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May. 25 2010 — 11:23 am | 5,372 views | 3 recommendations | 42 comments

About those M&A rumors: Forbes to acquire True/Slant

For me, True/Slant began a long time ago.

It didn’t have a name when I scribbled the beginnings of an idea on a calendar page during an interminable flight from Washington to New York. There was a vision, though: to enable credible and experienced journalists and content creators to self-publish and to build audiences around their names and topic-specific news knowledge. Along the way, the idea was to adhere to and honor traditional news values and to embrace the powerful dynamics of the Web.

Summer, 2008: From idea to True/Slant concept

True/Slant has evolved from those early thoughts as creative people injected their passion and ideas. Today, T/S is a unique news platform company. In a social media setting, more than 300 talented contributors provide their expertise across 18 topic areas, connecting with consumers seeking a more open news experience. Contributors engage with their audience, their followers and one another in a dialogue unlike any other on the Web.

A few months back, we took another bold step. We started a pilot program to offer our publishing tools to marketers. It was our twist on the advertising model, and we called it the T/S Ad Slant. Just as important, it was our way to aggressively tear down the walls between True/Slant’s Entrepreneurial Journalists, our audience and our advertisers so each could publish and share their take on the news and events of the moment. To us, the future of news and the news business itself is the free flow of those three important voices, all clearly labeled and identified.

It all worked. Our audience has grown nearly every month since our launch in April 2009, when Walt Mossberg told his readers that True/Slant was launching with “a novel approach to journalistic entrepreneurship, new forms of advertising, and an effort to blend journalism and social networking.” In May, a record 1.5 million unique users will have visited our site.

For the last six months we’ve been engaged in second-round fund raising.

In brief, here are a few observations:

– In first-round venture capital funding, start-ups traditionally raise money to build the product — and in our case to scale both our contributor base and our audience. The second round of cash is used to monetize the product. Today, venture capitalists on the East Coast are obsessed with revenue generation, even for young companies such as True/Slant. In effect, there’s a merging of rounds one and two. West Coast venture capitalists remain very interested in the team and the idea and generally seem less fixated on revenue. But they have their own obsession: finding the next Facebook and Twitter that will attract an audience of 50 million. In the face of these twin obsessions, multiple VCs showed strong interest in True/Slant’s lower-cost, incentive-based contributor model and our audience growth.

– Strategic investors are an entirely different story. Since I came from the land of Big Media companies, walking into their offices as an entrepreneur opened my eyes even wider to their issues. Those engaged in the news space are obsessed with the need to change now that they’ve slimmed down their operations. Many seemed envious of what we had accomplished in such a short time. Still, most remain incredibly paralyzed and calcified in their thinking, except perhaps when it comes to their delusional belief that Steve Jobs and the iPad or its successor will save their lives (i.e. what’s left of their retirement savings), their business models and the future of a free press.

Please remember, I said “most.” Forbes Media, an original investor in True/Slant, is one of the forward-thinking companies that is not afraid to act.

I worked at Forbes a decade ago. It has always been iconoclastic and contrarian. Perhaps that’s why Forbes, with the strategic thinking and strong support of Tim Forbes, long ago entered the digital space in a big way while other traditional media companies just dabbled. Our other investor is Fuse Capital. One of its partners, Jonathan Miller, who has since moved on to News Corp., deeply believed in True/Slant’s mission. Jon played a big part in our unfolding vision. Our name, True/Slant, came about because he pushed me in his uniquely understated way to find just the right one.

The exciting next stage of the True/Slant vision is about to begin. Forbes Media is acquiring True/Slant and bringing it in house.

What does that mean? Some start-ups continue on as separate entities and build a business. Others become entrepreneurs within a larger company to effect change through technology innovation, new processes, creative thinking and more. Think how Twitter brought in Summize and its engineers and search technology to scale operations.

The small True/Slant team, with more than 100 years of Web, publishing and TV experience, will now be working side-by-side with talented and dedicated journalists at Forbes Media. The goal: to work together to further develop a mindset around the  power of the Web and traditional news values. With hard work, we can implement new blogging platforms and more efficient digital, print and video content creation models; we can find better ways for audiences to engage with news and information; and we can pursue new integrative approaches for marketers and advertisers.

The Forbes brand has deep meaning for audiences, journalists and marketers. The brand befits the entrepreneurial spirit that is so vital to capitalism and business creation. Working together as one team, we can propel a great and storied brand into the next stage of its media life.

We always told our 300+ contributors that True/Slant was their digital home. We watched as they provided context and perspective on the news, conducted interviews and even broke some news. We were inspired and we learned so much as they used our tools to publish and connect with the audience and fellow T/S contributors.

