Since it launched 20 years ago, Slate has been helmed by four editors in chief: Michael Kinsley, Jacob Weisberg, David Plotz, and Julia Turner. They gathered in Slate’s Washington, D.C., studio on Sept. 15 for a look at the magazine’s history, moderated by executive editor Josh Levin.
The recording is in your Slate Plus podcast feed now. The transcript below has been edited for clarity.
Josh Levin: Hi. This is Josh Levin. I’m the executive editor of Slate, which is a fancy way of saying I’m No. 3 on the masthead. We’re celebrating Slate’s 20th anniversary this year, and I’m joined today by the four faces on Mount Slatemore, the four editors who’ve run the website since it came into existence in 1996.
Joining me today is a woman who speaks at a normal human volume and carries a big stick, a panelist on the Slate Culture Gabfest and the editor of Slate from 2014 to the present day, Julia Turner. Hello, Julia.
Julia Turner: Hi, Josh.
Levin: Also here is Julia’s predecessor, a man with a beard, who hates the theater, the host of the Political Gabfest, the CEO of Atlas Obscura, and the editor of Slate from 2008 to 2014, David Plotz.
David Plotz: Hi, Josh.
Levin: Next up is the leader who expanded Slate’s footprint by 827,987 square miles, the editor of Slate from 2002 to 2008 and now the chairman and editor in chief of The Slate Group, Jacob Weisberg.
Jacob Weisberg: I’m not sure what that meant, but thanks, Josh.
Levin: Louisiana Purchase.
Levin: And finally our founding father, the editor of Slate from 1996 to 2002, Michael Kinsley.
Michael Kinsley: Thank you.
Levin: And, Mike, in a piece you wrote around the time of Slate’s 10th anniversary, you described moving to Seattle on Christmas Day in 1995 to start this new venture with Microsoft. You brought a memo with you about what you thought Slate should be. Do you remember what was in this memo?
Kinsley: I have lost all copies of that memo. And if it ever showed up, I might destroy the ones left because it had all sorts of ideas. It was just—that was what Microsoft gave me. I walked in; they said, “Here’s a room. Here’s a computer. Write a long memo about what you intend to do.” And so I spent the first two or three weeks doing that. And, oh, God. It was wrong, wrong, wrong.
Some of the things actually ended up in the early issues, like page numbers. Remember that? Because we thought that there were people who would look at the cover and then look up the table of contents and then thumb through it like a normal magazine.
Weisberg: I hate to say it, but I think we also thought people were going to print it out and read it.
Kinsley: Oh, yes. I was obsessed with making it easy to print out. I thought, basically, it would be like the New Republic or something. It would be a small magazine that you could set your computer to print out once a week.
Plotz: But we published it once a week for that first year. We really basically published it—what was it? We propped Slate?
Plotz: It was a term. We propped Slate on Thursday, maybe. And everything was published for the week.
Turner: So you guys had like a close?
Plotz: We had a close.
Plotz: There were little bits of update. Like there were a couple of features that updated. But in the very beginning, it really was a once-a-week publication. And it had that music too. Do you remember?
Kinsley: Oh, yeah.
Weisberg: It was Fats Waller, right?
Kinsley: “You Meet the Nicest People in Your Dreams.” Great song. And we paid, I think, $5,000, $10,000 for the right to use that music. And we had a little thing on the page that said “Click to hear music.”
And then if you clicked, you could wave and a music server would pop up and play music. And it was sort of pointless.
Turner: Was the idea that you would have nice music to accompany you while you were printing it out?
Kinsley: Well, yeah. I mean the idea was that we had this new technology and we ought to do anything we could to exploit it to take up—to counteract the disadvantage of having to read it on the computer.
Levin: It was like a simulator of a dentist’s office.
Turner: Why did you choose that song? I kind of love the idea that that was the song.
Kinsley: Oh. It’s just a great song. I always loved it.
Weisberg: It’s just Mike’s taste.
Turner: Yeah, but I also kind of feel like the arc of Slate is—or, I don’t know, the thing I loved about Slate, reading it before I ever came to work, was the idea that the fact that it existed online meant that there were the nicest people—maybe not so nice, actually, but people—likeminded people around the country that also seemed to like this thing. Like seeing it and reading it felt like proof that there were other people out there who were as interesting and interested that it was fun to be in conversation with.
Kinsley: You can hear this if you want on YouTube.
Turner: We should just make it a soundbed under this podcast.
Plotz: Well, the other great early audio on Slate, which I think is lost—I don’t know; maybe you guys have retrieved it—was the Seamus Heaney reading, “The Flowers of Asturias” or something. That was amazing. But maybe we only had the rights to have it up for a year or something. [Editor’s note: The poem is called “The Little Canticles of Asturias.” Heaney’s recording is no longer in the Slate archive, presumably for legal reasons.]
Kinsley: I think the rights were limited, but we had a poem every week picked out by Robert Pinsky, who at that time was the, uh, poet laureate of the Unites States. I think he had some fancy title like that.
Weisberg: He kept doing that. I mean, I think we have a more-than-15-year archive of those poems he picked every week and, and most of them recorded by the poet. When the poet was either a historical poet or couldn’t do it, he would record it himself. But those are fantastic.
Levin: So, Mike, having come from the New Republic, what was your thought on what you wanted Slate to be? You had written that you’d dreamed of starting a news magazine online. Is that how you envisioned it?
Kinsley: Doesn’t everybody? Um, yeah. I—
Plotz: But—sorry, I just had a flash of memory when you were—because you were badmouthing your memo. Your memo was so good, and I remember reading it at the time, but there was a line in it which actually, I think, came to define Slate so much, which was, “Journalism is encrusted by useless anecdote.” And I remember that phrase just stuck with me. And there was always this idea that when you were writing Slate pieces, just don’t throw the anecdote in. Don’t have the anecdotal lede. If you’ve contributed nothing else to American journalism, like that’s a great contribution.
Kinsley: I don’t know if I actually cut down the number of anecdotes you read in American journalism, but if I did, that’d be nice.
Weisberg: And don’t quote people. And, preferably, don’t interview them at all. And no semicolons.
Kinsley: Yeah, I think all that was a bit of a precursor to the fashion now for data. The idea that just interviewing real people is useless, it’s unscientific, and what you need is a big chart. And that was not exactly my idea, but that’s the idea of the current data fad.
Turner: I do remember when I first started, you know, one of my first assignments was writing Explainers and having—you know, I’d spent however many years going out and getting interesting quotes. And I think you, David, took me aside early on and were like, “Don’t quote anybody. The whole thing with quotes is basically you’re flattering them. The reason they talk to you is because they just want to see their name in print, and the quote is just a thank-you note to them for giving you the time and some information. So, just use the information. Put it in your words. You’re the writer. And we just have this italics line at the bottom where you put their name so they get to see their name in lights. But you can do it in a more efficient way.” And it seems so like radical and right at the same time.
