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Sept. 29, 2011, 2 p.m.

Clean Slate: How the online mag’s tech director Dan Check fine-tuned a 15-year-old machine

“Tech-backward” no longer? “There’s definitely, I think, a cultural shift underway at Slate,” its tech director says.

As the web’s oldest living magazine, Slate has acquired a certain reputation of, well, old-fashionedness. The New York Observer called Slate “tech-backward” last November. Reuters’ Paul Smalera more sympathetically referred to Slate as “a BlackBerry in an iPhone world” after the magazine was forced to lay off four staffers last month. Slate is the butt of jokes like, Yo’ CMS is so old, it was developed by Microsoft when Microsoft owned Slate!

OK, no one actually says that, but it’s true: Slate’s content management system, Gutenberg, was created in 2001. Or I should say its old CMS. Today “the new Slate” launched after months spent gutting the back-end. Editor David Plotz calls it “the most significant technological overhaul of Slate in a decade.”

Users won’t notice a ton of cosmetic changes or new features, but the launch is the culmination of more than a year of technological self-reinvention at Slate. The man leading that reinvention is Technology Director Dan Check, though he would be first to say that he deserves only some of the credit. Check came to The Slate Group from WaPo Labs (creators of Trove) and before that, Catalist, where he managed the team that provided voter data to the Obama campaign.

Matching technology to the editorial product

Check’s first official task at Slate: Boost the Google juice. Early on, Slate stories weren’t “winning” searches, he said. (Winning, as in, if you search for “slate two spaces after period” you should find Farhad Manjoo’s excellent piece in the No. 1 slot, not some other article linking to it.)

Dan Check

Check rolled out a series of improvements to story metadata that led to an immediate bump in search traffic: By August 2010, Google referrals had grown 23 percent over the year before, he told me — faster than overall traffic gains for the rest of the site. This August, Slate’s search traffic grew another 22 percent over last year. And today’s new CMS should improve search traffic even further, because story URLs are now loaded with Google-friendly keywords, rather than numbers.

Check’s next task — really a burning desire, he said — was reinventing The Slatest. Working with innovations editor Katherine Goldstein, essentially Check’s counterpart on the news side, Check’s team moved The Slatest to a modern back-end and created a bolder, more graphical design on the front end — one that encourages clicking instead of skimming. Plotz, for his part, hired a dedicated blogger/aggregator for the project. As we reported in August, the investment paid off: Post redesign, pageviews were up 43 percent, Google referrals up 47 percent, Facebook 79 percent, Twitter referrals 86 percent.

The biggest challenge, though, has been migrating Slate to its new CMS. Check decided on CQ5, a commercial Adobe product built on the open-source Apache Sling framework. (Check said his team made improvements to the framework that will be donated back to the open-source community.)

The CQ5 migration started with The Slatest and then continued with Slate’s blogs before going site-wide today. Check said the new system cuts in half the time it takes bloggers to create a post, add art, and publish. “We’re hoping that the rest of the CMS migration will produce more of the same — a real ability to get the same out, better (or more out, faster). Or both.” Another Slatest innovation, the “Social Stream,” which displays the most viewed, shared, and commented stories of the moment, now moves to a prominent spot on the home page.

“There’s definitely, I think, a cultural shift underway at Slate.”

Check is also building reporting tools that put metrics in context for journalists. He dismisses as a “false tradeoff” the idea that metrics can’t have an impact on editorial decision-making. “Editors are great because they have keen instincts and great intuition, but at some point you have to complement that with some data,” he said.

So what brings in big traffic numbers? Cats of War slideshows?

“Slideshows do good traffic for us, but that isn’t our bread and butter right now. The things that do well on Slate are very Slate-like pieces. There are things that also appeal to our core audience. We’re not doing the sort of double-dealing of, we have our core audience and we run this other stuff out of the back that is designed to bring in clicks to celebrity pictures.”

For example, grammar pieces like Manjoo’s do really well, Check said. The woman-oriented DoubleX section produces frequent hits, too, such as Mark Regnerus’ “Why young men have the upper hand in bed, even when they’re failing in life.” (Unfortunately, since Slate has changed the URLs for 15 years’s worth of stories, the Twitter and Facebook sharing numbers are back to zero on old articles.)

Finding the community

The biggest challenge so far, Check said, is a basic one: “The technology hasn’t been as good as the editorial product. You have all this great content there, and I think the challenge that a lot of publishers are up against is, basically, given that we’re spending this money to create this content…how can we get the maximum number of eyeballs?” Check said. “The deal that I made coming in was, I’m going to make a set of technical changes that we’re going to need to do in order to be consistently indexed, in order to rank well — and then, on the other side of it, if you guys feel like you need to rewrite headlines or write headlines differently, you guys need to have a conversation about that,” he said.

“Are there ways we can get people to form a bond and feel the closeness for Slate that we all feel?”

Check said he found a lot of untapped editorial and technical potential when he arrived at Slate. But also that the magazine — biased though he may be — doesn’t deserve its “tech-backward” reputation anymore.

“There’s definitely, I think, a cultural shift underway at Slate,” Check said. “There are things that we can do that keep us being Slate but that also take advantage of some of the learnings of other sites that have sprung up since Slate was started.”

After all, Slate was pre-Facebook, pre-Twitter, pre-Gmail, pre-Google. It’s no longer a startup.

The key concern now is community. “With our audience and the people who are attracted to Slate — and people who are potential Slate readers — how do we get more of those people through the door?” Check said. “Are there things we can learn from other websites that are out there? And are there ways we can get those people to stick and form a bond and feel the closeness for Slate that we all feel?”

That’s a concern, Check said, “that animates us as a company.” And addressing it will be crucial not just for Slate’s business interests, but also for its ability to continue on as a community. “We know that we’re not reaching everybody that we could reach,” Check said.

So: “How do we reach those people? How do they get to the site? And when they get to the site, what can we do that’s going to make them come back?”

POSTED     Sept. 29, 2011, 2 p.m.
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