Media

True/Slant: The Mom-and-Pop News Shop That Could Is Talking Money

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Ever visited True/Slant? It’s a pretty great site based on a business model that’s had its fair share of cynics and critics and quasi-scandals since its onset. But according to Paid Content, True/Slant might soon get the last, moneyed laugh, as they’re now reportedly in acquisition talks.

Quick primer: True/Slant’s a network of individual bloggers’ blogs, on any number of topics, by a multitude of great writers. They range from the semi-obscure and tragically underrated — Neal Ungerleider’s Falafel Mafia, or Dave Bry’s Death and Parenting — to more name-y writers like Rolling Stone‘s Matt Taibbi and CNN aviation expert Miles O’Brien. The gist of the whole thing is that authors reap part of the ad money sold for their blogs. This last Sunday, they were even noted by The New York Times in an article about future web journalism models:

If True/Slant can keep its production costs low and its traffic high, it can collect those pennies and nickels on a scale large enough to turn a profit. There are a couple of ways to do this as an online publisher. You can emphasize quality, producing a limited number of items in the hope that each will attract a great number of readers. Or a publisher can go for quantity, producing a lot of little things that add up in the aggregate. True/Slant’s low-cost newsroom churns out around 125 pieces of content a day.

The other way is for a publisher to get bought out by someone, which is the dream scenario. And scrappy little True/Slant might just have that chance:

True/Slant, a freelance news startup that encourages “entrepreneurial journalism,” was raising a second round but wound up with sales interest by so-called strategic buyers. We initially heard a deal was already done, but a source familiar with the situation tells paidContent that is not the case and that talks are ongoing. Asked about a possible sale, founder/CEO Lewis DVorkin said by e-mail that the New York-based company is merely looking to raise a second round. We’ve confirmed though that both possibilities are still in play.

So why should you cheer on True/Slant? Because making money as a writer is hard. And making money as a writer that’s not part of a business with its own specific umbrella-organizational interests that affect the news you get is even harder. And True/Slant has persevered through that mission with very low overhead, in a very scrappy fashion, and has given great voices a pretty solid platform. But if that’s not enough for you, via Paid Content, think of it like this:

It wouldn’t cost Yahoo nearly the $90 million or so it’s reportedly paying to pick up Associated Content, a very different model (True/Slant likes to emphasize its reliance on humans, not algorithms), and it would seem to fit in with its new dual approach to mass and niche content.

It’s that parenthetical that’s important. Again:

(True/Slant likes to emphasize its reliance on humans, not algorithms)

As opposed to something like AOL’s new content model, Seed, which is basically a series of Borg-like machines trying to figure out what people are searching, and then staffing out low-paying gigs to shitty writers to put that information out there, effectively flooding the market with shittily written writing by underpaid writers who take the gigs anyway because (A) they need the money or (B) they can’t get it anywhere else because they’re shitty writers.

That information then shows up in Google higher than the good stuff, because AOL has the evil SEO (or search engine optimization) resources and capabilities equivalent to, say, SkyNet.

It’s a news sweatshop, is the point.

That said, Seed might’ve already been sunk by bad management and Yahoo’s aforementioned purchase of another Borg-like content machine called Associated Content, but that doesn’t mean the threat of information built by machines is gone: if Yahoo’s purchase of Associated Content helps it get more clicks than its original news reporting does, there could be more where that came from (also see: Demand Media).

So here’s hoping True/Slant gets that M&A deal. It’s a solid site staffed by solid writers, putting some pretty decent voices out into the ether. It may not be the precise future of news and reporting and getting paid to write, but if anything, it’s diametrically opposed to the Evil Empire of Machine-Written News (or shitty sites like Newser that just aggregate, which is a dumb euphemism for “steal and repurpose,” other people’s news).

And that’s what counts here.

[fkamer@villagevoice.com]

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