When you launch a news start-up on the Internet, there’s two ways you can go: harness your powers of ego projection and hope your product catches up with it; or get down to work and start keeping up with and occasionally defining the news cycle.
True/Slant chose the latter path.
In April 2009 we went live with approximately 60 great writers. Within a few months, it was like we had always been a part of the network of websites that produce, aggregate, and comment on news. We eschewed buzz and buying our way in front of the online audience, choosing instead to let our ever-expanding assortment of terrific writers do their own thing, guiding them when necessary, and trying our best to help them get their content picked up in the right places.
We reached our first month with 1 million unique visitors, December 2009, without a single formal partnership or any other common traffic-generating gimmick. And we sustained that pace through the month of May when our CEO, Lewis D’Vorkin, announced that we were being acquired by Forbes, finishing the month at 1.5 million unique visitors.
This record of success – in terms of high quality content produced, and visitors to our site – was not a mistake. It reflected the hard-work of a team of five (supplemented by some great interns and consultants) who focused on sustaining a platform from which a pool of up to 300 writers were given the right incentives to produce engaging content that readers enjoyed, and returned to.
What we asked our writers to do – identify a unique approach to a news subject, and connect it to an audience – is where we distinguished ourselves from most news organizations. At so many newspapers, magazines, and even websites, writers continue to compose copy in the hopes that it satisfies editors who publish and pay them, and then they’re done. Here, we seldom asked our contributors to satisfy us. Rather, we asked them to think about the conversation they wanted to be a part of, and figure out what mattered to an audience they needed to imagine. These competencies, common among top editors and publishers, were suddenly requirements for every generator of content on our network.
It worked. As the months went on, more and more writers were starting to routinely generate audiences of 5,000, and then 10,000, and then 15,000 unique visitors a month, with the occasional breakout month. That audience was not strictly coming for slideshows filled with T&A, cheap shots, and other trickery – although we had that, too. Just as often, it was coming for insight that couldn’t be found in other spaces on the Internet, and news that had not previously been published elsewhere. And we put the pageview count there on each blog post so you could see it, too.
For other news organizations looking for our lessons learned, the implications are clear. Most legacy news organizations continue to struggle with how to harmonize their print product with what they produce online (not to leave out their mobile apps). They grapple with what comes first – print, or online? Connecting the two together becomes a managerial struggle as both sides grapple with which element of the business should take the lead.
True/Slant offered up an alternative approach: a news organization could let neither side take the lead. Rather, news producers could use the online environment as a laboratory in which ideas for news-cycle-defining stories were experimented with, and later called up for the more refined and finished product. This possibility was demonstrated in Rolling Stone’s big get on the commander of US forces in Afghanistan, Stanley McChrystal. It was on True/Slant, for instance, that author Michael Hastings first contemplated aloud what role the general was playing vis-a-vis the White House in the prosecution of the war. Other examples abound.
As a homepage editor who spent so much time puzzling over how we’d keep the front of the site, and its constituent pieces relevant, I can only hope other news outlets will consider what we’ve done here as a model for what they’ll do next. Forbes is one of the news organizations that wants to embrace elements of this approach in its future. By acquiring our team, our ideas, and our technology, and working to figure out how to integrate them into Forbes as an organization, it makes what we did an unquestionable success.
What’s really going to happen now, I can’t tell you.
G-d willing, it will be great.
But in another sense, I personally feel some failure: all of our writers will not be making the transition over to Forbes with us. These are the people I’ve lost sleep over. For the past 15 months, I’ve had the joy of waking up every morning, and seeing what our writers, brimming with imagination, would come up with next. That I’ll no longer be editing so many of them saddens me. I just wish I could still pay them all to keep doing what they’ve done so well for months and months.
It’s been encouraging to see some of them with great plans on how they’ll innovate next if it’s not with Forbes. You can read a lot of the ‘adieu’ posts at this handy page we created. I hope readers will stay up with the ones who go to other places. I owe you all for all you did. Thank you.
True/Slant will be the second website where I am the last one out, switching off the lights and locking the doors. While that first one has sort of returned, this one will not. And it feels different, too, like a star that just ran out of fuel, where the reaction just stopped.
But like any large enough mass, it leaves a wake, forces of gravity that can’t be denied.
It also leaves a lot of gratitude that hasn’t been sufficiently expressed.
To the audience: superfans, trolls, single-visits alike, we literally couldn’t have done it without you.
Interns Kashmir Hill and Katie Drummond recruited some of our site’s best writers and produced some of the finest writing published on our site, too, before other companies deservedly kidnapped them from us. Also, interns Chloe Angyal and Logan Whiteside whose tenures with us were truncated by the acquisition here - if you’re hiring and paying, may I introduce you to these brilliant young women?
David Cautin and Drew Hansen helped make us a credible threat on the business end of things. I suspect a lot of the ideas they helped clarify will make a lot of money for Forbes.com.
Lewis and Coates, Andrea and Steve, you put me in news junkie heaven by making me the company’s 5th hire. It’s hard being in an office with walls, not seeing you feet from me at the next table.
Thanks to all the people at all the great blogs, aggregators, and social networking sites out there who showed us a lot of love with the linking on a regular basis. If I started naming you, this post would go on for another 500 words it can’t afford.
Last, family, friends, and other loved ones: thanks for putting up with me staring at my iPhone for a traffic update every 15 minutes, your patience as I’d mumble, “Hold on, breaking news, gotta update this” and avert my eyes down toward my computer screen. Looking back up again after 15 months, it’s my joy to see so many of you are still here as I set off on yet another adventure.