Are you a member of the Slate club?

June 1996 - June 2006.
June 19 2006 6:56 PM

What Makes Slate Slatey?

It's a Web site. It's a magazine. It's a club.

Illustration by Rob Donnelly. Click image to expand.

In the last decade, Slate has gone from fairly well-kept secret to near-household name, with a monthly audience that has risen from the thousands to the millions. Yet our readers persist in regarding us as that great little restaurant that hasn't been discovered yet.

Jacob  Weisberg Jacob Weisberg

Jacob Weisberg is chairman and editor-in-chief of The Slate Group and author of The Bush Tragedy. Follow him on Twitter.

That's fine by us. The ability to remain at least partially invisible promotes the pleasant sense that Slate is a kind of club. I'm not thinking here of a country club, or the Rotary, or a book club (though we have one of those). What I mean is that Slate has from the start fostered a loose and cozy sense of belonging for its writers and its readers, creating a kind of no-admission, dues-free society akin to Deadheads, bird-watchers, or amateur chefs. It's a secondary affiliation, but a potent one.

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Our feeling of clubbiness is partly explained by the intimate tone of Web journalism in general, and of Slate in particular. This was one of our earliest discoveries after we started publishing in 1996. Recessive writers like myself, who in print used to avoid the first person at all costs, soon found our copy sprouting a stubble of I's and me's as we stretched to speak to readers in the more personal and direct way that felt natural to the new medium. We soon came to recognize that writing for the Web called for a cross between the more formal diction of the expository essay and the to-the-point, in-your-face tone of e-mail.

Many of Slate's most familiar early rubrics, including our "Dialogues" (see Dahlia Lithwick and Emily Bazelon discussing miscarriage), the "Diary" (see New York bartender Toby Cecchini describing some irksome customers), and "The Breakfast Table" (see Timothy Noah and Marjorie Williams debating Jennifer Lopez's butt), were essentially journalistic adaptations of this emerging form of mass communication. "Pretend you're writing me a letter," an old editor of mine used to say when I was struggling to get started on a piece. At Slate, we shoot you an e-mail.

Some of these e-pistolary features have faded as the novelty of e-mail has worn off (and as print publications trying to sound hipper have copied their tone). But we are experimenters by inclination, and Web-inspired forms have continued to incubate on Slate in the years since our founding. Perhaps the most notable was blogging, whose now familiar and oft-parodied voice (see "Rappers and Bloggers") I first encountered in Mickey Kaus' "Chatterbox" column in January 1998—six years before the term blog became ubiquitous. The stepchild of this feature, Mickey's "Kausfiles," is recognizably an exercise in political journalism but in 'tude is more like the messages in an editor's in box than it is like a David Broder column. The newer forms of Internet journalism combine audio, video, photographs, and text in various and novel ways. Among them are slide shows, interactive photo essays, and podcast audio tours. Slate's heartbreaking "Never Coming Home" series, about the families of American soldiers killed in Iraq, represents ever an even more ambitious attempt at Web-based storytelling. Though it functions as a video, there is actually no video in it—just still photography, sound, and software.

The members of our club, those who enjoy Slate's distinctive style of writing and penchant for journalistic experimentation, are not, for the most part, passive readers. They are by nature correspondents, interlocutors, and complainers who break frequently from media consumption to fire off a critique to an author; post a comment in The Fray, our reader discussion board; propose a correction when they think they've caught us in an error; or blog their own views and quips.

And if many of our readers function as unpaid writers, our contributors retain a sense of merry amateurism. This marks another distinction from old media. Though we do demarcate turf here and there, our correspondents don't walk the standard newspaper beats or cover them in anything like the traditional manner. We pride ourselves on having thrown away the rule book of our profession. Slate has little use for such journalistic crutches as sources, quotations, fact-checking, neutrality, objectivity, balance, the Chinese walling-off of fact from opinion, or the semicolon (which our founder, Michael Kinsley, deems "pretentious"). It's not that we reject all such conventions in principle—we are often the first to complain when newspapers depart from them. Rather, we substitute a set of imperatives that seem more suitable to an interpretative, analytical, and intangible magazine: Be accurate, be intellectually honest, and, above all, don't waste any of the reader's precious time.

The call to purposeful and ruthless efficiency becomes a special challenge when we write about ourselves, as we do fairly often. A good deal of what is in Slate takes the form of the first-person account, but it tends to be written in a different vein from the kind of personal revelations and extrapolation one finds in other publications. Slatesters examine their problems and passions mercilessly and methodically. When Jeffrey Steingarten sets out to learn to conquer his culinary aversions ("Learning To Eat Everything"), or Seth Stevenson attempts to overcome his shyness with the help of Paxil ("Extroverted Like Me"), or Masha Gessen asks a Harvard economist to help her decide whether to have a preventive mastectomy ("A Medical Quest"), they are using themselves as the natural subjects of unconventional investigations. Slate's most regular voices, including Dahlia Lithwick, David Plotz, Daniel Gross, Fred Kaplan, Emily Yoffe, William Saletan, Bryan Curtis, Seth Stevenson, and Jack Shafer, are hardly exhibitionists. But if you've been reading them over the years, you've gotten to know them in a way that's hard to ever know anyone who writes for the New York Times.

What these very different writers have in common is a quality that around the office we call Slate-iness. Over the years we have struggled to define this term and failed miserably, mostly falling back on the Potter Stewart cop-out—that we know it when we see it, or perhaps more precisely, we know when we're not seeing it. Something is Slatey when it does something useful—summarizes the five national newspapers every day or tells you how to pronounce Qatar, understand Bush, or enjoy Faulkner—without feeling like an obligation or a task. To be a Slatey writer, you must cut through the media welter, not by speaking more loudly than others but by engagingly clarifying something for your fellow club members.

This can be done in a number of ways. One mode of Slate-iness is simply to finish off a subject once and for all in the minimum necessary number of words. See, for instance, Michael Kinsley on Bill O'Reilly, Christopher Hitchens on Fahrenheit 9/11, or Amanda Fortini on low-rise pants ("Hello, Moon"). Another is to make the contrarian case that all the common assumptions about a subject are simply and hopelessly wrong. (See David Plotz's dismissal of Lewis and Clark, June Thomas' defense of Prince Charles, or Harriet McBryde Johnson's argument that Congress was right to stick up for Terri Schiavo.) Another way to write Slate-ily is to answer a clever question, perhaps that the rest of us are too embarrassed to ask. (See Bryan Curtis on why men have trouble peeing at ballparks, or Atul Gawande on why more accidents seem to happen on Friday the 13th, or Daniel Engber on how to reattach a severed limb.) Yet another definition of Slate-iness is something that manages to make you think while also making you laugh. (See "Shag the Dog" by William Saletan.)