Providence's Alternative Source!

Still standing
From editors' bake-offs to fake diaries, Slate has had its share of woes in the last year. But it's the best online journalism out there

[Slate] Back in November 1996, a few months after Microsoft's digital magazine Slate started publication, Advertising Age profiled the new online journal and its editor, New Republic and Crossfire veteran Michael Kinsley.

The article fairly dripped with skepticism. Slate's editor, it remarked, possessed a "mercurial attitude toward the cyber world." The article also coupled mention of an "editing coup" (hiring New York magazine political writer Jake Weisberg) by Kinsley with this tart barb: "But despite the quality of the journalism, more than a few industry observers smell blood at Slate and predict that Mr. Kinsley is not long for the wired world."

More than six years later, Slate is still standing -- bloodied by the dot-com bust, perhaps, but a far sight from the chum scattered on the shark-infested waters of online publishing. And as for Kinsley's staying power, Slate's editor lasted for almost that entire six years before passing the torch in July 2002 to none other than . . . Weisberg.

In fact, it's fair to say that Slate not only stuck around, but has had measurable influence on Web journalism -- including a seminal role in spawning the suddenly hot "blogging" phenomenon. According to both the magazine and independent survey figures from May 2002, Slate draws more than four million "unique users" every month. (The Washington Post's Web site -- one of the most successful among those of traditional media outlets -- boasts six million such visitors. Time magazine claims five million.)

But another issue raised by that decidedly unprescient Advertising Age article remains a burr in Slate's saddle: can Microsoft and Slate make online publishing profitable? Back in 1996, Kinsley said that he expected to answer that question in two or three years, but he left himself substantial wiggle room. "This will be continual beta for many years," he told Advertising Age.

As Weisberg settles into his regime, it's clear that beta time is almost up. Just as Weisberg assumed his post, Microsoft named former Slate managing editor Cyrus Krohn as the digital mag's new publisher. In a series of articles published last summer, Krohn promised to push Slate toward profitability at last.

Krohn won't put a firm date on taking Slate into the black, but his strong public pronouncements signal that the magazine is expected to reach this goal sooner rather than later. "I'm not particularly comfortable with a figure [specifying a time]," he says, "especially while the market's still recovering." But he adds that Slate is "seeing the quality of advertising that will sustain it. More traditional marketers are looking at it again."

These strong expectations are adding pressure to what's already been a topsy-turvy year for Slate. Weisberg came into his new job with a profile made even more prominent by the manner of his succession. He won the post in a highly public competition with then-deputy editor Jack Shafer, during which each candidate took the helm for six weeks. (New York Times media writer David Carr dubbed Slate's bizarre succession ritual a "bake-off," recycling the term used by Sports Illustrated staffers for a similar public-tryout competition at that magazine in 1995.) Slate's new editor also had to cope with fallout from the second embarrassing hoax played on the magazine in less than a year, when a "Diary" purported to be written by an auto executive turned out to be a fake. (In June 2001, editors were duped by a freelance writer with an account of "monkeyfishing" in the Florida Keys.)

Thus, Slate's new leader has assumed the helm of a magazine at a crossroads. Will the profitability push -- including expanded pop-culture coverage and the addition or resuscitation of ad-friendly features on travel, tech, and automobiles -- warp Slate? Will the magazine be forced to surrender more of its real estate -- particularly in political coverage -- to the opinion-driven blogging culture that it helped to create?

Slate staffers are wrestling with both conundrums, with an eye toward keeping the big readership numbers the magazine already has, attracting more readers, and getting the books to the balance point and beyond. For his part, Krohn insists that all the content changes are coming from Weisberg -- and not from his end. "It's the content that's the real draw here," says Krohn. "Jake has been introducing features that benefit me on the business side. It's easier to communicate opportunities to advertisers."

Other Slate-sters are grappling with how to feed the mass audience that visits the site while remaining distinctive. "The short answer," says Slate Washington editor David Plotz, "is that we don't do anything to pander to that mass audience. Jake has pushed us to do more cultural coverage, and cultural stuff has more of a mass-audience appeal."

