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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.


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  1. collapse expand

    Congrats on a successful first year, you guys are doing great things! And here’s to continued success for many more…

  2. collapse expand

    These comments are intriguing: they skip across some deep ponds. True/Slant has also given *contributors* a chance to learn what readers are looking for as they carom through new media, and my lesson has been similar to Michael’s. They entertain perspective, but they crave news. They really seem to favor, and respect, incisive perspective combined with breaking news. I built a readership and gathered a number of followers when I was covering the climate conference in Copenhagen, and those readers have stuck with me. I learned a lot from that. I’d love to see all of us do more on-the-ground reporting at important events throughout the world. The question remains how to pay for it.

  3. collapse expand

    Congratulations to all for the incredible accomplishments! Now, when is the launch of the iPad app?

  4. collapse expand

    Much as it may be difficult to let us do our thing, (and sink or swim on its strengths and weaknesses), it’s the only way to make this ship sail. If I want (hah) to be editorially controlled and stifled, all I have to do is call up anyone I work with in traditional media, whether signing unworkably cheap all-rights contracts or being clear how narrow the space is to tell the story my way. I appreciate how much T/S is a place for me to road-test, refine and re-sell/enlarge some of my stories and ideas; my USA Today op-ed this week, a first, arose from my posts.

    As you wisely point out, most writers (unless they have staff jobs and are already busy) are scrambling hard for income now and can’t spend hours and hours here or anywhere; I enjoy how dead-easy (i.e quick) it is technically to post, edit, update, handle comments — as the most technophobic person I know, that’s high praise.

    It’s been a learning curve for me, but interesting to see what readers want and enjoy. It’s almost always the posts I dash off that people read most heavily and the ones I labor over that no one reads. The message..not clear yet.

    • collapse expand

      Actually, the message is clear to me. Posts you dash off are sparked by passion — which is why people read or watch video in the first place. That’s NOT a knock on thoughtful, analytical posts. T/S has proven that the audience craves both. But there is something so compelling about rapid-fire perspective and context around events of the moment.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
      • collapse expand

        It might also be the case that when we write thoughtful, analytic posts, we armor them to some extent, leaving fewer openings for readers in the digital conversation. I’ve begun including Andrew Sullivan’s “Why I Blog” in the readings for my journalism course. Here’s a relevant snippet:

        “As soon as I began writing this way, I realized that the online form rewarded a colloquial, unfinished tone. In one of my early Kinsley- guided experiments, he urged me not to think too hard before writing. So I wrote as I’d write an e-mail—with only a mite more circumspection. This is hazardous, of course, as anyone who has ever clicked Send in a fit of anger or hurt will testify. But blogging requires an embrace of such hazards, a willingness to fall off the trapeze rather than fail to make the leap.”

        In response to another comment. See in context »
        • collapse expand

          That was a fantastic piece, and really made the case for the future of long-form journalism. I do believe a number of our T/S contributors are finding great success in using T/S in short form ways for ideas that eventually find a home in magazines, etc. That’s always been the idea behind T/S: it’s your digital brand to build a community around as you practice other forms of journalism, i.e. entrepreneurial journalism.

          In response to another comment. See in context »
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          I distinctly remember reading “Why I Blog.” It was Fall 2008, and we were just a few months into the planning of True/Slant. Andrew Sullivan captured so much of what we were talking about at that time, we kept calling out passages to one another.

          “…for all the intense gloom surrounding the news-paper and magazine business, this is actually a golden era for journalism. ”

          A great read, and a great piece.

          In response to another comment. See in context »
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      Hey all, Daryl here, not really sure what else to say, if you want to know something about me, just ask. My page : Online College .

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  5. collapse expand

    I’m thrilled to be a part of your success with True/Slant. Thank you for having me.

  6. collapse expand

    Thank you for letting me be a small, snarky part of this operation.

  7. collapse expand

    I’m OK with colloquial. I’m less OK with “unfinished.”

    It’s a delicate dance between sitting down to listen to someone with the technical prowess of a Yo Yo Ma whopping off a few bars for fun and someone sawing away quickly. I agree with the larger notion that if you’re not routinely taking a risk — God knows print has no (paid) room for it — what’s the point?

    I think/sense readers here (and elsewhere) are as bored as many of us now are with dessicated, jowl-shaking punditry or writing clearly meant to impress one’s cronies and would-be employers than that which does take the risk of engaging and emotionally touching readers. Big difference. I much prefer the latter, balanced with the (higher income producing) former.

    You have to be willing to risk engaging in conversation (i.e. comments) with people whose demographics are a total mystery to you and therefore whose reactions can neither be predicted nor controlled. I think many journos are control freaks and this element — speaking personally — is challenging.

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    Congrats. Thanks for letting me a part of this.

  9. collapse expand

    It’s been quite a year, kudos, congrats, and thanks for letting me participate!

    Even though your intent is to provide a platform “as you practice other forms of journalism, i.e. entrepreneurial journalism,” an unintended consequences is that you’ve also built a platform perfect for people like me who use it to supplement being a source—which I guess is the best way I can describe my relationship to journalism. In fact, now that I can talk (report?) directly about the issues I study in my work, I’m called more frequently by journalists for background and comments.

    With hopes for an exponential second year!!

  10. collapse expand

    When can I post from my iPhone? I could “dash off” a lot more often.

  11. collapse expand

    I still remember, way back when, worrying whether I could really do this. After all, I’d spent all those decades oh-so-carefully editing my opinions and passions out of news stories, could I really learn to not only include them, but actually make them the centerpiece of what I’m writing? Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. Thank you, guys, for persuading me to give it a try — and for helping me grow into an actual blogger.

  12. collapse expand

    For me, T/S is like a life-sized classroom, where inspiring storytelling and entrepreneurial skills are valued more highly than conventional wisdom. Where breaking the rules can (and will) be rewarded, if it brings us all further. Where ideas grow naturally and conversations are worth following. Where the teachers believe in their students rather than in the books they have been ordered to read. A classroom every kid wants to be in. Thanks for creating it for us.

  13. collapse expand

    T/S has been a bit like brain gym for those of us who grew up with a different model of journalism. Fun, challenging, sometimes serious, but almost always interesting. Thanks to everyone for making it that way.

    Lewis, this surprised me:
    “Newer digital conventions, not long-standing traditional media ways, are the hardest, most costly and riskiest to break.”
    Are you saying the digital world calcifies more quickly into legacy systems? So interesting.

  14. collapse expand

    Thanks for everything. It was a huge pleasure writing for True/Slant and I think we’ll all remember it fondly for quite some time. It was one of the greatest journalism experiments, and it actually worked.

  15. collapse expand

    I was attracted to signature of the “NEWS IS MORE THAN WHAT HAPPENS”…

    I am a Buddhist, so I understand “NEWS IS MORE THAN WHAT HAPPENS” from the Buddhism’s fundamental view-”The four Seals”. I love this signature, news depends on how different people perceive it.

    “All compounded things are impermanent.
    All emotions are pain.
    All things have no inherent existence.
    Nirvana is beyond concepts.”
    - “The Four Seals”,Buddhism.

    Best Wishes to True/Slant! :)

  16. collapse expand

    Bravo. Courage is in short supply in the news biz.

  17. collapse expand

    Could you tools be any more pretentious and ridiculous? GTF Off the Internet Forever.

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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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