Former Slate staffers remember the magazine’s early years.

“We Sent Way Too Much Email”: Former Slatesters Look Back

“We Sent Way Too Much Email”: Former Slatesters Look Back

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Sept. 30 2016 10:04 AM

“We Sent Way Too Much Email”

Former Slatesters remember.

Michael Kinsley, Dr. Oz, Creed, Steve Ballmer, Monica Lewinsky.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images.

We asked some former Slatesters to share memories of their time with the magazine. Here’s how they responded. (Replies have been edited.)

Jodie Allen
Washington editor

I was still editor of the Washington Post Sunday Outlook section when I began setting up the Slate D.C. office. It was late one Friday afternoon—Outlook’s busiest time—when I found myself trying to interview a young man named David Plotz while also reading copy, reviewing headlines, scanning proposed and completed illustrations, and communicating with other staff members who popped in and out of my tiny office. I finally apologized to David for doing such a bad job as an interviewer, to which he responded, “You don’t understand. I want to work for you.” I hired him on the spot.

And so the very next week, if I recall correctly, David and I were pounding the pavement looking for a home for the Slate D.C. office. Our search was complicated by the fact that Mike [Kinsley, Slate’s founding editor] insisted we not sign a lease or pay more than a pittance. David and I might still be roaming the streets were it not for Herbert Stein, then a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Herb found us a space in a former storeroom next to the (heavily subsidized) AEI cafeteria.

My own personal favorites from the work we produced include the “Davos Dispatches” that Mike insisted I file as the price of attending the annual World Economic Forum sessions in Switzerland, though not at Slate’s expense. The Swiss internet was so underdeveloped the first year that I had to dictate my entries over the phone.

Chris Suellentrop
Gaming columnist, political correspondent, deputy Washington bureau chief

Whatever career I have I owe to Slate, which makes me Patient Zero for the age of journalism in which aggregating information on the internet replaced covering cops and fire as the entry-level job. I wanted to write and report about politics, but I wanted to do it online. There were a handful of places doing journalism that was native to the medium, including Salon and Feed and Suck and Nerve and Word. My favorite of all of these was Slate. So in the fall of 1999, when I was an intern in the Washington bureau of the Orange County Register, I showed up at a very 1999 event at the National Press Club (it was something about the future of “dead-tree publishing”), for one reason: to ask David Plotz for a job.

David, who was Washington bureau chief, said he didn’t have any openings but that I should send him my stuff. Not long afterward, Jack Shafer asked me if wanted to go for coffee. He had an idea for a new form of journalism. I didn’t know the word “blog” yet, and I don’t know if Jack did, either. But he liked Jim Romenesko’s proto-blog website,, which was a comprehensive compendium of links that was also puckish and idiosyncratic. He thought there should be a similar place for the 2000 presidential campaign. Like all ideas, this seems obvious in retrospect.

I accepted a job to create something we called “the Slate/ politics portal.” You would call it a blog. Not long afterward, I drove to Washington from my parents’ house in the Kansas City suburbs and moved into a dingy studio apartment. At 25, I felt like I had made it to the Show.

I got up every morning before dawn and worked from home, where I filed an early morning roundup straight to the web. I stayed up all night once a month or so to write a Today’s Papers column. I watched the gasbags on the Sunday morning shows for Pundit Central. I wrote Explainers and Cultureboxes and a Breakfast Table and helped midwife the birth of Sports Nut. I learned how little I knew, and yet somehow I got my own column and then I got to cover a presidential campaign on the trail. It spoiled me for life.

Slate taught me to read widely and to think quickly but deeply, that reporting meant more than phone calls and interviews, and that there’s no point to writing the same stories as everyone else, especially when they’re only a click or a thumb-press away. I’ve been affiliated, as a contributor or a staffer, with the New York Times for twice as long as the five years that I worked at Slate, but I still think of myself as a Slatester.

Slate also encouraged me to avoid earnestness, but just this once I’d like to ditch my training. Mike Kinsley was always the the smartest and funniest and kindest guy in the room (or conference call). He remains an inspiration.

Cyrus Krohn

What was the most interesting thing that happened while you were at Slate?
I was managing the Committee of Correspondence feature, and the topic was “Does Microsoft Play Fair?” The panelists were James Gleick, Jim Fallows, Roger McNamee, Peter Huber, and then–Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer. Ballmer missed his deadline and wanted the last word. I had to negotiate with Michael Kinsley to “modify” the rules to allow each contributor one last round so Ballmer could chime in.