Weisberg: But these were like the quotations from Chairman Mike, right? And I remember the thing I always said that I attributed to you was, “Only quote somebody if they’ve said something better than you can say it. Otherwise, paraphrase it and thank them.” And there were just these sort of precepts that we’d all absorbed, which all went completely contrary to what every other magazine did. Fact-checking. You know, we never—we didn’t just not have fact-checking. We were against fact-checking.
Plotz: “We have fact-checkers. They’re called writers.” That was your line.
Levin: What was it like to work for Mike?
Plotz: Can I take that? Can I take that first, Jacob?
Plotz: Then you can have the second swipe at it. So, my favorite—can I tell two quick Mike stories, one of which I’ve told in print, which is that when—so, I was living in Washington, D.C., and Slate was headquartered in Seattle. And Mike invited me to come out. And I was a junior person in the D.C. office of a two-person D.C. office and came out and spent a month out in Redmond. Mike invited me.
And he invited me to go on a hike with him one day. And I don’t even know if you remember this, Mike, but we hike—we were hiking up to a hot springs. And we get to this hot springs, which is—and discover it’s colonized by some stoned hippies who were cooking vegetables in the hot springs. And they’re all naked. And I just remember Mike turning to me and going, “When in Rome,” and dropping trou and like us—
Kinsley: I find this hard to believe, but I remember it.
Plotz: It was just—I just like thought, this is the guy who, you know—first of all, he’d invited his junior employee out on a hike, barely knew me. We had a great time. Or I had a great time. I don’t know if you did. And the kind of—the sort of going with it and enjoying that moment was fantastic.
But the other more telling anecdote about what it was like to work with Mike was, also on that same trip, I had become obsessed with earwax and earwax removal. And Mike encouraged me to go investigate earwax removal. And so I spent an inordinate amount of time getting ear-candled and getting earwax dug out of my ear and actually gave myself an ear infection by doing this all in the service of some piece that I was going to write. And I ended up—
Weisberg: —Stone deaf.
Plotz: Yeah. I ended up totally deaf. But I came back to Mike and sort of explained what had happened. And we decided there wasn’t a piece.
But then Mike wrote a—you wrote a couple of paragraphs about it in something you were writing. And you had this line, which was, “Nothing human is alien to Slate.” And it was just this idea like, “We’re going to try it. We’re going to play around and try it and experiment and experiment on our bodies.
And it was awesome. It was that—I had such a sense of liberty working for you.
Weisberg: At least he didn’t get you to smoke crack.
Plotz: Previous magazine. Right.
Weisberg: Yeah. But, you know, I mean I started working for Mike at the New Republic. I would describe it as like working as a hitman but not for the money, just for the sheer joy of it. There was sort of a culture working for Mike at Slate that you just didn’t accept any of the assumptions people made. It didn’t mean those assumptions were necessarily wrong, but you questioned them. And I think Mike in the early days of Slate immediately applied that to all of the emerging shibboleths about the internet.
I remember the first year when we were still publishing on a weekly schedule. Maybe it wasn’t the first year but it was early on. There was this vogue for user-generated comment and this idea that on the internet everybody’s equal and you gave a quote somewhere that, “When I go to a restaurant, I don’t want the customers to cook dinner. I want the chef to cook dinner.” And it was like you had taken on the whole internet, you know, starting with all the other web magazines.
It was fantastic. You had distilled the reason we didn’t buy into the new cliché—so deathly, you know? But people really were enraged about that.
Kinsley: And you’ve got to credit Microsoft. They never, they let us do whatever we wanted, and they never—well, they complained, but they never did anything about it.
Weisberg: Well, you trained them.
I mean, I wasn’t in these discussions or meetings, but my sense was that you did a very good job of going to Bill Gates and the other senior executives there and saying, “Look. You don’t have to have a magazine. But if you have a magazine, you have to leave it alone because you’ll have no credibility if you interfere with the content even once.” And they assimilated that. And I’ve heard, more than once, Bill Gates say that himself. But I think he’d absorbed that from you.
Kinsley: Well, possibly, but who knows?
Levin: So, what about the paywall? When Slate was first started, the idea was that people would pay for it from the beginning. That didn’t quite happen. And then in 1998, the paywall went up. And it went down 11 months after?
Kinsley: I said a lot of very pompous things about the paywall. I said, “We writers feel we’re putting out a good product, and the people ought to be willing to pay for it and not only read it if it’s free.” And that turned out to be wrong. And we charged $19 for a year. What is Slate Plus now?
Turner: Fifty bucks.
Kinsley: Oh. Well, there you go.
Plotz: Thirty-five during the discount season.
Weisberg: And you don’t get an edition of Encarta, $65 value.
Turner: If you pay 25, we’ll give you that.
Kinsley: So, we were going to charge—put down the paywall, as they say now. But every week, we sort of put it off a couple more weeks. And it got to be June, and I’d been there since December. And Peter Neupert, who was a vice president of Microsoft and our boss, said, “You’ve got to start charging.” So, we did, and we got 35,000 circulation or something, which I thought wasn’t bad. That was about the size of the Nation at the time.
Weisberg: That number’s only gotten bigger in retrospect.
Kinsley: Well, I think we had 35,000. At any rate, we had something under 100,000.
And it became obvious because our front porch, the free part, meanwhile, was running up huge numbers, what we regarded as huge numbers, like 400,000-something. And we learned the lesson that everyone else knew, that you can make more money by letting people in for free and selling ads to them than by trying to charge them.
Weisberg: Or if you can’t make money either way, you might as well have the big audience versus the small audience.
Weisberg: David, I don’t know how you remember that, but I remember that as being the worst year at Slate because up until that point we had this really growing audience. And suddenly, the maximum audience for most of the things on Slate were the number of paid subscribers. And you just felt like you weren’t getting the same reach with what you wrote.
Plotz: Right. We’d had this tremendous growth for the ’90s. I mean, the numbers are so much smaller than they are today. But then it was just a dark, dark year. And we just got umbrellas.
Levin: Were you guys worried about the viability of Slate at that point, that it was going to shut down?
Plotz: The existential worry about Slate for me—there were two moments. One was when Mike almost went to the New Yorker—which was when?
Plotz: ’98. Because I think, had you gone to be the editor of the New Yorker, there was no reason they would—you thought, like, oh, maybe they’ll keep Slate. But probably they wouldn’t have.
Kinsley: No. My sources, which are pretty good, say that they were going to shut it down if I left.
Weisberg: I think Mike was referring to the fact that he married his boss.
Kinsley: Not Peter Neupert.
Plotz: And then I felt like there was this moment, because everything collapsed on the internet. When was it? In 2000 or 2001?
Plotz: And we hadn’t been much of a business, but then we became even less of a business. And there was sort the sense of, “Why are we here? What are we doing here? Do we ...?” And we never felt that squash lift until we got sold to the [Washington] Post.
Weisberg: Yeah. I mean it was funny. As I remember it, you know, there was this huge bubble in 1999–2000, and people were coming to us and saying, “Slate should do an IPO,” and “Slate would be worth hundreds of millions of dollars.”
