Thursday, June 5, 2008

How to think about the new Slate Group

The New York Times reported today that the Washington Post Company has created a new business unit, The Slate Group, to develop new Internet properties. Slate.com EIC Jacob Weisberg is heading the organization, which today includes Slate; Slate V, the magazine's new video unit; The Root, an online magazine the Washington Post created for black Americans; and The Big Money, a business site to launch later this year.

Journalism observers will doubtlessly start stumbling over themselves to dissect the move, trying to figure out why the Washington Post thinks this is a good idea, what Weisberg's going to do, and what the secret sauce is going to be. Others will probably jump on it immediately, tearing the idea down and writing its obituary before it's even started.

Someone with an innovation mindset will look at this differently.

-- This is great news.
It's going to take thousands of experiments to discover the forms of journalism that are going to be successful at attracting and retaining readers going forward. Experiments cost money. We should be grateful for each and every dollar invested. Thank you Washington Post Company.

-- The Slate Group is not going to find
the answer.
Anyone who expects that The Slate Group will go into their kitchen, mix up their ingredients, and come out with the winning recipe that's going to save all our butts doesn't understand how innovation happens. It takes numerous iterations to figure out the successful design of any new product. Look how many evolutions of the personal computer it took to get from the
Apple Lisa to the powerful tools we have today. Same with cellphones. Remember those brick telephones we had in the late '80s? Not exactly the kind of thing everyone and their grandmother would want to carry around, the way they do today.

-- The Slate Group is going to find some answers.
Any time you run an experiment, you learn useful information. The Root probably knows a bunch of things today about what works--and what doesn't work--in building an audience among African Americans, that it didn't know, and maybe no one knew, before it launched this past January. Similarly, The Slate Group will learn a ton about online journalism by throwing up its sites and seeing what works. (And yes, of course, they already know a lot. Slate.com has been hugely successful. But there's still tons more to learn, to ensure the future of journalism.)

Hopefully, The Slate Group will share their learnings with the rest of the journalism community. The competition mindset still prevails in our business. Everyone wants to hold their cards close to their chest. But as I've written before, this is no time for hoarding learnings. We're in a race for survival. On the one side are the slowly dying newspapers. On the other are the innovations in the new medium. We want the innovators to figure out the new system before the old one dies. Sharing learnings accellerates innovation and will make it more likely we'll cross that line before newspapers collapse completely.

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