Last night we met three editors from Slate.com, Julia Turner, John Swansburg, and Dan Engber.
Julia Turner began with a brief history of Slate. It was founded by Michael Kinsley in the '90s. Originally there was a print edition distributed in Starbucks on the West Coast. The paper edition was stapled sheets of 8 1/2 by 11 paper, mostly put out for Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, (and Frank Rich's office, added John Swansburg, who revealed that he used to read it when he worked there).
The big question was where, when, and how people would read online journalism. When Slate was first online, it had page numbers - the editors expected people to print it out and read it on paper. It came out on Friday afternoons, and followed traditions of print journalism.
For example, the editors took a skip week in the summer. In 1997, that skip week happened to be the week Diana was killed. Julia Turner reported this as a repulsive mistake that they could never make now, but at the time everyone figured they'd already made vacation plans.
The editors also expected Slate to be read during its readers' leisure hours. Instead they discovered their readers read it at work. Therefore it had to be able to be minimized quickly when a coworker walked by, and the writers couldn't be casual about people's time. The tone had to be fun and sprightly, even if the piece was dark.
Even today, most people don't read Slate on weekend mornings.
In many ways, the editors pointed out, it's more like book publishing than magazine publishing. You have to attract the readers' attention with the homepage, and your archive works as your backlist. Turner gave the example of a piece on Girls Gone Wild by Ariel Levy, which still gets an enormous amount of traffic thanks to Google. That traffic requires no work by editors and writers presently, but it does a great job of drawing hits.
John Swansburg, the Culture editor, came to Slate from The Boston Globe. When he worked in print journalism, his publication came out six times a year, which meant they had to guess the news two months in advance. "That was fun when we got it right, but embarrassing when we got it wrong."
His first day at Slate was the day of the Virginia Tech shootings. He said it really "felt like being at a newspaper," because it was an "all-hands-on-deck situation."
However, online there is a constant debate about whether it is more important to be the first to report a story, or the best to report that story.
The benefit is that you don't have to worry about raw material; with the Boston Globe, they only had four pages of newsprint, and Slate is not limited by page space. You also don't run short if you cut a piece to keep your quality high - you never need to fill the end of a page on the internet. On the other hand, pieces are usually 1200 words online, so in a sense you have less space than you would on paper just because you have to keep the reader's attention.
Swansburg talked about how to parcel your words out, and the benefits of using images and moving images to tell stories in a new way.
We saw a bit of the slide show of fight scenes featured on Slate's homepage. (It includes that bad-ass scene from David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises. You know the one.) This was an example of how the internet has an advantage over print - that is, it's easy to embed the video and easy for the reader to understand what the writer is talking about without requiring too much description. "You could say, 'Matt Damon beats some guy with a book,' but it's cooler to see it," explained Swansburg, referring to the scene featured from The Bourne Ultimatum.Dan Engber talked about his experiences with reader interactions. He has worked with readers through the Thought Experiment, Green Lantern, and the Explainer.
The first advice he received was, Do not look at the message boards. No, really. Don't.
Of course, he looked and regretted it. Every online panelist has stories about their negative experiences with commenters, but his was the most frank: "People are really, really, really, really, really, really mean." When he wrote a piece about obesity, he said, there was a debate online about how fat he was, taking pictures of him from Google image search and ripping them apart. On the other hand, he said, those people keep clicking and they're making ad money for Slate.
The people who comment are a tiny percentage of your readers, and it's hard to gauge what demographics they represent. How are they self-selecting?
Commenters also manage to generate an enormous amount of content. Engber published an article positing the simple question, Why do you have to take your laptop out of your bag at the airport? He called the heads of security at various airports and everyone gave a different answer. You could hide bomb materials in the CD drive, one suggested. Engber opened the question up to his readers. Do you have to do this in other countries? he asked. His readers responded. And he learned things from them. Apparently in Israel, you don't have to open your laptop.
Sometimes the readers' comments are less constructive. He published a section called The Questions that We Never Answered, including, "Why are some cats softer than others? Is it possible that I have the softest cat in the world?"
Julia Turner admitted that she still wanted to know whether flies on the ceiling do a barrel roll or a loop-de-loop, and Engber referred her to the answer through The Straight Dope.
In our question-answer session, Turner expressed her gratitude for Slate's partnership with Maxim for photography. She also said Microsoft was good to them - Microsoft owned Slate when it was just starting out. Slate charges advertisers for displays rather than charging them a certain rate per click (smart). The Root is their sister magazine, in case you wondered why it's linked on their home page.
The editors were asked how they felt about Salon.com. They said it felt like proof that their concept was valuable when someone was trying to do something similar. Generally Salon articles tend to be a little longer, a little more reporting than commentary, a little more leftist, but the editors emphasized that Slate is doing a lot of reporting just as Salon is doing a lot of commentary, so those differences are hard to measure.
We found out that about 75 people work for Slate. Dan Engber responded to the final question saying that they discovered a new Explainer writer by publishing at the end of a column, "Think you can be the Explainer? Prove it." This was better than posting the job on Journalismjobs.com, he said, because the people who applied were already reading the column and were familiar with Slate's voice. In this way, he said, they found somebody fantastic to take the position.