And Salon, which was the closest parallel in structure, actually did that. We had both been probably around 30 employees in size, and Salon quickly added 100 people all over the world. And we were not totally without envy of that, but we were like, you know, “We’re not doing that. We’re trying to do this cheaply.” And then the crash came, and we suddenly looked very wise because we didn’t have to lay people off. We hadn’t gotten bloated.
But we had had a lot of advertisers—you know, Pets.com—who didn’t exist anymore and weren’t paying their bills.
Kinsley: Salon was out to get us from the beginning. And they used to run weekly traffic reports in which they claimed that they were growing by 11 percent, and we were shrinking by 37 petcent, and things like that. Well, I wrote one piece comparing what they were telling the SEC with what they were telling their audience. And the difference could’ve sent them to jail.
Weisberg: Was that when you provoked David Talbot into saying that you weren’t the sexiest guy in the world?
Kinsley: Yeah. That was not something I could really challenge. I just said, you know, “How lucky can one guy be? Editor of Slate and the sexiest guy in the world?” I said, “That would be too much to ask.”
Levin: And I think you said that being the editor of Salon and being the sexiest man in the world is kind of a Faustian bargain.
Levin: Jake, what was it like being a political writer for Slate? Seth Stevenson told me that he had a really hard time getting people to return his calls in the early days. And then when he went to Newsweek and did journalism that he didn’t think was as good, he could get people to call him back in 10 seconds.
Weisberg: Yeah, that was an issue. I mean, in 1996, I came to Slate after Slate had just started in the middle of the ’96 presidential campaign. And I do remember these conversations with Bob Dole’s staff, telling them, “Well, first, there’s this thing called the internet. And, secondly, we’re publishing articles on it. And, third, you should let us on the plane as if we were the Wall Street Journal.” But, you know, partly because I’d been covering the campaign for New York magazine before that and I had some contacts, I sort of talked my way on. And actually Jake Tapper, who was covering it for Salon, and I were the first two—I wasn’t as full time as he was, but we were covering it.
And there was a lot of comedy around that, about people just had no idea what the hell you were doing. But in the circus of a presidential campaign, they didn’t have any idea what the hell a lot of people were doing. But the thing I discovered doing that was that, because you were publishing in real time—one of Mike’s phrases was, “You’ve got the keys to the car,” which means you can publish yourself remotely through our publishing system without even going through a copy editor. So, you really talk about the writer being the fact-checker. You had to be careful about that. But because you could do that in real time, you would be the first report about any press conference or event, and the other reporters would at least glance at what you’d published before doing their piece. And it wasn’t so much that you could beat the New York Times. It’s that you could have an effect on how the New York Times played the story just because you were first.
Kinsley: Can I say a word about Jacob? He says he joined in the middle of the ’96 campaign.
I took advantage of this opportunity which came along. I was eager to edit something. I didn’t know what. I did not have to take a big risk to do it. Jacob took more risk, I think, than anyone involved in Slate, because you were the political correspondent of New York magazine, right? You traded that in for this mysterious thing.
Weisberg: For a job at Microsoft with stock options, yes. But, you know, it’s funny. People did. And if you went to do this in ’96—and, you know, David, although younger, I’m sure had the same experience—there were people who thought you were kind of crazy, but there were also a lot of people who thought that was really cool.
The thing we used to say at the time was, “You don’t get that many opportunities in a career—like usually one or none—to be involved in creating a whole new medium for journalism.” And that’s the thing that was totally irresistible about Slate, that we didn’t really know what journalism was going to be in this new form but that we were going to be the ones who were going to find out.
Plotz: But not just find out. I mean—and I don’t take credit for any of this—but so much of what it became, we didn’t invent, but we had at least a piece of the invention.
I think Mike, above all, can claim credit. But the conversational tone that the internet has taken on, so much of that is something that we developed in the email sort of writing that we were doing, the early blogging that you had Mickey [Kaus] doing.
Plotz: I think the Slate 60, where we were chronicling the big philanthropic donations, that was an early pioneering list function that we were doing, and data analysis and collection. The crowdsourcing reporting that I did with my sperm bank story. There were so many things which were—it wasn’t just that we got to witness it, it was like we got to be in the lab. And that was fantastic.
Turner: Yeah. And there’s a few more. Aggregation, right? Today’s Papers, which I think was your idea, right, Mike? The notion of just, like, why don’t we write one quick, pithy thing that explains what all the top papers say is important and compare notes on how they tell the story? That’s what half the internet is these days. And even down to links, right?
Weisberg: Yeah, putting links in stories.
Turner: Putting links in stories.
Weisberg: We were the first ones doing that.
Turner: Yeah, the idea that, instead of undergirding all of your reporting with like three paragraphs of explanation, you could just link out quickly to something. I remember even when I started, still the Times wasn’t linking. You know, it was, like, odd to link.
Weisberg: I think we invented the slideshow. I mean, some of the things we invented are kind of regrettable.
Turner: I think our invention of the slideshow has been overstated. I think we used the slideshow better than other people.
Kinsley: I wonder about links too. It seems to me I said in this notorious memo that we didn’t want to clutter what we wrote with links. If we could put them all down at the end—
Turner: Oh. I didn’t realize you were anti-link.
Plotz: We didn’t invent links, Julia.
Turner: I never said you invented links. You mainstreamed links.
Weisberg: We invented the internet. Come on.
But there were a lot of things that, whether we technically did them first—I mean I always have this argument with Mickey Kaus because I say to him, “You wrote the first blog that anyone read.” And he always says, “But I found earlier blogs in the field of chemistry,” you know. And it’s like, yes, we didn’t invent the technology of the blog, and I’m sure we didn’t have the first blog. But we had the first blog that people read and talked about in a mainstream magazine, you know?
And I think there were a lot of things like that. It wasn’t necessarily that we had the specific innovation. But we figured out how to use this emerging digital technology. It’s not that we invented links, but it’s the way we learned to use links in telling a story, as a kind of internal footnote, that is now totally ubiquitous. But I don’t think you found it anywhere else being done that way in 1996.
Levin: Mike, you left in 2002. You told David Carr of the New York Times, “I didn’t do what I intended to do, which was to prove that the economy of the internet made it possible for this kind of journalism to be self-supporting.” What did you feel when you left Slate? Did you feel like you left it not in a great place financially? Were you proud of what you had accomplished?
Kinsley: Yeah. I thought it had turned out pretty well. Hadn’t done everything we wanted to do, but it was—we had developed things like links. No, like aggregation and blogs, I think, are two things that we deserve a certain amount of credit for. And I left Slate for—well, the best job on the West Coast, that seemed to me, in journalism was editor of Slate. And the second best was opinion editor of the Los Angeles Times. I may have been wrong about that. But I went and did that.
Levin: So, Jake, you were not named Mike’s successor right away. There was a bake-off. How did that go?
