Staying up-to-date with the latest books, movies, music, and TV is hard enough when you’re just hoping to be able to participate in conversations at parties. How much harder, then, when your job depends on it? Slate editors Dan Kois and Laura Bennett—who, along with Forrest Wickman, plot the site’s culture coverage—chatted on Slack about how they manage it.
Laura Bennett: Hi Dan! Today we’ll be discussing a topic that is near and dear to both of our hearts, and also our nightmares: how we keep up with the unending flood of culture on the Internet. To begin with: What’s your morning routine? How do you trick yourself into feeling up-to-date on the cultureverse by the time you get to work?
Dan Kois: I don’t. I actually tend to arrive at the office feeling completely at sea, eight more hours behind on the cultural world than I was the night before, when I was already weeks behind.
Bennett: Yep, that sounds right. Today everyone was yelling about Evelyn Waugh, for instance.
Kois: Right! So then I was like, SHE DIED???
As a rule I find that though I am generally way ahead on many cultural events and happenings—certainly further ahead than, say, the average American—the incredible amount of material out there, most of it exciting to anticipate in some way, leads me to nonetheless feel panicked.
I THINK that panic is generally productive, in that it leads me to eagerly seek out more things, which leads to better coverage for the site. But it also means that 96 percent of my interaction with culture is anticipation/prejudging, and 4 percent is actually reading or watching or listening to things.
Bennett: That panic is a feeling I’m very familiar with. You’ve been at this for a lot longer than I have, but the first Major News I remember having to cover as a culture editor was the announcement that Colbert would be taking over for Letterman. It felt like being in the middle of a dog pile, and that dog pile was made of every media outlet on the Internet scrambling to have opinions. What’s one event in recent memory when the demands of breaking news culture coverage made you feel physically overwhelmed?
Kois: Bowie’s death. Although that day, oddly, was a mix of dismay/panic and a kind of energizing admiration both for the man’s music and for the way he went out, the slow and perversely delightful reveal of the way he’d stage-managed his final year. We’d all missed it! It was stressful and difficult, but also in a way so pleasurable to have a day where our mission was so clear and obvious: find as many interesting things to say about David Bowie as possible.
Bennett: Yes. That reminds me of Robin Williams’ death—it happened at the end of a workday when everyone was already heading home, but after the initial shock and sadness passed, there was something energizing about how the whole culture team in their respective Brooklyn bunkers had to put their heads together for a few hours and brainstorm how to get at Williams’ legacy from as many angles as possible. The dog pile starts to feel like a team-building exercise.
… is what I tell myself when it’s midnight and I’m editing a post about How Gamers Felt About Robin Williams.
Kois: LOL. And not just team-building, but satisfying! Thinking deeply about one subject that matters to me is what I like most about writing/editing about culture, and yet much of our time is spent dividing our attention among the hundreds of different items of cultural flotsam and jetsam that eddy past us every day. Being forced by sad circumstance (or, in the case of an interesting blockbuster like The Force Awakens or Kanye’s album, happy circumstance) to really focus on something for a day or two is very rewarding.
Bennett: Agree very much. I actually really love the day after a breaking news event, when the breathless “Gotta cover this” feeling is gone and you can plot out some of the less urgent, more ruminative birds-eye-view assessments.
Kois: How DID gamers feel about Robin Williams? I can’t remember. (I assume they had problems with Jumanji.)
Bennett: It was actually a very interesting piece! Williams was a video gamer, and online gaming communities exploded with expressions of kindred spirithood after he died. Wish I told my writer to ask them about Jumanji though, would’ve thrown a wrench in her thesis
Kois: FYI I sincerely thought that “How Gamers Felt About Robin Williams” was a funny joke headline and completely forgot it was a real piece you edited.
Bennett: It was both a funny joke headline AND a real piece I edited
Kois: OK so it’s easy to focus on what to cover when there’s huge news. But faced with, say, the upcoming week of culture events [movies, TV premieres, albums (collections of songs by a single artist bundled for sale as a unit)], how do you decide what the magazine must cover? And how much overlap is there between what you are sincerely interested in and what you think the section just needs to deal with?
Bennett: The discrepancy between my personal interests and the demands of covering culture is probably the single hardest thing about being a culture editor, especially as someone who has particular deep cultural interests and also vast black holes containing things I’d love not to pay attention to (sci-fi, action franchises, The Walking Dead). A recent case in point: Watching The Revenant was one of the single least pleasant experiences I’ve had this year. It felt to me like being punched in the face with a filthy, hairy fist for 2½ hours. So that was one moment when I said to myself, “Do your job, Bennett. America needs you to watch this.”
