly successful operation with very little user-generated content or it could be an incredibly successful operation with tons of user-generated content. I suspect in terms of the total volume of content, there will be a lot of user-generated content, but in terms of the traffic, more will come from the professional journalism than does now.
Skift: What role does video play for the future Atlas Obscura?
Plotz: It’s going to be a mix of things. We’ve seen in recent months that there are brands not dissimilar from Atlas Obscura that have done great with simple, low-production, DIY, fast-moving, smart, and charming video. Mental Floss is a great example of that. I think there will some of that form of video.
We also happen to cover gorgeous types of subjects. We believe in awe and wonder and we’re going to convey that by creating beautiful video. It certainly costs more, requires bigger budgets, and more expertise. We expect to spend some money there because we certainly want people to feel as amazed about the things that we write about as we do.
Skift: You’re going from one of the oldest online magazines to basically a startup. What do you think that transition is going to be like?
Plotz: I’m really excited about it. Slate is just an incredible place that’s done brilliant journalism for 18 years. It’s had a luxury that we’re not going to have at Atlas Obscura, which is that Slate’s always been owned by a large company of which Slate is a very small part. There was never a sense that the fortunes of Slate would make or break these large companies. They could tolerate Slate not doing as well as it should have.
I’m excited about building a great business, which we have to make great on our own. I’ve always liked the business side of what I did at Slate. I’m also excited about being in this category of content, because one thing that was always hard for me at Slate is that a lot of what we cover, in particular in politics, is just so grim and depressing. It just makes you feel sick most of the time. I’m looking forward to this idea of sharing discovery with lots of people. One reason that Slate has a content distribution deal with Atlas Obscura is because I went out and brought it into Slate.
There’s this great insight that Atlas Obscura has, that founders Joshua Foer and Dylan Thuras had, which breaks this notion that discovery is something that happens in distant places on mountain tops by people who are braver and tougher and stronger than we are. That’s a very 19th century notion of what discovery is. In fact, discovery can happen around the world, on the top of a mountain in Nepal, but it also happens around the corner. If you start to focus on what the strange, amazing, crazy things that are happening right next door to me, they are extraordinary.
Skift: Are there any lessons from Slate that you plan on relying on to build Atlas Obscura. On the other side, is there anything from Slate that you’d really like to avoid in building this new site?
Plotz: One of the great lessons from Slate is that it’s gone through lots of changes about how it’s done things. We now do podcasts and video, which we didn’t use to do. The methodology of what Slate has done has changed a lot over the years, but what has never changed is our sense of self or purpose or our goal which was to be smart, funny and experimental. That has always been what Slate has been and that overarching sense of identity is very important. I think Atlas Obscura is very similar: Our goal is to be the place that will define discovery and wonder and exploration for people. How you get there can change and needs to change.
Skift: What are your thoughts about National Geographic and where it’s headed? Are they not doing what they need to do to stay relevant in the digital age?
Plotz: I think that National Geographic is amazing, one of the greatest media ventures ever in the United States. It’s an incredible thing. It’s been beautiful and interesting and ambitious and creative for so long in some many different media.
National Geographic’s been very bold in trying lots of different things. It’s not that I think they’re not doing enough or that they’re doing anything wrong, but they also don’t occupy the entire playing field of discovery. There’s lots of room for other places. They do very well with people who are a bit older and then with kids, but there’s this area in the middle around young adults where I don’t think they do as well. That’s where our audience is right now.
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Photo credit: The homepage of Atlas Obscura on mobile. Skift