OFF THE GRID

Slate Joins Newser: This Is How to Save the News

Aug 25, 09 | 7:30 AM   byMichael Wolff
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Just as so many save-our-business types are castigating news aggregators as pirates, Slate takes up the aggregating craft. It’s a sort of formal acknowledgment by one of the most establishment sites on the web—Slate was founded by Microsoft and is now owned by the Washington Post—that people are reading news differently and that the news is moving inexorably away from a single-source form.

I commented last week on media critic Dan Kennedy’s righteous indignation at Newser for having the temerity to summarize other people’s articles. Slate enters the field with even longer summaries of the dozen news stories it deems the morning’s most important (longer summaries might seem to be a contradiction—but while everybody likes shorter, some people, apparently, like shorter to be longer), with an ever-so-small hyperlink to the original source.

Slate takes credit for helping to invent the aggregation genre in the early Internet years with its “Today’s Papers” and “In Other Magazines” (though British radio hosts have been reading excerpts from the papers on air for several generations). While acknowledging that, in the accelerated news cycle of the Internet, summarizing yesterday’s news is out of date, Slate seems to have sat warily on the sidelines as new sorts of aggregation grew up on the web. As the form became more and more unavoidable and, I’d argue, irresistible, I suspect that, temperamentally, Slate, with its old-media ownership and sensibility, remained uncomfortable with the implications—profiting (in theory profiting) from the repackaging, streamlining, collecting, and curation of other people’s news. But the world changes—and so do its habits and forms.

Single-source news just gets harder and harder to explain: why just one, when it’s as easy to have many?

So how is Slate as an aggregator?

Unlike Newser, it has hardly any pictures (in remarks accompanying its debut into the field, Slate raises an eyebrow at aggregators who take note of “the nipple-slips of minor starlets”); unlike the Daily Beast, it doesn’t have a taste for the tabloid; unlike the Huffington Post, it has no Arianna. The Slatester—pardon me, “the Slatest”—isn’t interested in Jon and Kate, or, I would guess, Anna Paquin’s views on sex and bras (Newser’s most popular story yesterday), which might suggest that it has not quite embraced the full catholic nature of aggregation, nor, as well, the high and low of modern news. Slate’s aggregation focus is on traditional news—impersonal public events, in an impersonal voice. (Its tone suggests that it might not aggregate many of the off-topic, odd-lot, amusing articles it actually publishes—leave that then to Newser.) The Slatest is stiff, worthy, and wordy—not unlike Slate itself. It pretty much reproduces the Times front page, though with a little more bounce in its step because it is not just limited to the Times. It’s gentlemen’s news rather than mass-market news.

But its principles are ours: giving readers more news while letting them get it in less time. Which is, I continue to argue, exactly how to save this business.

More of Newser founder Michael Wolff's articles and commentary can be found at VanityFair.com, where he writes a regular column. He can be emailed at michael@newser.com.
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