Weisberg: That’s one of the things I choose to forget as much as possible because, you know, we were a small, very familylike group. I mean, you know, Slate was about 30 people, and we were all personally close. And there was internal competition, and that might not have been Mike’s best idea of how to pick his successor. But, you know, I think it worked out in the end.
Part of the issue for me was that I didn’t move to Seattle. I’d always worked for Slate from New York, often covering Washington. And our New York office was two people or three people. And when I became editor, there was this staff out in Seattle, little staff in Washington, and New York was basically an office because of me and one other person.
Levin: David, when I talked to Will Saletan and June Thomas, folks who were around back then, they told me that the shift from Mike to Jake felt like kind of the most momentous shift in Slate history, sort of like what you were saying before in 1998 and the New Yorker, this idea of: Can Slate exist without Mike Kinsley? And also the shift away from Seattle. Is that how you felt at the time?
Plotz: I was actually in Japan during the big shift-over. So, I missed some of it.
Levin: Good timing.
Plotz: And also I worked out of the D.C. office, which was another very small office. And so I didn’t experience what I think was quite traumatic for all the people out in Seattle, which is that here we were, this company that was owned by Microsoft. We were fully ensconced within the Microsoft campus. And, basically, it was clear when Jake came in as editor that the intellectual weight and the actual weight of the magazine was going to shift east. And it had to shift east. I think it’s—you know, Wired and Mother Jones have maybe proven otherwise, but it’s very hard to run a magazine based on news from the West Coast because of how the time works. Like, more stuff happens in New York and Washington that a place like Slate needs to cover. And I think it’s just hard to stay on top of some of that from Seattle.
And so it had to move. And so all these folks who had been part of the building of Slate and the creation of Slate had to decide, are they going to come to New York, or are they going to, you know, leave Slate? Or a few people stayed. But when we fully moved by 2005 or 2006—
Weisberg: Most of the Seattle people only moved when we were sold to the Washington Post [in 2004]. So, before that, I mean I was editor for two years, and I would go to Seattle for a week every six weeks. I was spending a lot of time in Seattle because that’s where our staff was, and that was where the magazine was and the management was. I don’t remember anybody coming east right away. Maybe one or two people did, but it was only after we sold it that we then closed the Seattle office.
Levin: So, I started in ’03, which was the Jake Weisberg era. And, Julia, you started the same year I did. I feel like the magazine, the website that Slate is today, was really created then. Do you feel like that’s the case? And what was your thought on what you wanted to do as the editor?
Weisberg: Well, my theory of the case was we would keep doing the magazine Mike created with a few small changes. But some of those small changes probably turned into big changes. Probably the biggest change was the expansion of coverage beyond news and politics. We’d always done culture pieces, but, you know, Mike’s approach was always, “Give me a piece so I only have to read one about, say, fashion,” or something like that. We’d never had a TV critic. We did have a movie critic from the beginning. But I brought in Virginia Heffernan to write about TV, which we’d never done before. We expanded culture a lot. And then, you know, we brought in some new writers. Christopher Hitchens came on. Emily Yoffe came on as Dear Prudence. A lot of the people who then were thought of as the “had always been there” voices of Slate, I think did come on after Mike handed it over to me.
Kinsley: I had always wanted to have—if I ever got my hands on a magazine for real, I thought the big defect in the New Republic was that it didn’t cover popular culture. And I was going to cover popular culture, I thought, in a way that was not patronizing but was also not trying to—not a middle-aged guy trying to dance or something. And I never did it. Jacob took a year off of politics to cover the culture. And that was great. And the evolution of Slate, as I’ve seen it now from afar for seven, eight years, is that there’s much more cultural coverage. And it’s very good, and it’s one of the things that I think makes Slate a good read.
Levin: Julia, how did you decide to come to Slate? What did you see in 2003 that made you want to come?
Turner: I still have the cover letter that I sent to David Plotz. You were the head of the Washington bureau, I think, when I applied. And there was an editorial assistant position open, and I had been working at a magazine at Time Inc. that had just shut down. So I had some kind of long, cushy Time Inc. severance where we just got to go to a floor of Time Inc. for months and use their computers.
Weisberg: You were 22.
Turner: Yeah. Like, I had a like a six-month fully paid job search. It was great. And I always got to go work at some other Time Inc. glossy of some kind, and I heard about this job. I knew Slate primarily from the Movie Club, actually. When did the Movie Club start? Did you start it, Jacob, or did Mike?
Kinsley: I don’t know. I think you did.
Weisberg: I think that one predated me.
Turner: I was lured by Slate’s amazing pop culture coverage that started in the Mike era. So I strongly object to the narrative that’s been established here.
But I was a huge fan of the end-of-year Movie Club, which David Edelstein convened, which was a bunch of really smart critics comparing notes on the best movies. It used the epistolary format that Slate used so much at the beginning, and it was just these incredibly funny, smart emails back and forth. It just felt like a kind of writing that was so vivid and so smart and so different from what I had been manufacturing at Time Inc. You know, at Time Inc., it always felt like we were this group of smart people in New York, and we had some respect for our readers. We thought they were smart enough to read us. But they were very clearly this other group of people somewhere else, and we were trying to triangulate between our New York Time Inc. Tower interests and the interests of these somewhat-discerning people in order to come up with the stories.
And it was just so clear from reading Slate that anything anybody at Slate thought was interesting was good enough to put in the magazine. And there had to be no more justification for it beyond that.
Part of that comes from the infinity of the internet, right? Like, you could write about earwax, or report about earwax and then not write about it, because you weren’t elbowing out Jacob’s dispatch from the [campaign] plane, you know? You can be much more experimental.
Plotz: I just want to say that my earwax story totally would have done more traffic than your plane piece.
Weisberg: Yeah. Now it would be a killer on Facebook.
Plotz: I would’ve tweeted that.
Weisberg: Yes. Another thing I got from Mike is the idea that when magazines talked about what their audience wanted, it was kind of BS. And at Slate, I was probably saying, “The people who make the magazine are the audience. We want to do things we think are interesting, and we assume that there’s an audience of people out there who are enough like us that they’ll find it interesting too.” But we never talked about what—that was like a taboo phrase at Slate, “What does the audience want?”
Turner: The two things that were most shocking were: a) just any old thing that you thought was interesting was definitely a story unless it was boring, in which case it definitely wasn’t. And do you invite other people there to be boring? And then, like, I got the keys to the car very fast. And I was used to having like seven layers of editors above me and the fact-checking and the final proof and the galley this and the galley that. And I think in like week three, you were like, “Okay. Why don’t you edit Explainer now?” I’d written like two of them and I just got to push the button and make this thing live for thousands of readers.
Levin: This could maybe go back to Mike or whoever wants to weigh in: Where did Slate’s contrarianism come from?
Plotz: What contrarianism? There’s no contrarianism.
