Slate, the Web site, is 14 years old, an eternity on the Internet. During that span, its New York offices have moved nine times. On a drizzly Friday morning, Jacob Weisberg, who is the chairman and editor in chief of the site’s parent, the Slate Group, was showing off the company’s latest digs, on Morton Street in the far West Village.
“People don’t even unpack anymore,” Mr. Weisberg said of the staff’s transience. He was right. The walls were bare, the cubicles undecorated; the espresso machine and a sofa for the waiting area had not yet arrived. There was, though, a maroon felt pool table in the break room (a hand-me-down from Nerve.com), a podcast studio and an area for bike storage. Mr. Weisberg has a glassy corner office with views south down Washington Street — across the way is a dry cleaners, also named Slate, that is getting the site’s mail — and west all the way to the Hudson. For the former Rhodes scholar, New Republic policy wonk and author of In Defense of Government, life is newly glamorous.
It’s also for the first time not exactly a success. A writer and editor his entire professional life, Mr. Weisberg became an executive in June 2008. As the first chairman of the Slate Group, an umbrella within the umbrella of the Washington Post Company, his portfolio has lately taken a few hits. Spin-off sites The Big Money (business) and Double X (women) failed, causing the company’s first-ever layoffs. Meanwhile, traffic to the mother ship is not keeping pace with its competitors.
The site’s internal numbers show that page views for October were up just 6 percent, to 83.6 million, and unique visitors were down 21 percent — growing pains as the site weans itself from longtime traffic teat MSN.com and develops its own, more clicky readers. Over the same time period, Gawker has more than doubled its audience, and the Huffington Post has a global readership roughly three times as large. Through October, the Daily Beast racked up publicity with long, will-they-or-won’t-they talks of a merger with Newsweek. When media people talk about the future of publishing online, in other words, they don’t talk about the site with the 12-year-old CMS.
They do, though, talk about how awesome Slate is — editorially. The site’s daily fare — unhysterical political analysis, Farhad Manjoo on iPhone stuff, the impish Explainer column, Doonesbury, TV dissections, Jack Shafer’s bile — is consistently smart, even if none of it seems remotely Webby. That’s the rap on Mr. Weisberg, too: the bar-none best Web editor in New York who runs a tech-backward site, and may not have the technology chops to make it as a Web mogul.
Mr. Weisberg’s early tenure as editor of Slate.com was wildly successful, as he racked up six ASME award nominations and one win, for general excellence online in 2003. He also oversaw the site’s sale from Microsoft, where it was considered a kind of charity case, to the Washington Post Company, which valued Slate as a journalistic endeavor‹and a link to the future of publishing.
But staffers will tell you that Slate is about as technologically sophisticated as Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. It was born in 1996, which is not just pre-Twitter, but pre-Google, a time when people got online by opening the CDs AOL sent them in the mail. Slate’s first breakout hit, “Today’s Papers,” a crack-of-dawn email bulletin that told media junkies how the nation’s broadsheets were playing the headlines each day, relied heavily on late-night faxes.
Being first out of the Web zine starting gate has had the effect of stalling Slate at a time when others are just getting started. Mr. Weisberg, though, says age has its advantages. “We basically invented blogging. And sort of the whole tone of the Web, which to me comes out of email more than anything else, a much more colloquial, personal form of diction. I think Slate was the publication that really, more than anyone else, developed that voice, which in some ways has now infiltrated back into print.” The site’s biggest edge, he said, was that its staff had been thinking about the Web and only the Web for 14 years.
But Slate’s founding date is also its biggest liability. If Slate invented blogging, it definitely didn’t invent social media, distribution deals, verticals, the slide show, search-engine optimization or other technologies essential to succeeding as a Web publication today‹and can even be said to do most of those things poorly. On Twitter, @slate has 96,832 followers, fewer even than the musty New York Review of Books.
