How to reboot Slate

August 29, 2011

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.

When Microsoft, Slate’s founding benefactor, sold the website to the Washington Post Company in 2005, Slate’s new editor Jacob Weisberg developed an ambitious growth plan for it and moved up a level to become chairman of the Slate Group. But competition on the Internet had grown fierce, and the Tyranny of the CPM forced those growth plans off the rails. Some of those side projects, like The Big Money and DoubleX, were shuttered. Now the core of the original product, the institutional DNA, is starting to succumb. If I make it sound like Slate was a great place that is just too old — a victim of circumstance, a BlackBerry in an iPhone world —  the story isn’t quite that simple.

Slate is still young — very young. Founded in 1996, it seems far too young to be dealing with these kinds of growing pains. But it’s also an experiment in everything journalism can be. The era of Slate making sense as a rounding error on the balance sheets of Microsoft and The Washington Post/Kaplan is clearly over. Yet the era of smart, web-only journalism is just beginning. It’s time for Slate to fully embrace its startup roots. It’s attempts at profitability and book-balancing have probably always been buttressed by the idea that the money to operate is going to come from somewhere. So why not make it come from real investors, with a real stake in the financial success of Slate?

Here’s the solution: spin it off. Slate doesn’t deserve to be slowly whittled away to the bone, or to be publishing link-bait, traffic-gaming pieces, no matter how witty the conceit. Slate is an established, valuable brand, with a lot of smart people (still) working on the editorial side. But the business side of Slate has not kept pace with the desires or the needs of the editorial team. Both sides are stifling each other — Slate’s bookkeepers demand budget cuts that lead to staff reductions, and Slate’s editors are under the gun to deliver a more valuable product with less resources. Weisberg may be Chairman of the (dwindling) Slate group, but what Slate needs is a CEO, someone who can lead a spinoff, attract venture capital, talent in the engineering, sales and business staffs with the prospects of equity and a clean, er, slate, with which to reinvent the modern online magazine.

The Washington Post may not love the idea of selling out — Slate was supposed to be a feather in their cap, and an incubator of ideas and talent, but like Microsoft before them, the Post should accept that they didn’t manage the acquisition well, and be willing to divest it. They could try to sell Slate to another company, as they did with Newsweek, but that makes little sense — Slate was conceived without the extraneous baggage and overhead of a print publication. Physically, it’s little more than office leases and web servers.

Based on billion dollar valuations, new media companies have been raising tens of millions of dollars at a clip from venture capitalists. Even pure media plays like Capital New York have managed to nail down angel funds from Silicon Alley’s tech elite. So what if a real technologist and business person like Google News’s Josh Cohen was offered the chance to transform the Slate group into something venture capitalists like Fred Wilson, Chris Sacca and Reid Hoffman would invest in? The Post could keep an ownership stake, but the company would run in startup mode and rid itself of the big-company bureaucracy and IT nightmares that drag on growth and innovation. Keep Slate fresh and going for a year, Cohen could tell Weisberg, and I’ll get you a clean house and cash infusion to make Slate Group 2.0 a real possibility.

Slate was the original, crazy experiment of its time. It won the fierce loyalty of a generation of readers. But it’s time to re-run the experiment, exploiting the cash-rich, talent-starved startup environment of 2011, and see what the editorial mission of Slate — indeed, of online journalism as a whole — can become over the next 15 years.

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