Kinsley: I mean, you’d want to write an article that says something that no one else is saying. Otherwise, there’s no point. But Josh, you’re hinting at a legitimate criticism of the Internet and even of Slate a bit, sort of knee-jerk contrarianism. You know, if I say that David Plotz is wearing a pink shirt, Julia says, “No. He’s not.”
Levin: He is, in fact, wearing a pink shirt.
Turner: Well, actually, it’s white with small red dots.
Kinsley: Yeah. So, that snark, as it’s sometimes called, is—it’s cheap. And I think we did a good job of minimizing it, not eliminating it, while still being snarky.
Weisberg: We’ve all had our own sort of relationship to this question because, you know, we have the sort of on-running joke of the #slatepitch, which is the opposite of what everybody thinks. And it’s a great Internet meme and hashtag people use. But, you know, I always thought, take the contrarian question as the starting point. Don’t assume there’s always a contrarian argument to be made. But question the assumption enough and see where it leads you, and you often get an interesting piece out of it. You often don’t.
You know, knee-jerk contrarianism is just writing, “David’s not wearing a pink shirt,” just to prove how clever you are that you can make the argument.
Levin: Who do you guys think of as being the Slate-iest voice or brain? From my time in 2003 since, I always think of Dan Engber as being the Slate-iest person. He wrote the Explainer for so many years and is just such an agile, smart, interesting mind, writes about science for us now. Who was that for you?
Plotz: I’ll start. Seth Stevenson for me. Seth came, he was an editorial assistant in ‘96 or ‘97. I think he would never have gotten the job today. We had, you know, two applicants for the job. In his job interview, he barely spoke. And he was just this very shy, withholding person. And he had very little writing. And then he started to write, and he just had this kind of stylishness and humor and willingness to try anything that was inspiring.
I actually think, if you read Slate, a lot of Slate sounds—especially in the early days, it sounded like Mike. I certainly was trying to sound like Mike. But I think, as time has gone on, more of it has tried to sound like Seth sounds, which is in a way more personal, more experiential, but with a kind of experimental basis to a lot of the work.
Turner: Yeah. And as someone who edited Seth for many years, he has an incredibly colloquial style, but it is not tossed off. There’s a lot of work behind how clear and lucid and conversational his writing is. For me, I think Saletan. I mean William Saletan’s been here almost the whole time. Did he start before you guys began?
Turner: Yeah. So, he’s been here the full run of it, and the complete logical machine of his mind and his willingness to ask any question and follow it in many different directions—it’s just always fun to throw a problem to Saletan because you’re never quite sure where he’ll get with it, and it’s always interesting.
Weisberg: Both of them. I would’ve said in the early days David too because David was like the decathlete of Slate. You know, one of our signature columns was this thing, Assessment. And David just did it so well, you know. And I remember, when we tried to get other people to do the Assessment, we finally gave up because nobody could do it as well as David. But you would just kind of say, “Just do it like David did it,” but they never could because he’d have that— he created that voice for the column.
Plotz: And one more person, actually, I’ll put in there is Dahlia Lithwick, who Mike hired I guess to cover the Microsoft trial.
Kinsley: No. No. I thought we needed to cover the Supreme Court the way, you know, Congress is covered and the way Parliament is covered by the British papers, you know, with a little bit of color and human beings. Dahlia was a novelist, wasn’t she? She’d already started a novel. And a lawyer. And you found her, David, I think, as I recall.
Weisberg: I think Jodi Kantor actually found her, as I remember it. And we did—the first thing she did was, when we were covering the Microsoft trial, which Michael Lewis was doing, she subbed in for a couple days.
Weisberg: But then I don’t remember who had the genius idea of having her be the sort of theatre critic of the Supreme Court. But I do know that, you know, one of the traditions you started was Slate as a kind of halfway house for escaped lawyers because you’re an escaped lawyer yourself, and Mickey Kaus. And Dahlia fits into that.
Plotz: Jodi Kantor was.
Turner: We just saved another lawyer this year, by bringing Mark Stern to staff full time.
Plotz: Yep. Oh, is Mark full time now?
Turner: He finished law school, took the bar, and is going to promptly use that to make less money writing for us.
Plotz: Did an angel get its wings? Each time we save a lawyer an angel gets it wings?
Turner: I think so.
Levin: So, Jake, what about the transition from Microsoft to the Washington Post? How did that come about? And was there any sense of existential crisis in that? Or was that just opportunity?
Weisberg: No. I think what happened—I mean at least my memory of it is that, you know, part of the mission I’d inherited from Mike was not just to put out a great magazine but to figure out how you could create an economic basis for doing this kind of high-quality journalism. And after about a year or two, I’d come to the conclusion that we couldn’t do that at Microsoft, not because of any ill will on their part. They were very supportive, but we were just so small. And they’d by that point developed a very big business around Internet advertising. But it was very hard for us to get attention from MSN. And I just thought we’d probably be better off in a media company. So, I enlisted Mike, who’d left at that point. And we sort of jointly, I think, talked Microsoft into letting us explore other options. And that’s basically how it was initiated. And then, you know, we both called Don Graham, who was kind of the first choice because of his reputation in the business.
Levin: Plotz, did you have thoughts about that move from being here since the beginning of the Microsoft days?
Plotz: Well, it was such a good move. I don’t—I think those of us who were down in the staff only learned about this when it was fairly late on. We didn’t know that this was about to happen. I mean I was the deputy editor at that point, and I think even I didn’t—I mean, I learned about it before it was announced but not that much before it was announced. And it was so clearly the right move. We were so out of place, especially as we’d gone more of the center of gravity. The magazine was in New York and D.C. Microsoft itself had—Microsoft when we had gone there had a ton of media ventures. They had Mungo Park, which is a travel magazine; UnderWire, a women’s magazine; Sidewalk, which is a city magazine.
Weisberg: Are you sure those first two things existed?
Plotz: It’s for real.
Turner: Can I say that’s like the worst name for a women’s magazine?
Weisberg: They had 30 web publications.
Plotz: And by the time we left, there was MSN, which was a big venture. And that was it—and us. And we were just—they weren’t a media company. They didn’t know what to do. And the Washington Post Co. was—the sensibility was right. Don [Graham], you know, was an incredible owner. He loved Slate, and it was clear they were going to—and Jake can talk about this more, but we were good size for the Washington Post Co., which is that we were big enough that we had to become a real business, but we weren’t so big that we could wreck the company.
Turner: I mean the other thing I remember is that, to the degree that there was an ad sales business at Microsoft at the time, it felt like it was very much around the MSN home page audience. And the thing that felt like it made so much sense about the move to the Washington Post was, what we were doing was, you know, smarty-pants, curious journalism, opinion, and analysis for a very similar type of audience as the ones that the Post and Newsweek were already reaching out to. And so getting into business with those guys felt more sensible than trying to carve our tiny little audience out from the huge MSN audience.
