By Frank Ahrens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 28, 2008
The Washington Post Co. plans to launch a Web magazine today called The Root that aims to be a "Slate for black readers," according to one of its founders, Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Slate, the online magazine founded by Microsoft and purchased by The Post Co. in 2004, offers a mix of news and opinion, arts and sports coverage. The Root will feature news and opinions on black issues in the United States and worldwide and include a genealogy application designed to help black users build their family trees.
The site, which began coming together in October, is the brainchild of Gates and Post Co. Chairman Donald E. Graham. Gates got to know Graham through several years of joint service on the Pulitzer Prize committee. The Root is a spinoff of Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive (WPNI), a wholly owned subsidiary of The Post Co. and the parent of washingtonpost.com.
When Graham broached the idea of The Root to Gates several months ago, "it took me precisely one nanosecond to say, 'I would love to do that,' " Gates said in an interview on Friday.
Gates has written extensively on black history and genealogy. On Feb. 6, Gates's "African American Lives 2," a documentary series using DNA analysis to help trace the ancestry of prominent black Americans such as Chris Rock, will begin on PBS. The Root dovetails with many of Gates's interests.
Gates said he has longed for a national black newspaper since childhood in rural West Virginia, when he first saw copies of the black-oriented Baltimore Afro-American in his local black-run barber shop. The Root will be a 21st-century version of a national black newspaper, Gates said, featuring articles from notable black writers, such as the New Yorker's Malcolm Gladwell.
Other prominent blacks have launched news and information sites aimed at black users. Radio star Tom Joyner launched BlackAmericaWeb in 2001 that features news and commentary on issues of interest to black users. Likewise, talk show host Tavis Smiley maintains a Web site, TavisTalks, as a virtual watercooler for black issues. And Ebony and Jet magazines have a common Web site.
"I am happy to be joining the distinguished company of Tavis Smiley and Tom Joyner and Ebony and Jet," Gates said. He said The Root will be unique because it will be the only black-oriented news and commentary site to have the genealogy application.
Gates will be The Root's editor in chief while former New York Times editor Lynette Clemetson will be the site's managing editor. Slate editor Jacob Weisberg helped with the site's startup and will remain involved but said Gates and Clemetson will drive the site.
"Though [Gates] has obviously been working on other things at the same time, he's been totally focused on The Root," Weisberg said in an e-mail Friday. "He's been involved in every aspect of the launch, working on it every day, and -- it seems -- every hour of the day, seven days a week."
In an interview on Friday, Graham said he expects The Root to lose money initially, "but hopefully not for as many years as Slate." Slate, founded in 1996, did not experience its first full year of profitability until 2007. The Root has signed up HBO and Coca-Cola as initial sponsors, Weisberg said.
The Root is WPNI's second spinoff, and Graham said he is considering others. Last year, the Web division launched Sprig.com, a site aimed at female users interested in "green living," or environmentally friendly products.
Sprig has grown more slowly than hoped, said WPNI publisher Caroline Little, despite what she called good content. Little said the site is narrowing its focus and relaunching with this year with a large publicity push. WPNI would not release traffic numbers for Sprig.