How Should We Improve Slate? Here’s What We Heard From Members.
How should we improve Slate? That’s the question Editor-in-Chief Julia Turner posed to Slate Plus members in a recent State of Slate open thread. In what follows, a selection of highlights from that discussion (some comments were edited for length and clarity.)
Re: Slate’s Content
brownsvillegirl: I am a British senior from Oxford, from the class of 1968, with all that implies, and a lifelong left-winger (as we call it here) and atheist. I took out my subscription in the wake of the 2016 election, horrified by the assault on the free press and independent journalism in the U.S., and wanting to lend support as well as benefit from your material. It’s been great, especially the podcasts.
I’m also pro-life. I think life is brilliant and wondrous and that humanity is all we have. I’m a second-wave feminist and a passionate supporter of women’s reproductive rights over their own bodies. So I get furious when I hear the term pro-life used to describe those who oppose women’s rights and are anti-abortion. I was dismayed to see Slate using this term in this way, and I ask you to stop doing so and call anti-abortionists what they are.
If the term pro-life is used opposite pro-choice, it implies that those of us who support choice are anti-life. We’re not. Don’t let them appropriate the term.
Julia Turner, editor in chief: @brownsvillegirl, thanks for your support and kind words. I hear you about the frustrating nature of the terms in the abortion debate, but sometimes it’s clearest to use the terms most easily understood, and I suspect that’s why we haven’t adjusted our stylebook.
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S: Every week Im disappointed that I can't hear from one of my two favorite podcasts, DoubleX Gabfest and Mom and Dad Are Fighting, since they’re both biweekly. Please make those podcasts weekly, even if you have to rotate the hosts/panelists (which could be a great way to highlight more viewpoints and life experiences of underrepresented folks, as we’ve seen with the rotation of panelists on Mom and Dad Are Fighting since Dan and Allison left).
I’d also love to see an LGBTQ-focused podcast.
And I wish you covered education (K–12 and higher education) issues more, in both your writing and podcasts.
Julia Turner: @S, I’d love to make those podcasts weekly, and we are looking at possibilities there. Of course, we have to be sensitive to the time folks are putting into the shows already, but I’m glad to hear you want more of DoubleX and MADAF—that’s how I feel too.
We are also looking at possibilities for an LGBTQ show; it does seem like there is an opening there in the landscape, and we’re very proud of our coverage in that realm.
On education, we've been doing a lot of work through our partnership with the Teacher Project at the Columbia Journalism School. We’re in our third year of collaboration, and this year we’re focusing on a few big projects rather than regular coverage. So it may feel like there is less frequent coverage in Slate, but we are devoting just as many resources.
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Gary S: I am among those who joined as an anti-Trump gesture in the wake of the election, so please keep up the good journalistic work. But here’s your challenge: don’t let Slate get dismissed as partisan, biased, etc. Find some conservatives; give them some space to clearly and articulately explain their positions.
Julia Turner: @Gary S, thank you for joining! Retaining our identity as nonpartisan truth-tellers is vital to Slate. The truth these days just has a consistent bent to it. But I’m very proud to publish Reihan Salam, and we do strive to be a place that publishes a diversity of useful ways to interpret the world.
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I’d love a podcast that gave me pop music history mixed with suggestions about what’s new and good, reviews of new tracks and albums, etc. (Though interviews with artists are always boring, so please skip that.)
Julia Turner: @NKS, good things are in store for you! Chris Molanphy, who does those segments, is at work on a podcast project that will launch later this year.
Also interested in your comment on interviews with artists—on the Culture Gabfest we often find interviews dreary for the same reason; we can be more candid about work when the artists who made it aren’t there. On the other hand, sometimes you get to talk to Rosanne Cash and you can’t find a better conversationalist than she is.
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seanludwig: Perhaps you could create a new history podcast that explores some of the most interesting historical events from the last thousand years? It could have two fun hosts banter about what made the events significant and how the events relate to what’s happening today?
Julia Turner: @seanludwig, @confusedmarmot, it’s been great having Rebecca Onion contribute more on history, and we have some exciting focused history podcasts in the pipeline. No plans for a history gabfest at the moment, although maybe that’s worth considering.
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jpmri: I have read Slate daily for over 10 years, and with every change I become annoyed and then get used to what/how you are presenting your stories. What would help me is more differentiation between substantive articles and the chaff of just regurgitating the latest news (i.e., what the Slatest appears to do). I don’t use Slate as my primary news source (which is some combination of Twitter and the New York Times), so I find that those recaps are pretty useless and gum up my experience.