“Technologically, we’ve had a hard, hard decade,” said David Plotz, Mr. Weisberg’s protégé and the current editor of Slate. “Compared to our competitors, we’re behind, not agile. We’re used to a Web that’s a little bit slower, a Web where there weren’t so many great competitors as there are now.”
IN JUNE, SLATE held its annual retreat for editorial staffers at the Mohonk Mountain House, a 267-room Victorian castle in the Catskills with hiking trails, lake swimming and other upstate charms. Writers spitballed story ideas; editors dreamed up coverage; the Washington staff walloped the New York bureau at soccer. One day, Mr. Plotz assembled the troops in a ballroom-like room, and with Mohonk Lake at his back delivered a state-of-Slate address. The site’s content was excellent. But traffic was stagnant. He was concerned about complacency. How could Slate, without damaging quality, publish with more urgency?
“We risk not being relevant,” Mr. Plotz said this week, by telephone. Before his Mohonk moment, he had taken stock of the competition. Since 1996, Slate people have considered themselves to be a category of one — maybe two if you included Salon, the cloying Pepsi to their Coke. Now, he said, HuffPo, the Daily Beast, The Times, even suddenly The Atlantic — all are good online. “If we don’t think of this as an urgent problem, we risk not being central to the conversation.”
A few tech changes are on the way. A new director of technology, Dan Check, is said to be a whiz. But the main thrust of Mr. Plotz’s innovations will be editorial. One is already a runaway hit — the “Fresca Fellowships” that let staffers take six weeks off to pursue a dream project: “Step away from your computer, Mr. Dickerson.” When published, most hit with such force that to not win an award or attract book and movie nibbles rates as a disappointment.
Packages like Emily Bazelon’s investigation into the Phoebe Prince suicide and Chris Wilson’s tale of how social networking helped nab Saddam Hussein make the case that Slate’s real competition isn’t Gawker, but The New Yorker and The New York Times Magazine. “We’re a totally different kind of publication,” Mr. Weisberg said. “What Slate is about is creating original, high-quality journalism.” But he admires HuffPo for its SEO tactics and Gawker for the way it has thought through commenting, and says the advent of both has been healthy competition for Slate.
“We’re on our game now,” he said. “We’ve learned a lot from those places. And they’ve learned from us. If you look at Gawker’s new design, they’ve moved to a Slate-like layout.”
Gawker chief Nick Denton politely disagreed. “No, our new layout is designed to showcase our strongest stories, but most of them are ones that Slate wouldn’t go near. They don’t really break news,” he told The Observer on IM.
Though Mr. Denton gushes with praise for Slate — he keeps a link on his iPhone home page and says Mr. Weisberg is “generally a wonderful person” — he let out a “yikes” when told their traffic numbers. “There’s a limited audience for smart centrism. That’s their biggest problem.”
Mr. Plotz is candid about admiring Mr. Denton and Gawker. “Anyone on the Web who derides it, or says they don’t envy the way Gawker works, or aren’t curious about it, or don’t want to rip off parts — they’re lying. They’re too good, too creative.”
They’re also too profitable. While The New Yorker recently estimated Gawker’s revenue to be $15 million to $20 million annually, low costs keep the network of sites in the black. The Washington Post Co. said last week that Slate and washingtonpost.com together brought in $27.2 million for the third quarter; the company won’t divulge anything more specific, but traffic for The Post is roughly double that of Slate.
“Slate is having a very good year,” Mr. Weisberg said.
“Slate is not a profitable magazine,” Mr. Plotz said. “The Slate Group is not profitable. We need to make sure that we are.”
A COUPLE OF years after the Washington Post Co. bought Slate, Mr. Weisberg endeared himself to the staff forever: His contract included a $100,000 bonus if the site had a break-even year, and when it happened, he divided it up among his crew. Neither he nor Mr. Plotz took a share.
When Slate arrived on the scene in 1996, it freaked out establishment media with its bare-bones costs — no paper! No ink! Now the shoe is on the other foot, as Slate is the outlet with high overhead — it pays some of the best writers and editors in the business — while others cruise in with their low-cost or no-cost aggregation.
