Tuesday, January 16, 2007

An Open Letter to Jacob Weisberg, editor of Slate:

You may know me in a marginal sense as Ender. You may not. But it’s worth mentioning in establishing my street cred. I’ve been reading Slate and participating in The Fray for a long time. To give you an idea of how long, it was one of your Ballot Box articles during the 2000 presidential campaign that first introduced me to Slate.

What I have to say isn’t anything I haven’t said before. In fact, I’m loath to say it yet again. But it’s likely you have never heard it, and now that I’ve been named Time’s Person of the Year, I figure I’d give it one last shot.

I suspect you’ve read the above referenced Time article already. You may recall its repeated references to Web 2.0. As the editor of a prominent online magazine, I don’t have to tell you what Web 2.0 is. I’m even willing to venture that you recognize that although Slate qualifies as existing in the Web 2.0 environment (despite its failed attempt to integrate with Technorati), its reader’s forum, The Fray, does not. Worthy of note, however, is that many of your readers who choose to participate in the fray fail to appreciate this distinction, as I read more than one fray post(*, *, *, *, ...) which mistakenly applauded its author or its fellow fray posters as awardees.

But before I get sidetracked, let me say it’s not important to me whether you agree with Time’s decision to honor the 1%. My personal take is that Time makes a worthwhile point, but I’m not sure they were right to sacrifice their Person of the Year Award in making it. If there is a worthwhile observation to be made from their decision to recognize unpaid content providers, it is that it was a prominent but primarily paper magazine—and so immune from the perceived threat the 1% represent to mainstream, traditional (online) content providers—that was willing to give this new breed of content providers their due.

Obviously, I would be wrong to assume you are concerned about having to compete with this seemingly bottomless pool of slave labor (slaves to their egos). Perhaps you haven’t given it a second thought. I can, however, based solely on the current state of your reader’s forum, conclude that you’ve yet to formulate a winning strategy for claiming your (Slate’s) share of that pool, and putting them to work for you. To reframe it in purely market terms, it would be a mistake to assume your small staff can expect to compete in the marketplace, no matter how talented and professional you are, against the rising tide of literally millions of “regular” people (who happen to be experts in every field), who work for no monetary gain.

Getting to the point, it’s not all doom and gloom. At least, not from my perspective. You still occupy the sweet spot on msn.com where millions of regular people—and many for the very first time—begin their virtual meanderings every day. But instead of that 1% who discover their predilection for creating content via the fray eventually moving up and out to their own blogs, or other venues that offer them greater exposure, you adopt something similar to the ScienceBlogs model:

We believe in providing our bloggers with the freedom to exercise their own editorial and creative instincts. We do not edit their work and we do not tell them what to write about. We have selected our 40+ bloggers [from Slate’s The Fray] based on their originality, insight, talent, and dedication and how we think they would contribute to the discussion at [SlateBlogs]. Our role, as we see it, is to create and continue to improve this forum for discussion, and to ensure that the rich dialogue that takes place at [Slate] resonates outside the blogosphere.
In other words, you use the fray, with a few modifications, the same way you always have. But you add to the mix a series of recognitions which tell your free content providers whether they are, or are not, on track to becoming a Slate Blogger. The formula would remain, in part, a close kept secret, but externally one would be able to look at current Slate Bloggers for clues as to what it takes. It’s important to understand the appeal of a theoretical SlateBlog—as compared to a blogspot, livejournal, myspace, etc.,—would be its exclusivity and high profile. This won’t appeal to everyone, but it will appeal to the more serious regular people. So much so, that I’d go so far as to suggest it might even entice a few of the more serious former fray posters to return to the fray and take a stab at earning a spot on SlateBlogs.

To be clear, SlateBlogs would enjoy its own url (www.slateblogs.com/), but in addition to featuring the content of its Slate born bloggers, it would also reflect the content and advertising of its parent, Slate (and vice versa, with SlateBlogs recent content featured in a panel on Slate). An additional advantage is you’d be off to a running start as a few fraysters remain who have put in their time (years) and have a proven track record (earned multiple stars, authored thousands of words in appends, remained sane). Lastly, and as the ultimate incentive, you could pay Slate bloggers based on their traffic. Small amounts mind you, and only after their traffic surpasses a respectable baseline, and if/when one of them truly breaks out and starts generating the sort of traffic that exceed all expectations, I’m guessing you’ll be glad you have first dibs.