What did you learn at Slate that was useful later, and how did you learn it?
Spend within your means. I went on my very first road trip to sell ads for Slate with Scott Moore. He put me up in the New York Palace, we took town cars around the city, and ate a fine dinner. The next morning Scott put his arm around me and asked me how I enjoyed the advertising side of the business. After living lavishly for two days, I announced my enthusiasm. Moore proceeded to tell me that if he ever saw an expense account that large without a seven-figure deal in front of it I wouldn’t last very long in sales. I live by that mantra today: Earn it before you spend it.

Timothy Noah
Senior writer, Chatterbox columnist

When I arrived at Slate I was past the age of 40, and that made me unusual. Most everybody else (excepting Mike Kinsley, the editor, and Jack Shafer, his deputy) was under 30. For me, then, what made Slate a joyful experience was the opportunity not so much to learn new skills as to blend old ones I’d already acquired working two decades for newspapers and magazines, “straight news” and opinion journalism. These all required the use of different muscles, and at Slate I found I had to use them all, which was quite exhilarating. I was especially tickled that I could speak with an authorial voice about news as it was breaking, short-circuiting the hallowed cycle of newsbreak-to-column that had defined print journalism for as long as anyone could remember.

I stayed at Slate for about a dozen years, but those early years were the most fun. For a long time I had what Kinsley called “the keys to the car,” meaning I was allowed to write my column, edit it, write the headline, and then post it myself on Gutenberg, Slate’s proprietary web platform. I remember once fielding a complaint from Peggy Noonan about something I’d written about her. She was particularly incensed about the headline, not entirely without justice (“Peggy Noonan Licks the Hand That Feeds Her“). But she conceded without my saying a word that writers weren’t responsible for headlines; their editors were. I weighed, briefly, whether correcting her on this point would make the world a better place, and concluded it would not.

Meetings were very freewheeling and peppered with good-natured insults, especially between Jack Shafer and me. (Shafer and I have been arguing since 1982, and we continue to do so at Politico, where we both now work.) Kinsley would mostly just listen, but if he really liked something you said he’d reply, “That’s not a terrible idea.” Having written many times before for Kinsley at the New Republic and Harper’s, I’d adjusted long ago to the tepid nature of his praise, so whenever Mike said my idea wasn’t terrible I’d be on cloud nine for the rest of the afternoon.

Until 2005 Slate was owned by Microsoft. Mike always said Microsoft was the perfect owner because, not having any experience in journalism, Bill Gates actually believed all the propaganda news organizations put out about the unbreachable wall between news and business. But the situation did involve some clash of cultures. Before you got hired to work at Slate you had to be interviewed by Microsoft’s HR department, which would ask you questions designed not for journalists but for computer programmers. One such question, meant to test isometric skills, was “Why are manhole covers round?” Kinsley knew most everybody he tried to hire would be stumped, so he’d tell you the answer in advance. (They’re round so they don’t fall in.)

Slate was part of Microsoft’s MSN division, which meant that routinely the staff would receive divisionwide memos on reorganizations and re-prioritizations (which seemed to occur about once a month). These were written in some combination of business school–ese and tech dialect that none of us could come close to parsing, and so we ignored them. By 2005 MSN had got tired of that and Microsoft put Slate up for sale. The eventual buyer was the Washington Post Co., a happy marriage all around. The chairman was Don Graham, who (like Kinsley) is justly beloved and admired by everyone who ever met him. Graham saw Slate as a sort of model for where the Post Co. (and print journalism in general) were headed in the future.

That didn’t really turn out to be true; the Post Co. dissolved when Jeff Bezos bought the paper, and Slate became a unit of a successor company, Graham Holdings. But while Slate was still the Post Co.’s fair-haired child Graham would drag Slate employees into lots of meetings with representatives from the company’s other divisions, who would stare daggers at us while Graham explained that we walked on water. At one of these meetings—actually a smaller, more intimate lunch—there was a guy who really was where journalism was headed in the future, some college kid called Mark Zuckerberg who was a friend of Graham’s daughter at Harvard University. We puzzled over his inclusion and ignored him. In retrospect, that was the most foolhardy act of condescension in my life.

