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The regrettable death of the Slatepitch
We've lost a lot as every publication has become the same
Katie Robertson of the New York Times recently wrote about my former employer Slate and its “struggles to find identity and profit” in the modern world.
As an industry veteran, I hate when critics assert that a site’s business problems simply reflect the consequences of their own personal editorial critiques, so I want to be clear: plenty of websites that I think are garbage (like Dan Bongino’s) seem to be doing well as businesses, and I think a digital media operation of Slate’s size would struggle no matter how excellent its product.
But the identity point is one I feel acutely as someone who read Slate for years before working there, loved every minute I was on the job with a great group of people, and has been sad to see the site lose a lot of its distinctiveness over the last few years.
Once upon a time, Jonah Weiner wrote a Slate article with the headline “Creed is Good: Scott Stapp’s nu-grunge foursome was seriously underrated.” People lost their shit. The ensuing discussion spawned an early Twitter meme about #slatepitches, and Slate, having a good sense of humor about itself, aggregated the best Slatepitch tweets. The meme made sense to people because it wasn’t like Weiner published some random bad take. Slate had a whole editorial style that was based around provocative — some would say trolly — articles and up-is-down theses. At its best, Slate championed unpopular causes and provoked fantastic debates. At its worst, Slate seemed to be deliberately stretching to come up with indefensible ideas. But everyone understood what made a pitch a Slatepitch.
That’s something Slate has sort of lost. But more than just Slate, I feel like it’s been lost by the internet as a whole. Publications employ any good writers they can manage to hire and lump them together with whichever not-so-good writers they happen to have on hand. Management hopes for the best, while staff plans for the worst, unionizing so everyone at least gets a decent severance when the layoffs come.
The landscape that was
When I first moved to D.C., I worked for a small liberal magazine called The American Prospect. When I described it as being to the left of The New Republic and to the right of The Nation, people knew what I meant.
At the time, TNR had a very clear moderate Democrat brand, while The Nation had a clear left-of-the-Democrats brand. There was also The Washington Monthly, a center-left publication like TNR that was less hawkish on foreign policy and perhaps a bit more interested in exploring heterodox ideas on domestic policy. Mother Jones was down-the-middle liberal like the Prospect, but more grounded in environmentalism and crunchy stuff, while TAP was more grounded in the labor movement.
On the right, Reason was (and remains) libertarian. But there was also The Weekly Standard, which was a distinctly neoconservative publication (they supported John McCain over George W. Bush in the 2000 primary, for example), and National Review, which was more grounded in Christian Right conservatism. The American Conservative was a paleocon magazine that tended toward isolationism in foreign policy and was very into articles about how immigration is bad.
An article about the Bush administration’s nefarious plans to launch a war with Iran could run in TAP or The Nation or The Washington Monthly or Reason or TAC but definitely could not run in TNR or National Review or The Weekly Standard. A piece arguing that conservatives should try to become more populist in their economic thinking could run in The Weekly Standard or TAC but not National Review or Reason or any of the left-of-center publications.
How do I know that? If you worked in professional political journalism at the time, you paid attention to these things. But it was also clear to readers because these publications deliberately cultivated distinct brand identities. They were flagrantly closed-minded. If you pitched something that didn’t comport with the editorial line, they wouldn’t run it — and it wouldn’t be personal. Because the publications were explicitly ideological, something might not fly at TAP just because it wouldn’t fly; nobody had to get in high dudgeon about causing harm or how beyond the pale your ideas were. You could just pitch it elsewhere. The point of all the small political publications was to articulate a distinctive point of view. Not demanding absolute adherence or unanimity, of course, but they were trying to cultivate particular sensibilities and ideas.
And then there was Slate.
The art of the Slatepitch
Floating above these grim ideologues was Slate, a less political and less partisan publication.
Slate was contrarian. But not like today’s “contrarians” who are like “I’m a liberal but…” and then just agree with conservatives about everything. Slate was the place to say the things that were not being said elsewhere. Creed, for example, is bad. And yet Creed was a very popular, very successful band. There are presumably lots of people who do not think that Creed is bad, yet Creed was so unfashionable that there was nobody around to champion them. The troll caricature is someone pretending to like Creed to get attention on the internet. But we’re talking, again, about a very popular and successful band! Weiner did not convince me, but he championed something many people felt was worth championing.
The same is true for my own infamous Slatepitch “The Case Against Eating Outside.”
Thanks to the pandemic, we’ve all learned to appreciate outdoor dining and perhaps even dabbled in it during some unseasonable weather. But this was 2013. When I wrote a piece saying I prefer to eat inside, even when the weather is nice, I got lots of denunciations. But also lots of people emailed me to say “hey, yeah, you’re right.” Preferences differ.
The Slatepitch was also, at times, a fruitful lens through which to view politics. I wrote a piece during the 2012 campaign about how, precisely because I agreed with liberals that Republicans were sabotaging the Obama economy, growth would probably be faster if Romney won. That’s the kind of argument a liberal magazine wouldn’t make (because it implied it would be good for Romney to win), but it’s also one a conservative magazine wouldn’t make (because it implied Republicans were sabotaging the economy). But it was an interesting argument and, I think, a true one. It was, as we said at the time, “Slate-y.”
Everything is the same now
Today, publications are all the same.
Here are some headlines:
Your co-workers with kids are not okay [2/14/22].
Parents are not okay [8/22/21]
American parents are not okay [2/2/21]
Those all ran in different, once-distinct publications. And it’s not just America. According to Macleans from Canada, “The Pandemic is Breaking Parents.” One could almost say that Canada’s parents are not okay.