But that’s just a rough outline. Take a close look at ScienceBlogs. Consider the dozens of popular, successful bloggers past and present who can trace their roots to Slate’s the fray. Oprah said, "I feel that luck is preparation meeting opportunity." When I look at Slate and how it is perfectly positioned to take advantage of the opportunity its rarified status as an msn.com headliner gives it, I’m left to wonder if what’s missing is a preparedness to accept the changes the internet is forcing on your profession. Or perhaps you’ve yet to take seriously just how seductive the power of the internet is to the ‘ordinary’.


weldon berger said...

I couldn't help but overhear ... you didn't actually send that to Weisberg, did you? Not that it would sway him either way, but on the few occasions we've corresponded, it went pretty memorably unwell. Dickerson likes me, though, in a masochistic sort of way.

Anonymous said...

This needs to be top-posted on Fraywatch and BOTF.

JohnMcG said...

Nah -- the thing to do is start pruning posts with all CAPS subject lines. That's the only thing that's keeping the Fray from being a force in Web 2.0.

Schadenfreude said...

Nicely done.

Sadly, Weisberg is a writer, not a businessman and not an internet guru - he won't have a clue what you're talking about. You should address your letter to the publisher (whoever that is), who would be in charge of broader strategy for the magazine.

Could someone do me a favour and tell Urq that I won't be hosting Diplomacy? Wouldn't be practical.

Schadenfreude said...

NB. He'll never find you.

symbnt said...

weldon/Schad: I did email the subject line and link it to letters@slate, a slate email I found for Jacob (probably no good) and Shafer (who, because of his digg articles, strikes me as at least conversant). Not sure, but I may throw a few more emails Slate’s way later, so if you have some good ones, send them to me at symbnt@gmail.com.

And Schad, I couldn't reply directly to Urq, but I got close.

switters said...

I'll echo the echo chamber: really well done. And yeah, you really should post this, if not on BotF, at the very least on Fraywatch. I'm pretty sure it will get plenty of attention, at least as long as poor Geoff isn't in one of his "moods".

Great job. Again.

weldon berger said...

Ender, drop me an email and I'll give you his address.

Anonymous said...

Are you all nuts? That letter is utterly self-indulgent, undisciplined, and incoherent. Even after it begins "getting to the point" many grafs in, it leaves me with no idea what the point is or what, if anything, is being requested.

The letter violates rules number one through twenty: "Be succinct." It could use a good grammar edit as well; there are blatant (to me) errors, such as misplaced modifiers and dangling clauses.

symbnt said...

Hi Anon. At just over 1,000 words, it may not qualify as succinct, but then neither do most Slate articles, so I trust that Jacob’s attention span is more than up to the task. It’s also true that in an effort to keep it reasonably short, I chose to assume my audience was intimately familiar with the subject matter. Given the comments so far, it appears I didn’t assume too much. If it makes you feel better, I won’t deny that I lack literary polish. But for someone who appears to be mysteriously bent on criticism of a letter on a topic they freely admit they are unqualified to judge, I’m surprised you’d neglect to point out its greatest failing. Truth be told Anon, if I had any expectation at all that Jacob Weisberg was interested my ideas for his magazine, I would have sent the letter to him privately. For some godforsaken reason I have a passion for this stuff, but not for a minute to I pretend any of it will ever amount to anything. So, please, feel free to let the knowledge that I am not the least bit deluded about the utter futility of this letter wash sooth your hackles.

TenaciousK said...

Oh, there's a certain nobility in embarking on low-probability exercises where the potential payoffs are substantial. It's sort of like the optimism expressed in the stamp on the publisher's clearinghouse entry form. Plus, this has the added bonus of making an actual statement, which is something most people don't bother themselves with, these days.

Anon - you could always write a letter yourself, you know - let the editorial staff (or his secretary's personal assistant's unpaid student intern, most likely) know that Ender's not alone in his dismay about the languishing Fray.

But really, why bother yourself? The probability of satisfaction is much higher if you content yourself with gently ridiculing the people who do.

Schadenfreude said...

Scroll down to BeeBook. Pretty much what Slate is accomplishing with their better Fraysters. Not sure how they're going to "monetize the motherfucker", though.

bright said...

Well, do you think he read the letter?