“I’m Only One Man, Plotz!” The Art and Panic of Running Slate's News Blog

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May 19 2014 11:06 AM
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“I’m Only One Man, Plotz!”

The art and panic of running the Slatest.

140515_slateplus_BMLVoorhees-Cover
Ben Mathis-Lilley, left, and Josh Voorhees

Illustration by Charlie Powell

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Ben Mathis-Lilley: Hello, Josh! This is your successor as editor of the Slatest, Ben Mathis-Lilley. Our Slate Plus team thought readers might be interested in a short conversation between you and me about How We Get Our News—just two news bloggers talkin’ about the job. I initially objected, given that readers who know our secrets could build a news-blogging robot that would make our jobs obsolete. But I was told that objection was “far-fetched” and asked to “stop being so stupid all the time.” So: What is your news consumption routine, Mr. Voorhees?

Josh Voorhees: Hey, Ben, I'm a little surprised that the Slate Plus team is making such a direct pitch to our respective mothers right out of the gates—Hi, Mom! $5 off your membership here!—but I'm not going to complain, especially if this lands us one of those cool caricature sketches everyone else seems to be getting when they venture over to the purple side of the site. 

I'm a little hesitant to reveal my news consumption secrets when I ran the Slatest—not because of their proprietary nature or your (very legitimate) fear of robots, but because they'll probably have people fearing for my mental health. Setting aside those times when I woke up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom and fell into a mobile news black hole (something that happens weekly), I'd say the routine started with my morning iPhone alarm. In one smooth, practiced motion, I would turn it off and open up my inbox to look for any breaking news alerts. Then I’d give the home pages of the big boys (New York Times, Wall Street Journal, the networks) a quick scan. And finally on to places like Gawker and The Wire to see if they've got anything good that hasn't quite bubbled up yet.

By then I'd be ready to roll out of bed and into my bathrobe for the 15-foot walk to the office (read: my converted dining room). From there, my news routine centered largely around three things: TweetDeck (which I have running all day, every day), Slate office email chains, and a browser-busting hunt-and-peck strategy that involves clicking any headline or link that catches my attention. It's inelegant and messy, but it works for me.

You've been living the Slatest life for a few weeks now. Have you developed a routine yet? What's been the biggest surprise for you so far? The biggest challenge? Have you had any luck powering down at the end of the day? That was/is/always will be the most difficult thing for me.

BML: My Slatest routine is starting to lock into place: wake up, read Twitter and/or longer articles I’d saved from yesterday during my commute, write morning posts, buy a sandwich, return from sandwich purchase to discover massive amount of news has occurred since I left my desk to buy the sandwich, work nonstop until finally giving up around 6.

I think the biggest surprise so far has been … let’s say, the Zen of following the news. I was worried before I started that I would miss everything. And since I’ve started, I’ve discovered that I do, in fact, miss most things. Even on the proverbial “slow news day,” there are more compelling and essential analyses, essays, commentaries, and feature stories streaming through the Internet than any one person would have time to read. Which is good to know—since there’s no hope of getting everything, I can just plug in at any moment throughout the day and immediately occupy myself with whatever catches my eye. That’s ultimately, I think, a greater service to the reader than what I did on my first day, i.e., reading 50 different stories and becoming paralyzed with indecision about which one was Most Important.

Which is heartening, actually. A lot of people worry that the media covers too much fluff and nonsense—that the population of our democracy is underserved re: the stuff that really matters. I’m here to say that is definitively untrue. You could read 24 hours a day and not be able to follow all the substantive writing and reporting that’s out there.