One of those stories about how parents are not okay ran in Slate, and it’s a pretty good story. It expresses what all the “parents are not okay” stories express, namely the unique frustrations of pandemic parenting in an environment where kids have been last in line for vaccination but first in line for NPIs in a way that’s very stressful and annoying. That said, what I think they would have told you at Old Slate is that parents actually experienced better mental health during the pandemic than non-parents. The stresses of being cooped up with kids were real, but the boredom and isolation of living alone was, for many people, worse. And if you think about human history in the long run, having kids underfoot while you’re trying to get your hunter-gathering or subsistence agriculture done is difficult but a reasonably normal experience in a way that being all alone in a house for weeks at a time is not.
The depressing aspects of isolation are probably rendered all the more depressing by the fact that you’re not even supposed to complain. How are you going to whine about being sad there’s no happy hour and running out of stuff to binge-watch when your coworker is supervising two kids on Zoom school and nursing a half-dozen (valid) resentments about how unhelpful her husband is? No one has had it easy the last two years, and in many ways, the tasks facing your coworker are objectively more difficult. But that very social undesirability of insisting that “actually parents are dealing with the kind of stress that humans are well-adapted to while singles are forced into a weird psychic torment” is exactly why it was valuable to have a publication like Old Slate around.
Whenever someone would say something kind of weird and provocative over lunch at Slate, David Plotz and the other editors would try to give them the courage to be daring. They recognized that it’s psychologically risky to come out as a Creed fan knowing that people are going to make fun of you. But doing the take provides a great service to all the other indoor kids. And it improves the overall intellectual health of society to have annoying people picking at the edges of conventional wisdom.
Today, though, almost everything is vaguely the same. Articles are consumed decontextualized from their publications, so nobody knows what anything is anyway. And everything is programmed for the same Google and Facebook algorithms. Modern social media is very nasty, and modern office politics is also very nasty. There’s no guarantee your coworkers won’t throw you under the bus if you become Twitter’s Main Character, and editors won’t necessarily discipline people for knifing each other. Vox doesn’t really run explainers anymore, Buzzfeed doesn’t do quizzes, and nobody is explicitly ideological even as every publication more or less subscribes to the same mostly-leftist politics of young college graduates in big cities.
The NYT black hole
What’s particularly weird about the convergence on this brand of politics is that it’s roughly the ideological space occupied by the New York Times opinion section.
And there’s nothing wrong with that space — the New York Times opinion section is really great. But The New York Times opinion section is really great. You’ve already got Charles Blow, Jamelle Bouie, Michelle Goldberg, Ezra Klein, Paul Krugman, and Farhad Manjoo as columnists. Those guys are really good. And they’ve got Ross Douthat and David Brooks to give them some range. But also “opinion writers” like Jane Coaston and Jay Caspian Kang and Tressie McMillan Cottom to give them more depth.
When we started Vox, I think we hoped we’d be disruptors of the media scene and knock off legacy dinosaurs like the Times. But the Times has astutely avoided that fate, hiring a huge share of the best people from across the world of digital media. It makes them extremely hard — indeed, almost impossible — to compete with.
Under the circumstances, you’d think the sensible option would be to try to produce something that is very different in approach and sensibility from the New York Times. There’s no guarantee that would work as a business — business is hard, the NYT is run by smart people, and Google and Facebook are gobbling up the ad market. But editorially, it makes a lot of sense. And if you failed, you’d at least go down fighting the good fight. Right now, though, huge swathes of the media landscape seem to me to be writing about roughly the same things as the Times opinion section, from a similar perspective, with a similar audience in mind, but without being as good at it. Relatedly, the best version of the “parents are not okay” take was Jessica Grose in the NYT about a year ago under the headline “America’s Mothers are in Crisis.” Also relatedly, Grose — like several other excellent NYT writers — used to work at Slate. It’s part of what makes them so hard to compete with; their gravitational pull sucks in tons of talent.
What I try to do here at Slow Boring is provide something that is, to the best of my abilities, highly differentiated. I deliberately lean into ideas that I don’t think could be successfully pitched elsewhere.
Old man yells at clouds
There’s nothing worse than middle-aged people going on about how things used to be better back in the day, so I want to end by acknowledging that there were some serious shortcomings to the good old days.
The scene was very, very white for starters. Even those progressive political magazines were almost all white. There was so little interest in Black writers for much of this time that Ta-Nehisi Coates was available to do an unpaid guest-blogging gig for me when I was at The Atlantic. Women were also pretty badly underrepresented. The vast majorityof those publications had male editors and a kind of a boys’ club vibe. Leon Wieseltier was sexually harassing people, everyone knew about it, and nobody did anything.
Some things have changed for the better even as others have changed for the worse. But I also don’t think this is a question of tradeoffs so much as two ships passing in the night.
Lauren Williams was editor in chief at Vox for my last few years, and we left at around the same time. Her new project, Capital B, is an example of something that tries to synthesize what I thought was valuable about the old days with some of what the media has gotten right more recently. It’s a focused publication by Black journalists aimed at primarily a Black audience, elevating voices that might not have been heard 15 to 20 years ago, but also trying to do something that’s really distinct from the other stuff out there now.
And there’s interesting stuff happening in new media. Another former colleague Cleo Abram has a great new YouTube series focused on forward-looking, tech-focused explainers. There are lots of interesting podcasts, and I learn a lot from various people’s tweets every day. I assume something cool is happening on TikTok. So I have some optimism about the future of the content game. But I still miss my Slatepitches.
CORRECTION: An earlier version said all the top editors were men except at Mother Jones, but I forgot Katrina vanden Heuvel at the Nation.