Our contributors believed, and that meant everything to us. We will always be grateful for your pioneering spirit, dedication and professionalism. As True/Slant transitions, some of you may be interested in moving with us to Forbes. We look forward to discussing the possibilities with you.

To our audience we say thank you — for giving us a chance, for following our T/S contributors, for coming back to visit us month after month.

To all our supporters, particularly those who stood squarely behind me and guided me throughout my 35-year career (you all know who you are), I offer my sincere thanks. True/Slant would have never happened without you.

The news business remains in tremendous turmoil, searching for both credible journalistic experiences and profitable models: High cost, high quality journalism is staring into the face of low cost “content farming.”

The True/Slant team is quite proud that it helped lead the way in producing high quality content in an efficient manner. Now, we are incredibly excited about moving our ideas and passion on to the bigger stage of Forbes.com and all of Forbes Media’s other properties.

We’ll see you there.

Apr. 13 2010 — 8:52 am | 48 views | 1 recommendations | 2 comments

T/S and the new story-building construct

So now a reporter can start blogging at the beginning of a story. And that makes a profound shift in the culture of news: it opens up the process to the public. “Here’s what I think I’ll work on,” the reporter says to the community she covers. “Good idea? Is there something else you think I should do instead? What’s the best use of my time? What do you want me to find out for you? If I do this story, what questions do you have? What do you know? Whom should I call?” As the process continues, the reporter can share what she learns — and doesn’t learn — and the community can help fill in blanks and make the reporting better.

At some point in this process, the reporter likely will write what we’d still recognize as an article. Indeed, writing it before publication opens the possibility of the community still helping by correcting and enhancing.

via News(paper) in the cloud « BuzzMachine.

Sounds a lot like what 307 credible and knowledgeable T/S contributors are doing right now through our managed commenting system, minus, of course, publishing articles in a newspaper. But there’s always the possibility of syndicating their content to newspapers.

Apr. 12 2010 — 10:04 am | 145 views | 0 recommendations | 11 comments

What to do about journalist angst over user comments

When news sites, after years of hanging back, embraced the idea of allowing readers to post comments, the near-universal assumption was that anyone could weigh in and remain anonymous. But now, that idea is under attack from several directions, and journalists, more than ever, are questioning whether anonymity should be a given on news sites.

The Washington Post plans to revise its comments policy over the next several months, and one of the ideas under consideration is to give greater prominence to commenters using real names.

via News Sites Rethink Anonymous Online Comments – NYTimes.com.

I’ve said this many times before: user comments are the sweaty mosh pit of the Web news business.

On mass-appeal news sites, it gets ugly very fast. When I ran Aol News, comments sank into the gutter within minutes, usually taking a racial spin no matter what the subject. I was also deeply engaged in TMZ.com. On that site, users love to curse at celebrities — or worse. On many other news sites, the problems include people yelling and screaming, or disparaging others, or advancing “crazy” ideas, or hijacking the conversation to advance a political agenda. Actually, the issues are endless.

Jimmy Breslin at the 2008 Brooklyn Book Festival.

Jimmy Breslin: Part of the fabric of his community

It’s also fun to see how the number of comments on a post or a site has become an indicator of “engagement” to be proud of. Really? So, let’s see, there are thousands of thousands of comments on a post (sometimes tens of thousands on the Huffington Post), and that’s a measure of user loyalty? Not to me. It’s more a measure of how many users simply talk to themselves in a silo, not to each other. There is no dialogue, there is rarely a rewarding conversation.

So, now, with journalism under stress, the journalists see anonymous comments as the problem. Are they simply projecting the news industry’s constant battle with all the issues surrounding anonymous quotes?

Yes, technology can help reduce the noise in comment areas. Sure, a user’s name attached to a comment (a la Facebook) might make that user think twice about what he or she is saying.

But the real solution to me is getting the journalist or the author of the post engaged in the fabric of their community. On True/Slant, we provide more than 300 T/S contributors with easy-to-use tools to curate and elevate user comments (anonymous or not) and to then get involved in the debate or discussion along with other T/S contributors. You’d be amazed to see what it means to a user to know that a T/S contributor has anointed — or better yet, responded to one of their comments in full view of the community.

I’m often asked why the discussions on True/Slant are so civil. I point to our managed commenting system, which I also like to say is developing into a new kind of story-building construct.

But let’s also be clear: a rewarding conversation on, say, Matt Taibbi’s page is very different than a rewarding conversation on, say, Caitlin Kelly’s page. Each and every contributor community on True/Slant has different expectations, different needs and different sensibilities.

Bottom line: journalism is changing, and so, too, are the roles, responsibilities and tasks required to be “journalist” in the digital era.