Slate's success or failure in serving both masters is a crucial test of online journalism's viability and permanence. A few months into Weisberg's tenure, it seems the perfect moment to assess how the magazine is doing on both fronts.

THE LATE-'90s scrum between Slate and its online competitor Salon has often served as a barometer for the health of stand-alone online journalism. But it was always more of a culture clash than a real war. Salon was the stuff of Icelandic saga -- scrappy journalistic Vikings looting pop culture and sacking conservative castles. By comparison, Slate featured wonky monks busily scribbling away in the Microsoft monastery, giving the full-on Book of Kells treatment to Beltway conventional wisdom -- and charging close to $20 a year for it.

The comparison lost its luster, in a business sense, a few years back. Slate dumped its paid-subscription model in 1999 -- and as a part of the Microsoft machine, its finances escape the scrutiny given to a stand-alone public company such as Salon. For its part, Salon adopted a paid-subscriber model in April 2001, when the confluence of its need for cash and dwindling stock prices forced a switch in tack.

Not only have the two magazines flipped revenue schemes, but they've also edged closer to each other content-wise. Salon does less of the hard-nosed reporting that once brought it acclaim and notoriety, such as its 1998 scoop on Republican Illinois congressman and Clinton-impeachment hound Henry Hyde's long-time affair, which exposed the hypocrisy of one of the president's chief accusers. Slate, on the other hand, has edged slowly but steadily toward a Salon-like blend of politics and culture.

For his part, Salon founder David Talbot doesn't see much difference between Weisberg's and Kinsley's versions of the journal. In a reply to an e- mail query about his take on the Weisberg era, Talbot writes, "I don't read Slate as deeply as I'd like, but I just don't see that much difference between the Kinsley and Weisberg regimes. Many of the same writers, the same commitment to wry intelligence. I guess, like everyone else, I've noticed some more emphasis on pop culture and a little bit of naughtiness (taking a page from Salon there, I imagine). But other than that, still seems very much like the same smart product to me."

Talbot is correct in observing that Slate has kept a lot of the magazine's recipe intact. Stuff that's not broken -- such as sharply written digests ("Today's Papers," "In Other Magazines," "International Papers," "Summary Judgment"); Matt Gaffney's excellent weekly crossword; or the long-standing "Explainer" column (lucid breakdowns of complicated news features, often penned by New America Foundation fellow Brendan Koerner) -- has been merely tweaked, at best.

Yet big changes are cropping up in Weisberg's Slate -- particularly on the cultural front, where coverage had been allowed to dwindle in the last years of Kinsley's reign. Slate's expansion of its cultural coverage is a "work in progress," according to Weisberg. "It's halfway there," he says of Slate's new emphasis on cultural commentary, which has included everything from establishing DVD and tech reviews to publishing more "Culturebox" features. "Maybe more than halfway there."

Slate has made some significant investments in resources to get this job done, including hiring the New Yorker's Meghan O'Rourke as a second NYC-based cultural editor. It's adapting its format to these changes as well. Most notably, the magazine has begun to ditch the forced glad-handing of its e- mail-discussion approach to culture -- in which various writers poke and prod each other on the pop-culture Zeitgeist -- in favor of presenting stronger critical voices in a more traditional format.

Of course, this tactic works only if you've got good writers, and Slate's stable is a bit uneven. The decision to bring on Harper's Virginia Heffernan to write about TV was a good one, as was the move giving movie critic David Edelstein a more prominent forum. Heffernan (who has also written book reviews for the Phoenix) pokes at the absurdities of the highly rated tube and reaches into the bowels of niche cable with equal vigor. One recent Heffernan article tackled the Oxygen network's yoga guru, Steve Ross, whose tough-guy talk and rigorous posing put Heffernan in what she dubbed the "I-hate-you asana." Edelstein, for his part, writes sharply and without jargon. His review of the Chuck Barris biopic Confessions of a Dangerous Mind captures the flick's gleeful slash 'n' burn through the silly '60s and '70s without losing sight of the film's flaws.

