What can we learn about journalism’s past, and future, from Slate’s digital archive?

Explore the Electric Hallways of Slate’s Idiosyncratic Archive

Explore the Electric Hallways of Slate’s Idiosyncratic Archive

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Sept. 11 2016 9:16 PM
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The Electric Archive

What does it mean for a magazine to leave no paper trail?

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At some point in college, I discovered the parts of the libraries where the fun stuff was kept. In the sort of space where you would end up after getting lost, often beyond the spread of daylight, magazines were bound and packed on shelves that ran back to the 19th century. Everything was there: the articles, the ads, the art, all unrevised by time. In the old Vanity Fair, you could find uncollected Dorothy Parker reviews, good and bad all filed together. In a yellowing New Republic, you might read the juvenilia of, say, Slate chairman Jacob Weisberg. You could seek “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” as it first ran in the New Yorker (coiled modestly around some spot art of dogs) or “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream” as it appeared in the Saturday Evening Post (a smiling Dr. Spock on the cover, black-and-white photos across the spreads). In the classroom, I had learned to think of writing as canonic, penned by giants. In the archive, I was free to realize that the best of it was born of more human constraints: deadlines, passing news prompts, and the need to fill columns beside the latest vacuum cleaner ad.

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The thrill was vivid two years later, as I sat in Slate’s New York offices, being interviewed for a job on a low rung of its copy desk. I was star-struck: I had made it to a place where such creative magic happened. Slate was at that time in the old Newsweek tower, near Columbus Circle, and the building was being gutted with the people still inside. (One morning, you would find a guy sledge-hammering the lobby; by the afternoon, a workman might be peering in your window while removing an important-seeming piece of bracing.) Even this decay struck me as glamorous. When the interview finished, I walked into the twinkling December-evening churn of Midtown and allowed myself to hope that I’d just started my life’s great adventure. I had. Two months later, I showed up for work, sat at my desk, and promptly panicked. I had realized that, despite my hours in the archive, I was ignorant of what the enterprise of online publication—my new job—actually meant: Unlike the magazines I had pawed over, Slate left no paper trail at all.

It took me a while to realize that no one entirely understood the enterprise of online publication (I’m not sure that’s changed) but that Slate had surfed the wave like a hot-dogger for years, shaping a process and a culture all its own. Most work happened on email. When I got a piece, I’d tinker with its commas; mark up changes to its grammar, capitals, and usage; and set the text in a digital proof. Nothing was printed. That much, usually, was simple.

What was harder was following the digital-age rhythm that my new co-workers maintained. In the Washington, D.C., office, John Dickerson filed sparkling copy at a terrifying clip, apparently between phone calls to the White House and folk stylings on his guitar. Emily Bazelon wrote and edited at something approaching light speed; Dahlia Lithwick, I was sure, was somehow distilling her court reports while driving in her car. My peers in age—then a gaggle of prolific, precocious writers that included Christopher Beam, Torie Bosch, Juliet Lapidos, Noreen Malone, Chadwick Matlin, Nina Rastogi, Chris Wilson—were no less daunting. To the extent that I wrote anything, I was neither knowledgeable nor quick. I felt sure to fall behind before I’d started.

The archive was my secret hope for keeping pace with this intimidating crowd. It was a different kind of record than the one I’d ogled in the library. For one thing, it was universally accessible: Every piece was there, always, a record of the past that never left the present. For another, it was easier to sort. Instead of trying to track an author issue over issue, I could gather all his or her writing in a second. I could see how different people dealt with similar assignments. It allowed a faster kind of learning. When, eventually, I started writing a regular column, the Slate search bar was my study tool. Like those students who obsess over the brushstrokes of the Delft School, I would cruise across the archive, scrutinizing columns word by word, trying to see how they were put together, how to write like that. Magazine staffs are like Saturday Night Live casts: There’s the one that you grew up watching, and the one with which you find yourself contemporary as an adult. The archive let me blur the two together into a culture-writing lesson that spanned years.

I still draw on that education. Jody Rosen and Troy Patterson taught me how to pitch fastballs of high-low prose. Katie Roiphe crafted essays that were flinty, scrutinous, counterintuitive. Meghan O’Rourke lit the way to the canon. From Bryan Curtis, I learned to draw a single thread into a riff as funny and lasting as a stand-up set. Dana Stevens proved that sincerity and wit could live together. Stephen Metcalf taught me how to set cultural-historical arguments in a jaunty frame. (I still envy Steve’s observation that Tom Cruise’s career “maps perfectly onto the 25-year bull market in stocks that, like Cruise, is starting to show its age. Nascent in the early ’80s, emergent in 1983, dominant in the ’90s, suspiciously resilient in the ’00s, and, starting in 2005, increasingly prone to alarming meltdowns.”) From David Plotz, who first wrote the column I inherited, I learned to loosen up, to be declarative, and not to worry about knocking over statues as I ran.