Weisberg: Yeah. I mean it’s risky. A move like that is very risky because you have an embedded culture. And, of course, people were going to physically have to move, lots of them, from the West Coast. And I was just—other than us ending up in the right hands, I was most intent on the idea that we were just going to keep this group, which was about 30 people, almost all editors, together. And remember, it was a huge amount of effort into, you know, everybody has to come. We’re just picking up this thing, and we’re moving it to another place. We’re not rebuilding it. We’re not using this as an opportunity to get rid of some people and bring in some other people. And, by God, we kind of pulled that off. I mean, we barely lost anybody in that move.
Levin: I was hired as a full-time employee upon the move. So, it was a good move for me. I was happy with it.
We haven’t mentioned podcasting, video. These are things that started during your tenure, Jake. You left the role, and David went into it in 2008. Were there things that you felt like you didn’t accomplish that you wanted to, as editor? Or did you pull off everything that you had hoped to?
Weisberg: Well, I think I’d learned the lesson from Mike that, you know, this is not a job you want to do forever, that the term limit—we didn’t have official term limits, but he was editor for six years, and that seemed like a good length of time to me. And it seemed it ended up David stayed about the same amount of time. We want Julia to stay forever, but that’s—
Plotz: 2020, Julia.
Weisberg: That’s the rare exception. But, you know, I think it’s almost like being editor of a magazine is almost like your first year or your first hundred days in political office. You have some period of time when you can really make big changes. And then as time goes on, it gets much harder to make big changes, and you come to the realization that you’ve done, even though there are inevitably lots more things that you would like to do, you’ve probably after five years or six years done most of what you’re going to do to put your stamp on it.
And there’s probably someone else who has more energy and more ideas to do it differently. You know, because that was a big factor in my moving on. But it also felt like—I think, when I handed it off to David, I felt like it was a healthy place. And it was partly because we were early in these new forms, video podcasting, which we fell into because we had happened to hire Andy Bowers to work as our producer on an NPR show. And it was this thing that, you know, nobody else—I mean in 2008, there weren’t that many other people doing it. But we really loved it, and we were having a great time with it.
Levin: So, when you started, David, were you scared? Were you like, Finally. It’s been 12 years, like, Dammit, I get my turn now? What were your emotions?
Plotz: “Finally I can fix up this wreck.” Uh, no. I mean, there was such continuity. There was continuity between Mike and Jake. And I had been Jake’s deputy for basically the whole time he was editor. Julia then was my deputy. And I’m sure there are bad things about that. No doubt there are bad habits that Jake learned from Mike and I learned from Jake and Julia’s learned from me that, had we looked for outside editors, we might have avoided. But, in general, I think it made— when I took over, I didn’t want to gut what it was. I loved what we had built because I had been so much a part of building what Jacob had built.
And I think the challenges for me were, “Can we make this a financially viable business? Can we take something which has been not profitable and make it profitable?” And I wanted to get more longform into Slate. So, that was something I really pushed on, was longform.
And I wanted to continue—podcasting was this very quixotic thing that we did because we liked it. And it was not a good business at all for years. But we liked it so much, and we recognized that our audience was responding to it. And so, was there a way to kind of continue that? And all those things were things that we were able to do after a very dark period in 2011.
Levin: Well, before we get to that, Julia, what was it like to work as Plotz’s deputy?
Turner: Oh, my God. It’s great being Plotz’s deputy. Plotz is known for his various tics of his leadership style. And I was probably a little more insulated from Jake’s and never got to work directly under Mike. But Plotz had this kind of effervescent quality as a manager that involved sending many, many, must have been thousands of single-sentence emails per day, about 23 percent of which were in all caps, either strongly positive or strongly negative and all—no, not all great ideas, many of them great ideas, some of them terrible ideas. But the best thing I think about working for you—there were many—is that you were this font of enthusiasms and energy and interesting ideas. And you have a great knack for battling for your ideas passionately but then also just letting go when you decide it’s a bad one. Like, you both pursue your passions but then also are very quick to move on to the next thing when it’s time.
And I think that experimentalism—I mean, in some ways, I think the continuity among the editorship has helped Slate keep its voice. And I see part of the job of being Slate’s editor as figuring out what does it mean to execute that voice on the Internet of the moment? Because Slate has been alive through probably 20 different Internets over 20 different years in terms of how people are reading, who’s reading, where they’re reading, on what they’re reading, how they’re finding what they’re reading, what the relationship is with what they’re reading, what the barriers to entry are to the various bells and whistle, right?
And today, autoplay audio is anathema, and sites get pilloried when they do autoplay video and autoplay audio ads onsite, although I think it was GQ did a funny riff on that a couple weeks ago where they wrote a piece about a terrible song. And they made the browser blast the song at you as soon as it came on, which was kind of a funny joke on the way that things have evolved.
But to me there’s this kind of balance between the purpose of Slate, which is to be curious and to challenge assumptions and to find ways to be surprising that are intellectually honest and rigorous and conversational and fun, but to do that playing with the whole palette of tools that are at your disposal. And those tools change by the moment, you know?
Levin: So, you had mentioned 2011. How rough was it? Like how much of an existential crisis was that for Slate? We had started these other sites: Big Money and Double X. And then there had to be layoffs. What was happening?
Plotz: I don’t really know why we had missed the real punishment that had hit much of the media Internet in 2008–2009. Maybe, Jake, you have an explanation for why we skirted that. But the really tough times for us came in 2011 when we realized like the business side wasn’t working as well as we needed it to. And, you know, we were on a bad course, and we had to cut some costs and change how we were doing things.
And we did. And we had layoffs, which were the first layoffs we’d had in Slate’s history, which were, for me certainly and I think for Jacob and Julia, were—and certainly for the people who were affected by it—were terrible. But it actually had a great long-term effect on the magazine. It allowed us, you know, some sort of resetting of certain things that we wanted to do. We brought in staffers like Dave Weigel and Matt Yglesias, who came in after that period, who were super strong and helped define the voice that Slate had.
But it was also, I think—and forgive me if you feel this to be false, but Slate hadn’t really been run much as a business in for the first 10 years of its existence. And we had to start running it much more as a business. And that’s been a focus, I think, for Jacob. It was a focus for me, for Julia in a way that’s—you know, it means we edited less. I spent a lot less time editing stories and a lot more time thinking about the business and strategy of Slate, probably, than I would have in an earlier era. And the result has been good because it became profitable. And I hope it’s still profitable, but it became a much better business. But we had to go through a hard time to get there.
Kinsley: I’d like to take issue with that.
Plotz: Please do.
Kinsley: Yeah. Our goal from the very beginning was to break even. I felt, at least, that that is the best guarantee of your freedom, that is, if you’re not dependent on somebody. And we didn’t achieve it right away, obviously, but I do think that I always thought of us as a business. And I think Jacob did and so did everybody else, including the Microsoft people who came to work for Slate. They certainly thought of it as a business.
Plotz: I run a startup now, and I have x amount of money in the bank. And we will be out of business if we don’t, you know, bring in more revenue or find more ways to get more or cut our costs. And there’s an urgency that exists which I don’t—because we were owned by Microsoft and then by billion-dollar companies and we were a relatively small part of it, there wasn’t a sense that we had to swim or die.
