Q&A: Slate EIC Julia Turner on ‘pivoting to words’

Photo credit: Juliana Jiménez Jaramillo

Last year, while others pivoted to video (and failed), Slate did not. The online magazine decided to stick with what it does best: words. It’s a strategy that Julia Turner, Slate’s editor in chief, refers to as a “pivot to words,” both in the site’s written and audio work. Just last week, Slate debuted a new look—complete with logo, font, and website redesign—to complement this pivot.

Slate was an early adopter of podcasting. Now its website reflects the centrality of the medium to its coverage, touting its podcasts alongside articles and more prominently promoting them on the homepage Slate’s in-house podcast network received more than 100 million downloads last year, launching six news shows in the process (including the chart-topping iTunes hit Slow Burn). Slate’s sister company, the podcast network Panoply, continues to push out popular shows like Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History, while also developing podcast technology and innovating with advertising models.

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Turner spoke with CJR about the redesign, the expansion of Slate’s podcasting efforts, and coverage of gender in the #MeToo era. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

 

There are some big changes underway at Slate. What brought about the homepage redesign, new logo, and strategy for the new year?

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It’s really the most comprehensive and wholesale redesign we’ve ever done. I’ve now worked here for 15 years and have been involved in the three prior redesigns. We’ve been wanting to change our look for a long time, but also wanted to change our process for thinking about how we changed our look. One of the key things about media at this moment is you’re creating a brand that an audience has a relationship with but that lives in many places. It has to live on Facebook, it has to live on Twitter, and for us, when we’ve made such a huge investment in audio, it has to live in your podcast feeds. Rather than saying, how should we organize everything on the homepage and what should it look like? we really approached this design from a brand identity perspective, and we were able to do that because of the talent, skill, and canniness of our design director, Jason Santa Maria, who we hired a year and a half ago to do this project. He really approached it from: “What is Slate? What is Slate’s distinctive value proposition right now, and how can we create a really deep library of visual tools to convey what Slate’s relationship with its audience is?”

 

So what is Slate’s value proposition right now?

We are your smart, fun, skeptical friend. Your companion who helps you figure out the world. Our audience is incredibly curious and incredibly well-informed. We’d love to offer them a new way to think about something. We have a reputation for being contrarian, but we don’t set out to say the opposite of what people think or what is true. We set out to find frameworks, insights, ideas that will be interesting to a group of readers or listeners who already read a lot. And we don’t take ourselves too seriously. One of my favorite things about the redesign is that it better conveys our sense of fun and impishness.

 

The homepage is much more streamlined now. You consolidated everything into five new verticals: News & Politics, Culture, Technology, Business, and Human Interest. There’s also no longer DoubleX, which was the gender-focused blog for the last couple of years. Why move beyond gendered verticals, especially in the midst of the #MeToo movement?

It’s something we’ve been thinking about for a long time. The origin of DoubleX was in the XX Factor, a blog we launched to essentially cover Hillary’s first run for president. It developed into its own standalone site and then a section where we covered issues of import to women for a decade. Ever since I’ve taken over as editor, it’s felt very strange for me to be the first female editor in chief of Slate, and one of the few female editors in chief of general interest magazines, and have women’s pages still. Like reproductive rights—that goes in the women’s section. News about campus sexual assault policy—that goes in the women’s section. That just doesn’t comport with either the news or how people think about their lives these days.

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Sexual harassment and gender have been at the center of the conversation for the past year, as we’ve watched an incredibly competent and qualified woman lose the presidency to someone whose experience is significantly less, as we’ve watched a complete shift in the way we think about women’s testimonies about their sexual experiences and what that means for men in power. Those stories are part of why we want to do this. Those stories are news. That’s why they belong in the news section. They’re not just women’s news. DoubleX was aimed at a unisex audience. It was never intended to just be for women readers. Putting all that stuff under a purple logo didn’t feel modern or right anymore in terms of the centrality of those questions to the news.

As to why we launched Human Interest, I think there’s a huge opportunity in the editorial landscape for brands like Slate to really own coverage of parenting, families, and how we live our lives. There are so many interesting questions about how we handle the responsibilities we have, the changing nature of work-life balance, the way we use technology these days, and in particular parenting. It’s a unisex thing. We’re still going to be avidly covering issues of gender and women, we’re just going to put them all over the magazine.

 

Women’s blogs like DoubleX played a huge role in the conversations about gender over the last decade or so. Even though it’s not going to be part of the Slate suite, could you talk about the role DoubleX played,as well as sites like Jezebel and Feministing, in shaping the conversation around gender in the country today?