JV: It will certainly do wonders for your peace of mind—and your ability to consume at least half a sandwich in silence—to remember that Slate isn't a paper of record, nor is the Slatest an aggregator of one. That was one of the major things we focused on when we relaunched it as a blog back in 2012: There's just only so much news one person can consume in a day, and even less that he or she can post about. As I have yelled at my Outlook inbox during heavy news days more often than I care to admit: “I'm only one man, Plotz!” (Quickly followed by an email of: “On it. Thanks for flagging! [Smiley face, cactus, dancing lobster emoji]”)

Breaking news situations aside, I've always thought of the role of the Slatest as that of a smart friend one desk over at work who's always scouring the Web and pointing out really interesting things, yelling over the cube wall, “Hey, you gotta check this out,” or “The interesting thing about this is ... ” More practically speaking, Slatest posts can serve as a placeholder of sorts, a way to let our readers know that as a magazine we're aware of what's going on in the world and that we'll have much more to say about it in the near future.

OK, I fear we're leaving our baby unattended too long, says the man who's no longer tasked with cranking out a half-dozen blog posts a day. [Editor's note: Sometimes Josh refers to the Slatest, somewhat creepily, as his baby; he and Ben are not raising a child together.] So let's finish with a lightning round:

What one news outlet have you found yourself relying on the most since you started running the Slatest? 

BML: Old-school: the New York Times. Its flaws drive me crazy—its ostensibly literary prose is often inefficient and awkward, and I think it more than deserves the flak it takes for running thinly sourced and/or way-behind-the-curve trend stories—but I don’t think anyone can beat its reporting for comprehensive informativeness.

New-school: TheWire, aka. the Atlantic’s news site. Its writers are funny and to the point, and its mix of stories nicely balances the goofy and the serious. And a quick shoutout to Bloomberg TV, which is, in a sensationalized cable news atmosphere, great for “just the facts” news delivered with enough personality to make you forget that you’ve become a person who actively enjoys watching Bloomberg TV.

JV: What one website—not counting Slate, of course—do you spend the most time reading for nonwork pleasure?

BML: Grantland.

JV: What one printed good (magazine, newspaper, etc.) do you take with you on an airplane?

BML: New York magazine, where I used to work.

JV: What one new news website (either recently launched, or forthcoming) are you most excited about?

BML: I have to say I’ve found myself gravitating more to The Upshot, David Leonhardt’s stats-oriented venture at the Times, more than Vox or FiveThirtyEight, though that’s not a slight against those sites. (While we’re at it, the writer I’d most like to see found his own standalone publication is Louis Menand at The New Yorker.)

JV: NBA or NFL?

BML: I have to confess …

BML: … that I don’t/didn't watch any of these shows. But I really liked True Detective (including the last episode)!

And now, for you:

Who’s the best political writer in America?

JV: I don’t think I’m ready to declare an undisputed champion, but boy do I enjoy myself a Ryan Lizza congressional tick-tock.

BML: What’s the most intelligent cable news show—on CNN or Fox?

JV: I’ll keep my MH370 jokes to myself and instead go with an honest answer: Anderson Cooper 360.

BML: What do YOU read on the airplane?

JV: I always bring a New Yorker on the plane to look smart, but I inevitably find myself flipping through Outside magazine, imagining that I’m much more outdoorsy and athletic than I actually am.

BML: Michigan or Ohio State?

JV: OSU managed to send my Davidson College Wildcats home twice from the Big Dance in a five-year stretch. So I’m going to go with Big Blue on that one.

BML: Do you think it’s symbolically meaningful in any way that you live in Iowa City, home of the Iowa Hawkeyes, while I was born in Ames, the stomping grounds of the Iowa State Cyclones?

JV: Not unless someone brings a Cy-Hawk trophy to the Slate retreat (hopefully not the since-abandoned version, which should have never seen the light of day), in which case I’m prepared to fight you to the death.

BML: And most relevant of all: What are you going to be writing about for Slate now that you’re not tied to the headlines?

JV: I thought you’d never ask! I’ll be writing about public policy and politics—with a focus on the former but often with a heavy dose of the latter. Everything from energy policy to agribusiness to Obamacare. Speaking of which, I owe the powers that be a story, so I should get back at it. Treat our baby well. She’ll be grown up before you know it.

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