“Post-Print” Startup Stateless Media Creates Short, Smart Documentaries For The Web

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My recent conversation with Stateless Media’s Peter Savodnik was a bit discombobulating. He’s had what seems like a successful career in longform journalism, with publications in The Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times Magazine, GQ, and elsewhere. Yet he sounded awfully pessimistic about print — and as someone who makes his living as a writer, that’s not exactly what I wanted to hear.

On the other hand, Savodnik has a vision for what might replace the feature magazine articles that he used to write, and he’s pursuing it through his new company. (Stateless Media’s website describes the content as “post-print storytelling”.) Traditional media outlets, he argued, aren’t giving the younger audience “what they want.”

“We can lament the fact that people don’t want to read long, thoughtful stories, but that doesn’t change the facts on the ground,” he said. “I guess my very strong feeling is that we have a real opportunity here to reconnect with millions and millions of media consumers.”

The vehicle for that connection is something Savodnik has dubbed the “shortreal”, which is essentially an 11-minute online documentary. Stateless Media has released two shortreals thus far, one called “The Brothers Shaikh” (embedded at the end of this post) and a second called “Chutzpah“. And it just released the trailer for a third (which you can watch below), “Being Radler,” covering “the hunt for an East German spy.”

I thought “Chutzpah”, in particular, was well done — it addresses a familiar topic (politician Anthony Weiner), but in a fresh and entertaining way (and according to the Stateless Media site, it has been viewed 14,326 times).

[Update: Savodnik said that according to his Vimeo analytics, which he sent me, “Chutzpah” has actually been viewed more than 40,000 times.]

But what makes a shortreal different from any other online video and actually worthy of a new buzzword? Savodnik argued that the aims are implicit in the name — a shortreal doesn’t take much time to watch (the 11-minute duration was chosen because it’s half the length of a 30-minute TV episode, minus the commercials) and it tells a true story. That storytelling, he added, is what’s missing from many documentaries, some of which are more concerned about being beautiful, while others are “cause-driven” and “predictable”: “We know from the start where we’re being led and what we’re going to think.”

“I have the utmost respect for that, but a story is a real story,” Savodnik said. “There are complicated characters who develop over time.”

The initial shortreals were directed by filmmakers Edward Perkins and Kannan Arunasalam. Perkins told me via email that even though he’s directed documentary films for the National Geographic Channel and behind-the-scenes featurettes for films include The Eagle and Searching For Sugar Man, shortreals are “fundamentally different from anything I have worked on before” because they combine “the best of investigative journalism and documentary filmmaking.”

“People have always wanted to hear great stories, and will continue to do so,” he said. “But the way in which they want to consume stories is changing. We want to give people people these stories exactly how and when they want them. On phones. On laptops. On tablets. And in a short 11 minute format that still explores complex issues, embraces ambiguity, and throws up surprises.”

Arunasalam said that a shortreal is closer to a short film than a documentary, “with a very cinematic look and feel.” He offered this explanation for how they’re put together:

For me, it’s an interesting dynamic between the investigative journalist and the filmmaker working together. Usually, as a filmmaker you’re on your own to tell the story. But here, the story is reported by the journalist, who does the investigating and the digging for characters and story-lines — so far mainly by Peter — and the responsibility of making the film rests with the filmmaker. With the Stateless Media approach, the skills of both filmmaker and journalist are fine-tuned to the storytelling process, to make the best possible film.

Stateless has been self-funded thus far, and it sounds like it’s still very much in the experimental stages — for example, Savodnik said he learned a lot from the production of “The Brothers Sheikh” that led to big improvements in “Chutzpah”.

The ultimate goal, he said, is to build out a team of filmmakers who create shortreals from around the world, and to turn Stateless Media into the destination site for that content: “Basically the stories that we like to tell are stories that are — I guess there’s no other way to put it — unexpected, stories that don’t fit into conventional frameworks.”