IT'S only fitting that the Root, the new online black news, opinion and ancestry magazine launched by the Washington Post Co. almost two weeks ago, is still figuring out its identity. The small publication, created in 2 1/2 months, operates out of a borrowed conference room at the Washington offices of sister e-mag Slate.com. It has only four employees, including its editor, Henry Louis Gates Jr., whose day job is being a famous professor at Harvard, which is not in Washington.
No, the Root is not exactly grassroots. It's the brainchild of Post Co. Chairman Donald E. Graham, who served on the Pulitzer committee with Gates and got him interested more than a year ago.
Financially, the Root represents "a very, very small" outlay for the Post Co., Graham said in an interview. Still, the new site is clearly part of a strategy to offset the company's declining newspaper revenue by expanding its family of independent but commercially symbiotic websites: Slate, washingtonpost.com, Newsweek.com and the green-focused sprig.com.
Small as it is, the Root is another step away from the 20th century's fading model, where the news market was dominated by a few media flagships. Now, former newspaper companies, recast as media companies, are stocking their fleets with smaller news outlets that are more fit for tussling in a crowded sea. The challenge is to "own" as many fragments of the news universe as possible by catering to more specific interests or demographics.
Visually and tonally, the Root seems to be going for a stately, moderate approach. But at this early stage, more than anything, it's defined by its ambitions. In an introductory video on the Root's home page, Gates promises a national venue that will "explore the richness of the black experience in all its fullness" by presenting "the highest quality content: probing analysis, insightful commentary, ground-breaking journalism." Gates goes on to compare the Root to 1827's Freedom's Journal, the nation's first black newspaper, one of the earliest anti-slavery organs and a progressive force for education and the formation of black American culture.
Gates and Managing Editor Lynette Clemetson have recruited an impressive array of commentators for its Views section. Journalists Malcolm Gladwell and Charlayne Hunter-Gault and art critic Thelma Golden head a lineup of about two dozen others, many of whom are university professors, established journalists or think-tankers.
"We do hope to have original reporting at some point," said Clemetson, a former New York Times and Newsweek reporter, but "we don't yet know what form it's going to take." Clemetson said she spends most of her time either ironing out the site's kinks or developing its stable of contributors -- a process she said has grown particularly labor-intensive since the site launched Jan. 28.
The Root has already produced some engaging pieces on the presidential campaign. A zippy entry by Dayo Olopade tells the story of a rivalry between two best friends -- both black men from Yale Law School, and both state campaign directors in Connecticut -- one for Hillary Rodham Clinton, the other for Barack Obama. Another piece, by Marjorie Valbrun, is titled, "Does Race Trump Gender? Don't Ever Ask a Black Woman This Question," and smartly argues that neither should trump intuition.
But the fledgling site needs attention in several areas. Its News page, intended to be a clearinghouse for black- focused news stories from around the Web, is populated almost entirely by content from Post Co. properties: the Post, Newsweek and Slate.
Being a so-called "walled garden" -- where proprietary content is favored above content from other sources -- is antithetical to the Root's goal of being a portal for black news and opinion. What if, for instance, bloggers at the Philadelphia Inquirer or Salon or AOL's BlackVoices.com break a story that would resonate with the Root's readers? Without a way to prominently feature the story, the Root shoots itself in the . . . root.
Sites like the Huffington Post (disclosure: I worked there in 2005) have shown that any site that hopes to build a mass audience needs to aggressively link to and even excerpt offsite content. Links are the currency of the information economy. When readers don't see links, they can conclude that the site is not acknowledging that its content is part of a much larger conversation. As far as the outside news sources go, every one wants, even needs, its stories to be linked to and properly attributed.
Clemetson said licensing deals are in the works that will allow the Root to feature stories from other sites. But why not dispense with formalities and go for a more voracious gathering style?
The Root is also noticeably short on multimedia content. Neither the News or Views sections have any videos, audio, slide shows or areas for user-generated content -- a lack that is striking given that both Slate and washingtonpost.com have been leaders in the evolution of visually enhanced web journalism.
There's one more question in the Root's DNA: Does its mission to provide readers with the tools to explore their ancestry really make sense for a magazine? The heritage exploration business is booming elsewhere online. "It's really easy," Gates said in a phone interview. "It's time-consuming, but it's addictive." Gates has traced his own ancestry back to the 18th century, a process documented in his PBS series "African American Lives."
The Root hosts its own family tree builder but suggests that users interested in genetic testing "continue to African DNA.com," a site co-founded by Gates. He is quick to point out that the Root's business relationship to AfricanDNA is disclosed, and that there are links to other testing services.
If the Root can become the "No. 1 site for African Americans to do their family tree," as Gates hopes, it could keep readers engaged with a site for more than a few moments at a time. Or, when they discover that it takes a lot more than a few clicks to find their roots, they might just want to play Scrabulous.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times