Broadly, the internet has been good at elevating the voices of people whose voices were not necessarily sufficiently represented in pre-internet news coverage. I think that’s true about gender, race, sexuality. The efflorescence of content that digital publishing allows and that the abundance of platforms allows means that you can find more voices speaking on more topics, and it helps you see things from a broader array of perspectives. The abundance of women’s sites over the last decade has produced some of my favorite journalistic work and also my least-favorite work. It’s a bit of a double-edged sword. It’s helped amplify voices that are really important to listen to. But the women’s blogs were also big participants in outrage culture and the sort of tiresome cycle of using the internet to have a cheap and slightly boring negative response to some horrible thing that had happened.

Is there a fear that moving away from a gender vertical would have a negative impact on the array and types voices usually present in conversations about gender?

I’m not concerned about it. It’s something we watch closely, and we really value trying to make sure we have diverse perspectives represented on the pages of Slate. It’s something we’re always working on and thinking about. It’s something we’ll be tracking closely as we make this transition. We’re serious about continuing to cover the issues we cover well.

Podcasting and writing are both verbal pursuits, and so a lot of our podcasts are our most dexterous and smartypants journalists talking to each other.

Let’s pivot to audio now. While so many other media organizations pivoted to video, Slate decided not to do that and instead focused on building its podcasting suite. What’s the state of podcasting at Slate in 2018?

We’re going to spend a lot of time and energy and financial investment growing the Slate podcast network in 2018. We’ve been podcasting for 13 years. We did it when it was first cool, and then we kept doing it when everybody decided it wasn’t cool. We were well-positioned when Serial became a sensation and suddenly podcasting was not just a super-interesting and super-engaging time-shifted audio format, but instead became a powerful advertising platform. We had seen that engagement and felt like this kind of relationship with an audience around sophiscated conversations and arguments is exactly what Slate exists to foster, so even though there’s not a great business model yet [for podcasting], we’re just going to keep doing it, because it feels right. That central relationship and depth of engagement we were building helped us be in the right place at the right time when the advertisers’ ears suddenly perked up and were like, “Tell me more about podcasting.”

If you look at pure economics, the CPMs on podcasting are comparable to the CPMs on videos, sometimes they oustrip it. The cost of production of podcasting can range wildly, as is somewhat true with video. But you have to be fairly heavily invested in terms of staffing, time, and equipment to have a full-service video company, which is why a lot of the pivots to video have been accompanied by really painful layoffs.

The thing that’s been nice for Slate is that podcasting and writing are both verbal pursuits, and so a lot of our podcasts are our most dexterous and smartypants journalists talking to each other. Those are fairly simple to produce, though it’s hard to get the right rapport, get the right cast, and create a conversation people want to come back to week after week.

We’ve also been investing in different types of [podcast] formats. There’s been a lot of noise about The Daily and other daily news shows. We launched the first daily news podcast with The Gist a couple years ago. We managed to poach Mike Pesca from public radio, and his show remains the OG daily news podcast. This year, we’ve had great success with Slow Burn, which is really our first foray into serialized narrative podcasting. We’re going to do more seasons of that.

Figure out what it is that the people who love you love about you, and then figure out if the new medium offers you a way to further cement that type of connection.

You built the podcasting arm of Slate on these “gabfest” models, but I’ve been intrigued by Slow Burn and the more narrative-driven pursuits (Slate is launching a new narrative podcast with Michael Lewis soon). Is that something we can expect more investment in, versus the conversation style?

We’re going to do both in tandem. Having diversified audio formats is really useful for a podcasting company. If you make all of your bets on series that require a year-and-a-half worth of reporting and then 600 hours in the editing room going through tape and whittling it down to 10 perfect episodes, that’s tough. That’s a real boom-or-bust business model. You’d need that show to be a huge success for that to work economically. One thing I’m really proud of with Slow Burn is that the business model is a little bit different. We’ve done that as part of Slate Plus, which is our membership program. For every great public-facing episode, if you join Slate Plus, there’s a bonus episode. We’re seeing really strong conversion to Slate Plus driven by Slow Burn.

 

For those news organizations that haven’t gotten on the audio bandwagon yet, what’s your biggest piece of advice for pivoting to audio?

It’s harder now than it was four or five years ago. The space is getting more crowded; people have their appointment listening. I wouldn’t do it lightly. I think it’s the same with considering any platform to see if it’s right for you and your brand. Figure out what it is that the people who love you love about you, and then figure out if the new medium offers you a way to further cement that type of connection. I think that’s what’s fundamentally worked for us. People love our podcasts for the same reason they love our writing. It’s smart people being loose and playful and helping make you smarter about the world. Podcasting was a format that allowed us to be our best selves. No matter what kind of media company you’re running, that’s the key question to ask.

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Meg Dalton is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Find her on Twitter @megdalts.