Heffernan's and Edelstein's lively but serious criticism shows how just 800 killer words from a smart writer can whack the stuffing out of more pompous fare, as when Slate gave four shrinks and an author who's done a psychological analysis of Hitler (Explaining Hitler's Ron Rosenbaum) weeks and weeks to break down The Sopranos' new season.

At times, however, Slate's cultural coverage still falls into the "Duh!" category -- by digging in a couple of months, or even years, too late, or by just plain getting it wrong. Sometimes, this gets downright embarrassing, as when Mike Steinberger provided a lengthy explanation of why Beaujolais nouveau sucks, proving once again that some whines don't get better with time. "Although the wines still sell briskly," he wrote, "and the party goes on, the nouveau mania has plainly ebbed, and it is fair to say the campaign has done the Beaujolais brand more harm than good, especially in the United States." It's a tale that has 1999 printed all over its label -- not 2002 or 2003.

Music coverage also remains a weak point. A recent music feature by David Samuels lumped together Interpol and Matt Pond Pa -- both definitely bands of last year -- along with the author's teen-Brit-rock fetishes, and emerged with 2003's new pop trend: "mope rock." (News flash: real mope rock's been back in town for a while -- as any listen to Belle & Sebastian, Kings of Convenience, or Elysian Fields would tell you.)

The laggard pace and thinness of Slate's cultural coverage is proof that the magazine still has a way to go in this area. Its willingness to experiment is laudable, but a number of these lab reports deserve grades of "incomplete" -- including the "Gizmos" tech column and Rob Walker's "Number One" column (exploring "how popular culture gets popular"), which hasn't seen much action since the autumn. (Walker still pens "Ad Report Card," an excellent column grading television commercials, however.)

The slow and uneven upgrade in culture writing also proves that politics remains Slate's meat and potatoes. When observers talk about Slate's political tone, "snarky" is a word that gets thrown around a lot. But that catchall elides substantial differences in quality and style among the magazine's political contributors. For instance, as Slate's genial but often goofy granddad, Kinsley writes a weekly column (called "Read Me") that alternates between fussily elliptical essays on deficit spending (after much verbiage he concludes that "newfound Republican fondness for deficits" actually "conflicts with obvious reality), oddball takes on "power women" (they like to watch Law & Order reruns), and personal confession (he didn't read all the books nominated for the National Book Award, of which he was a judge). "Snarky" just isn't the word for it; "spotty" or "dotty" are more like it.

When Slate is good on politics, however, it's very, very good. Slate's Supreme Court reporter, Dahlia Lithwick, is one of America's best writers on federal jurisprudence -- smart, passionate, and a first-rate stylist. Whether Lithwick uses a satirical scalpel (skewering the Winona Ryder trial) or a sledgehammer (her commentary on the continuing war on civil liberties is provocative and well-reasoned), pretty much everything she writes is worth a look. And whether you agree or disagree with the magazine's chief political correspondent, William Saletan, or deputy Washington bureau chief, Chris Suellentrop, their writing is consistently smart and lethal in a way that rarely borders on the dreaded "snarky." Washington editor Plotz's willingness to experiment with a continuing series of features that meld politics with graphics and wit -- he's the guy behind the "Saddameter," an Enron "board game," and corporate-scandal playing cards -- also signals a willingness to imbue politics with the unusual -- that is, humor.