My later years at Slate were less happy ones, as anxiety quietly mounted about revenues; it made me think of D.H. Lawrence’s short story, “The Rocking Horse Winner,” in which every object in a house is forever whispering to the child who inhabits it, “There must be more money!” The more experienced (therefore more expensive) writers started speculating among themselves about when the ax would fall, and in 2011 it did. I was sorry to go. But I’m pleased to see Slate live to celebrate its 20th birthday, apparently in something approximating rude financial health, and I’ll raise my glass to the next 20.

Rob Walker
Ad Report Card and Moneybox columnist

What was the most annoying thing that happened while you were at Slate? What did you learn at Slate that was useful later, and how did you learn it?
A single answer to both questions: direct reader feedback. I’d heard from readers about stuff I’d written for print, but the volume and vehemence of online feedback was a learning experience. This was 2000–2003. I had an email address at the end of all my columns. Slate was owned by Microsoft, and sometimes my stuff would get picked up for the front of, and when that happened I’d get more than 100 emails an hour from readers, many of whom didn’t know what Slate was. Feedback was even more extreme in [Slate’s early commenting section] the Fray. The sheer venom of some responses was kind of shocking. I used to save the most extreme abuse, and years later I wrote this short “portrait in hate mail.”

At the same time, some sliver of the feedback was incredibly useful: tips, ideas, etc. I ended up meeting several regular readers through Slate.

It’s amazing to me that 15 years later, the perils and opportunities of direct reader feedback (through comments or social media or direct accessibility) are still treated like a new issue. It was really useful to come to terms with all that relatively early. I learned how to ignore the worst, when to engage (even with critics), and how to remain open to the really great people who get in touch. (It still happens!)

David Plotz
Editor in chief, deputy editor, staff writer

What did you learn at Slate that was useful later, and how did you learn it?
Mike Kinsley’s greatest gift to the world, continued well by Jacob, but also embodied by Saletan, Jodie Allen, Emily Yoffe, and Dan Kois, among others, is his lust for fun. Mike cares much more about having fun than being important or even being correct. Slate has thrived for as long as it has because it likes to have a good time, and that’s something I have tried to always keep in mind, at Slate, on the Gabfest, and at Atlas.

David Edelstein
Film critic

The first memory that leaps to mind is connected to Scott Shuger, a wonderful, funny, kind man with a wonderful family whose perusals and synopses of Today’s Papers helped to define the language and the reach of web journalism. It wasn’t mere aggregation. It was the kind of distillation and analysis (pointed without being snarky—was that even a word?) that only someone who had lived and experienced as much as Scott could have accomplished, and done in the wee hours of the morning, no less. He set the bar high and I have no doubt that he’d have topped it if not for his tragic, premature death. No remembrance of Slate’s first decade is complete without Today’s Papers.

David Greenberg
History Lesson columnist, editor

I was excited to be part of a new experiment in journalism—and especially for the opportunity to work under Mike Kinsley. I don’t think there is a better magazine editor of his generation. He not only attracted the sort of original, nonconventional thinking that now gets mocked (but in the process honored) as a “Slate pitch”; he also was game to try new and offbeat features, and scuttle them if they didn’t work. At one point I proposed writing the first regular history column, and he not only said yes but paid me enough for each column so I could live in New York while finishing grad school. His only error was changing the name from Backstory to History Lesson.

I was one of a handful of denizens at what was then the New York City outpost. It was me, Judith Shulevitz, Jacob Weisberg, Jared Hohlt, and occasionally someone else passing through, such as Karenna Gore. (I remember picking up a fax to her from her mom, reminding her to send a thank-you note to Aretha Franklin for singing at her wedding.) We enjoyed mocking the tech-world lingo and ideas handed down from Microsoft—including some words that have, alas, gone mainstream, such as “the ask.”

Witold Rybczynski
Architecture critic

Back in 2004, when editor Jacob Weisberg asked me if I would write an architecture column for Slate I was hesitant. I told him that I wasn’t really interested in covering trendy architecture, and he said that was OK with him. He was true to his word; in the seven years that followed I wrote about McMansions, megachurches, and parking garages. “Tall Buildings, Short Architects” examined why so many famous architects are, well, short. “Obama’s Columns” deconstructed the neoclassical backdrop for then–candidate Obama’s acceptance speech.

