The future of the #SlatePitch in Trump’s world

January 16, 2019
Image: Wikimedia commons

When Jacob Weisberg departed from his perch as chairman of the Slate Group in October, he was nudged during an exit interview into giving something of a eulogy for the proverbial #SlatePitch. The impish liberal contrarianism that had long defined the site—maybe to an unfair extent—felt a bit too glib in the face of President Donald Trump and all he represents.

“I think Slate is now functioning in a world that is much more about articulating and defending first principles than it is about the subtleties of which policy ideas liberals should get behind,” Weisberg, one of the magazine’s first staffers upon its founding in 1996, said. “It hasn’t completely changed things, but I do think the skeptical and contrarian mindset is. . . it doesn’t have quite the currency.”

Weisberg’s departure marked the symbolic end of a drawn-out epoch for Slate, which helped shape some of online journalism’s early conventions around aggregation, explainers, and fast-twitch, counterintuitive takes on politics (the case against the case against regime change in Iraq) and culture (Creed is a good band).

But life under Trump has altered the appetite for the hot take, adding a sense of urgency and seriousness to Slate’s traditional fare. Meanwhile, a flurry of internal moves has raised questions about Slate will look like post-Weisberg. The same day as the chairman announced his departure, Slate Group’s Panoply podcast division slashed its editorial staff, paring down a parallel audio arm that developed alongside that of the mothership. Slate’s top editor, chief political correspondent, and fastest rising podcast star have since decamped for jobs elsewhere. And a bitterly fought labor dispute added tension to the ideological shift that Weisberg described, six current and former staffers tell CJR, particularly as Slate marketed itself as an antidote to Trumpism.

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That struggle dragged on for nearly two years until Slate ratified its first union contract Wednesday morning, a belated resolution that now leaves the the homo erectus of digital magazines to continue evolving in the cold of what appears to be a new digital winter. The once-high flying Vice Media has tempered its outsized ambitions for growth after a significant revenue miss in 2017. BuzzFeed News is holding out an audience tip jar to help fill its venture capital–lined pockets. Mic sold for a pittance of its former valuation, laying off its entire editorial staff. And Univision is looking to offload Gizmodo Media Group onto another foster parent.

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Incubated in the relative safety of a holding company, Slate offers some clues to the road ahead. The publication has built a burgeoning membership program in part by explicitly embracing its progressivism in a way many digital peers have avoided. And it’s staked the future of its advertising business on a sprawling lineup of podcasts that are raking in new revenue. Yet it’s still not enough to turn a profit; owner Graham Holdings reported in October that the Slate was losing money, as it had for at least the previous two years.

The outlet’s two-pronged strategy for survival has required cultivating unique writers and podcasters—a developmental role in which it’s proven remarkably successful. The problem in recent months is that more talent seems to be leaving than coming in.

Mainstream publications chasing digital subscriptions have raided Slate’s writing and editing staff as they reinvest in their journalism. A resurgent Los Angeles Times nabbed Editor in Chief Julia Turner, who’d been ingrained deeply within Slate’s DNA over the course of a nearly 16-year stint. The New York Times poached Chief Political Correspondent Jamelle Bouie, one of the defining commentators on politics and race in the Trump era. And The New Yorker picked up staff writers Osita Nwanevu, a rising star in the commentariat, and Isaac Chotiner, a gifted interviewer.

The problem in recent months is that more talent seems to be leaving than coming in.

The podcasting side has also proven to be a prime target for plunder. Executive Producer Steve Lickteig, who oversaw a huge growth in both audience and revenues for Slate’s lineup, went to NBC News. Leon Neyfakh, host of the uber-popular historical program Slow Burn, bolted to start a new narrative-driven show for an “innovative platform” that he declined to disclose to me via email. After shaping Slate in various ways over two decades—as a writer, editor, and executive—Weisberg likewise launched his own podcast shop.

The way Slate collectively responds to these departures could influence the speed at which the iconic digital magazine is morphing into an audio production company with a supportive digital presence. With the narrative-driven Slow Burn and daily news program What Next filling out a lineup of mostly Political Gabfest-style roundtables, Slate shows drew 160 million podcast downloads in 2018, up 60 percent over the previous year, according to Gabriel Roth, editorial director for audio. Acting Slate CEO Dan Check adds that the larger collective audience last year translated to 50-percent growth in podcasting ad revenue compared to 2017.

