Ask Jim Ledbetter about his new site’s driving idea, and he’ll tell you that, in part, it really just comes down to four companies. It’s the “SAGA manifesto" approach to business journalism, a term Ledbetter, editor of Slate’s new The Big Money site came up with, together with Slate editor-in-chief Jacob Weisberg.
SAGA? Try Starbucks, Amazon, Google and Apple. It’s in part hyperbole, of course, but it makes the point: business news coverage should depend on your audience. Slate’s target audience for business coverage: well-educated readers in their 20s and 30s.
“The Big Money”, launching Monday, will go well beyond those four companies, of course, but the itch to niche should be well-scratched. It builds on a strong Slate audience, a group of well-informed, high-demo and skeptical readers, and thus tries to find a new pocket in the increasingly competitive world of online business news.
Online business advertising is a top performer, earning three to five times and more the rates of online general news. On a global level, it’s a battle of titans: News Corp (Dow Jones, Marketwatch, Barrons), Thomson Reuters, Bloomberg, the New York Times, Financial Times, Time Warner (Fortune, CNN Money, Money), Business Week, Forbes. Not to forget the non-content-producing big portal money sites: Yahoo Finance, Google Finance, AOL Money, and MSN Money, Slate’s erstwhile cousin.
Tuesday, we'll also see the re-launch of WSJ.com and later this month, the New York Times adds more fuel to the business news arms race as it expands business and tech.
That’s a lot of money chasing a lot of money. The US Interactive Advertising Bureau shows business and finance as the second largest category for revenue, representing 15% ($3.15 billion) of online advertising in 2007. Further, according to Ad Age, financial advertisers are spending almost one in five (17%) of their advertising dollars online.
(As as I wrote a few months ago, it’s a gravy train disappearing on the horizon for local newspaper companies. Just as web online business news markets are exploding, business news staffs are being hacked dramatically. The logic: print business news sections are among the lowest read, so with newsprint cuts they’re losing section front status, and most, importantly, space. The resulting logic: Who needs business reporters? Incredibly short-sighted for the online future of the business.)
Slate is just looking for some spare change from that burgeoning market, and starts with Infiniti and American Express sponsorships. The launch is a smart move, though a small, measured one, as Ledbetter – an Industry Standard and CNN Money vet – puts the site on the map with just four staffers, and a growing list of contributors. The site’ s deputy editor is Elinor Shields, former managing editor of The Huffington Post. That staffing is modest given the goal Ledbetter told me he has for The Big Money: to be “a game changer for the sector."
The move makes sense for several reasons:
• Online news sites have got to go where the money is. Business and tech is one of the top verticals.
• The site focuses on comment and analysis, not breaking news. Slate can’t compete in breaking news, but it can bring its take on business news to a pre-qualified audience. Business writers Daniel Gross and Farhad Monjoo, late of Salon, already have a following. While they are staying in Slate’s Business and Technology section – I find that confusing – they’ve set a Slate take on business, a take that seems consistent with The Big Money’s approach. Though The Big Money has its own URL, it’ll be linked off Slate, and that’ll help pump traffic.
• The timing is right. No, not just because the economic meltdown has lots of meaning to everyone at this moment, but because the intense political season – a key driver of Slate readership – is drawing to a close. While the Presidential campaign has seemed interminable and newly Palin-hot, the end is near. An Obama win would mean getting on with the tough task of governing, hugely meaningful but less a magnet for readership. A McCain victory? Well, my sense is that the depression experienced by most Slate (and Huffington Post) readers will be so profound that readership will drop off, at least for a while. So Slate’s starting The Big Money, just after Arianna’s launched or expanded business, entertainment, living and soon-to-be-ubiquitous "green". Ledbetter estimates that about 10-15% of Slate’s current traffic is business-related, a number that should rise.
Further, the new product gives parent Washington Post Co. another way to experiment with business, an experiment that we could rejiggered for the mother site.
So what will we see in The Big Money, which borrows its winking name from the third book in John Dos Passos' USA series, once a dominant presence in America’s literary canon? Among the launch content:
• Blogs: Two big ones to start. One born of the SAGA conceit, Feeling Lucky, all things Google. It’ll be written by Chris Thompson. There’s a lot of room within that singular topic, and I’m curious to see how The Big Money finds a take worth reading, which Ledbetter describes as “how this company has transformed our lives.” The Daily Bread focuses on the food biz; we can expect a lot on Starbucks, Whole Foods, slow food and the like. It’ll be written by Dan Mitchell, who also blogs for BNET. (My initial post said Mitchell had left BNET, not true.)
• Social Responsible Investing Stock Screen: Want to invest but stay away from alcohol peddlers, polar cap destroyers, arms dealers and labor exploiters? This stock screen might be for you. “It’s less a piece of advocacy than an important area for lots of people,” says Ledbetter, who sees value beyond investing, for consumers, job searchers and journalists. Should be fun to play with.
• Today’s Business Press: This feature, already a part of Slate, moves into the new site, a blog-like roundup of the day’s big business stories.
• YouTube Brand Watch: This interactive feature asks readers to rate top online-only advertising. Ledbetter says the BrandWeeks and Ad Ages have long taken apart print ads. Brand Watch (no commercial affiliation with YouTube, says Ledbetter) heads for that opening.
Other than the social stock index, what you won’t see is one staple of every other business site – personal finance. Per Fi usually brings in lots of (now nervous) readers and advertisers intending to reach them.
"There's a kind of dishonesty behind it, [per fi]" says Ledbetter. "If everyone can get rich, they would."
I wish The Big Money luck. Smart people’s lack of business understanding drives me nuts. In addition, there is a certain sameness to most of the business coverage out there, and the web’s not supposed to be boring. I think it’s kind of a small start, though, especially in light of how the big boys are ramping up. With expansion, I’d like to see such additions as Slate V (an ONA finalist) for Business, with business video ripe for satire. Or Mark Fiore-like interactive cartoons. And lots more blogs, widening coverage areas within the site’s spirit. And, lastly, it wouldn’t be bad to take on such data-rich projects as the Credit Crisis, the Sub-Prime Meltdown or the decade’s Transfer of Wealth, stories just waiting to be told, with interactive web tools a great aid in storytelling.