As part of our continuing series of talks with Media Vanguard Award winners, today we present an in-depth conversation with David Plotz, the editor of Slate, one of the pioneers of web journalism. (It was launched by Microsoft in 1996, then acquired by The Washington Post Co. in 2004.) Slate won an MVA for Slate Labs, its section devoted to "experiments in multimedia journalism."
Simon Dumenco: Before we jump in, I'm going to make you state the title of the guest lecture you gave last month at Loyola University in Baltimore -- because it had a brilliant title.
David Plotz: It was "Celeb Baby Bump: Pregnant Oscar Winner Natalie Portman (PHOTOS) -- How to Make Great Web Journalism in an Age of Content Farms, Search Engine Optimization, and Idiotic Celebrity Slideshows." It was a little long. [laughter]
Mr. Dumenco: I love it, it's perfect. I'm laughing and crying at the same time -- and I want to say that I hope that some day Slate gets resold for $315 million dollars, maybe to CompuServe or something.
Mr. Plotz: I hope so. Then I'll have firstname.lastname@example.org for my email address.
Mr. Dumenco: I had one of those crazy numeric CompuServe addresses back in the day! [laughter] Anyway, I brought up your lecture because I'm wondering what your sense is of the mood among students, at least at Loyola, about the media marketplace, given that we're now living in a world where something as nakedly, cynically SEO-driven as The Huffington Post can sell to AOL for $315 million?
Mr. Plotz: It's interesting. It kind of depends how deeply immersed they are in the world of journalism. A lot of the kids I was speaking to were communications and PR majors who, I think, are not deeply concerned about the issues that I'm concerned about. But for the kids who are going into journalism, what I was trying to outline was: Here's the shape of the media landscape you're going into, which is heavily dominated by new jobs that require a lot of speed and a lot of quasi-journalistic skills that are high-adrenaline, and they can be really fun jobs, but they're missing certain things. What Slate is trying to do is recognize that our greatest success, and the way that we differentiate ourselves, is by producing more durable kinds of journalism -- journalism that is entrepreneurial and ambitious and has a distinct voice and isn't a recapitulation of everything else that's out there. That's obviously aspirational and sometimes we achieve it and sometimes we don't.
Mr. Dumenco: Beyond the speed, especially in blogging environments, I think a huge part of the new journalistic equation is about self-marketing skills. I mean, journalists didn't used to have to be kind of panicked all the time about having the perfect click-worthy headline, having the right number of tweet-worthy sentences.
Mr. Plotz: Right. What does Bob Woodward know about SEO? Not so much.
Mr. Dumenco: I remember the very earliest days of Slate when you would actually send around a printed version of Slate. I think maybe it was only sent to media people -- or maybe you could pay for a subscription? Do you remember how it was done?
Mr. Plotz: There were three iterations, actually. There was a first iteration, which was, we actually sold a print edition of Slate -- a monthly print edition of Slate through Starbucks, if you can believe it. We printed 20,000 really low-quality black-and-white copies that were briefly sold at Starbucks around the country, and it was a complete fiasco. Then we had a similar thing where you could subscribe to a print edition of Slate, which was this cheaply bound version that we either sent out weekly or monthly. And then there was also an elite service where we sent or hand-delivered a few hundred copies to people we thought weren't really on the web and we needed to get Slate in front of them. That went on actually for a surprisingly long time. Mostly because I think Bill Gates Sr. -- Bill Gates' dad -- wanted to get it that way. We kept doing it just to give Bill Gates Sr. a copy.
Mr. Dumenco: I hope you took it apart and faxed it to him page by page.
Mr. Plotz: We would have if that's what it took. [laughter] We would have done that!
Mr. Dumenco: My point in bringing up that weird magazine-ish history you have -- that Slate was conceived of as a magazine-like thing, and could be printed out as a discreet editorial package -- is to point out that right from the start Slate has been willing to take the long view in the classic magazine-journalism mode. And then at the same time you're using new storytelling tools and technology that only really work on the web -- which is why you won a Media Vanguard Award for Slate Labs. Your most recent Slate Labs post, the time-lapse Middle East Protest Map, is a really great illustration of that. It's astonishing to watch the map cycle through all the unrest in the region since last December up 'til present day to get a sense of history being made in real time. It tells a story, shows a story, in a way that print simply can't.
Mr. Plotz: Chris Wilson, who's the editor here who presides over Slate Labs, uses the very coolest tools that are available but also finds Slate-ish ways to create data journalism and math journalism and game journalism and other forms of interactivity for readers. The spirit of Slate Labs is "Let's try anything, let's see how it goes."
Mr. Dumenco: You know, I'm suddenly thinking back to that point in the fall or winter when there was that harsh story that said that Slate was too old-school, too "un-webby."
