Exposing Pandagate: A Reddit Ask Me Anything with Slate Editor David Plotz

Real-time discussions with Slate writers.
Jan. 22 2013 7:27 PM

Fearlessly Exposing Pandagate for What It Is

A Reddit Ask Me Anything with Slate editor David Plotz.

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Mcfors: Is that the bearded guy at Next Step Produce? Great place. I also like the second apples from Toigo Orchards (only 99 cents a pound) and eggs from someone named Tom—he's stationed near Atwater Bakery and the singing Street Sense woman.

David Plotz: Yup, Next Step.

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Sdkstl: I'm a reader since launch and was a subscriber. Two questions: 1.) Would you charge again for Slate? 2.) The online magazine field is a lot more crowded than when Slate first launched. How would you describe its role in today's media landscape?

David Plotz: Thanks for reading for so long, and subscribing back in the day. 1.) I don't see Slate charging subscriptions. But I can easily see us having a membership program, where we would charge for a membership that would offer special benefits like private events, or free tickets to live Gabfests and the like. But not a subscription.

2.) For a long, long time, Slate was in a category of one, or maybe two (with Salon), online-only magazines. What's been wonderful in the past 7 years has been the emergence of so many healthy, clever, innovative online only sites that are not principally news sites, and the online success of traditional magazines like the Atlantic. The health of the category has been good for all of us. There is more advertising, and more readers who now get to read across sites (Slate AND the Atlantic AND HuffPo AND Daily Beast AND Gawker...). More competition has been good for all of us, and forced us to innovate constantly. It has also made us realize that we have to stick to our comparative advantage: Slate is smart and funny. That is what we do best. We stick to that. And the results have been good. Our audience has been growing very rapidly.

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Fblom: I started reading Slate because of Hitch. Can you tell us a memory unedited about him?

David Plotz: We would have lunch once a year to reaffirm the Slate/Hitch partnership. My favorite was one—perhaps in 2009—when he had me over to his apartment in the Wyoming. The lunch was sausages, wine, and Hitchens talking to me for about two hours about his childhood, and his awful boarding school. I hadn't realized till then how much of his hatred of arbitrary authority and abusive authority came from the childhood experience of a brutal, arbitrary school.

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Plusroyaliste: I read Slate every day and my favorite contributor is Dave Weigel, mainly wanted to encourage you to keep him around.

My general question is to what extent page views drive decisions about subject matter to report on at Slate? Obviously there's a basic commercial consideration but there are some red meat topics (ie. marijuana) that are known to drive page views and that some online outlets focus on to get that traffic. Is that a major incentive when stories get pitched and, if so, how do you balance that against not wanting to report disproportionately on subjects whose importance doesn't necessarily correlate with their popularity?

David Plotz: Like all of our competitors, we carefully track metrics. I can tell you that 33,603 people were on Slate 10 seconds ago, and 2,910 of them were reading a piece about Google. And one of my major goals—and one that my bosses in particular judge me on—is attracting more readers to Slate. So we are constantly looking for ways to increase our audience. That said, Slate's comparative advantage is wit and intelligence, so we often make our biggest gains from our smartest stories. That's not to say that a traffic-whoring piece about a celebrity breakdown won't get traffic, and that's not to say we won't run such pieces, but in general, the smarter we are, the better we do. The key way you get traffic is not writing sleazy stories, it is writing MORE stories. (For example, we recently added Phil Plait's Bad Astronomy blog, which has brought us a bumper crop of very smart, lively, science and astronomy-minded readers.)

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Brenbuescher: Slate has an awesome staff—how would you describe your leadership philosophy and your management style?

David Plotz: Brenbuescher, or as I like to call you, "mom":

Editing Slate is very easy, because it mostly involves getting out of the way! Mike Kinsley had a rule when he started Slate: No assholes. We have stuck hard to that. Like Mike and Jacob Weisberg, my predecessors, I think my most important job is hiring people with the right sensibility—smart, funny, bold, energetic—and watching them do wonderful things. We tend to hire best available players rather than positions.

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Ihniwmansb: What is John Dickerson really like?

David Plotz: John was actually hand carved out of black rhino horn, then brought to life with an incantation involving spider webs by a benevolent witch. He can do only good in the world, and eats only cotton candy.

John is more or less how he seems. Very smart, super hard worker, very funny in a disarming way. Excellent guitarist. Talks too much about Dylan.

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Jjmccullough: Do people call you "Plotz" or "David" in day-to-day conversation around the office? I notice on the podcasts people sometimes make what appear to be revealing slips of the tongue.

David Plotz: Both. Increasingly PLOTZ because we just hired a third David.

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Aviddakota: Have you ever made anyone on Slate's staff cry?

David Plotz: Only with joy, I hope. There have been occasionally teary meetings in my office. I once cried during a meeting because I was so proud of the person I was talking to, but I don't think he noticed.