That list is dated, personal, and very incomplete—but so is life. A new tool, built by interactives editor Chris Kirk, allows you to fill in the gaps, discover more Slate classics, and slice the archive into cross-sections I never dreamed of. Want to see when the magazine’s law coverage was most intense? Type “jurisprudence” or “Supreme Court,” and you’ll notice that 2005, a year of some upheaval on the court and in the world, wins. (It’s rivaled by 2016.) Another search reveals that Slate has been less interested in “Sinatra” lately than it once was—a sign, perhaps, of changing editorial demographics. (“Beatles” is a wash.) The most conspicuous long-term change is volume. Slate started small, spent a good decade publishing a medium amount, and then, around the time I left, grew vastly more productive (probably not a coincidence). For entertainment, try to figure out what Slate was up to when it launched a long-extinct department known as “Blorple Falls,” whose expository page reads like some overworked editor’s fever dream and whose archive footprint includes at least one item never meant to see the light of day.

Archives like Slate’s are inevitably the archives of the future, because more and more creative work exists only online. Yet the medium is so different from paper that they change the nature of the archiving endeavor and the historical interpretation it allows. When you look up “Superman Comes to the Supermarket” in an old copy of Esquire, the pages may be sallow, but the text, the art, and the design are a time capsule. Not so online, where page design across the site changes with coded rules. Art shrinks. Fonts change. I’m sure that many articles look better than at first—Slate had an unlovely digital adolescence—but others seem haggard with the passage of time.

Also, if I may be allowed to sound off like the grumpy old man I’ve apparently become: A lot of the damn stuff is broken. In my wilder years, I liked to embed video clips in pieces. Most of the Slate-produced clips don’t work today. Links to widgets and sidebars are defunct. An alarming number of slideshow essays I loved don’t even open. I retained a writer’s smugness at first—sight and sound are gobbled up by obsolescence, but a sentence is forever!—until I realized that the text was bug-prone, too. Most old page breaks are a mess. Italics strike capriciously. Spaces between certain words have disappeared in some parts of the archive, creating the unfortunate impression that Slate was put out by a union of blind typists.

All of this could be much worse. When Gawker was put to sleep last month, the fate of its archive—the 13 years of daily writing that’s the proof of its existence—was in question. Libraries do not promise the afterlives of websites. Private owners need not, either. Keeping big ones online requires concerted effort. Though the internet guards online publications from a range of physical vicissitudes (fire, flood, eruptions at Pompeii), it introduces risks that paper magazines don’t face. The archive can be swallowed up, into the earth, if no one cares enough—or if the people who do care leave the building.

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Animation by Slate

Online-only publications such as Slate (or Gawker) are the bellwethers for a new standard of posterity. But they’re not the only ones affected. Every major publication in the country now publishes some of its material only on the web. Often, this writing absorbs as many editorial resources and attentions as the stuff on newsprint or glossy pages; sometimes, its readership and influence ends up being greater than what also appears in print. As our media for reading slowly change, so do imperatives for preservation. The historian of the future, riffling through our era’s archives on her mind-hologram touch screen, is unlikely to care whether an article first appeared on Page A5 of the Times or ran on a Times blog. Both will have turned into our history, our record, just as emails and track-changes markups are the only evidence of how we worked at Slate. We should all take steps to guard this past before, in one way or another, we depart.

In my memory, I never actually left Slate; I just kind of drifted away like a rowboat unroped from the dock. At some point, to my delight, I became mostly a print guy, for which my Slate friends tease me (“Mr. Old Media”). My office is piled with galley proofs; I try to get my writing ready for the subway reader and the shelf. But Slate has changed, too. It’s more focused now, it seems to me, more avid. In the era I knew best, there was a larkish, aloof approach to the writing: We were the smart alecks sharing a sandwich in the back of the pressroom, not the correspondent in the front row. Now Slate is in the fray, engaged, and, as the widget suggests, cheek-rattlingly fast. The new writers are surely much too bright and capable to be stirred by vertigo or, in the Slate tradition, hung up on anything besides the next idea. But I hope that every now and then they—and you—search the archive and remember us, the dinosaurs and young writers who lumbered down this road before.