Walt Mossberg

True/Slant Tests Another Model Of Web Journalism

As newspapers, magazines and TV stations face dire economic challenges, and journalism moves increasingly online, debates are raging about how best to preserve quality news and commentary while still making money.

There’s lots of experimentation with different approaches. Many journalists, old and new, are operating as stand-alone bloggers, but finding it hard to make a living. Web advertising has weakened with the economy, and often can’t cover the costs of expensive reporting. A couple of respected traditional publications have successfully attracted large numbers of paid subscribers online, but many others who have tried have failed.

Meanwhile, advertisers also are scrambling to figure out the best way to sell their products online, in a manner that both attracts potential customers and blends in well with the content and style of news sites. And publishers are trying to capture the conversation and sense of community that permeate services like Facebook and Twitter.

This week, a new Web news site is entering the fray, with a novel approach to journalistic entrepreneurship, new forms of advertising, and an effort to blend journalism and social networking.

The site, called True/Slant, at trueslant.com, is opening its doors via an odd preliminary status it calls an “open alpha.” This means it’s rough around the edges, and not yet taking in revenue, but hopes to attract enough participation to hone its design and operation.

True/Slant is run by a former news executive at America Online who worked at a variety of publications, including The Wall Street Journal. It covers a wide range of topics, such as politics, culture, sports, business, health, science and food.

It is launching with 65 journalists, or “knowledge experts,” assigned to specific topics. Each of these contributors gets a page to house their journalism and, it is hoped, an active social network of followers who will regularly discuss the articles they read there. Each page also will feature headlines of stories elsewhere on the Web selected by the contributors. These “headline grabs” link back to the originating outside site.

The initial group of contributors includes current or former writers for publications such as the Financial Times, Rolling Stone, the New York Times, Time magazine and the Boston Globe.

Readers can go directly to the page of their favorite contributor, but the site’s home page will knit together popular content and contributors, and each reader will be able to track multiple topics and contributors through a streaming feed called “I’m following.”

True/Slant will run regular Web ads throughout. But, in a highly unusual move, the site plans to offer advertisers their own entire pages where they can run blogs and try to attract a network of followers. These will have the same design and features of the journalists’ pages, but will be labeled as ad content.

The journalists are paid a small amount, but the plan is to turn them into minipublishers under the True/Slant umbrella. They will be offered a share of the advertising and sponsorship revenues their individual pages generate and, in some cases, equity in True/Slant, which is backed by venture capital.

These contributors are allowed to keep writing elsewhere, either online or in traditional media, and even to promote these outside efforts on True/Slant. But they are expected to post original commentary and analysis to True/Slant. They also are allowed to arrange for their own advertising or sponsorships, in addition to what True/Slant can sell, and even, in some cases, to add other authors to their pages.

In another unusual move, the contributors also are required to actively engage with readers on the site. They must post a minimum number of comments in reader discussions about their articles and curate the comments, giving prominence to the most interesting. They are even expected to comment on each other’s posts.

This required engagement is an attempt to capture some of the excitement of a social network, and it ties in directly with a contributor’s success. On the home page, and elsewhere throughout the site, True/Slant promotes not only the most popular contributors, but also the most active ones. High rankings in these categories can lead to higher traffic on each contributor’s page, and, indirectly, to higher income.

Readers who are active commenters can also gain prominence on the site, especially if those comments are popular or called out for special attention. A front-page panel will highlight the most active commenters, and the most called-out comments.

The layout of the site is clean and handsome, a decent effort to meld a news site and a social network. One layout flaw the company hopes to fix: There’s no easy way to find a list of all topics, only those it considers hot at any moment.

It’s way too early to know if True/Slant will succeed. For one thing, it is still dependent on advertising, not subscriptions. And ethical questions could arise, because the site’s operators don’t edit or preapprove the content, and the model of blended journalism and advertising could prove problematic.

But it’s another example of how the Web is changing traditional media, and might be worth a look.

Find all of Walt Mossberg’s columns and videos online, free, at the All Things Digital Web site, walt.allthingsd.com. Email him at mossberg@wsj.com.


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