Last week, CJR released a new report by the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, entitled “The Story So Far: What we know about the business of journalism.” To supplement Chapter Six, which takes a close look at the topic of news aggregation, assistant editor Lauren Kirchner spoke with David Plotz, editor of Slate, one of the first online-only magazines to appear on the web. Aggregated news—first in the form of “Today’s Papers,” and later refigured as “The Slatest”—has been a popular feature of Slate since its earliest years. This is an edited transcript of their conversation.
When did you start the “Today’s Papers” feature?
“Today’s Papers” started, I believe, a year after we launched, in 1997. A journalist named Scott Shuger, who actually died in 2002 in a diving accident, was our first “Today’s Papers” writer. We actually asked Matt Drudge to do it, but Drudge recommended Scott. But in fact, in our very first issue, the very first thing we did was, we had a column called “In Other Magazines,” which I wrote. That was an aggregation of what was in the main print magazines. The notion was, we would read Time and Newsweek and all the others so you wouldn’t have to bother—so you wouldn’t have to go to your doctor’s office. I remember I used to come in on Sundays and get faxes—they would fax me their print editions, and I would write it up.
So we were doing aggregation right from the very first day of Slate. We actually also added a blog aggregation feature that we ran in 2001 or so, and an international newspaper aggregation feature called “International Papers,” which has run sporadically ever since 1997. But “Today’s Papers” became the most important and best version of that in the first years of Slate.
So what was the reaction to those features in the industry at the time? What was the prevailing attitude towards aggregation in general?
I’ll focus on “Today’s Papers,” because that was the best and most widely read of our aggregation features. That was a very beloved feature for many years, because it was really an act of media criticism, more than it was an act of repurposing someone else’s content. What looked at the way newspapers were covering stories, and compare and contrast and frame the news for people. It was never simply an act of finding the one story on the front page of the Times and summarizing it; it was about contrasting how news coverage was happening in different papers. That was a very interesting and valuable service in its time, and it was widely read by people in the newspaper business.
What went into the decision to discontinue “Today’s Papers” and launch “The Slatest,” which is more like a list of quick takes than a comparative essay?
We discontinued “Today’s Papers” in 2009, I believe. The reason was—while it had a wonderful life, and was written as well on the final day it ran as it was on the first day it ran—the way that people consume media had completely changed. The print newspaper had undergone a huge shift, and the print newspapers we were covering had changed dramatically during that time period—had weakened as print products and strengthened as online products. “Today’s Papers” didn’t take into account the huge influence that non-newspaper news was having on the public. “Today’s Papers” was a lovely little miniature portrait of one corner of the news, but it was a very small corner of the news that was being considered there every day. We thought we needed to reconsider how we were approaching this, and consider a broader landscape of journalism in terms of what we were collecting.
Can you talk about the mix of stories that now appear on “The Slatest”? There always seem to be the big world news stories, and also a mix of smaller, weirder, more entertaining stories.
It’s always been a distinct mix of top news—obligatory news—and weird things. The weird things were fun and valuable, and probably Josh Voorhees, who writes “The Slatest” now, will continue to do some of those. But it’s not intended to be a “news of the weird” feature; it’s intended to be a feature which is a very smart, entertaining brief on the most interesting stories of the day, and sometimes the most interesting stories of the day are the weirdest. But then in some weeks—for instance, the death of Osama bin Laden—it’s going to be heavily focused on the hard news.