Slate’s Traffic Is Gangbusters, Except When It’s Not

Slate Group chairman Jacob Weisberg wrote a memo to his staff today in response to this week’s Observer cover story, a look at how the 14-year-old site is faring against new and ferocious competition. He takes exception to our piece on a number of fronts, which I’ll explore here.

“I’m not sure how the author got our October Omniture numbers, but a one-month snapshot showing a decline in UUs is meaningless,” Mr. Weisberg wrote today. “Our traffic is up across the board this year.”

One month is indeed a snapshot, so here is a fuller picture. Slate’s uniques for September 2010 were 8.0 million, down 10 percent from 2009 and down 35 percent from 2008. Slate’s uniques for August 2010 were 10.6 million, down 7 percent from 2009 and up 8 percent from 2008. That’s not a site with huge traffic momentum.

It’s true that Slate’s pageviews are up this year, as I noted in the piece. The issue is that they’re not up much, while sites like Gawker and Huffington Post are posting huge gains. Here are some numbers that show Slate has up months, down months, and an overall trajectory that is good, but not gangbusters. Pageviews were 78.6 million in April (up 12 percent year-on-year), 73.2 million in May (up 9 percent), 76.4 million in June (up 9 percent), 82.7 in July (flat), 88.2 million in August (up 14 percent), and 82.6 million in September (up 16 percent). 

Mr. Weisberg also writes in his memo: “I talked to the author extensively about our new tech team, Slate Labs, our breakthroughs with long-form journalism on the web, the Frescas, the Hives, predictive polling, the excellence of our Twitter feed, and how we finally cracked the case on commenting.”

Here is that quote again, but with my recollection noted in brackets on each point. “I talked to the author extensively about our new tech team [I mentioned it in the piece], Slate Labs [I didn’t write about this—and should have], our breakthroughs with long-form journalism on the web, the Frescas [I called these efforts a “runaway success”], the Hives [we did not discuss this], predictive polling [we did not discuss this], the excellence of our Twitter feed [we did not discuss this], and how we finally cracked the case on commenting [we did not discuss this].” If Mr. Weisberg did mention those latter topics, it was so briefly that I did not record it in my notes.

Mr. Weisberg views my thesis as “that Slate’s doing badly and that the Internet is passing us by.” I disagree somewhat. I wrote that Slate produces fantastic editorial content, and that there is concern among staffers, amply documented, that Slate is falling behind.

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