One other note—Dear Prudence. Boy oh boy, Mallory is a great writer—witty, thoughtful, and prolific. Two limitations to her otherwise great columns:
- She does not have the life experience that Emily Yoffe had, so her column has become a millennial haven of issues with friends not paying you back on Venmo or polyamorous relationship problems.
- She tends to be so nonjudgmental that her advice lacks the kick in the pants that a good advice columnist needs to mete out. I am probably just showing my age (52) and membership in a nondesirable advertising cohort, but my advice is to have a second advice column by an older, judgmental moralist who can write about family issues, kids, getting older, etc. A David Plotz type.
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drchristine74: More Jamelle Bouie, he’s the best!!!
Re: The Liberal Media’s East Coast Bias
rnzucker: I still find Slate to be very New York City/Washington, D.C.–centric, at least on the podcasts. Occasionally we get some views from the Bay Area (Mallory Ortberg and Carvell Wallace). There is a lot more to the U.S. than that.
Julia Turner: @rnzucker, we’ve been thinking about this and working to introduce more geographic diversity in podcasting.
One trick there is that you can contribute an article from your home office or back porch or rental car pretty easily these days, but to make a podcast you need studio space. On Oakland, don’t forget that Isaac Chotiner’s new podcast I Have To Ask is based there, too!
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jy: Long time Slate Plus–er (still using the coffee mug). It seems to me there is a big empty space (maybe a column opportunity) for covering rural events/point of view. How long do we ignore what is going on outside the cities? And then we wonder why “they” don’t get it and fall for ...
Also, I miss the prominence/amount of science coverage. I think we need more of it, not less.
Julia Turner: @jy, we have a few projects cooking that will take our reporters and writers to more locations in the country this year, and you should see those start to hit the site over the next few months.
One area I want us to cover is how Trump’s presidency is perceived across social and political and geographical divides. That’ƒs one reason we launched Today in Conservative Media, to make sure we are surfacing a range of viewpoints. But we’ll be doing more in this vein.
On science, I’m really proud of the work we’ve been publishing and would also like us to do more.
Re: Getting Around Slate.com
The Penultimate Warrior: When a piece is a video or a podcast, let us know ahead of time. I hate clicking on something, looking for information or analysis in the written word, only to find out it’s in a format I’ll never watch or listen to.
Joshua Booth: Yeah, it’s hard to tell which articles are Podcasts. Usually they’ll say “Multiple Authors,” but that isn’t a good marking.
Julia Turner: Thanks for this feedback, @The Penultimate Warrior. We are working on improvements to the site’s taxonomy and labeling for later in the year, and this is something we will consider.
In general, we are doing more promotion of podcasts on the site, and the site on podcasts, hoping to encourage people who are fans in one medium to sample the other. But we will strive to be sensitive about labeling as we do so. We know that you’re selecting the media experience you want to have next, and that format is key information.
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saldines: I am frustrated by the way that Dear Prudence is structured. I can never tell if the link I click on will lead me to a podcast, a live chat, or the column. Also, when I search Slate for Dear Prudence, not every result shows up.
If Dear Prudence could have its own section on the menu, with the three types of DP articles separated, that would be really great!!
Julia Turner: @saldines, noted. We’ll add this to the list of things to work on as we look at taxonomy and navigation.
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scocca: A comment on the “Most Recent” column that runs down the right-hand side of the page.
I am often reading Slate in a situation where I’m unable to listen to a podcast. It would be nice if links to podcats were (a) clearly distinguished from links to articles, and (b) tagged with the length of the podcast (e.g., “3M TO LISTEN”) similarly to the way articles have a reading-time estimate attached in that column. I get annoyed when I follow an interesting-looking link in that column and find myself staring at a podcast page—it would be nice if it more clearly distinguished between what can be read and what can only be listened to.
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Mick24: The actual articles on Slate are quite good (except when they are political rants with no substance—don’t get me wrong, I love me some political rants, but they’ve got to have some facts). However, I find the site itself confusing and disorganized. It drives me crazy. How do people find relevant articles?
Julia Turner: @Mick24, we are in the middle of evaluating the navigation on our site, and you will see improvements to it in the coming year.
Our current design was launched during the height of the social boom, and in that round we emphasized the experience of the reader reaching an individual article through social sharing more than the experience of the audience navigating the site each day. This time out, my goal is to make sure the site works well for its most loyal users, not just for folks discovering us through social channels. We’re going to be spending a lot of time thinking about that navigation and how it works.
