Feature

Unusual
Suspects

Unusual
Suspects

By Lauren Streib

The Web's best storytellers are finding eager audiences.

When Kelly Framel launched her personal style blog, The Glamourai in 2008, she was embarrassed. At the time, she was a designer for Naeem Khan. "I was terrified to share it with the serious, old-school stylists and industry insiders I was constantly working with. I thought no one in the business could possibly take me seriously if they knew I had this silly little blog," Framel says.

But the site established Framel as a tastemaker and pushed her personal artistic boundaries. Eventually, it became her full-time gig. Many of the Web's best storyteller's have a similar tale — they experimented with something for themselves only to find an audience and an unimagined future.

Digital storytellers come in nearly every variation — narrators of the everyday and the remarkable who use images, words or social media missives to engross an audience that is more plugged-in than ever before. In fact, the prevalence of the screen has been a boon to creatives with an eye for innovation. These content creators continue to drive the e-commerce revolution, motivating the sale of cookbooks, clothes and furniture; prescient publishers are honing a new way to cover news, promote long-form writing and attract an influential audience; and inventive use of new platforms is allowing artists of all types to distribute their work.

The Aesthetic Economy

Fashion and lifestyle media brands have been slow to adapt to the power of digital. In their stead, a cottage industry of strong, individual personalities has cultivated significant influence. Consider Framel or Jamie Beck, the photographer who's often in front of the camera on Ann Street Studio, or or Hanneli Mustaparta, the former model who offers candid access to her life on Hanneli.com. This breed of content creators is less interested in the rough, outfit-of-the-day, self-portrait-in-the-mirror form of style blogging than in high-gloss, thematic fashion editorials reminiscent of print magazines. Their sites feature shots staged in glamorous foreign locales, from the sidelines of Fashion Week or within warmly lit interiors.

"Fashion collections have to be created at such a fast pace these days, so I was drawing a lot of my inspiration from the Internet, especially using personal style blogs as a barometer of trends," Framel says. "Finally I decided that it might actually be fun to get in on the conversation." The burgeoning popularity of street style bloggers helped, creating a digital reverence for individual style — but the journalistic nature of their work left an opening for stylish people who wanted to tell their own style stories.

Others who've mastered the artful balance between self and style include Julie Sarinana of Sincerely, Jules who catalogs her West Coast cool daily style; Susanna Lau (aka Susie Bubble) and her online diary of fashionable observations and original outfits on Style Bubble; and Leandra Medine of The Man Repeller, a site that chronicles her habit of dressing "in a sartorially offensive mode that may result in repelling members of the opposite sex."

As the independent fashion media began attracting influence, designers and retail brands gave them access once reserved for only old-media outlets. Digital fashionistas sit front row at Fashion Week, model in ad campaigns, forge design collaborations and make guest appearances in the pages of Vogue.

How did this happen? Simple: They used their personal brands to push product. Their outfits, friends, travels and love lives are covered in a narrative and polished manner that offers daily inspiration — opposed to the catalogs of world-class models and trends that magazines offer. Plus, these bloggers offer an approachable level of personality, access and narration, giving fans a familiarity with their lives in a way that was never possible in a print product. "I've never wanted to be a salesperson. I want to be a storyteller," Framel says. "My job is not to report or to sell; my job is to inspire."

"Digital storytellers come in nearly every variation — narrators of the everyday and the remarkable."

Storybook lives

For Todd Selby, building a site was just a hobby, an extension of his day job as a professional photographer specializing in portraits and fashion photography for magazines and advertisers. Growing restless waiting for assignments and inspired by the living spaces of his creative friends and assigned subjects, he launched The Selby in 2008.

The conceit is simple: gorgeous photographs of supremely interesting interiors. But the result is striking. With images of knickknack collections, stacked art supplies and intimate portraits of people in their homes — as well as a hand-drawn questionnaire denouement to each post — The Selby manages to capture the spirit of a person's life with objects. "I just really wanted to do this cool thing and put it on the Internet," Selby says. "Working online is the way to do things. It's global, and it's instantaneous, and it's forever."

