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
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
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
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
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
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.