This is an excerpt from Heads of Slate, a special 20th anniversary podcast about the history of the magazine that features Editor-in-Chief Julia Turner in conversation with former editors Michael Kinsley, Jacob Weisberg, and David Plotz. To read or listen to the full conversation, join Slate Plus.
Josh Levin, the executive editor of Slate.
Michael Kinsley, founding editor, 1996–2002
Jacob Weisberg, editor of Slate from 2002 to 2008 and now the chairman and editor in chief of The Slate Group.
David Plotz, editor of Slate from 2008 to 2014 and now the CEO of Atlas Obscura.
Julia Turner, editor in chief of Slate since 2014.
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This is an edited and condensed transcript.
Levin: 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. If it ever showed up, I might destroy the ones left because it had all sorts of ideas. 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.” 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 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.
There were little bits of update. 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. 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.” If you clicked, you could wait and a music server would pop up and play music. 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. The idea was that we had this new technology and we ought to do anything we could to exploit it—to counteract the disadvantage of having to read it on the computer.
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Plotz: You were badmouthing your memo, but your memo was so good! There was a line in it which actually, I think, came to define Slate: “Journalism is encrusted by useless anecdote.” I remember that phrase just stuck with me.
There was always this idea: When you’re writing Slate pieces, don’t throw the anecdote in. Don’t have the anecdotal lede.
If you’ve contributed nothing else to American journalism, 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: 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, one of my first assignments was writing Explainers. I’d spent however many years going out and getting interesting quotes. And I think you, David, took me aside early on and said, “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.”
It seemed so radical and right at the same time.
Weisberg: There were these precepts that we’d all absorbed, which all went completely contrary to what every other magazine did. You know, 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.
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Levin: What was it like to work for Mike?
Plotz: Two quick Mike stories, one of which I’ve told in print.
I was living in Washington, D.C., and Slate was headquartered in Seattle. Mike invited me to come out. I was a junior person in the D.C. office and came out and spent a month out in Redmond.
And he invited me to go on a hike with him one day. We were hiking up to some hot springs, and we get there and discover it’s colonized by some stoned hippies. They’re all naked and cooking vegetables in the hot springs. And I just remember Mike turning to me and going, “When in Rome,” and dropping trou—
Kinsley: I find this hard to believe, but I remember it.
Plotz: It was just—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 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. 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 explained what had happened. And we decided there wasn’t a piece.
But then Mike 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. 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. There was 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. But people really were enraged about that.
Kinsley: And you’ve got to credit Microsoft. 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.
I think he’d absorbed that from you.
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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 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. If you went to do this in ’96, 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. 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. 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.
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 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. 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, 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. 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.”
And 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?
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.
* * *
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.
There was an editorial assistant position open, and I had been working at a magazine at Time Inc. that had just shut down. 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. I had a like a six-month fully paid job search. It was great. And I was about 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. 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 to come up with stories, we were trying to triangulate between our New York, Time Inc. Tower interests, and the interests of these somewhat-discerning people.
It was 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? You could write 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: Now it would be a killer on Facebook.
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.” That was like a taboo phrase at Slate, “What does the audience want?”
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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 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. 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 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 I always thought, take the contrarian question as the starting point. Don’t assume there’s always a contrarian argument to be made. Question the assumption enough and see where it leads you, and you often get an interesting piece out of it. You often don’t.
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. 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.
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: For me, I think Saletan.
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. David was like the decathlete of Slate. One of our signature columns was this thing, Assessment. David just did it so well, you know. 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. You would just kind of say, “Just do it like David did it,” but they never could because he created that voice for the column.
Plotz: And one more person, actually, I’ll put in there is Dahlia Lithwick, who Mike hired to cover the Microsoft trial.
Kinsley: I thought we needed to cover the Supreme Court the way 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. But you found her, David, I think, as I recall.
Weisberg: I think Jodi Kantor actually found her, as I remember it. 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: I don’t remember who had the genius idea of having her be the sort of theatre critic of the Supreme Court. I do know that 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: Oh, is Mark full time now? Congratulations.
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: Mike mentioned Salon a bunch [Editor’s note: see the full conversation here]. 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.
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. And then the early to mid oughts, it seemed like that was when legacy organizations got their shit together. Publications began to realize that the thing was real and sticking around. If they didn’t have a digital strategy, they probably ought to get one. You got to see various people’s versions of, “We ought to have a digital strategy.” Some of them were good and some of them were bad. 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. There was search engine optimization, and there was HuffPo. There was the blogging innovation, and there was the Gawker Media sites. So there’ve been all these new entrants into the field along the way, many of whom do really interesting work.
Weisberg: The way I think about the first decade, we had competition for audience, but we really didn’t have that much competition for the innovation we were trying to create. The second decade, we’ve had a lot.
I think the challenge for Slate has been trying to learn from those competitors. To me, the most important ones, the ones I think I ultimately learned 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.
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.
But it basically has evolved with the times.