Apr. 8 2010 — 9:41 am | 1,643 views | 3 recommendations | 36 comments

On True/Slant’s first year: What we’ve learned

True/Slant launched one year ago today. On that exciting day for our five-member team and our 65 pioneering T/S contributors, I noted that the news business was undergoing a wrenching transformation brought on by the economics of the digital world.

Not much has changed in that regard.  Here at True/Slant, though, we’ve learned quite a bit in the past year.

We remain the same five-person team we were 365 days ago. But we now have more than 300 T/S contributors. In March, their credible and knowledgeable content attracted nearly 1.3 million unique users, our best month since launch.

I want to thank all of you who have visited our site, and I want to thank our T/S contributors, too. Your collective participation continues  to make all of us very optimistic about the future of the news business.

What happens inside a news start-up in its first year?  Here’s some of what we’ve learned straight from the T/S team, starting with me:

The Founder and CEO

Respect the Past, Embrace the Future, Break a Rule, Cede Control: In starting True/Slant, my goal was to lead change in the news business — to build a new economic model, to re-invent the newsroom, to shake up the culture. After one year, I believe more in creative destruction than I ever did. But I now understand the give and take vis-a-vis product development, time to market and the burn rate. My overall take-aways:

1) Hiring people steeped in both old media and digital media, with the battle scars to prove it, produces clear thinking and efficiency.

2) Keep your full-time staff brutally small; leave room to add a single wild card player mid-stream to re-invigorate the team and break idea log jams; when you think just one more person with a particular skill set will make all the difference, think again because you’ll be wrong and waste money.

3) Newer digital conventions, not long-standing traditional media ways, are the hardest, most costly and riskiest to break.

4) In all negotiations — staff, partners or otherwise — walk away once the terms detract from the excitement.

5) Most of all, sweat the smallest of details early on; pick only one rule you want to break (for us, it was to treat contributors and advertisers equally); set the overall strategy, then get out of the way.

6) And always remember: Editorial command and control is a relic of the past and has no place in a Web world. It will slow you down, cost you and stifle the upheaval you want to unleash.

Coates – The Content Chief

Edit talent, not copy: I’ve been surprised by a few things: mostly how giving intelligent, passionate and industrious writers a lot of freedom — near full autonomy — has produced much richer content than if I and/or editors here were more hands-on. We’ve brought aboard professionals and they’ve proven themselves to be just that (for the most part). Sure, there are typos, there are less than cogent sentences at times and there are some premises that are just flat out wrong. We’ve tried to remedy as quickly as possible. That’s not the editorial process I was used to. I’m still not entirely comfortable with it. But, I’m learning to see the value and authenticity it brings as journalism adapts to a new world.

Michael – The Homepage Editor

There isn’t enough original content on the Internet: There are a lot of people re-purposing things that have been published elsewhere, and you often hear more echoes than original sounds. But it turns out that the online audience, like nature, abhors a vacuum, and if you provide them with matter to fill it, they will click, click, and click some more. Much of True/Slant’s most popular content has been original reporting, analysis, and other content that wasn’t available anywhere else online. If you publish something new that can’t be easily re-produced, you will attract an audience around your website.

Andrea -  The Product Chief

Casey Kasem was right: At the end of every American Top 40 radio broadcast, Casey Kasem said “Keep your feet on the ground, and keep reaching for the stars.”  I know what you’re thinking.  Gag reflex, right?  Hear me out. From the start we knew we had two audiences, news consumers and contributors.  We focused first on our contribs: journalists, authors, academics, experts.

Early whiteboarding of True/Slant pages

We created the experience from the inside out, building tools that fit the lifestyle and day-to-day rhythm of an entrepreneurial journalist (a lot of curiosity, a little bit of time).  We knew that rhythm, we’d lived it.  And we figured (hoped) if it was easy for contribs to publish, they would create great content. We wrapped the consumer experience around the contribs and content. It was an iterative, methodical, steady build. Of course, we had – still have – flights of fancy, but we had to make choices. We started building a concept I called T/S News Navigator, then pushed it off to the side when it didn’t meet our initial goals.  I pouted for five minutes and moved on.  That’s what you do.  Focus on the core and move forward.  The first year of True/Slant was about practical magic.   That’s what Casey Kasem was talking about.  Practical magic.

Steve – The  CTO

Get updates out to the Community in frequent, focused releases: Getting new stuff into the hands of our T/S contributors, members and visitors teaches us a lot more about what works than us simply discussing it internally. Our seasoned team has great ideas, and we execute to those ideas brilliantly. It’s our community — our contributors and members, casual readers and visitors — for whom True/Slant is built; the way they engage with what we’ve built creates a constant flow of “teachable moments” — both explicit and implicit — from which we learn and improve the experience. It’s a “virtuous cycle” of plan, build, update, review and improve.