Re: The Advertising on Slate.com
cwj Never, ever, auto-play anything.
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Ravi Shahani: Since I am paying for Slate Plus I do not think I should have to see ads on the site or in the Slate app. If you still need the revenue from Slate Plus members I would prefer the option of paying a few dollars more to get rid of ads.
Julia Turner: @Ravi Shahani, this is good to know. We’ve looked at the economics of removing ads entirely for Plus members, but it would require a more expensive subscription price than we currently charge. Perhaps we’ll look at a tiered option at some point in the future.
Re: Clickbait and Hot Takes
Kimsaks86: I am huge on your podcasts. I love the Political Gabfest, Amicus, and Trumpcast, and Slate Money.
That said, I often find the articles on the site through Facebook, and the headlines and posts are often clickbait and degrade the quality of the work that is done here. There is a wide range of work being done at Slate; it pays to get to know the writers so you can know who you can trust and who leans toward hyperbole.
Julia Turner: @Kimsaks86, hi there, glad you like the podcasts.
On “clickbait,” my belief is that the piece itself must deliver on whatever promise the headline makes, but so long as it does, we should express that headline promise in the most zippy and enticing possible way. (We have a whole channel in our Slack devoted to workshopping headlines and making sure they are tantalizing yet fair representations of the story. There is a lot of emphasis on both qualities.)
We also recently made an internal move to quantify the success of our stories not by how many people read each one but by how many minutes they spend reading each one, which is another way of emphasizing that we care more about being useful to our readers than bamboozling them into a click.
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Pwbledsoe: I share some of the concerns about clickbait headlines, and there is no question in my mind that there has been an increase in hyperbole concerning our current administration. Now they often deserve it, but it does not add much for me in terms of your content. I don’t mind a strong take, but one that is fact-based is more satisfying. A constant drumbeat about, for example, Trump’s sexism, while undoubtedly true, does not add anything to my experience.
Julia Turner: @Pwbledsoe, I hear your concern about hyperbole. The challenge the Trump administration poses to all journalists, and particularly journalists doing the primarily analytic and interpretive work we focus on at Slate, is that we must be accurate as well as interesting. And the accurate interpretation of many Trump administration actions so far is that they are hastily and poorly conceived, and may have very bad consequences for large numbers of people. It may be repetitive to keep saying so, but when it is true, it is our job to say so.
Re: How to Improve Slate’s Podcasts
jkaiser413 Bookmarks in the podcasts so you can skip to the parts you want to hear. And for the Audio Book Club—post the upcoming book somewhere prominent—I often look all over for it and sometimes never find it.
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RVB: One (relatively) easy thing you could do: transcripts for podcasts. It would be a nice gesture for those of us who prefer reading over listening, and a solid accessibility upgrade for your deaf/hard of hearing subscribers.
Julia Turner: @RVB, I am intrigued by the number of requests for transcripts here. We’re going to look into what it would take to do this more consistently.
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deifyplums: Please create home pages for the podcasts on Slate.com and include links to everything disbursed, recommended, etc. Stop sending me to those Facebook pages. It’s impossible to find anything there.
Christieps: yes, agree with @deifyplums. And can there be a way for Slate Plus members to have special access to podcast hosts on occasion?
NKS: Yes, please. What @deifyplums and @Christieps said. The podcasts are great, and it would be nice to be able to leave comments on them and also see the recommendations.
Confusedmarmot: I am a huge Slate fan. I’ve particularly enjoyed A Year of Great Books and the Slate Academies.
One gripe: I hate that the podcasts use Facebook pages for community building. I’d love to interact more with Slate, but I’m not on Facebook. I feel like I’m missing out. I get that hosting a forum is a pain, particularly with weeding out trolls. But maybe there could be forums for these things just for Plus members?
Julia Turner: @confusedmarmot, et al, I agree that the Facebook forums for our podcasts are less than ideal for a couple of reasons:
- Not everyone is on Facebook.
- Facebook’s algorithm makes it harder than it used to be to reach the people who signed up for those pages.
However, it would be hard to use Livefyre for similar functionality, and there is something to be said for the podcast discussions popping up in feeds that a lot of people check regularly. Sometimes I wonder if we should use Slack for podcast forums.
How Should We Improve Slate? Tell Our Editor in Chief.