The trajectory contrasts starkly with that of between January and November 2018, the site tallied an average of 14.9 million monthly unique visitors, according to comScore, down from an average of 19.9 million in the same period in 2017, and 20.5 million the year before. The audience is being pinched by dual pressures: the endless Trump-Twitter-TV feedback loop has commodified the take market like never before; and Facebook has scaled back referrals to publishers. But Check also frames the shrinkage in the context of a wider strategy to maximize time on page rather than total readers. “As we try to become more membership-oriented, having an audience a mile wide and an inch deep isn’t a particularly good bet,” Check says.

What remains unclear for many text-centric publications pivoting into audio is how they intend for the two media—one in growth mode, the other potentially maxed out—to interact. “If Mike Pesca talks about Yemen on [our podcast] The Gist, does that count as Slate having covered it?” acting Editor in Chief Lowen Liu asks. “That’s something that we’re still grappling with. There are people who read the magazine that don’t listen to podcasts.”

The fact that Slate podcasts comprise both the growth area of its advertising business while also driving new memberships would seem to add potentially thornier questions to the text-audio division. The premium Slate Plus program now counts 48,000 paying customers, according to Roth, up from roughly 35,000 in July 2017 and just half that of the previous November. For now, Liu sees the two media as complementary. “We also feel that the stronger we are in podcasts,” he says, “the more loyal our audience [to] will be.”

All digital media grapple with how to maintain their identity across platforms. And as Slate has targeted devotees who might be willing to cough up $35 for the first year of membership, it has explicitly marketed itself as a vessel for holding Trump accountable. In some ways that’s codified a more fundamental, longer-term shift in its identity—away from what could be seen as intellectual trapeze acts by a coterie of overeducated white liberals.

“Is there a place for a contrarian take in a hyperpartisan world where there’s an appalling president who must be opposed with every fiber of your being?” David Plotz, former Slate editor and current host of the Political Gabfest, wonders. “That’s a harder thing to do because the moral stakes are very high and people are less playful about politics than they were 10 or 15 years ago.”

Plotz adds that the cartoonish depiction of the #SlatePitch never really captured the magazine’s entire menu of reporting on legal affairs and analysis of foreign policy and advice on how to treat whiny mutts. Fair enough.

But he, Weisberg, and current Slate writers are right that the old sensibility has lost some of its purchase, pointing to a broader question: Has Trump made politics a more serious conversation? Or made it clear why some people weren’t all that playful in the first place? The potential answers would seem to overlap with divergent schools of thought on whether Trump is an historical aberration for American culture, or a logical conclusion. They also underline debates over power and privilege that the mainstream media—antagonism toward Trump and all—still doesn’t really want to have.

Slate has gradually taken a more expansive stance toward these and related questions in all strains of its coverage, reflecting the renewed energy in progressive circles. “We are seeing it in our arts coverage and film criticism and our lifestyle essays and tech reporting,” Liu says. He cautioned, however, that the leftward tilt doesn’t mean the publication has any institutional viewpoint. “We don’t think of Slate as an official member of the #Resistance,” Liu adds.

Slate has aimed for that nuance without a stable politics editor for much of the Trump administration. It also became a point of contention during the newsroom’s union drive and contract negotiations, when management clashed with the 51-member bargaining unit over a right-to-work proposal.

The union eventually prevailed in the standoff, securing a $51,000 base salary, annual pay increases, and a diversity task force, among other provisions. “Throughout the negotiations there was a focus on equity and inclusion that I think is a really worthwhile use of that kind of conversation,” Susan Matthews, Slate’s science editor and member of the bargaining committee, says. (Weisberg declined to comment; Turner and Graham Holdings didn’t respond to my requests.)

None of this is to say the new posture has engendered some sort of suffocating orthodoxy among Slate’s offerings. The outlet’s podcasts give its brand of playful arguments a more human setting—one that may even be superior to what the text-based social web has become. In that latter world, the competition to lob thinkpieces atop users’ social feeds runs hot, the incentives to be contrarian for its own sake are perverse, and opinions are often read and shared with the least generous interpretation possible.

The good news is that the political and cultural establishments remain ripe for prodding, particularly when they stage Kumbaya moments harkening back to supposedly happier days before Trump. Take Ruth Graham’s December column arguing that George H.W. Bush’s service dog, who went viral after he was photographed dutifully lying in front of the former president’s casket, was in fact an employee. It aggravated all the right people in political media officialdom, reminding us that actually, depending on who you are, the #SlatePitch isn’t dead yet.

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David Uberti is a writer in New York. He was previously a media reporter for Gizmodo Media Group and a staff writer for CJR. Follow him on Twitter @DavidUberti.