Mr. Plotz: Yeah, in the [New York] Observer.
Mr. Dumenco: I found it amusing because a lot of what passes for innovation in web publishing is pretty basic: SEO-baiting built around a blog back-end. But Slate, which pioneered in terms of things like podcasts and video and community, gets slammed for being old-school by a newspaper that's had a notoriously erratic web strategy for years -- because, I guess, Slate isn't quite whorish enough in a pandering-to-the-web's-lowest-common-denominator sort of way? And then Slate went on to win a Media Vanguard Award, and got four nominations for Digital Ellies from the American Society of Magazine Editors, winning one of the big ones [a National Magazine Award for Digital Media in the General Excellence for News and Opinion category]. So I guess at least your journalistic peers don't necessarily think Slate is washed up.
Mr. Plotz: We are 15 years old -- we've been around for a while, and that's the burden sometimes, because we have older technology, we fall into patterns of doing things that have to change because the world changes, but what I hope has remained from Kinsley's magazine [Michael Kinsley, the founding editor who served from 1996-2002] to Jacob's magazine [Jacob Weisberg, 2002-2008; he's now boss of the Slate Group] to the magazine that I'm editing is that we really embrace the medium we're living in. I don't know if you know this, but everyone on my staff has to take a month a year away from their job where they work on a long project -- it's just an imposed sabbatical. You can't not do it. The only requirement is you have to do a project over that month that takes advantage of the medium we're in.
Emily Bazelon did this stunning series about online bullying, where she investigated a suicide that had gotten a lot of attention, this girl who killed herself after being bullied. Emily, through dogged investigative journalism, showed that the story as it had been told was completely wrong. She was on "The Today Show" three times in three weeks talking about it and it was a brilliant piece of entrepreneurial journalism. Tim Noah did this 10-part series explaining why American income inequality has grown so rapidly and so deeply over the past 30 years. There's a series of 15 or 20 of these projects and we have a lot more in the works that range from investigative to whimsical. Internally they're called The Fresca Fellowships, because I really like Fresca.
Mr. Dumenco: You should get Fresca to sponsor it!
Mr. Plotz: [laughter] We've made inquires through Coca-Cola -- Fresca is owned by the Coca-Cola Co. -- but Fresca wasn't interested. We would change the name to The Coke Fellowships.
Mr. Dumenco: Actually, Coke might be more interested in sponsoring celebrity baby-bump photos. Speaking of brands, I think Slate has been smart about championing its writers as brands, from your media critic, Jack Shafer, to your technology columnist, Farhad Manjoo. I think Slate readers tend to have favorite Slate writers -- whereas a lot of your online competitors treat writers as interchangeable, disposable.
Mr. Plotz: I think that's true. Our readers, if you look at our comments section, we're basically troll-free. Oh my God, I shouldn't say that, it's like inviting trolls, but it's true: Our readers are super-duper high quality, they take it really seriously. They're not there to just say stupid crap, they're there because they feel part of this intellectual community and they feel communion with our writers. I think that one of the best examples of that is our podcasts. We do some of them as live shows. We've done half a dozen in New York and a half a dozen in D.C. We've also done them in West Lafayette, Ann Arbor, Seattle. The one in Indiana, people drove four, five, seven hours to come to this live performance of a podcast. It was in a church in West Lafayette. It was pretty gratifying that readers are that connected with Slate.
Mr. Dumenco: Speaking of readers connecting with you, how have Facebook and Twitter changed the way traffic comes your way over the past year or two?
Mr. Plotz: Oh good, I'm glad you asked that. One thing that's happened is that last year we hired a new head of technology named Dan Check, who's just fantastic.
Mr. Dumenco: Where'd he come from?
Mr. Plotz: Catalist, a political-data-mining operation. He's completely changed how we're seen by Google, so our search traffic has gone up. And then we hired this woman named Katherine Goldstein, our innovations editor, who focuses on social media, so we've really, really been pushing on Twitter and Facebook. Our traffic from Facebook is up, I think, tenfold in the last year and our Twitter traffic is up maybe sevenfold.
Mr. Dumenco: But how are you doing on MySpace?
Mr. Plotz: MySpace, we're just huge. [laughter] We are like the biggest thing on MySpace now. You know, there was a moment a few months ago when we looked at the legacy code that sits on our site -- code that you just forget about -- and one piece of code was for a referring service that literally no one on our staff had heard of. It wasn't Digg, it wasn't Reddit, but it was something like that. We'd gotten like two referrals from it in 12 months.
Mr. Dumenco: I think I know which one you're talking about. Bill Gates Sr. uses it!
Edited and condensed from a longer interview.
Simon Dumenco is the "Media Guy" media columnist for Advertising Age. Follow him on Twitter @simondumenco.
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