Interview: Jacob Weisberg, Chairman, Slate Group: Breaking Out Of The Beltway

This story was written by Robert Andrews.
Time was, Franco-US relations stopped at "freedom fries". But Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive is wiping the slate clean - the Slate.fr, to be precise. The French-language offshoot of Slate.com, which was launched last week by an all-star list of French newspaper and online editors, is the first, tentative play in what could be a major international expansion for the DC-based webzine

"I've been wanting for some time to test out the idea that Slate, as a brand, can replicate a high-quality magazine on the internet outside of the US context," Slate Group editor-in-chief Jacob Weisberg told me. "This is our first example we'll see how it goes - if it works in France, it will absolutely be a very powerful argument to try in other international territories ... if it becomes financially self-supporting and sustainable and supports high-quality web journalism."

Slate.fr, which expects to have eight staffers by the end of the month, will be run autonomously from Washington but, all the same, strives toward the same intelligent, online-only writing. It's owned 15 percent by WPNI, 35 percent by an anonymous fund that has invested an estimated 2 million to 3 million and 50 percent by the five founders - ex Le Monde editor Jean-Marie Colombani, ex Le Monde business editor Eric Leser, former Liberation.fr and 20minutes.fr editor Johan Hufnagel, ex editor of Les Echos' Enjeux business mag Eric Le Boucher; and long-time president Mitterand advisor Jacques Attali.

"My point of view was not necessarily that France would be the best place to start, but it's a very plausible place to try out the idea," Weisberg said. "Over the last couple of years, I've had conversations with a number of potential partners in a number of countries, but Eric really made it happen." Leser told me: "If we can prove that the Slate.com model can succeed in another language, the next steps will be - I don't know if it will be one year, two years or five years - you can have some Slates in Italian, in German in Spanish."

Entente cordiale sur l'internet: Leser said the idea came up whilst interviewing Weisberg at the back end of 2007: "At that time, I was doing an interview for Le Monde, and we got talking about the survival of quality journalism; the idea came to try to reproduce the model and adapt for France and the French language. After some months, I convinced Jean-Marie and Jacques to come with us." So Slate Group is growing up - just like New York Times' IHT.com is publishing overseas, and just as the likes of Guardian.co.uk, Mail Online and Telegraph.co.uk court US audiences, so the webzine is playing at transatlanticism

For far, Slate.fr is posting six to seven daily articles, translating two or three from the Washington site, but it plans to beef itself up with the addition of blogs for more writers. Likewise, Weisberg said, Slate.com will start publishing some articles from the French spin-off - courtesy of a dual-nationality French speaker in its Washington HQ. Content will be sold, too, to Orange and - eventually, Leser hopes - to other destinations: a much-needed bolt-on to an ad-supported business model. "Before we have revenue, we need to build the traffi," Leser said. "In the first years, we will syndicate content."

Cultural sensibilities: France's newspaper business may be ailing, with a ropey distribution network and slow-burning online newsroom reforms, but the country does have a rich heritage of civic discourse through news magazines like 20 Minutes. Why compete? Leser: "We think we are not in the same market. We have no news at all; we try to be like Slate.com -  we just try to give some added value to the news, with columnists, experts. We don't want to compete with LeMonde.fr, Figaro.fr, Liberation.fr.

But can Slate.fr succeed when the French market is so different? Leser: "One of the explanations of the success of Slate.com is they have a lot of humor and irony at the same time. It's very Anglo-Saxon, it's not French; we can't have both humor and seriousness in France so I think it's a challenge for us. If we want to succeed, we have to have, at the same time, the traditional quality journalists and the spirit of the net. It's more difficult in the French culture than the Anglo-Saxon culture." No word on other WPNI internationalisations - nothing on L'Onion, for example; that's still under a separate publisher, Weisberg said.

What would constitute success, and where next?: For Weisberg, it's hitting sustainability and a replication of what Slate is loved for - quality writing. Leser adds a target - fitting "just behind Le Monde" for go-to French news commentry. Weisberg: "Trying to turn Slate in to a global brand, synonymous with high-quality journalism, will help us in the US; it will enhance our reputation. These partnerships are exciting to us here editorially - long term, we hope it will work out financially.

"We've thought obviously about the UK, because the English language makes it so much easier to do - but we haven't done anything there (yet). Journalists have seen their future in a web-only medium. I've been very flattered and impressed that (the French) looked to us as an inspiration."


By Robert Andrews