Not long ago, the two titans of online journalism were bitchy opposites, snapping at each other like a poolside Joan Collins and Linda Evans. In one corner was Salon and its frisky founder, David Talbot, whose free-ranging Web sheet examined everything from pols to pop stars to Brazilian bikini waxing. In the other corner was former New Republic editor Michael Kinsley’s Slate -a Microsoft-bankrolled bastion of political reporting and punditry that was, like its Seattle home, innovative and smart, but also a little distant and square.
Slate and Salon never really got along. Mr. Talbot enjoyed characterizing his publication as a kind of smokin’-in-the-boys-room renegade to Slate ‘s trust-funded nerd, calling Salon “sexier” and “more fun” and deriding Mr. Kinsley’s publication as an “inside-the-Beltway read for an elite audience.” Mr. Kinsley often returned the volley, charging Salon with inflating its readership numbers, and challenging its decision to go public in 1999 ( Salon ‘s stock proved to be a flop).
But lately, online journalism’s most entertaining battle has lost a lot of its fury. Salon , starved for financial support, went to a paid subscription model in April 2001, a move that pumped cash into the publication, but reduced its day-to-day impact on the media world’s conscience. And in February of this year, Mr. Kinsley suddenly stepped down from his post as Slate editor, removing that publication’s most identifiable face-and resident lightning rod.
What’s left now is a strange détente. But a stranger development may be how these famous rivals have begun to resemble each other. This is primarily Slate ‘s doing. Under new editor Jacob Weisberg, Slate has become noticeably pop-culturally obsessive, more hip-more like, well … Salon .
Consider some of Slate ‘s recent material. In just one week, Slate ran cover stories including a review of Barbara Kopple’s ABC TV documentary on the Hamptons, superhero celibacy, Lew Wasserman and the very un- Slate- ish R&B star Ashanti. There have been recent essays on the phenomena of the celebrity shows Extra and Access Hollywood , and pieces explaining the “appeal of Aerosmith’s aging, derivative, eyeliner-wearing hams.”
It’s not just readers; Slate ‘s staff is also noticing the culture-sniffing change.
“If you look back at the Slate – Salon rivalry,” said William Saletan, Slate ‘s chief political correspondent, “the area that we didn’t cover as thoroughly as we could have was culture. I think Jacob’s notion [is] to cover that just as well as the stuff we were known for.”
Jodi Kantor, Slate ‘s New York editor who oversees most of the magazine’s cultural coverage, agreed that a shift was afoot.
“I don’t think we ever, ever, in my three and a half years here said we should be more like Salon ,” Ms. Kantor said. “It’s not something we’re self-consciously trying to do, but it’s true.
“When I do a Web search,” Ms. Kantor continued, “and something comes up from Salon from 1996 or 1997, I’m just blown away at how good it was. I do think it’s a valid comparison.”
Mr. Weisberg-who officially took over the Slate editor’s job in late April after defeating Jack Shafer, the publication’s deputy editor, in a competition for the top slot-disagreed that his magazine was modeling any of its content after Salon ‘s. When Off the Record stopped by to see Mr. Weisberg at his cluttered, boxy office inside the Chrysler Building on Friday, June 7, he said he wanted the magazine to expand upon Slate ‘s reputation for political reporting. But he said he wasn’t scouring Salon archives to map out his next move.
“I don’t think there was anything wrong with their model in terms of what they conceived,” Mr. Weisberg said of Salon . “I liked the idea of a really well-rounded magazine with a hand in a lot of different areas … popular culture included. But that’s not a model . That’s just a description .”
Of Slate , Mr. Weisberg said: “I do want to broaden and expand its range. Since its inception, Slate has been a general-interest magazine. But it has had this heavy orientation towards politics, policy and economics. We’ve had cultural coverage since the beginning, but I want to make the arts an equal partner in the magazine in a way it wasn’t before.”
In the past, Slate ‘s toe-dipping into the waters outside the 202 area code was contained in the site’s Sports Nut and Culturebox sections. And indeed, that’s exactly what the latter was: a Culture Box. A self-contained, happy ghetto of non-policy coverage amidst a sea of ruminations on Dick Gephardt, campaign-finance reform, or the legacy of the Clintons.