Kois: The biggest difference between your job and mine is that once you’ve seen The Revenant, I never have to see The Revenant!!!!!
Bennett: YES that’s one of the things I most admire about you—that you refuse to see The Revenant.
Kois: A man’s gotta have a code.
Bennett: So why did you not force yourself to endure The Revenant? How do you decide when to give yourself permission to abstain from certain cultural releases?
Kois: In this specific case, it is truly and sincerely that enough other culture staffers saw it that I knew we would be covered.
The reason I need to see/read things I don’t otherwise want to is if I have a hunch we ought to cover it for some reason, and I need to make that case to the rest of you. With The Revenant, it was never in question whether we were going to cover it, so I didn’t need to make that argument. And enough of the rest of you saw it that I was not worried about coming up with ideas.
So it became one of the few Best Picture nominees I have never seen and will never see, and likely the first Best Picture winner I haven’t seen since Chariots of Fire. [Ed. note: This chat took place before the Oscars. The Revenant did not win Best Picture.]
Bennett: That make sense, and I hope you never see it.
As for deciding what Slate should write about, I have a Bennett-specific culture calendar that contains all the things I want to cover in the forseeable future. It’s inevitable that this will be shaped by my own interests—I bet your culture calendar does not tell you when Bachelor Live airs—but at this point I think I have a pretty built-in sense of what will interest Slate readers.
So I periodically spend a few hours filling out my calendar with all the books, movies, TV premiers/finales/special episodes, album releases, etc. that I know are happening over the next few months. I have a Google Doc containing fledgling story ideas for all these cultural events, and writers I want to assign them to. I also try to fight the panic of day-of news coverage by planning my coverage out as far in advance as possible.
Q for you: How does editing culture on the internet feel different now than it did, say, back when you were editing Vulture, which was, if I am not mistaken, your first online culture editing job?
The first one ever
Bennett: Right! You’re a true forefather of the culturenet.
Kois: It was a lot different. That was an era when you could launch a site that really and truly reflected the weird interests and infatuations of one, maybe two people, under the aegis of a major magazine.
Bennett: Sounds like the dream.
Kois: Slate’s culture coverage does reflect many of our interests in many ways, but it is also the product of an Internet economy that demands we have something to say about the same things that everyone else has to have something to say about. Oh and OUR things to say have to be more interesting. Oh and faster.
It was kind of a dream! On the other hand it was a site of extremely limited interest. If I recall correctly, if a post I wrote ever got, like, 20,000 page views, it was an ENORMOUS hit. So it was fun to have my weird little thing accidentally funded but it wasn’t like I was creating something that most culture fans would enjoy.
Bennett: Did you, over time, as the world of culture editing morphed to demand more wide-ranging coverage, develop a greater tolerance for—and even interest in—subjects that did not initially fall under the umbrella of your weird Koisian infatuations?
Kois: Yes, but not because I’ve become magically more open-minded in my old age. It’s happened as a natural result of working with interesting people in the culture department here who have expressed their enthusiasms so persuasively that they’ve convinced me to get excited about reality TV or Helen Macdonald or Kim Kardashian’s book of selfies or indie horror. Slate writers and editors are great at finding the nugget of what’s interesting and exciting about almost anything and transmitting that interest and excitement to me—which is great, because that is what I most want our culture section to do for our readers.
What’s something coming up in the next few months that you are very excited about—not necessarily because you think you’ll love it (though you might), but because you think it will be tremendously fun to argue about?
Bennett: Oooh. Off the top of my head: Based on the trailer, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot looks real bad. Why does Tina Fey keep making such weirdly retrograde rom-coms? That’s a conversation I’m looking forward to having, if only with myself, if WTF fulfills my expectations of its badness. [Ed. note: Having seen Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, I now submit that it is actually good.] And: I’m excited, but also trepidatious, for a few of the Netflix shows that had triumphant previous seasons to return for their next installments. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is one. Can the show sustain its charms? Is Netflix’s overenthusiasm for long-horizon renewals going to eventually be its downfall? We will find out, and write about it on Slate dot com.
Bennett: I thought about that, but seemed TOO ON THE NOSE
Bennett: I am genuinely excited for Ghostbusters. I feel good about it
PUBLISH INTERESTING ARTICLES ON THE INTERNEEEEETTTTTTTTTTTTTTTTT
Bennett: DOG PILE, here we come