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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.