Drew – The Biz Dev Guy

Take it personally:  When I worked in management consulting, I often participated in meetings with senior executives who were making strategic business decisions.  These decisions were always complex and involved a series of trade-offs.  I quickly learned that my role, as an outside adviser, was to “take emotion out of the room.”  From a consultant’s vantage point, effective decision-making entails data-driven analysis and cold, hard logic.  Feelings don’t fit on a spreadsheet.  So is emotion bad for business?  It can certainly cloud good judgment.  And there are other risks — significant risks — to being personally vested in a venture.  Defensiveness, disappointment and exhaustion to name a few.  Properly channeled, though, emotion unlocks a creative impulse and momentum that is miserably lacking in the management consulting industry.  My T/S colleagues care about what they’ve done and want it to succeed.  I think it’s impossible — and ill-advised — to divorce passion from decision-making.  Here at True/Slant, I’ve been a part of a number of sound decisions; I’ve even been a part of a not-so-sound one.  Still, I’m convinced that mingling feelings with business is the key to building something great.  My advice to you: take it personally.

Apr. 5 2010 — 2:32 pm | 69 views | 0 recommendations | 7 comments

Fixing commenting, the sweaty mosh pit of news sites

The solution is in moderating — not limiting — comments. In a few months, The Post will implement a system that should help. It’s still being developed, but Straus said the broad outlines envision commenters being assigned to different “tiers” based on their past behavior and other factors. Those with a track record of staying within the guidelines, and those providing their real names, will likely be considered “trusted commenters.” Repeat violators or discourteous agitators will be grouped elsewhere or blocked outright. Comments of first-timers will be screened by a human being.

When visitors click to read story comments, only those from the “trusted” group will appear. If they want to see inflammatory or off-topic comments from “trolls,” they’ll need to click to access a different “tier.”

via Andrew Alexander – Online readers need a chance to comment, but not to abuse – washingtonpost.com.

True/Slant launched nearly a year ago, and from the get-go we deployed a managed commenting system that enables T/S contributors to elevate user comments that move a conversation forward. The entire comment string for any post sits behind an “All Comments” tab, or as we like to say, one level below. How do user comments get “Called Out?” It’s the job of each T/S contributor to do so as they monitor their individual communities. It’s also the job of contributors to respond to user comments, just as Michael Pollaro did so effectively on his Obamacare post.

Just as important, all our T/S contributors have free reign to comment on the posts of all their fellow contributors — and they do so with fervor. On any given post, you can find contributors talking with users, contributors talking with other contributors and even contributors talking with users from communities other then their own. Caitlin Kelly’s post on Why Men Blog More is a perfect example.

This multi-tiered conversation is evolving into what I like to call a new story-building construct. It is often far more engaging and information packed than traditional media formats — and for that matter other online formats. Check out what happened when Matt Taibbi asked his community what they were reading and what he should write about. Nearly half the comments to his post included links to other stories.

Quite often I’ll get asked, “Why are the conversations on True/Slant so interesting? Why are they so civil?” I just point to our managed commenting system.

Over the past year, I’ve met with many reporters and editors at traditional media companies who balk at the perceived “work” involved in approving comments and actually engaging with readers or viewers. My response is always the same. The role of reporting and and editing is changing. You must become part of the fabric of your community. Engaging with user comments enables you to do just that. I finish by saying, “Sitting above it all will no longer work.”

As True/Slant evolves we’ll be adding technology to our managed commenting system that automatically elevates the comments of our most engaged users. But the active participation of our T/S contributors in “Calling Out” comments will always remain the hallmark of the system.

I look forward to the roll out of The Washington Post comment mechanism. I do hope there will be a role for reporters and editors. That way they can stop sitting above it all.

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    About Me

    I'm the Founder and CEO of True/Slant. It's been a long journey: The New York Times, Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, a little tabloid TV, Forbes, AOL -- and I certainly don't want to forget TMZ. I lived through a newspaper strike (sounds quaint, right?), the New York City Black Out in '77, my bout with the Cabbage Patch Dolls -- and a few stints on the unemployment line. I got hooked on the News business as the editor of the Daily Iowan, during the days of Vietnam, Watergate and Roe v. Wade. I can quote all the best lines from "All the President's Men," and I still think Howard Beale did it better than all the real-life pretenders who followed him. I owe so much to James Bellows -- a truly gifted editor, an extraordinary human being and a mentor who was always there for me.

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    Contributor Since: March 2009
    Location:New York City

    What I'm Up To

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