Kinsley: Salon, when they were taking pokes at us, and many other people would say, “Well, you don’t have to worry about costs and losses because you’ve got Microsoft behind you.” And I used to tell people, “If we lost as much money as these other sites did, Microsoft would shut us down.”
And so I think the fact that we were backed by Microsoft was certainly convenient and very good of Microsoft. But I don’t think anyone’s attitude was, “Well, it doesn’t matter because Microsoft will come and bail us out.”
Weisberg: I mean we were always very budget-conscious and very frugal. And I think that’s part of how we’ve stayed in business. And that part of Slate’s culture persists. People ask permission to take a train to New York, you know? And sometimes you want to say, “It’s OK. You can do that.” But I think it’s kind of great that people really spend the business’s money as if it were their money. I think the difference, David, is we had a long runway because nobody’d figured this thing out. And the idea was that an experiment that might lead to figuring it out was very valuable for journalism, for Microsoft. And that continued in the early days of the Washington Post [era]. But as I got more involved in the business and once I handed the editor’s job over to you, that really became my full-time job. It just became clear to me that part of this mission we had around making the business work to support the journalism we wanted to do faced a big risk, which is that we were so dependent on advertising. And one of the things—one of the problems with being dependent on advertising is that advertising’s a cyclical business and in recessions one of the things companies can cut.
And it’s true. It hit us a little—with a little delayed effect for various reasons. But I think I came out of that experience as the person who was then responsible for the business, saying, “We have to figure out how not to depend so much on advertising because, if we are, this is just going to happen again.”
Levin: How did you wrap your head around the job, David, considering how big Slate had become in terms of how much was printed, in terms of all the business stuff you had to think of? How did you grasp everything that needed to be done?
Plotz: The very best decision that I made was that I immediately made Julia my deputy. And it was a two-headed venture from the very beginning. I hope that Julia felt that way. Jake had been a great boss in part because he’d allowed me to have so much of a role in shaping what we were doing. And he’d given me authority over things. And to have somebody whose decisions you can merely ratify is a great thing, not to have to make every decision but just to have someone you can trust and you can know, Oh, I can ratify their decision, but I don’t have to make that decision. And for me what allowed me to do a job which I think has become unmanageable for one person to do—it was that I had another person to do it.
Turner: Uh, thanks.
Levin: How do you think about the same question? Because Slate has grown even more in the last couple years in terms of all of the different kinds of things we’re doing and all the different challenges therein.
Turner: Yeah, but we’re massive. I mean, we have a much bigger staff than we used to, and we have more senior people than we used to. I have a thing now called a news director, and I have a deputy editor, an executive editor. I think one thing that points to in the growth of Slate’s staff is the growth of the culture. It’s not 30 people anymore. And when I first arrived at Slate, almost every decision seemed to be made on like a public email alias. Every decision about everything seemed to be made on a group email alias that I was on as the temp. It’s like intern editorial assistant hired through this contracting company called Volt. You got this little scarlet letter if you had Volt after your name.
Levin: There was literally a scarlet letter, though. It wasn’t the Volt. Your email address at the beginning was A-JuliaT.
Turner: Oh, right. I forgot that. A-JuliaTVolt was my first online self. But A-JuliaTVolt got to eavesdrop on you guys arguing about whether we should publish this or that. And figuring out how to retain the conversational and candid and transparent culture at Slate as we’ve gotten bigger and had to have more departments and meetings and systems and structures is one of the challenges for us now. There’s a lot more to organize.
Weisberg: I mean the growth has been amazing when you think about it. When we went to the Washington Post Company at the beginning of 2005, we were about 30 people. And it was 28 writers or editors, 1 technology person, and 1 business person. And partly that was because we were able to rely on Microsoft some for technology and sales, but we didn’t really have those functions. So, we were a bunch of editors and writers, and everyone had a pretty clear definition. Now there are people at Slate who have all these digital jobs. We have people in audience development and product management. And I think Mike probably sees that and scratches his head a little bit and says, you know, “Are they editors, or do they sell ads?”
Plotz: Do you remember, Mike, that at some point you went home one weekend and redesigned the site?
Plotz: I don’t remember if we ever implemented your redesign, but you did do it.
Weisberg: That was how we lost our art director.
Kinsley: I got annoyed at the business people, which I guess happens in every publication in any medium. And they would always say when you wanted a new something or other, “Well, where should we put it in the queue?” You know, they said, “We only have so many resources,” because they had one person. And so, if we wanted to get things done, we had to say other things would not be done. That doesn’t happen anymore, huh, Jake?
Turner: Well, it’s interesting that you mention that because I think one of the theories of the case, or one of the ways that Slate was talked about at the beginning, was this insight of, Hey, the New Republic’s a nice little magazine, but it’s never going to make any money because it’s got this whole expensive structure. You’ve got to kill these trees and pulp them and print it and pay for it, and the shipping and the postage and the distribution thing and the buying the place at Barnes & Noble or whatever, if that was even a thing then. And, hey, we’re just going to—you know, you push the button, and there it goes on the Internet. And the cost of production and distribution will be so much lower. Maybe you could take a magazine that’s as smart and sophisticated as that and maybe has more of a niche audience but cut out the production costs that make that a business that’s dependent on the whim of a rich guy. And one of the things we’ve discovered along the way is that the costs of executing digitally are—I don’t know if we’ve actually done the math problem of what it would cost to put out Slate on paper right now, but to really do it right and to be as quick as you want and as good-looking as you want and have the user interface you want and create an editorial experience that’s not just the words but how the whole thing feels and operates on all the different platforms and places actually costs a bunch of money, it turns out.
Kinsley: Yeah. I never did figure out how could it be that this thing which I started to save money, you know, cost so much?
Levin: So, Julia, a lot of other places have figured out how to use the links that we invented.
Turner: God damn it.
Levin: Mike mentioned Salon a bunch. I’m sure you guys all had thoughts about who your competitors were. Is that even a useful thing to think about now?
Turner: I would say right now Salon is the only publication that I don’t consider a competitor. Everyone else is on the table. That’s been really interesting to watch over the years, is the way we think about the competitive set. You know, for the first while—and I think this was still true when I arrived—it felt like very few people had figured the Internet out or were figuring the Internet out or were primarily in the business of figuring the Internet out. And then I would say maybe for the early to mid oughts, it seemed like that was when legacy organizations got their shit together. Like publications began to realize that the thing was real and it was sticking around. And if they didn’t have a digital strategy, they probably ought to get one. So you got to see various people’s versions of, “We ought to have a digital strategy.” And some of them were good and some of them were bad. And you could poke a lot of fun at what a lot of people did, and we still got to feel very spritely and unique.