But, now, look out! Since taking the job, Mr. Weisberg-who once penned a culture column for Slate called the Browser-has tapped West Coast editor Josh Daniel to edit the new MusicBox section. He added a regular TV column by Harper’s senior editor and former VH1 staffer Virginia Heffernan and something called “Number 1″ written by financial columnist Rob Walker.
“The idea,” Mr. Weisberg said of “Number 1,” “is to take the chart-topping phenomena in every field and explain it. Like ‘Who Ate My Cheese?’ You know, I have no idea what that is. The idea is to explain what it is and why it’s selling.”
That won’t be the end of the changes. Ms. Kantor said that Slate intends to add travel and wine features-and even a food column!
“We haven’t quite figured out what it’s going to be,” Ms. Kantor said. “But it’ll be a Slate- y take on food.” (The mind races: a C.W.-busting polemic on pork tenderloin?)
All of these propositions seem foreign to the creature launched by Mr. Kinsley-who was on his honeymoon (he recently married Gates Foundation head Patty Stonesifer) and unavailable for comment. But Slate ‘s chatterbox columnist Timothy Noah argued that Mr. Weisberg’s moves actually represent a return to form.
“In the very beginning,” Mr. Noah said, “there was more cultural coverage, but we got away from it. We were so caught up in covering the 2000 election. That was where our emphasis started to slide. Ever since we’ve been trying to bring it back.”
David Plotz, Slate ‘s Washington editor-who’s currently working on a piece about a CD box set of 80′s songs-agreed with Mr. Noah, saying that while Mr. Weisberg has a better handle on pop culture, Mr. Kinsley was by no means dismissive of it.
“Jacob is much more fluent and much more interested in popular culture than Mike is or was,” Mr. Plotz said. “But Mike has a wonderful quality: There are lots of things he doesn’t know about. But when you come to him with interesting things, he always got enthusiastic about it. So popular-culture pieces ended up in Slate , but it wasn’t something that he particularly pushed.”
Mr. Weisberg described the difference between himself and his predecessor thusly: “Mike comes from The New Republic . I worked for him at The New Republic . A lot of us have a background in politics and policy. That was always at the core of what Slate did. A lot of people see us in those terms, and that’s fine. We’re very much content with that. After all, that’s my background.
“But it’s a question of balance,” Mr. Weisberg said. “Maybe the site was two-thirds of one thing and one-third of everything else. I think we’re not taking away from our political coverage, we’re just adding more of everything else.”
In some respects, Slate ‘s shift is similar to the current gravitation at The New York Times , where new executive editor Howell Raines has shown a interest in priortizing cultural coverage, evidenced by the oft-cited Botox injection story that broke the paper’s front page.
However, in the land-grab for cultural coverage Slate has to still watch over its franchise political beats, Mr. Saletan said. “The direction is to spread out,” he said. “But that leaves me as the guy who holds the fort.”
“For me,” Mr. Saletan continued, “it means a lot of ground to cover. I mean, we’ve got people like Joe Klein writing politics for us now, but not a lot of people on staff focused on [politics] that weren’t focused on it before. Because the growth is going to be in other directions, I’m beginning to appreciate how much of the old territory I’m going to have to cover.”
As for Salon ‘s fate, Mr. Weisberg was empathetic, almost parental, about his rival, now charging $30-a-year for a “premium membership.”
“I was at Slate the year we tried the subscription model [in 1998],” Mr. Weisberg said. “I think we got maybe 20,000 subscriptions. But the problem was, you just killed your audience growth. Instead of getting 100,000 people reading your column, you got a few thousand. It was a real morale killer. I feel for their writers because I’ve been there. I don’t see why they didn’t learn from our mistake.”
Salon , of course, insisted they did. Patrick Hurley, Salon ‘s senior vice president for business operations, said Salon ‘s pay model has been far more successful than Slate ‘s, saying Salon ‘s had better access and timing. While Slate closed off the vast majority of the site to non-subscribers, Mr. Hurley said “only 30 percent” of Salon ‘s site remains gated for premium members, which at the last official count numbered around 35,000. Mr. Hurley also said that Slate ‘s foray into a paid model came at a time when people weren’t ready to pay for stuff to waste time at work.