The site has been an unparalleled calling card for Selby, who supports himself by working on advertising collaborations. He has produced a series of travel journals for Louis Vuitton, a portfolio of photographs for Fendi and a branding video for Zara. His inimitable style also has filled two books, The Selby Is in Your Place and most recently Edible Selby, a photo collection of the culinary workspaces and restaurants of leading chefs that sprouted from a column Selby began doing in 2011 for The New York Times' quarterly T Magazine.

Several other people are creating interesting spaces online from which to show off their work. Freunde von Freunden, founded by a German creative trio, interviews interesting people and showcases their living spaces around the globe. As well, The Cool Hunter, founded by Bill Tikos, spotlights posh homes, hotels, restaurants and objects in a narrative format. In the style realm, the rise of street style is undeniable. Unlike the style bloggers documenting personal outfits, bloggers such as Scott Schuman of The Sartorialist, Tommy Ton of Jak & Jil, Phil Oh of Street Peeper and Garance Doré of her eponymous site have turned their lenses on the sophisticated public to celebrated effect. They snag images of the world’s most fashionable people as well as everyday trendsetters. Picture by picture, they are telling the visual story of the world’s most coveted streets and buildings.

Step-by-Step

Another thriving facet of digital storytelling is more explicitly instructive. How to remodel your house. How to make a gourmet meal in a shoebox kitchen. How to build a holiday centerpiece and make homemade wood cleaner. In other words, there's a Martha Stewart for everyone and every ambition.

Last year, Pippa Lord launched Sous Style, a site half-devoted to showing how beautiful people live through gorgeous photographs and breezy questionnaires and half-devoted to passing on recipes, dining hotspots and housewarming tricks. Lord, a photo editor at ELLE, lists the site as designed for a "new generation of homemakers" that comes replete with a manifesto.

For example: "Our ‘houses’ might be apartments or rooms we rent, but they are spaces we call our own." She’s not alone in trying to perfect the quirky art of urban homemaking. Smitten Kitchen, a recipe blog run by Deb Perelman is an account of "fearless cooking from a tiny kitchen in New York City." From the West Coast, Joy Wilson of Joy the Baker, is a self-taught foodie with a sweet tooth, who stuffs her recipes amid humorous life bits and pictures of her cat. As well, Emily Schuman of Los Angeles is the creator of the hugely popular site Cupcakes and Cashmere, which details her exploits at creating a glamorous life, from closet to kitchen.

On the design side, the gold standard is Design*Sponge. It’s the brainchild of Grace Bonney, a former editor and writer for a stack of print publications including Domino and Better Homes and Gardens. Design solutions, product features, profiles of interesting living spaces and, of course, do-it-yourself tutorials fill the site. On the other side of earnest is Morgan Satterfield of The Brick House, a blog that was conceived to tell the story of Satterfield’s on-a-budget renovation in her modern California abode.

Their sites are just part of the allure of these creators. They also truly excel at creating content that is shareable, an ever more valuable commodity in the digital space. There are 80 million Instagram users, 340 million Tweets are sent each day and Pinterest generates nearly 2 billion monthly page views. These bloggers have learned to harness that opportunity while staying true to telling the stories of their process and product. Joy the Baker has a weekly podcast, a published cookbook and a strong Pinterest following. The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook was released in October, and Perelman has thousands of Instagram followers (though the pictures rarely involve food). Design*Sponge has nearly half a million Twitter followers, a new book and offers scholarship money to design students.

A literary horizon

"My job as an editorial person has changed a lot in the past two years," says Choire Sicha, editor of The Awl. "Two years ago, people didn’t know they wanted more satisfying stories online." In an experiment to offer an alternative to "drive-by-blogging," Sicha and Alex Balk, both Gawker and Radar alums, launched The Awl (tagline: Be Less Stupid) in 2009. The site offers readers about 15 posts a day — ranging from hand-drawn infographics to personal essays to poems — authored primarily by outside contributors. Few topics are typical, but the content is instead united by a sense of offbeat identity that appeals to vaguely hip 20- and 30-somethings with a taste for irony and pop culture.

