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April 25, 2011, 9:30 p.m.

Slate rethinks aggregation (again) with a Slatest redesign

Slate was arguably the first major news site to care about aggregation, starting back in 1996, when we only thought we suffered from information overload. (They didn’t even call it “aggregation” yet. It was “meta-news.”) What started with In Other Magazines — a weekly roundup for people with no time for Time and Newsweek — evolved into Today’s Papers, a hugely popular feature that ran every morning until its retirement in 2009.

“‘Today’s Papers’ was hilariously backward by contemporary standards,” editor David Plotz wrote at the time. “The authors originally collected front pages by fax from newspapers that barely had online editions.”

You can almost measure the quickening pace of aggregation by tracking Slate’s evolution: at first a (basically) weekly magazine that actually published page numbers on stories; then a daily morning summary of the latest news; then Today’s Papers’ replacement, Slatest, which was updated three times a day with summaries of what Slate deemed the 12 most important stories of the moment.

Today Slate is quickening its pace again with a rethink of Slatest. It has hired Josh Voorhees, formerly Politico’s energy reporter, to be aggregator-in-chief and Slatest editor. Instead of three discrete updates a day, Slatest will be updated throughout the day and more bloglike. And a new Slatest design takes a page from uber-aggregator Huffington Post, with big, graphic-heavy images.

Plotz said the old Slatest was no failure — attracting 2 million pageviews per month by the end of last year and 140,000 subscribers to the email newsletter — but that the art of aggregation had moved forward. “Every site in the world that I can think of, including the New York Times, does something like aggregation,” Plotz told me. He said Slatest will stand out by providing utility to readers with the voice, context, and humanity you might not find on the content farm. “This is an active bet on the notion that voice really matters. Having not simply summary, but summary with analysis,” he said. The new design also gives a home to the Trending News Channel, Slate’s effort at tying quick video production to of-the-moment Google Trends data.

The new version will be more visible to search engines (“it will shine like neon in the dark to Google,” Plotz says — article URLs are now loaded with keywords) and more social media-friendly, Plotz said. The magazine is uncovering a feature called Slate Stream, a sort of interestingness algorithm for what’s hot on the site. A rotating graphic shows which stories are being viewed, shared, and commented the most, based on real-time data from Twitter’s API, Chartbeat, and other sources.

Plotz was the original author of In Other Magazines back in the 1990s. The curatorial spinoffs that followed — Today’s Papers, International Papers, and the impossibly ambitious Today’s Blogs — are extinct now. Even at three times daily, the old Slatest wasn’t fast enough. There is one news cycle now, and it’s now. Slate still calls itself an online magazine, and there has always been a tension between real-time aggregation and the take-a-step-back approach typical of a weekly glossy. “We’re not a commodity news site,” Plotz said.

But he hopes to attract an audience that might not otherwise visit the site in the hours between a story’s genesis and a Slate writer’s second take. “We recognize we’re not an AP, with correspondents in every port, which is able to cover every single story,” Plotz said. “That’s not what our comparative advantage is. Our comparative advantage is analytical and synthetic. They want a take on understanding the news and they want a charming voice, a charming companion.”

POSTED     April 25, 2011, 9:30 p.m.
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