Over the past 10 years many good online publications have come and gone. Throughout that time there is one site that I have visited more than any other when looking for interesting takes on world news, explanations of issues, or just plain fun essays.
That site is Slate, which has recently celebrated its 10-year anniversary. To commemorate it, the site published a compilation of some of its best articles. It also posted, at its website, a collection of not only some of the best articles but also essays from its critics, a bold move.
Malcolm Gladwell, one of my favorite science writers, sums it up perfectly: “I don’t think I’ve ever gone to Slate and not been fascinated, educated, infuriated, or simply found myself laughing out loud.”
I received a copy of the Slate book and David Plotz, Slate’s deputy editor, was kind enough to agree to an interview about the book and the site. I began by asking him about the introduction to the book where the original editor, Michael Kinsley, invents a term to describe what it’s like to succeed as a site while others failed.
Scott: One of the first things to catch my attention in the 10th anniversary book is a term coined to speak to the advantage of surviving where other web ventures failed. Michael Kinsley uses the catchy term "FUA – Fuckyouability." Are you disappointed or surprised that term did not catch on?
David: Not surprised — it begins with the unfamily-friendly word "fuck," after all — but it is a great phrase.
Scott: Why was it decided to include critiques and criticisms of Slate on its web site as part of your tenth anniversary celebration? That seemed an unusual but respectable move.
David: It felt, for lack of a better word, Slate-y to include the critiques. God knows we did enough self-congratulation, and that we came in for enough praise. It seemed honest, and fun, to give the critics a baseball bat and let them take a cut. Kinsley imbued the magazine with his spirit: ruthless intellectual honesty, and never taking yourself too seriously. We still try to hew to that model.
Scott: One of the most striking things I see when reading and perusing Slate is the contrarian reporting, whether it's writing about how Falwell may have gotten a bad rap on the Teletubbies issue, or other topics where the rest of the media got things wrong (a specialty of Slate press critic Jack Shafer). Is being contrarian an intended goal or just a common end result?
David: Hmm. A complicated question. I think the answer is both. We love contrarian takes, because they're, well, contrarian. But it's by no means a requirement – we often affirm conventional wisdom, too.
Scott: Let's talk about one of your articles – the one about Lewis and Clark's celebrated trip being insignificant. How do stories like that come about? To me it's of the type I'm calling contrarian. What was the reaction to it?
David: That story came out of a conversation I had with a young history professor at a kids' birthday party. I was asking him about his work, and he was talking about various subjects, and mentioned in passing that people always credited Lewis and Clark with important scientific discoveries but in fact those discoveries didn't matter at all. This stuck in my head, and some weeks later I saw that the Lewis/Clark anniversary celebrations were getting under way, so I started calling around to see if my professor friend was on to something. And he was!
The response was, as with most such pieces, 90 percent enraged and 10 percent delighted. But if I remember — it was a long time ago — the enraged
people were gratified to have the historical argument.
Scott: How do you feel Slate is different from other sites?
David: That's a broad question! There are millions of sites! What make us distinctive, I think, is the combination of excellent writing, brilliant, rigorous analysis, and a lot of humor. The humor is probably the key.
Scott: David, you started something called the Seed Project. What was that? Did it work?
David: It was a journalistic project, to use the collaborative power of the web to uncover the true story of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank. The sperm bank, a project to breed outstanding kids using sperm from geniuses, had shut in 1999, leaving no records and no way to find the kids or donors. I put out a story on Slate inviting donors and kids and others to contact me – using my readers as my sources.
It worked incredibly well, as I heard from 50 donors and kids, and reconstructed the entire curious history of this audacious experiment. I wrote a book based on the series: The Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank
David: "Explainer" grew out of a feature that was in the first Slate: "The Gist,"
which attempted to summarize a very complicated issue concisely. We realized we needed to do something similar for mysteries in the news – questions the papers haven't answered. It was an immediate hit, and remains our most popular feature today. It has a great mix of reporting, humor, and irreverence.
We came up with "Human Guinea Pig" several years ago when we were looking for a new project for Emily Yoffe. It occurred to me that the pieces of Emily that everyone liked most were her first-person pieces. 1. She wrote about herself with such charm. 2. She is a bit of a ham and 3. She is game for anything. "Human Guinea Pig" was the natural result of that.
Scott: There was a period when Slate tried to switch to a paid subscriber program of some type. Can you explain the thinking behind that and why the idea was ultimately dropped?
David: It was a disaster. Our readership fell off a cliff. We got about 25,000 paying subscribers, which wasn't terrible, but a) it wasn't nearly enough to pay our bills and b) it cut our readership by 90 percent at the time, which was horrible for building the Slate brand. The free, advertising-driven model has turned out to be the right one for us.
Scott: How did you decide which articles to include in this compilation and which to leave out?
David: I spent a long time reading a lot of articles, and taking straw polls of colleagues. It was very tough. We could have done ten anthologies that would have been just as good.