Paul Smalera

How to reboot Slate

Aug 29, 2011 20:01 UTC

By Paul Smalera
The opinions expressed are his own.

There’s really no schadenfreude to be had for Slate, which laid off four staffers and a few freelancers last week. After all, this is the online magazine that gave birth to a Twitter meme, #Slatepitches, that was instantly understandable by almost anyone who has ever read an article on the site, ever. The publication’s formula of taking an already counter-intuitive conceit for a story and adding an extra inversion might be easy to poke fun at, but it’s also become, like so many other of its early innovations, a signature of writing online.

The writer of that “Slate pitches” recap, Juliet Lapidos, was sadly one of the staffers reported to be laid off, along with veterans Timothy Noah, Jack Shafer and June Thomas. Despite having contributed regularly to The Big Money, Slate’s erstwhile business website, I have only met Lapidos once or twice (though she did write about my favorite government document ever, which dealt with effectively communicating the dangers of nuclear waste dumps to humans 10,000 years in the future) and I don’t know Shafer, Noah or Thomas. But I’ve been reading Shafer and Noah online for over a decade — maybe not since I bought my first modem, but definitely by the time I bought my third — because they are so good at what they do and also because there simply was no one else to read online that was as smart as them and wrote for and understood the web.

Slate’s history, until recently, felt like that of the New York Times of the 1970’s after the shakeout of New York City press strike of 1962-63 led it to a brief period of outsize influence and dominance in media. The Times in the 1970’s through the early 1990’s became the locus of criticism, praise, conspiracy theories and honest-to-goodness news because there was nowhere else for New York and America to turn. (I guess it’s not surprising Jack Shafer already dissected the impact of that strike.)

Slate had a chance to gestate in the mid to late 1990s and dominate online media in early 2000s, when few still understood the effect the Internet would have on our lives, but many good journalists who were chronologically closer to the Times’s glory days, like its founding editor Michael Kinsley, and Jack Shafer, were getting excited about the new medium. Since then, some of the very qualities of Slate that Kinsley took pride in on the occasion of the site’s 10 year anniversary have become, if not antiquated, surpassed by the competition.

For Slate to succumb to the fate of niche magazines everywhere — wielding influence in reverse proportion to its circulation — would be a cruel fate. Kinsley, Weisberg and others at Slate come from the cloth of publications used to that — Harper’s and The New Republic – but that shouldn’t be the model that Slate aspires to. The point of Slate was to prove smart journalism could find a broad online audience, not to replicate smart journalism’s niche status online.

Downgrading democracy

Aug 8, 2011 20:46 UTC

By Paul Smalera
All views expressed are his own.

The Washington debt ceiling debate over these past months was the throwing open of the doors to the democratic slaughterhouse — let’s please not ever complain again about not being able to watch the sausage get made. Though our media window onto the killing floor surely contributed to the S&P’s downgrade of U.S. debt, that’s not an entirely bad thing, as I’ll explain in a moment.

The preemptive downgrade of U.S. debt breaks a disturbing ratings agency pattern: Too-late downgrades from S&P and the other ratings agencies in the cases of Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, AIG, Greece and Ireland among many others. In the econoblogosphere, reliably hind-sighted ratings-agency downgrades, whether of sovereign debt or a teetering company’s bonds, have come to be something of a dark joke. It’s overdue that S&P got itself back into predictive rather than reactive mode. Yet the company’s sovereign debt committee surely chose the wrong target in U.S. Treasuries and broke the late-downgrade pattern for all the wrong reasons.

The ratings agency’s decision reads like nothing other than a fit of pique towards the government institutions and American people that had come to blame it as a prime enabler of the global financial crisis. The agencies, as my colleague Christopher Whalen just wrote, “prostituted themselves and their special position of trust with respect to mortgage-backed securities and exotic derivatives.” To get a little more anatomical, executives at the ratings agencies churned out AAA ratings on CDOs and other risky debt — debt that their analysis should have shown to be junk-bond quality at best — because they risked losing business if they were too critical. (Call it the, “every John is the best lover ever” theory of credit rating.)