The tone of Slate in those days was smart—and often smart-alecky. Was that Jacob’s influence? My first piece was an obit of Philip Johnson; it was titled (not by me) “Lived in Glass House, Threw Stones.” I wrote a lot of slideshows—a relatively new format at that time. My first editor, Meghan O’Rourke, with her discriminating poet’s eye, taught me how to squeeze the most out of a 100-word caption. There were several editors over the years. Slate is hardly the New Yorker—there was no fact-checking—but I always appreciated the lively editorial back-and-forth.

Michael Agger
Senior editor

I have a distinct memory of sitting at my desk during my first week at Slate and thinking: “There are no adults around.” Adults in both the sense of actual adult people and in the sense of “Let’s not do that.” This was in 2005, when the New York branch of Slate was located in the Newsweek building on 57th Street. In what is perhaps too literal a metaphor, the brick building was being jackhammered and re-clad in glass. It was like living on a decommissioned battleship. The newsweekly empire was crumbling but there we were at Slate, with no history weighing us down. Instead, we contended with “the Internet” and the daily (not yet hourly) ideal of being relevant, well-written, not-boring. I think that might be Slate’s biggest influence on me: the fear of being boring. And going on too long. And the email. We sent way too much email.

Jody Rosen
Music critic

I got a job as Slate’s music critic in, I think, 2005. I felt like I’d landed in journo heaven. I loved Slate. I was a superfan. I remember reading through all of Bryan Curtis’ Middlebrow columns—assessments of Tom Brokaw and Christmas wreaths and Dunkin’ Donuts—trying to unlock the secret of Bryan’s easeful but electric prose style. I was a late bloomer: I dicked around for years in graduate school and published my first real piece of journalism just after my 30th birthday. I didn’t know what a “pitch” was; I’d never heard the term “TK.” I learned as I earned, as the saying goes. Slate was my J-school.

What a great school it was. The editors-in-chief during my tenure were Jacob Weisberg and David Plotz, and over the years I filed pieces to Meghan O’Rourke, Julia Turner, Michael Agger, John Swansburg, June Thomas, Forrest Wickman, and, on one occasion I believe, Josh Levin. That’s a murderer’s row of the best editors—and best people and finest writers—in journalism. At Slate you can write short or go long; you can crack jokes and dig into history. As long as you aren’t self-indulgent, you can indulge your interests. Swansburg let me write 6,000 words about a hit song from 1909 and 4,000 on the history of the name “Jody.” That kind of freedom spoils a writer for more traditional outlets.

Some of the best memories of my Slate tenure come from the annual retreat at the Mohonk Mountain House in upstate New York. I can still see John Dickerson and Emily Bazelon and various others sitting around with an acoustic guitar playing Dylan songs, looking quite drunk, and singing rather well. At one retreat, Dana Stevens and I, bored during a talk about search engine optimization, started trying to come up with titles for porn versions of famous movies, the filthier the better. (Pubic Enemy, Diddle Her on the Roof, Binding Nemo, Hannah and Her Fisters, Rectum for a Heavyweight, Ordinary Peepholes, The Miracle of Morgan’s Crack, et cetera, et cetera.) Dana and I were in stitches, and we soon inveigled more colleagues into joining the fun. Some of the upper masthead people voiced mild concern about the inappropriateness of this exercise—but by midnight, Dana and I were able to look around the room and behold nearly the entire Slate staff, various journalistic eminences included, shouting “Five Easy Nieces!” “Adam’s Rub!” I remember Ron Rosenbaum wandering in and asking what was going on. When I explained the game to him, he shot back instantly: “The Cock-Tease Falcon.”

Jonah Weiner
Pop critic

What piece ran during your time at Slate that only Slate would ever publish?
Only one thing I’ve written has inspired both the creation of a hashtag and multiple calls for my death, and it only could have run at Slate: an essay, published in 2009, exploring the possibility that Creed wasn’t irredeemably horrible. The mocking hashtag, suggesting a bridge too far, was #slatepitches, which remains in circulation today. The call for my death that stands out most clearly was some guy writing to express his hope that I get hit by a bus and soon. (Ezra Klein declared that Slate deserved to “be burned to the ground,” but did not specify whether I should be in the building when the match was struck.)