Welcome to this members-only State of Slate open thread. And thank you, Slate Plus members! Thousands of readers and listeners like you have signed up to support Slate since the election, which has been the best kind of pep talk. We are grateful for your trust.
As Slate’s editor in chief, I’m keen to hear from you. What is Slate doing well? How should we expand or improve our coverage in 2017? What should we not do?
Please post your suggestions and questions in the comments section. I’ll keep an eye on this discussion until Friday. I can’t guarantee an immediate reply to every comment, but I’ll get to as many as I can eventually. You can help me prioritize by liking your favorite comments.
Looking forward to chatting!
P.S. Slate’s usual commenting policies apply.
Slate Is Changing Its Approach to Design: Here’s How, and Why
You may have noticed that the weekly Cover Story we published today does not look like other articles on the site. It has bigger photos, new typefaces, and a more elegant layout. The article, an essay on Stevie Wonder, is the public debut of a project—internally dubbed “Slate Redux”—that will explore the future of design and publishing at Slate. The project will have many expressions—a new process for collaboration across teams, better communication, and new design work. We’ve assembled a cross-disciplinary group of people from editorial, design, product, development, and sales to prototype how we’d like to work together, and we’ll be using Slate’s weekly Cover Story as our sandbox for that experimentation.
You might ask: Why are you biting off just a piece of the site rather than redesigning everything at once?
The answer is that Slate is not simply our website. The site is one place where Slate lives, but Slate exists in a variety of places, from social platforms like Facebook, to your podcast app, to the public spaces where we host live events. So rather than making this a monolithic redesign project, in which we look for a single design answer that will work wherever Slate lives, we are starting with a small, though important, corner of the magazine. In rethinking how we produce and design the big, splashy pieces we publish at the top of the week, we’re gathering information about what works—and how we work—and setting ourselves up to take those lessons to other parts of the whole.
Today’s Cover Story is a first effort, a small step. And right now it’s incomplete—you won’t find comments, search, user accounts, navigation, and many other things you’re used to seeing on a Slate page. But we wanted to start testing our ideas and getting feedback—from our colleagues and our readers—so that we can start making improvements not only to how the page looks but to how it was made.
Over the coming weeks some of the things we will be experimenting with are design, our publishing process and tools, collaborative methods, and new, flexible ad products. All with a goal of creating a solid foundation that also allows us to adapt as our needs change. Taking time like this to test our assumptions will give us the information we need to take on other challenges, like broadening our visual palette and design and upgrading our publishing platform.
But it all starts with Cover Stories. We’ll test our assumptions about how the site looks, how we organize information, and how we collaborate. We’ll discuss, measure, experiment, and iterate on every aspect of the project. And in time a clear picture will begin to emerge of what Slate should look and feel like no matter where you encounter it. (Because we’re still in the very early stages of Redux, not every Cover Story will appear in a new format, at least till we get our sea legs under us.)
Because we’re doing this experimentation in public view, we also plan to share our thinking about the changes we’re making on this blog. Over the coming weeks and months we’ll continue making improvements—and surely experience some stumbles—and we’ll document it all here for you.
A Case Study on Our Apple TV App
At the end of March, we launched an app for Apple TV. Our video team is small but mighty, and they produce great content. We’re glad they’ll be able to bring their talents to a native experience on your TV. But this app didn’t come to fruition in the tradition sense.
Slate, Ad Infinitum
Last week, Slate launched its infinite scroll reading experience. Now, when you visit most Slate stories and scroll to the bottom of the page, another story appears. Then another story appears if you keep scrolling.
This functionality was the culmination of many months of work, and we’re incredibly proud of the outcome. Our site is now more attractive and cleaner looking, and it leads people to spend more time with our content: In randomized controlled testing, we saw time on site per visitor increase by 9 percent for the infinite scroll test group relative to users on our old pages. But we didn’t simply want to increase time on site—we also strove to increase ad revenue per user, and to do so while eliminating features that prioritized immediate clicks above the overall quality of our readers’ experience.
Indeed, this summarizes our mission on the Slate product and development team: to offer the best possible reader experience while generating as much revenue as possible to support our journalism. We believe that eliminating clutter on our pages focuses attention on our content, that page-load time is a key element of the user experience, and that reducing the number of revenue-generating modules ensures that those remaining offer the best visual and advertiser impact. And we believe that prioritizing time spent on the site over drive-by traffic will enable us to balance editorial goals with revenue maximization. Our infinite scroll experience is a product completely rooted in these philosophies.