Slate has always labeled itself an “online magazine,” even as a whole ecosystem of blogs and content websites and tablet newspapers has sprouted around it. How is Slate different from the Gawkers and HuffPosts and Daily Beasts, not just in terms of what it does but what sort of publication it is?
There’s a lot of overlap across media these days. There are traditional newspapers that are doing lots of TV kinds of journalism, there are TV journalists who are blogging or who have strong web enterprises, there are magazines, such as Slate, that publish at a pace that makes them much more like daily newspapers, and there are websites like the Huffington Post, which occupy lots of different niches all at once. You would be hard-pressed to classify them as any single thing.
Within that universe, Slate has certain distinguishing qualities that have to do with sensibility. It’s a place that aspires to do very intelligent, witty, important, and entertaining journalism about the news of the day. We’re not primarily a commodity news site; although you can get lots of news on Slate, it’s much more analytical, trying to get conceptual scoops about the news rather than the latest, small iteration of what congressman did what to whom.
I have to ask you about last year’s New York Observer piece that suggested Slate was having trouble keeping up with younger, more nimble online publications. In the piece, Gawker’s Nick Denton suggests that “there’s a limited audience” for the sort of “smart centrism” that you guys produce and indeed, you guys don’t so much break news as pour cold water over it. Is being the Web’s “voice of reason” a winning strategy in the current online news environment?
Yeah, I don’t want to spend a lot of time on the Observer piece, which I thought was wrong on so many different fronts. If you look at our traffic, if you look at our advertising and other sources of revenue and our general influence, all those are moving in the direction we want them to move.
What the Observer piece didn’t recognize was that we’re fairly straightforward and clear-eyed about the challenges that we face and that web journalism faces. We talk directly about what those challenges are and about the kind of things that we don’t do as well as we ought to do, and we’re working like demons to improve those things.
Slate has a reputation for not being very interested in aggregation, but you actually pioneered this type of web journalism with Today’s Papers, which has morphed into The Slatest. How important a role does aggregation – and its sexier younger sister curation – play in what Slate does?
It’s important. As you rightly point out, today’s papers pioneered this and did it extremely well for a very long time. In recent years we’ve been experimenting with different forms; we’ve had The Slatest for a long time now and the model we have for it isn’t working perfectly. But there’s a lot of stuff that Slate does that is built around aggregation and curation. We get traffic and revenue from that.
One of the wonderful things about Slate is that it has always been and will always be home to an enormous amount of individual thinking. While we’re also in the business of making sure our readers know about all the ideas that are floating around the Web, what distinguishes us is that you will always get new and provocative ideas.
A lot of journalists are up in arms these days about content farms, which churn out content based on what people are searching for. But in a way this strikes me as a very rudimentary type of service journalism, and not that different than the sort of stuff you do with The Explainer. Where do you see companies like Demand fitting into the journalistic ecosystem – are they something more than a parasite?
I don’t have a strong sense of Demand media because they’re not who I think is the great competition for Slate. Journalism designed solely around search engines is journalism that I’m not interested in, that most readers aren’t interested in and, as search gets more and more sophisticated, that search engines themselves won’t be interested in.
Everyone has to think about responding to the interests of readers – tracking them and using whatever tools we can to see what they’re interested in – and then creating journalism that reflects those interests.
Huffington Post is at the top here with great technology and pretty good journalism. There are institutions like Demand, which have also done this quite well but with mediocre journalism. Then there are sites that are focusing on search, but where that attention is never the sole purpose of journalism; where the journalism exists because you know that readers are interested in it.
How much are Slate writers and editors encouraged to think about stuff like SEO when crafting a piece?
If there’s a story that we want to do just because we want to, we go ahead and do it. But when we’ve done it, we look to figure out what people are searching around this topic, what they are going to be searching for, and how we can ensure our menu lines and the various things that search engines pay attention to reflect how readers are actually searching.
Sometimes we see that people are looking for such and such topic on the Web, and if someone has a great angle on it, we decide how to do the story. So of course we keep an eye on it – it would be a mistake not to keep an eye on it.
Slate produces a bunch of very popular podcasts, including the Culture and Political Gabfests, which you’ve started to parlay into live events. Are these sorts of brand extensions increasingly part of what it means to be a magazine in the 21st century?
Podcasting is the most valuable connection that we have with our readers. The audience that we reach is an incredibly devoted, interesting, engaged audience. They’re hardcore Slate readers and they’re incredibly attractive in every way – actually they’re all good-looking too – so it’s been a fabulous success as a way of connecting with readers. As a business, it’s increasingly successful because advertising is very lucrative on there and sponsorships can be very profitable.
Events are an extension of our brand and we’re looking for new ways to integrate them with what Slate stands for. We have a wonderful partnership with New America Foundation and Arizona State University called Future Tense, which is a series of events and editorial articles that we’re doing around technology and public policy.
Then we’ve done live Gabfests and we also do events around The Hive, which is a popular crowd-sourcing feature. We ask our readers to think about how to solve a particular problem such as childhood obesity, pick the best ideas and do events around that. Usually writers have some role in these events – I’ll host or one of my colleagues will host and we’ll turn out a really interesting, smart conversation.
You launched Slate Labs last summer in order to experiment with multimedia journalism and technology. How’s that experiment going, and what has it taught you about the importance of data in journalism?
It’s going really well. We have this young team led by Chris Wilson, who is a brilliant young journalist and programmer, and we’re trying lots of things.
Readers really love them, we love them, and advertisers sometimes like them, so they can pay for themselves. Just as there’s a Slate sensibility that exists for articles and the kind of stories we do, so, too, is there a Slate sensibility for how we represent data.
We try to find subjects where we can bring Slate’s distinct, skeptical, quizzical, amused take to data, and we’re working on that all the time. Some of the projects we’ve done have really nailed this, and some are more traditional, but that’s the ambition.
When Jacob Weisberg stepped down as Slate’s editor in 2008 he wrote that he was taught “not to linger too long in the editor’s chair.” What do you want to accomplish before you pass the torch to someone else?
One of the things I really want to improve is this use and visualization of data. Another is trying to make Slate the home for ambitious long-form web journalism. We’ve institutionalized that with a project we call the Fresca Fellowships – because I used to drink a lot of Fresca.
The idea is that every writer and editor on staff has to spend a month or six weeks a year not doing their regular job, but instead working on a long, ambitious project of some sort – and the results have been amazing so far.
Emily Bazelon, our legal editor, worked on a project about cyber-bullying that focused on the case of Phoebe Prince, and showed that everything we think we know about it is wrong. Timothy Noah did a wonderful series this summer about the rise of inequality in America. And Chris Wilson, who does our data visualization, did a fantastic series about a totally unknown story where the military used social networking theory to capture Saddam Hussein.
In terms of what I want to accomplish, there are certain goals we have about how successful Slate is as a business that I’m aimed at. Editorially, I want the number of our readers to grow and the nature of readers to remain the same brilliant, good-looking, wise, well-educated people that they are. Then there is the nature of the journalism we do. There are things I want to do more of and things I will work relentlessly at to improve.