I had in mind, in part, something lofty—a look at the contingent nature of critical consensus and taste, through the frame of a band whose name was shorthand for crap; a quick-hit version of what Carl Wilson did so intelligently and elegantly with his book on Celine Dion. More straightforwardly, I had in mind the fact that, having recently dipped back into the Creed catalog with a fellow music writer and friend, neither of us fans, we were both surprised to discover that several of the band’s songs actually ... kind of knocked? In the Slate piece I suggested that Creed’s “Higher” might enjoy a fate similar to that of “Don’t Stop Believin’ ”—a single “dismissed by cognoscenti on arrival as bludgeoning and gauche but destined for rehabilitation down the road as a triumphant slab of ersatz inspirationalism.” That hasn’t happened yet. But I just listened to “My Sacrifice,” and damn if it isn’t a lovely chunk of well-aged cheese.

Julia Felsenthal
Editorial assistant

I arrived at Slate in the summer of 2009, a refugee from a recession-addled Conde Nast. I knew nothing about journalism but I’d already been an assistant in publishing three times over, so I’d pretty much mastered the craft of calendar-keeping, travel-booking, expense-reporting. There was plenty more of that ahead of me—along with orchestrating office moves (three of them!), retreats, Christmas parties, book parties, happy hours, strange events involving Twitter and wine—but Slate also taught me to write. I learned to report by writing Explainers, to research doing long and very nerdy pieces about the history of fashion, to have an opinion blogging for Double X.

Slate people were, and still are, the smartest people I know. They gave me the only professional nickname that’s ever stuck (Felsy!). Mine was the number listed for general inquiries on the site’s contact page. If you’ve ever rumbled with Slate’s community of indefatigable commenters, you have an idea of how often that phone rang. My fiancé likes to tell a story: When he met me, I had something approaching 100 unheard voicemails moldering on my office line. (Sorry, Jacob!) Not long after that I realized it was time to leave. To this day, many, many jobs later, the greatest compliment anyone can give a piece I’ve written is to call it Slate-y.

Amanda Hess
Staff writer

What was the most interesting thing that happened while you were at Slate?
I was at Slate when the podcast network Panoply launched. The skill set of the Slate offices shifted almost overnight—we went from an office full of people who cared mostly about how things read to one also teeming with people who cared about how things sound.

What was the most annoying thing that happened while you were at Slate?
The most annoying thing that happened while I was there was that Facebook fiddled with its algorithm for surfacing news stories, and I had the sinking feeling that, increasingly, journalists are writing for machines instead of people.

What did you learn at Slate that was useful later, and how did you learn it?
I learned to appreciate the little things. Tiny details and seemingly inconsequential questions can open up a whole world of reporting, criticism, and funny jokes. I learned it by reading Forrest Wickman’s seminal piece on when wearing both backpack straps became cooler than wearing just one backpack strap.

What piece ran during your time at Slate that only Slate would ever publish?
let me write a close-read of boy band videos that investigated why teen pop idols don’t make constipated faces anymore, and for that I will be forever grateful.

Laura Helmuth
Science and health editor

One of the things I love most about Slate is the Jerk Watch sensibility. The classic of the form is the Sports Jerk Watch series, in which a writer identifies, analyzes, and grades an athlete or coach for jerkiness. These posts have enhanced my enjoyment of the Super Bowl, World Cup, Olympics, and every other major sporting event a thousand times more than any emotionally manipulative NBC profile. It’s a special kind of kicking. It’s not like Gawker, which kicked in all directions for the joy of kicking, or major newspapers, which kick at abuse of power in a Very Serious Way. Slate kicks specifically at jerks. Slate hires no assholes and suffers no assholes.

My favorite stories from my time as science and health editor were basically jerk watches. The jerk in question has to be powerful and unrepentant. For instance, Dr. Mehmet Oz sells his huge TV audience on quack nutritional supplements. Richard Dawkins, one of the most famous living scientists, picks on kids, women, and minorities on social media. Francis Collins, head of the National Institutes of Health, and his colleagues are rewriting history so their team can take sole credit for sequencing the human genome. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. uses his name and connections to push a dangerous and completely discredited conspiracy theory about vaccines. Jim Watson, co-recognizer of the structure of DNA, is a bigot who put his Nobel Prize up for sale in a fit of pique.

We never got Oz to stick to scientifically tested medical advice, Dawkins to be nice, Collins to play fair, Kennedy to admit he is wrong, or Watson to be anything but jerkity-jerky Watson. But it sure was fun trying.