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Jul. 30 2010 - 12:26 am | 8,537 views | 2 recommendations | 35 comments

Thank you

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.

Oh hey, you made it this far? Well, I can’t tell you yet about what I’m doing with Forbes, but you can find me at my personal blog Off Off Wall Street, or follow me on Twitter.


Comments

Active Conversation
6 T/S Member Comments Called Out, 35 Total Comments
 
  1. collapse expand

    Well said, Michael. It’s been a real pleasure.

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    Likewise Michael, it’s been a real pleasure and an overall fantastic experience. Thanks again

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    Thanks, Michael … I enjoyed writing for True/Slant; you and the team were all great to work with. I’ll continue to travel, write and photograph my adventures around the world. Somebody’s gotta do it :-). Best to you!

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    Michael, you were always like the cutest boy in high school and I was constantly hoping you would pick me. The first time you put one of my posts on the the top of the homepage was like you asking me to prom! Of course you quickly ditched me for some other, more clever poster, but I know you secretly liked me best. ;)
    Will miss you and the rest of the T/S crew and my fellow bloggers. Wish we all could have stayed 2gether 4ever.

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    Leave it to writes to wax poetic about how TS was different and new… seems everything old is new again as this comes across as a typical corporate money grab leaving the customer in the dark to just suck it. I have enjoyed this site but would have expected some honesty and respect for the readers regarding exactly what is going on other than just goodbyes. Not such good coverage of the closing of True/Slant but the web is a big place and I will just move on.

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    It was a pleasure to work with you Michael. Good luck with everything.

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    It’s been a pleasure, Michael. See you on the flip side.

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    I’ve often wondered, Michael, whether and when you sleep. I like what you write here. I think print journalism would be far less enfeebled today if its masters respected and encouraged the voices as well as the information of writers. True/Slant was that rare place where writer chose content, style and voice. That it existed at all is remarkable. That it succeeded as well as it did is more so. I’ve enjoyed being a small part of it.

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    Thanks, it was special, and I hope it can remain that way.

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    Well, there were a lot of fine writers here. That much is true, but when you start letting folks like Johnson on to repost their drivel, you invite a lizard toxic to readers into your midst.

    LGF=KOD (Kiss of Death)

    Learn it.

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    I am truly going to miss True/Slant. Best of luck to you all! Hope to catch up with you in the ether….

    Cheers,
    Nancy

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    Thank you! I really hope Forbes keeps a similar format; I enjoy reading this website on my lunch break. The human interest stories are what keep me here.

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    Thank you! I’ve enjoyed your guidance and input ever since meeting you at that journalists’ event back in 2008. Best of luck to you and all the rest of the True/Slant gang.

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    “Roston wins Pulitzer for goodbye post”.

    No, really, nicely said.

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    Everyday when logging on I hoped to see the “Beta” line dropped, a hope that the experiment had proved to be a permanent part of the journalistic landscape.

    It is not to be.

    Your post points to many successes, to a loyal readership and a new business plan for journalists and writers and publishers.

    And so we end up at Forbes? It might be the right move but for this reader the news was a bit chilling. It reminds me of Disney buying Mirimax where the bad boys that shook up the studios are suddenly become employees.

    Will I go to Forbes? I’ll take a look however the idea that True/Slant will save Forbes online will not make up for the loss of all those independent voices and debates.

    Good luck and thank you and all the writers I so enjoyed and were patient enough to let me vent and kind enough to show me some errors in my thinking. I have learned much and I am better for True/Slant.

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    I’ve enjoyed T/S a great deal, and have commented here far more than on any other site. Here, I got the feeling that my comments were actually read and considered- I got to, not only read a piece of news and/or opinion, but to interact with the other readers, and the reporter too. Whoever designed your comments board did a good job- the bloggers ability to call out comments, and reply to comments, served to involve readers with T/S in a way most blogs don’t, and magazines cannot- we felt we had an involvement here, were part of an important ongoing discussion, a community. (I also like the way the designer limited the reply comments- Media Matters is a mess, between each comment is sixty or seventy sub-comments squabbling with one another.) I knew that this happy state of affairs couldn’t last, that the more sucessful you were, the more one’s comments would be crowded out by sheer weight of numbers, like Huff Po (Lady Gaga critiques Obama, Accupuncture, Jersey Housewives Diet- 4265 comments). So, T/S’s departure into the maw of the Forbes empire has me a bit bummed.

    One of the things that I liked about T/S was that it made room for low-traffic boutique sites. Unpacked, Beaufinn, Doom Patrol were among my faves, and they’re all gone, they don’t seem to fit the high-volume, maximumized profit model that Forbes, no doubt, has in mind. (The exodus of lefties- Taibbi, Kilkenny, etc, is troubling, too. As for the righties, thanks for introducing me to Kain, and Johnson- tho when I want to know what Bill DuPay thinks, I’ll just listen to Mark Steyn, or Dennis Miller.) Anyhow, T/S was special, And I fear that Forbes will screw it up.

    Say you want to buy a dog, right? So you drive down to Petland, where Life is Cheap, and buy a dog. You can expect to have to vet the dog, feed the dog, train the dog, clean up after the dog, provide the dog with affection and exercise. But if you buy the dog, kill the dog, take it to a taxidermist, and have it stuffed, it is unreasonable to expect that dog to fetch the stick. I hope I’m wrong, but it looks like Forbes has something like that in mind. (Or perhaps, to stretch a labored analogy further, perhaps they plan to build a robot dog, but maybe I shouldn’t go there…)

    Anyhow, Michael, thanks for the T/S trip, here’s hoping that the new incarnation of T/S will be something worth following. And say goodbye to andylevenson for me.

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    Thanks, Michael, for all your hard work, especially dealing with problem writers. (Of course, I’m referring to Caitlin, but don’t let her know.)

    Seriously, it’s been a pleasure working with you. You’ve been an excellent editor — a thankless task if ever there were one. Good luck on your new projects. Stay in touch. This really was a grand experiment. You should be proud.

  18. collapse expand

    Ouch! Mom…I mean, Michael. Make him stop.

    I love the fact you were the boss of us, when so many of us were graybeards in comparison. Must have been quite the challenge.

    Of course, after such a triumph, it’s all downhill from here, you realize. You can now have your quarter-century crisis without us precipitating it.

    Thanks for everything. It was the coolest treehouse.

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    Thanks for the opportunity and best of luck Michael.

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    I wish I had the time to respond to all of these remarks individually. Another thank you for all the well-wishing.

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    Michael and all, I had to stop contributing my own posts to the site when I accepted a position elsewhere last October, but I don’t want to miss the chance to add my voice to the comments here and say it’s been a pleasure and I look forward to what’s next for you and for the gentle readers. And the not so gentle readers, too. To the future.

  22. collapse expand

    Michael, you’re right. Now I realize you’re on the dark side of…30! Not exactly middle age. I suspect you’ll be kicking editorial butt(s) for many decades to come. Thanks for all your work.

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    About Me

    I'm waiting for the day when I can get the news directly into my brain. Until then, I'll be lit up by the electric glow of screens, chasing the latest breaking like the hopeless news junkie I am. Ever since the Encyclopaedia Britannica tried to launch a web portal ten years ago, I've seen many ends of the online news spectrum, from my time as a political news reporter for both RawStory.com and the Huffington Post to the better part of a year I spent running the late New York Sun's website. There have been a lot of other stops in between. Now I am your homepage editorial overlord. But I haven't let it go to my head. Yet.

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