“The truth is that Salon Premium kept the company buoyant in a very tough time,” Mr. Hurley said.
As for how Salon feels about Slate ‘s recent editorial swerve, Mr. Talbot was on vacation and unable to be reached. But Salon managing editor and senior vice president of editorial operations Scott Rosenberg told Off the Record he hasn’t noticed any monumental changes under Mr. Weisberg.
“We’ve evolved into very different editorial products over the years,” Mr. Rosenberg said. “We’re primarily interested in news coverage: We break stories. As far as I can tell as a reader, that doesn’t seem to be what they’re interested in. They’re much more oriented towards politics and analysis. They’re just two different directions.
But then, Mr. Rosenberg made a comment that signaled that the pitched battle between Slate and Salon may truly be a thing of the past.
“Often I find it a really interesting publication,” Mr. Rosenberg said. “In the best of all worlds, both would prosper.”
After three years of launching precocious upstarts like David Schickler and Z.Z. Packer into the publishing stratosphere, The New Yorker ‘s Debut Fiction issue-the Star Search of the lit-fic world-is taking a breather. The current NYer June 17 and 24 double-issue instead focuses on the family, with stories by all-grown-up geezers like Richard Ford and already established young ‘uns like Jonathan Lethem and Zadie Smith.
“We just thought it would be more interesting to give it a break to come back to it next year,” said Bill Buford, the magazine’s fiction editor, of the debut showcase. “The last three arose out of the perception that there were a lot more younger writers doing interesting things than there were eight or 10 years ago. In it’s way, fiction had become kind of hip, and there were some genuinely new voices.”
Now, Mr. Buford wanted to wait for some new literary sprouts to surface: “It’s like a farmer leaving a field for a season or two.”
As for the family issue, Mr. Buford explained it thusly: “The stories that seem to be the most popular are the most old-fashioned stories of strong feeling, and stories of loss. Dead father. Dead Mother. Dead Brother.” Several such stories appear in the new magazine.
Now that Mr. Buford is engaged to be married to Jessica Green, a senior editor at Harper’s Bazaar , did he have family on the brain? “Purely coincidental,” he said, “though appealingly mischievous of you to make the connection.”
Which New York tabloid is preferred by alleged samurai-sword wielding psycho killers? It depends what paper you read.
On June 5 police arrested Richard Markham, a roly-poly crew-cut 27-year-old Brit, who allegedly beat his friend with a hammer, chopped up his body and cooked the arm, before jetting off to New York City for a holiday that included a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
To be sure, it was the kind of story-dismemberment, rumored romantic intrigue, British people- made for the city’s tabloids. But Mr. Markham perfected the gritty arc of the story by getting caught in Central Park, reading about himself…in the pages of the Daily News and the New York Post .
Needless to say, both papers played up Mr. Markham’s park bench reading. The News led with the fact, saying, “A British man wanted for killing his drinking buddy and chopping up his body in England was nabbed yesterday while reading the Daily News on a bench in Central Park.” In case anyone missed the plug the first time, the News went on to mention that he was “browsing news stories about his crime in the News and another paper” ( hmmm ….wonder what that other paper was?) before being arrested by police, who used Markham’s mug on the front of the June 5 News to positively identify the man after being alerted by tourists.
The Pos t couldn’t help itself either, saying of the arrest: “Cops say two female British tourists spotted Markham sitting on a park bench-where he had been reading about himself in the Post .” The Post ‘s version of the tale made no mention of the News .
Asked if he felt a degree of pride in his paper’s role in the case, News editor in chief Ed Kosner said: “We don’t take any particular credit for it. It’s interesting that the cops used the News to identify him. But lots of cops read the News .”
As for Mr. Markham, Mr. Kosner said: “He was reading the News , he was reading the Post . He’s not a reader I would brag about.”
Over in Murdochville, Post editor in chief Col Allan said he hadn’t known Mr. Markham had also the New s with him, but “We know he was reading the Post! As he would! As he would! It’s New York’s number one paper! Butchers, prime ministers, they all read the Pos t! He was reading the Post !”
When asked if he would consider Mr. Markham for the much maligned, and now defunct “My Pos t, My Paper” feature Mr. Allan said: “Not a bad idea! I’ll give that some thought!”