And then in the last ten years, a lot of places have gotten very good. The legacy publications, places like the New York Times, have incredibly sophisticated digital operations. They’re interactive. The ways that they’re using the medium have gotten really interesting. There’s been essentially a big startup for of every era of distribution. Like, OK, there was search engine optimization, and there was HuffPo, which was a big news aggregator driven around that. There was the blogging innovation; there was the Gawker Media sites, which was the big media company built around that. So there’ve been all these new entrants into the field along the way, many of whom do really interesting work and are competitive with us either journalistically or on the business side.
And then I suppose now on phones, you’re competing for everybody’s non-media time too. So, yeah, there’s a thicket out there.
Weisberg: I mean the way I think about it is that the first decade, we had competition for audience, but we really didn’t have that much competition for the sort of innovation we were trying to create. Second decade, we’ve had a lot. And I think the challenge for Slate has been trying to learn from those competitors. To me, the most important ones and the ones I think I ultimately learn the most from were Huffington Post, Gawker, and BuzzFeed. All those places did something that was fundamentally new and a challenge to us, but I think that ended up making Slate more sophisticated about digital media.
Turner: And I think everyone operating online knows that we’re still all figuring things out on the frontier. So everybody’s watching what everyone else is doing and comparing notes. It’s pretty collegial among the people working digitally about what we’re trying and what’s working and how to spin it into something that makes sense for what your site does, if you even have a site.
Levin: Mike, what do you make of online media circa 2016?
Kinsley: Oh. I’m for it.
Levin: How much of the Slate DNA from ’96 do you think is still there?
Kinsley: Well, maybe the DNA is still there, but it has evolved into a publication that really was unrecognizable. I think that’s great. I read it every day. There’s a certain Slate tone that runs through a lot of the articles that I guess comes from the original issue. But it basically has evolved with the times.
Levin: All right. David, what is the best Slate piece ever?
Plotz: Like literally the best Slate piece or like the Slate-iest Slate piece?
Levin: Whatever you want it to be, my friend.
Plotz: Well, I’m going to—it’s embarrassing because you’re in the room. I think your welfare-queen story is, as a piece of journalism, the best thing we’ve ever published. It was a 20,000-word story that Josh did three years ago.
Levin: Sort of like the number of paid subscribers, the length of that story increases every year.
Plotz: It was actually only 1,500 words.
Turner: I think it came in at 20,000. Then you and I made him cut like 3,000 words out of it right before we published it.
Plotz: Well, it’ll be a book of 200,000 words about the woman who Ronald Reagan tarred as the Welfare Queen of Chicago, who Josh discovered her whole story, which is extraordinary. That’s not like the Slate-iest kind of story, but as a piece of journalism, it’s just magnificent.
Turner: Well, the thing that was Slate-y about that story, which is not at all representative of Slate and what it looks like in its final conceit, is the process by which it happened, which is that you had a narrow, interesting question, a sort of “what ever happened to” question, about the first woman that Reagan called this welfare queen. And you followed it, and it pulled you into this tangled web, and this woman turned out to be an unusual— I don’t know if you used the word “psychopath” in the piece or in your further reporting, but she seemed like a psychopath to me, whose story had a lot to say about things well beyond the original question about Reagan. And David encouraged you to go spend months reporting it. And I remember you coming back and finding the little things you’d ferreted out. I mean, to the degree that Slate-iness is pursuing your curiosity beyond the bounds of reason, that piece is a hallmark of that.
Plotz: Wait. Can I give one? I know you’re going to ask all of us, but can I name a super Slate-y piece in the opposite direction, which is my piece on “Could Clinton Cheat?”, which ran about a year before—maybe not a year, maybe it was like three months before the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke? It was awesome because it was just— it was deeply reported. I did a ton of investigation. And it was very much in the spirit of: There’s no way Clinton could cheat. And I concluded there’s no way Clinton could cheat.
Weisberg: But brilliantly argued.
Plotz: It was brilliantly argued and 100 percent wrong.
Weisberg: Case closed.
Levin: What about you, Jake? Any pieces come to mind?
Weisberg: We just did the survey that says Slate has published, in 20 years, 152,000 pieces of content. So I think it would be sort of ridiculous to choose one.
To me the thing that is really the Slate accomplishment that comes from Mike is that Slate has a voice, but it’s a place that writers have a voice within that voice. And I don’t have a favorite Slate piece from 20 years, but I have a favorite every week, you know. And just last week, Gabriel Roth, who runs our Slate Plus program, wrote this hilarious personal essay about how he’d gotten into a fight with Webster’s Dictionary. He’d sent several tweets about the sort of permissive attitude towards grammar, that Webster’s now embodied this descriptivist view of language. And then the Twitter account of Webster’s Dictionary attacked him and said, “Who cares what you think?” And he suddenly became a scapegoat on the internet, and everyone started attacking him.
Turner: Basically, a dictionary whipped up an internet mob against him.
Weisberg: Yeah. And he’s like, “A brand attacked me.” And it was just the most delightful essay. And it was just one of these things that, you know, people at Slate just turn these things out consistently. And they have this tone, and it was something about that that you could only read it in Slate. It would only really exist because of Slate, and it fit perfectly. To me that was the piece last week that perfectly embodied our voice and the writer’s voice.
Levin: So, Jake, that very nice sentiment totally abdicated your responsibility to pick a single piece. Do you have one, Julia?
Turner: There are so many, it’s hard to pick one. Two come to mind. One: Slate ran Explainers for a long time, and we still run them occasionally. And the secret of Slate’s Explainer sauce was to understand that the key to an Explainer is not the answer to the question but in the question that you choose to ask. We used to run this annual contest where we would publish a list of the questions submitted to the Explainer that we had opted not to answer, usually because they had no news peg. And one that we answered for that column was: Is soap dirty? And the truth is that it is kind of dirty, but it still cleans your hands. And another favorite Explainer question was: How Byzantine was the Byzantine Empire? Like, were its tax codes actually that complicated? How was its organizational structure? To me, those were genius Explainers. And there’s a lot of junk like that in the archive.
Another piece that stands out is one written by our deputy editor now, John Swansburg, against birthday dinners, in which—
Plotz: Oh, that is great.
Weisberg: That’s a classic.
Turner: —which is Slate-y in that it’s a very strongly argued polemic against a perfectly anodyne, nice thing, like your friends trying to celebrate your birthday, reporting in very vivid, funny, fierce, and hostile detail all of the social customs that make the birthday dinner just a monstrosity, with many memorable phrases there. And so that’s a favorite as well.
Levin: Mike, do you have one?
Kinsley: Yes. It’s David’s piece about the sperm bank because that really used the internet. It was as part of investigative reporting. And I thought that this would take off, this form. And it hasn’t.
Plotz: That was Jack’s idea for how to report it.
Weisberg: Jack Shafer.
Kinsley: I’m glad you said that because Jack hasn’t gotten any credit so far. He was there from the beginning.
Levin: Thank you so much to all of you guys: Michael Kinsley, Jacob Weisberg, David Plotz, and Julia Turner, the editors of Slate.