Slate Stakes Big Money on ‘Big Money’

Spinoffs are well known in television. Sometimes they work: The Jeffersons spun off from All in the Family and ran

Spinoffs are well known in television. Sometimes they work: The Jeffersons spun off from All in the Family and ran for 10 years. Sometimes they don’t: Look at Joey. (You didn’t while it was on.) Slate, the Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive’s wonky, contrarian Web site of politics and pop culture, isn’t a sitcom—if it were, Christopher Hitchens would surely be Archie Bunker—but it’s launching a spinoff of its own today with The Big Money, a business site.

This is the first new site from The Slate Group, which was created in June and is overseen by Jacob Weisberg, the former editor of Slate. It encompasses the flagship site (which, amazingly, is on its second owner, third editor, and fourth presidential election since it was founded by Michael Kinsley for Microsoft in 1996), the video site Slate V, and The Root, a general-interest Web site aimed at African-American readers.

The sites occasionally share content, but function independently. Maybe they’re not spinoffs after all: They’re more like branches of Dick Wolf’s Law & Order franchise.

It’s certainly an interesting time to launch a business site. Phil Gramm may think the U.S. is in a "mental recession," but you don’t have to be an economic adviser to a presidential candidate with seven homes to see that the paper is filled with reports of instability (Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac) or that the numbers on the gas pump are rising so high they threaten to roll over to zero like the score in an old Atari game. Isn’t launching a site devoted to business in this environment sort of like putting out a level-headed, dispassionate newsletter about fire safety in the middle of a wildfire?

"The contrarian in me loves the idea of launching a business magazine in the middle of economic downtown," Jacob Weisberg told The Observer in a recent interview. Then again, with money, both big (Lehman Brothers) and small (The New York Times reported rising sales of lottery tickets last week) on people’s minds, maybe it’s not such a wild pitch.

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"I can’t remember a time when it had more urgency and relevance," Mr. Weisberg said.

On a recent visit to Newsweek‘s offices on 57th Street, The Big Money’s editor James Ledbetter said that the site had been in the works for about a year. Mr. Ledbetter, a veteran of The Village Voice, where he was the Press Clips columnist in the days when media critics had to walk 10 miles uphill in the snow to get scoops (and they liked it!), and The Industry Standard, the dramatic flame-out of which he chronicled in the book Starving to Death on $200 Million, describes the relationship between The Big Money and its progenitor as "the difference between ‘All Things Considered’ and ‘Marketplace’: It’s pretty seamless. They sound very much the same. The principle difference is in concentration and depth of coverage. There’s only so much business coverage you can run on Slate before it’s no longer Slate."

If that sounds a lot less sexy than, say, Portfolio, Condé Nast’s business magazine that mixes articles on hand-built luxury cars in with its profiles of Barry Diller, that’s entirely intentional.

"I don’t think you’ll see a lot of CEO fetishization on our site," Mr. Lebetter said. "That’s not the approach."

He also cautions readers to look elsewhere for aspirational articles like "How to Polish Your Rolls Royce." (Mr. Ledbetter knows from Rolls Royces: In Starving to Death he writes about being chauffeured to an interview with Maxim founder Felix Dennis in the publisher’s black Rolls.)

The Big Money, which was code named ‘Slate B’ before its launch and the purchase of its URL "for a modest amount," according to Mr. Ledbetter, gets its name from the third book in John Dos Passos’ "U.S.A." trilogy. Mr. Ledbetter owns a first-edition copy of the book. (But we got to the reference first! The editors of this paper named the "Manhattan Transfers" real estate column after another Dos Passos novel. It’s also worth noting that Mr. Ledbetter once worked for The Observer.)

Among the new site’s features, which Mr. Ledbetter and his deputy editor Elinor Shields and staff reporter Chad Matlin previewed for a reporter a few days before launch, was an S.R.I. (Socially Responsible Investing) Stock Screener that allows users to track 500 top companies’ commitments to the environment, gay and lesbian rights, labor and human rights, ties to the military, and "vice."

Mr. Ledbetter calls the S.R.I. Stock Screener "a constant background to what we’re doing." Ms. Shields says the tool "will crack open data to users who will use it as they will." Despite its progressive criteria, Mr. Ledbetter insists that the tool—as well as The Big Money as a whole—is nonpolitical. "It’s not a piece of advocacy. Someone can use this tool to find the least socially responsible and invest in those, which some of them choose to do."

"In general, I guess I would say I don’t think that a left-right spectrum is useful way of looking at business journalism," Mr. Ledbetter added.

The Big Money will also feature downloadable PowerPoint spreads ("We Build Your Presentation"), a daily calendar of the day’s big business events, a blog devoted to food-related topics called "Daily Bread" and another all about Google called "Feeling Lucky."

Google is something of a touchstone for the site, which launched with a co-bylined piece by Messrs. Ledbetter and Weisberg about the the lifestyle brands they termed "S.A.G.A."—Starbucks, Apple, Google, and Amazon—which Mr. Weisberg says are "four companies that everyone cares about."

"The goal is business journalism in real time," Mr. Weisberg said. "The cycle is so accelerated. There’s a big gap on the one hand in the straight reporting and on the other hand, the historical business magazines who often seem outside of the business news cycle."

With The Big Money launching, Mr. Weisberg is spitballing sites with focuses on technology and women’s interest, which he describes as fitting in the Slate Group’s mode of being "very much pitched at the high end of the market. Not just demograpically, but intellectually." He says he hasn’t green-lighted any ideas yet. But: "We’re anticipating more. It’s a little early to say."

Slate Stakes Big Money on ‘Big Money’