Watching sites more than a decade younger start up and eat their lunch, if not their prestige, has left a feeling among Slate staffers that they are no longer kings of the Web. Years ago, The Times regularly poached talent from Slate’s ranks — Paul Krugman got his start there, as did Jodi Kantor, Virginia Heffernan and Rob Walker. There have been fewer such departures of late. The failures of the Big Money and Double X sting, but what they may prove most of all is that Mr. Weisberg and his editors aimed too high. Neither spin-off included the distasteful business of “aggregating” headlines from around the Web, or very good SEO, the black arts of traffic-conjuring that are considered un-Slate-y.
“Jacob is an intense and rabid study on any number of topics, and knows a lot about Web strategy and SEO, and there are people he can tap who know more,” said James Ledbetter, the former editor of The Big Money, who is now at Reuters. “But I think it’s a fair question whether the company really has that in its DNA, and has allocated resources appropriately to be able to compete.”
The so-so start of the Slate Group is a rare setback for Mr. Weisberg, who is used to finding success at every station, from Yale, to the Rhodes fellowship, to a Young Turk period at The New Republic in Washington, where he, Michael Lewis and Andrew Sullivan all bought condos in a converted schoolhouse in Adams Morgan that the magazine’s editor nicknamed “The Kindergarten.”
“He was always too hip for D.C. — and gayer than me much of the time,” remembers Mr. Sullivan. “We all knew that Jake would be running the world at some point, and I’m sure he is, somewhere, in ways I do not yet comprehend.”
“He was always a grown-up,” Mr. Lewis said. “But sweaty and ambitious — Jacob was never noticeably so. He was just kind of a bright young thing, but with the mind of a 55-year-old University of Chicago professor.” The only other person in journalism with the same smarts for writing, editing and business, he said, was Columbia J-school dean Nicholas Lemann, and maybe the Aspen Institute’s Walter Isaacson.
With blurbs like that, does Mr. Weisberg’s portfolio measure up? With Big Money and Double X scuttled, the Slate Group includes Slate itself and Foreign Policy magazine — but they are self-sufficient publications with terrific editors of their own. Then there is the Root, comfortable in its niche, and Slate V, a viral video site that hasn’t found much traction. In addition, there is a brand-new business called Social Code that sells Facebook ads. The sense within the company (and shared, a bit more intensely, by his peers outside of it) is that all this is fine, but maybe not a full load for a journalist of Mr. Weisberg’s stature — a guy whose name came up early and often in 2006 as a potential successor to Jim Kelly as the editor of Time.
These days, Mr. Weisberg has taken to bicycling to work, an easy mile-or-two pedal from the immaculate white-hued loft in Tribeca where he lives with his wife, Deborah Needleman. (Ms. Needleman is herself a top-flight editor–of red-hot shelter mag Domino before it folded, and now WSJ.) The night before he showed The Observer around Slate’s new office, Mr. Weisberg had thrown a book party for Tim Wu, the Columbia Law professor and Slate writer, that featured two bars, a seven-woman percussion band and at least eight kinds of raw cow’s milk cheese. “Nice jacket,” Mr. Weisberg told The Observer as he greeted guests near the foyer. “Nice boots,” The Observer replied. (Red Wings. Not the J. Crew ones.) A buoyant Mr. Wu, wearing goggles, took off one shirt and put on another in silver lamé.
Jacob Weisberg looked serene. But is he happy? He’s being asked to re-enter the Internet trenches, after having made it across once already, when the Web was more easily conquered.
“I’m having a great time,” he said the next morning. “I feel really lucky to be in on this revolution. It’s why most of us came to Slate in the first place — to invent a new kind of journalism and build a business around it. Boy, has it taken a long time to do that. But it’s happening. We were ahead of our time, and the world has caught up.”
Mr. Lewis, a lifelong friend, agreed. “I think if Jacob was unhappy,” he said, “he’d be the last to know.”