Why I love the Slatest

At some point over the last couple of weeks, I noticed a new feature on Slate.com – they call it “the Slatest” (beta), and it’s a regularly-updated collection of the 12 best articles from across the internet, as chosen by one of their staff.  I read Slate every day, and this new feature is just the latest bonus to what is already one of my favorite Web sites.

So let’s talk about the two reasons why I love the Slatest, and why other companies can learn some lessons from it:   First, because a professionally human-edited aggregator is quickly becoming a viable news delivery method, and second, because the Slatest’s use of Facebook for reader comments increases my likelihood of engagement.

Filtering the best of all the rest

In his book What Would Google Do?, Jeff Jarvis uses the phrase “do what you do best and link to the rest” to explain how businesses need to operate in the age of the Web.  I think we’ll be seeing more of this approach in days to come, particularly from news and media companies.

Why?  Because readers will flock to the best online sources, original content or not.  In the real-time internet, your internal team isn’t going to break every story and won’t have the best analysis on every issue.  But you can leverage readers’ trust in your editorial staff.  Think of the savvy friend or coworker who has a knack for picking out the most read-worthy stories – we all know someone like this.  Slate’s daily briefing and Slatest features position themselves as just that.

I’ve always liked the concept of Digg, but have found that in practice, the wisdom of the crowd tend to select articles that are fairly different from what I would choose to read.  With the Slatest, it’s just a single editor, and one who chooses articles close to my own taste.  Also, Digg can be overwhelming, whereas the  Slatest’s focus is only on 12 articles at a time (which is conveniently the number that I would want to read in a single work break).

As a new feature, the Slatest hasn’t been perfected yet.  So far I’d say that their content selection is good, not great.  But given it’s nascent stage, I think we can assume that it will get better if given the chance (as a goal, Slate’s Other Magazines section is very well filtered and edited).  Bloggers do this type of aggregating already, but are often limited by the fact that they’re moonlighting and don’t have the expertise and resources of a major news company.  Seeing a company like Slate (owned by the Washington Post) progressing in this direction gets a thumbs-up.

Facebook for the User-Comments section

The Slatest does something else very unique:  They use Facebook to host their user comments.  The feature is too new to fully evaluate, but I like it.  Why?  Let’s start by evaluating how other news sites manage user comments.

The New York Times:  To comment on the NY Times site, you merely pencil in your name, email (which will not be published) and you can post.  For such a major paper, I’m surprised at how basic this is.

The Globe and Mail:  The Globe goes a step beyond the NY Times.  To post a comment, you first have to actually register and provide your email, name and zip code.  On the reader-side, it means that for every submitted comment, you can click on the commentor’s name and view their profile (if they have one, which many do not).  The benefit to this, as compared to the NY Times format, is that it actually creates a bit of a community among the regular commentors.   Here’s a sample profile of a frequent comment-poster named Brian Dell.  As you can see, the Globe’s format allows you to see a profile page and, most significantly, read previous comments by the same poster (as you would on a site such as Amazon).

The Globe also allows you to set up alerts for up to 15 keywords.  Being a new RIM employee, I might set this up so that anytime a Globe article includes the words RIM, Research in Motion, Balsillie, Blackberry, etc, I would be informed and could head over to comment.

There’s more to it than this, with features like the public messages and friends options that can build a real social-networking capability into the site.  Relative to the NY Times then, the Globe’s ahead of the curve for an organization of its age and size.

The Huffington Post:  It may be a bit unfair to compare the Huffington Post in this case, as it’s an organization very different from the NY Times or the Globe and Mail, or even Slate for that matter.  Regardless, it’s worth evaluating, as the HuffPo incorporates most of the Globe and Mail’s community-building, but with a cleaner design and a more Facebook-ish feel.  Check out this Huffington Post user profile for a fairly typical regular commentor, Fidella Faulds.  The “fan” function links users in a fashion more similar to Twitter than to Facebook, in that it doesn’t have to be reciprocated.

Now, returning to the Slatest. Whereas the two above-mentioned sites build their own internal communities for commentors, Slate requires that you post your comment through Facebook, which then shows up on the Slate site.  Here’s what the comments section of a Slatest article looks like:

Slatest facebook comment

In this case, if I want to know more about Martin Bentley, I merely click on his Facebook profile.  Relative to the Globe and Mail’s system, I can actually get a much richer picture of who he really is, depending on how much he presents in his public profile, and then connect with him on Facebook.  While this is just an experiment, as other Slate articles don’t use Facebook for this purpose, I think it’s an indication of where we’ll see news going.

Why I love the Slatest

I read Slate all the time, and despite where I may have led you with this blog, it’s actually not because of their innovative features.  I read Slate on a daily basis because they have excellent writers, such as Jack Shafer and Farhad Manjoo, to name a couple.  But their incorporation of third-party articles also works for me because it’s not done for the sake of doing it, but because they actually do seem to put real effort into choosing the best from across the Web.

As for the Facebook integration for comments, I’m a big fan.  I haven’t submitted any comments myself yet (note:  been away on vacation, hence lack of recent blogs).  But I will.  Reasons?  First, I have my own blog, so if I post a comment on a news site, It’d be cool if other readers follow the string back to my personal site.  Second, if someone is interested in one of my comments,or myself in theirs, I like the opportunity to connect.  Facebook facilitates this more easily than an internal community (such as the Globe and HuffPo).

Above all, my enjoyment of the Slatest thus far is based on quality of articles.  I’ve always liked reading from a broad range of sources but never had time to pick up 8 newspapers per day.  Having an editor perform this function for me,  effectively filtering out the best of the day’s news, is a pretty sweet feature.  Not to present myself as lazy:  I still visit other sites to read through the news for myself.  But the Slatest (and Slate’s daily briefings) give me a good starting point over my morning coffee.