Perhaps Suellentrop's essay on a possible Democratic presidential bid by General Wesley Clark, posted January 8, is a perfect example of what's best about Slate's political writing. After assessing Clark's "ability to articulate" intellectual grounds for opposing President George W. Bush's foreign policy "better than other Democrats, who sometimes resort to tiresome calls of `chickenhawk' or `quagmire,' " Suellentrop continues with this smart and succinct observation:

Clark is no dove. But he argues that the biggest mistake the Bush administration made in the aftermath of Sept. 11 was its refusal to conduct the war under the auspices of NATO, despite the alliance's declaration that an attack on the United States was an attack on all its member nations. As a result, Europe is not accountable for success in the war on terrorism, only the United States is. European leaders see it as George W. Bush's war, according to Clark, because Bush has made it his war. "Not a single European election hinges on the success of the war on terrorism," Clark wrote in the September Washington Monthly. Clark even went so far as to employ a classic Vietnam metaphor to describe Bush's policies: "Because the Bush administration has thus far refused to engage our allies through NATO, we are fighting the war on terrorism with one hand tied behind our back."

Suellentrop may often be well ahead of the curve, but Slate as a whole hasn't entirely thrown off its rep for clubby snarkdom. Sometimes it's a reflexive thing. A December 9 article by Emily Yoffe on the awarding of a Rhodes scholarship to Chesa Boudin -- son of Weather Underground radicals still in jail for murdering two police officers and a security guard as they tried to rob an armored car in 1981 -- is an excellent case in point. In brief, Yoffe visits the parents' sins on the son, arguing that the 22-year-old Boudin "shares their obtuseness" and at one point noting cattily that Boudin's mom "is the daughter of a prominent lawyer and graduated from Bryn Mawr." So children of felonious activists should never get Rhodes scholarships unless they publicly repudiate their own parents? The very definition of "snark."

Weisberg's Slate also hasn't ditched the magazine's touch for neocon "wildings" -- columnists bunched up together and flailing away at one topic. For instance, Howell Raines's stewardship of the New York Times has been the focus of piece after piece on Slate in recent months. Shafer, who writes the magazine's "Press Box" column, has focused 10 of his last 18 columns on the old Gray Lady -- including a December 6 opus headlined PITY THE POOR NEW YORK TIMES: A PITIFUL, HELPLESS GIANT HAS FALLEN AND CAN'T GET UP. Resident Slate blogger Mickey Kaus has been even more over-the-top: his entire blog for the week of December 2 through 6 was taken up with Times-lashing -- dubbed "flooding the zone" by its author. That's a fancy term for overkill.

MICKEY KAUS'S blog may indeed be the most interesting addition to Slate in recent months. Not because of its quality, however. Kaus's sharp writing on normally dull policy issues once stood out in the crowd, but the shrill political and media fetishes he indulges in his "Kausfiles" blog annoy the reader in gnat-like fashion -- and carry precisely that much intellectual weight.

Yet one can make an excellent case that Slate's short, sharp political embroiderings over the past six years fashioned and then set the pace for the blogging phenomenon's recent explosion. Even in its earliest days, Slate stood alone in its ability to react quickly and smartly to the push-and-pull of Beltway politics. Thus, Slate led the way in creating a market for instant opinion, which writers such as Andrew Sullivan and Joshua Micah Marshall have exploited with interesting results.

One can also argue that Slate is becoming a victim of its own success, now that large news organizations are getting into the act and threatening to overtake the field. ABCNews. com's "Note," for example, has become an indispensable daily digest of political reporting. It's written with the verve of a blog -- but none of the self-indulgence -- and it figures to be a pacesetter.

Thus, Slate's decision to import a blog such as Kaus's marks a vital concession to a trend the magazine's own political reporting helped to create. (Slate has also allowed Kaus to revive his "Gearbox" column on automobiles as a blog -- and mau-maued Saletan into blogging on the 2002 midterm elections. "I'm against blogging," Saletan wrote in November, "for the following reasons: 1) It encourages you to form and disseminate opinions before you know enough facts or have thought through your opinions. 2) It emphasizes who's writing rather than what's written. However, I've been asked to blog for a few days about this election. So blog I will.")

Weisberg agrees with the theory that blogging "developed out of the political coverage Slate was doing before one called it `blogging.' " He describes himself as a "conservative enthusiast" for the new form. "It has elements of fad," he says. "I don't want to acquire a lot of new blogs for the magazine. I want to be picky about it."

