Slate's Gawky Adolescence
An anniversary assessment.
Every so often, a writer is called upon to assess his magazine's contribution to the world of letters. Thus invited, he sits at his desk, ponders, and asks, "What has our institution given to literature, etc., etc.?"Slate's 10th birthday would seem to be a good occasion for close analysis, except that in some ways the magazine still feels awfully preadolescent. For instance, like an insistent child, it insists on rendering its name in bold and italics: Slate. We are Slate, and thank you for visiting Slate. Slate. Got that? Slate!
Most considerations of Slate tend to focus on its political leanings (liberal, they say) or its prose style (cheeky, counterintuitive). Let's put aside those labels for the moment, since they don't get at what I think is most interesting. What's most interesting is that Slate at 10 is old new media, or, maybe, new old media—an evolutionary bridge between traditional print magazines and the outlaw forces of the Web. It's an in-between kind of magazine, and, as such, a birthday celebration can inspire a bit of an identity crisis. Is it possible for a magazine to feel both terribly young (compared with, say, the Atlantic)and terribly old (compared with, say, Gawker)? To feel like a cheeky hell-raiser of the Web and, at the same time, like a curmudgeonly veteran?
In 1996, a reader looking at the first issue of Slate (featured article: "Jews in Second Place") would think, but for its appearance on a computer screen, that he were looking at a traditional magazine. Michael Kinsley, the founding editor, turned to familiar magazine writers (e.g., Nicholas Lemann) and had Slate dividedinto "pages," which one could navigate like a magazine, allowing one to print it out once a week in tidy order. If there was anything revolutionary about Slate in those days,it was that the magazine didn't seem to have an obvious identity. Slate, thename, represented blankness—it was not moored to a political movement (even if many of its contributors came from the center-left New Republic), nor would it be the custodian of decades of journalistic history (like The New Yorker), nor would it throw off excessive pizazz (like Talk). Microsoft, the publisher, didn't have much of a track record in publishing journalism, making it hard to offer predictions as you would with Time-Warner or Rupert Murdoch.
Since Slate occupied what James Wolcott called in an early negative review the "phantom zone," there was some doubt about how, and if, it existed. As in, does Slate have offices with actual writers in them? As someone who worked at all three "bureaus" (such a grand word), perhaps a brief tour is in order. For a time, the Washington, D.C., office occupied a wing of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, and it wasn't unusual to run into Robert Bork on the way to the men's room. The Seattle bureau, at Microsoft's headquarters, offered an absurdly pastoral setting for journalism. Outside, evergreens and curated green spaces stretched toward the Cascade Mountains; inside, there was a rather flexible approach toward office furniture. (One Microsoft programmer, who looked a bit like Jim Morrison, insisted on placing his computer on the floor and surrounding it with fluffy pillows.) Few kind words can be said about the old New York bureau in a Microsoft office on Sixth Avenue. With its white walls and cubical forests, it looked as if Soviet architects had been asked to reimagine the Condé Nast building.
With Microsoft money and pedigreed writers (at least compared with nouveau Web writers), Slate in its early years resembled a lifeguard monitoring the kids in a pool. The upstarts of the Internet could have cared less if Slate was there, but since we were, they interacted with us and we with them. Slate put embedded links in its copy, rejecting the walled-garden approach of many Web sites. Mickey Kaus, a contributor, beat the drum for the blogging revolution before moving his own blog to the site in 2002. Blogger Glenn Reynolds, who now goes by "Instapundit," got his start in "The Fray," Slate's reader forum. Slate'soperations were remarkably traditional compared with a blog's, with line editors, copy editors, and illustrators. And yet, unlike some magazines, the prose hadn't been sanded down to a dull edge. The death of Walter Annenberg was celebrated in these pages with the headline "Citizen Annenberg: So long, you rotten bastard"—which probably would not have appeared in The New Yorker.
Existing in the loam between the formality of print and the loose talk of the Web is, I think, the only safe thing you can say about Slate's writing. Smart, sometimes. Funny, hopefully. Contrarian, occasionally. But most of all, straddling the line between polished and casual. Slate is the place where Robert "The Moral Animal" Wright wrote about golf; where Jacob "In Defense of Government" Weisberg confessed his affection for teen movies; where Fareed "The Future of Freedom" Zakaria reviewed German wines. In an early critique, James Wolcott charged that Slate had caused normally austere journalists to loosen up too much—that the freedom of cyberspace made them into witless raconteurs. A few moments of self-indulgence aside (see the archive for mine), that feels uncharitable. Many of us here would choose a freewheeling career at Slate.
A decade later, anyway, plenty more raconteurs have joined the party on the Web. Citizen-bloggers have sprouted up to fill every conceivable niche—and many of them write better and know more than anybody here. The old media—the Atlantic, Harper's,even The New Yorker—have migrated to the digital domain and are beefing up their Web sites with original writing; in doing so, they've taken off their suit coats to have more fun. Slate flourished in the early days of Web journalism, when publishing an article online with all the words spelled correctly was deemed a considerable achievement. Nowadays, one has to fight to make an impression on the Web, and just throwing up articles day after day won't get it done.
So, what is Slate's next move? Well, if you poke around, you'll find that what was once a political magazine with a small and plucky culture department has become a magazine where the two halves of the "book" vie for supremacy. These days, Slate articles are often accompanied byaudio podcasts and video slide shows and the like. If the original Slate represented a bridge between print and digital prose, then perhaps Slate in future years will connect digital prose and other media. There will probably also be some good articles. Say it in bold and italics: We are Slate.
Bryan Curtis, Slate's "Middlebrow" columnist, writes for Grantland, Texas Monthly, and Newsweek. Follow him on Twitter.
Illustration by Charlie Powell.