"We’ve always wanted to be the really attractive, shiny thing in the corner. None of us have ever been good at self-promotion, even in reasonable ways, but people love to discover on the Web," Sicha says. "I want people to find us organically. It makes for a coherent and unified readership."

"These content creators continue to drive the e-commerce revolution."

It’s a similar attitude that comes from many other digital platforms for creative prose and long-form journalism. The Rumpus, The New Inquiry and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency have given creative writers and their fans new outlets. They mix smart commentary on pop culture, humor and essays to create a well-honed sense of editorial style. As well, ESPN’s Bill Simmons spin-off Grantland has created a new platform for top-notch sportswriting.

Readership of The Awl swelled to about half a million visitors by the fall of 2010. Eventually, the site was making enough money to support its staff and spin-off sites devoted to women’s interests (The Hairpin), money (The Billfold), comedy (Splitsider) and gadgets (The Wirecutter) have launched since. "We think whatever happens from here on out is gravy," Sicha says. "Largely, we’re surprised it’s been around this long already. We didn’t have a business strategy."

Being a nimble and relatively niche site allowed The Awl some wiggle room when it came to making money. With clearly distinguishable readers and a knack for catering content for them, The Awl has created advertising products that mesh relatively seamlessly with the rest of the site’s content — an approach that serves both readers and advertisers. They created a commercial for Newcastle Brown Ale that was cross-promoted on posts and a video series sponsored by Ford that featured a Saturday Night Live cast member driving his comedic friends around.

Out of the rise of mobile and creative moneymaking has come a trend of micropublishing. Byliner, a consortium of well-known editors and writers, publishes articles and essays that cost a few dollars each. If you want to read, you have to pay. Atavist, a digital platform as well as publisher, also asks readers to fork over a couple of dollars for a good, long read available only through e-readers or the Atavist app.

Meanwhile, long-form writing is having a bit of resurgence online via smaller publishers. Many have used Kickstarter campaigns to raise initial funds and are staffed by seasoned journalists. MATTER collected nearly three times its fundraising goal of $50,000 and published its first story (available for $.99) in November. Narratively, funded by a $54,000 Kickstarter haul, publishes a new story about New York City every day. But the most heralded publication is probably Tomorrow, a one-off magazine founded by the eight Good Magazine staff members who were laid off in June.

The former Good-ers were determined to turn the turn of fate into inspiration for something of creative substance. In less than three weeks, they hatched an idea for a new publication, raised enough money to finance it and were digging through hundreds of pitches from willing writers and offers to help them design the issue and fact-check the features.

The process was apparently simple. After being unceremoniously canned, the staffers asked for $15,000 via a Kickstarter campaign. Less than five hours later, they met their fundraising goal. Of course, it helped that several of the staffers were relatively well-known, with large Twitter, Tumblr and industry followings thanks to their previous work. "I think people supported the project because they supported us. The content was an ancillary benefit," says editor Ann Friedman. A total of 1,779 people contributed $45,452 during the month-long campaign.

The relative success of the project has sbeen celebrated as a beacon and an example of the sort of future that's possible for storytellers in the digital age. But the reality is a little more complicated — Friedman says they ended up breaking even; to make a profit that would allow the project to be sustainable, they would have had to raise at least eight times their initial fundraising goal.

There’s no guarantee that what works now will work in the future or that brilliant ideas can be sustainable. Internet video is rumored to be the next big thing, native advertising promises to revive a sagging digital economy, and storytellers will continue to be challenged with entrepreneurialism. "I don’t think there’s one solution. That’s precisely why it’s exciting," Friedman says. "What you’re seeing is a lot of possibilities."

Lauren Streib is an editor at Newsweek and The Daily Beast. She has written for Forbes, Marie Claire and Bloomberg Businessweek.