Timothy Noah -- who writes Slate's consistently excellent "Chatterbox" column -- also worries a bit about overkill. In response to an e- mail query, Noah writes that "you're right that blogging is in some respects an outgrowth of what Slate has been doing. Chatterbox started out as a much bloggier feature than it is now, in both format and content. And of course Mickey Kaus, who wrote Chatterbox before I did, later transferred that formula to his own pioneering blog.

"As the blogosphere has grown," Noah continues, "I've made the Chatterbox column less bloggy -- that is to say, less off-the-cuff, a little more formal in the writing and the thinking, and more reportorial." Noah adds that he prefers to link to primary sources rather than to other bloggers -- "à la The Smoking Gun (of which I'm a great fan)" -- and that he's sensitive to what one might dub "blogrolling" -- an endless echo chamber of bloggers congratulating and ripping each other.

"I haven't avoided this completely," admits Noah. "But I think I've avoided it more than the blogs have."

As far as blogs go, Plotz says he thinks Slate "can have it all ways on this. . . . We can blog when we want to, but lots of us aren't suited to it. You have to have opinions about everything."

Blogging has had its effects, however. "I don't really think blogging is going to kill off Slate, or that Slate is going to kill off blogging," Noah argues. "It's a big Web out there. But I do think that the proliferation of blogs has prodded me (and probably others at Slate as well) to change my approach a bit so that we're not doing what the rest of the world is doing."

Slate's cozy, yet uneasy, relation to its "blog-children" is just one way the mag Kinsley built has had a big influence on American journalism. Slate's influence has also extended to other areas of media ethics and business. The double journalistic hoaxes played on Slate -- one by a renegade freelancer, another by a malicious Web prankster -- provided considerable merriment to those who assess the seriousness and efficacy of online journalism. "The self-correcting machinery of the Internet makes it that much harder for fabricated accounts to stand unchallenged," noted an Online Journalism Review senior editor in an April 2002 "scorecard" of online-media ethics. Not that such things don't happen every day at newspapers or TV stations, of course. But a relatively new form of journalism always has its doubters and deniers, quick to seize on sizable screw-ups to impugn the entire endeavor.

In fact, Slate's handling of both episodes is a textbook case of how news organizations should respond to such situations. It made early and forthright admissions of error, and Slate has not used the Web's capacity to obliterate evidence of these events from its archives. It's almost impossible, for instance, to get a copy of noted fabulist Stephen Glass's work, which should be required reading for editors everywhere. It's as if the New Republic -- where he published his fabricated accounts -- never had a hot young writer named Stephen Glass.

"I'm very impressed with our editorial staff in the approach they take to corrections," says Krohn. "We're more forthright about it than most."

Yet these hoaxes did take place. So has Slate instituted any checks -- fact-checkers, et cetera -- to make sure that such things don't occur again? The blunt answer is "no."

Weisberg, Plotz, and Krohn agree that the magazine has redoubled its efforts to scrutinize stories and contributors. "We're definitely less trusting," says Weisberg. "We really check out people we don't know. A journalist who makes stuff up is like a suicide bomber. He can do harm that you can't prevent."

However, Weisberg says that fact-checkers aren't necessary at Slate. "Fact-checking is a system for making writers lazy," he observes. "From my experience in journalism, the most important tool is a good bullshit detector." Plotz agrees that the magazine "has not changed the larger ethos of writers as fact-checkers."

Such questions continue to be important because Slate's prominence and success have made them important. When Weisberg talks about the "rational view" of online publishing that he sees reasserting itself in the wake of the tech crash, he consciously evokes the model Kinsley established way back in 1996 -- making use of the speed and flexibility of Web publishing without the large fixed costs of print or broadcast media.

Slate's success -- and influence -- argue that at least the content portion of the "beta" magazine has been completed. The question of whether Slate can continue that success as it seeks to bring the digital magazine into the black is another question entirely.

Richard Byrne is a freelance journalist based in Washington, DC. He can be reached at

Issue Date: January 17 - 123, 2003