Jacob’s Ladder


Blessed with smart and funny writers, a spike in Web traffic, and underwriting by Microsoft, Slate‘s new Editor in Chief, Jacob Weisberg, stands at a crossroads. Should he maintain the six-year-old Web site as a political tip sheet for Harvard grads—or embellish it with pop features in hopes new readers will keep on clicking back for more? Should the magazine remain a pedestal for high-minded debate—or devolve slowly into a circus of low culture? How sexy can Slate get?

Weisberg and his colleagues will kick around such conundrums later this week, when they pack off for a staff retreat somewhere north of Seattle. Aside from the untimely scuba-diving death of Slate writer Scott Shuger, traffic is likely to be the most talked-about topic at the retreat.

“This sounds horribly self-promotional,” said Weisberg in an interview last week, “but our traffic numbers recently are unbelievable. . . . We’ve woken up and realized we have a mass audience—and maintaining a large audience could have an effect on the tone. It’s a high-class problem to have.”

After attracting an average of 2 million to 3 million unique monthly users through much of last year, Slate pulled in a record 4.5 million readers in the weeks after September 11. This year the number of unique monthly users has grown steadily from 2.2 million in January to 4.2 million in June, according to audits conducted by Media Metrix. That puts Slate‘s readership in the lofty ranks of and the print version of Time magazine.

“It’s an amazing audience for a serious-minded magazine,” said Weisberg, 37, who used to write about politics for Slate. He attributes the growth partly to “the fact that has been linking to us more frequently” and partly to the increased culture coverage since he took over in April.

Weisberg said he has little interaction with the business side—his job is coming up with ideas and assigning them, as well as being a bit of an “evangelist” for the magazine. But given Microsoft’s goal of bringing the webzine to profitability based on ad revenues and free distribution, somebody must be tracking the correlation between Slate‘s content and its metastasizing traffic.

“Nobody on the business team has had a conversation with Jake about the need to publish more culture content to generate revenue,” explained Slate‘s acting publisher, Cyrus Krohn, but no one denies that Michael Kinsley’s handpicked successor is repackaging the magazine to broaden its appeal. For example, Slate‘s homepage under Weisberg always features a distinct lead story and color illustration (recent cover boys include Louis Rukeyser, Rudy Giuliani, and Saddam Hussein).

Krohn says he studies the numbers to see what’s being read the most. With so many people accessing Slate from MSN (“and these aren’t just fly-by-night, once-every-blue-moon readers,” he says), the question is how to market to the new wave. One way is to “target ads to the more highly trafficked areas of the publication,” which include Today’s Papers, the so-called boxes (Money Box, Chatter Box, etc.), and Daryl Cagle’s Professional Cartoonists Index.

Given its popularity surge, Slate could easily begin rating staffers based on the hits they produce, as Salon did at the height of the Internet boom. But it’s not happening, says Slate Washington editor David Plotz. “Because there is no daily posting of the numbers, we don’t talk in boosting-traffic kinds of ways,” he explained, adding that Slate writers enjoy great editorial freedom and that the main effect of the spike is an increased sense of responsibility: “The idea that you might be writing for 500,000 people today means you take it more seriously.”

Krohn similarly dismissed the suggestion that Slate might be in danger of becoming a slave to its hits. “We still want to offer a variety of content,” he said, “and we’re not going to fully focus on one area just because that seems to be a popular idea.” All the same, he confided, “we’re growing so rapidly that I wonder if we should analyze our audience and determine if we should continue growing as rapidly as we are. The increase in traffic hasn’t had a detrimental effect on our demographics,” which one contributor characterizes as “elites procrastinating at work.” The fear appears to be that if Slate doesn’t cater to certain new readers’ lowbrow tastes, they may not come back.

According to Plotz, “One of the big questions for the retreat is ‘What’s the right balance between populism and elitism?’ We want a big readership, but on the other hand, we don’t want to compromise our standards. What’s the best way to make sure we’re a big, thriving, successful, and talked-about publication—and also make sure we’re doing the best journalism?”

Weisberg insists that “we haven’t dumbed down the magazine.” On the contrary, he has brought in culture whiz Virginia Heffernan to write a new TV column and Emily Nussbaum to write Summary Judgment, Slate‘s roundup of arts critics. The bylines Joe Klein, Kurt Andersen, and Gerald Marzorati have been appearing more lately, and Slate has snapped up Mickey Kaus’s political Web log. That’s powerful media.

One blessing under Weisberg, Plotz says, is that writers and editors now have “an opportunity to pitch ideas that [Kinsley] might not have liked. There’s an eagerness to experiment, and that’s really liberating.”

Weisberg conducts two weekly edit meetings on a conference call, but for the most part, he says, “the magazine is like a cocktail party on e-mail.” Because editors can post text continuously, with an average of a dozen new entries a day, writers are drawn by what he calls the “immediate gratification.” With light editing and zero fact-checking, “the piece is out as soon as you can articulate the point.”

Weisberg cited as recent favorites Heffernan on TV, Dahlia Lithwick on the Supreme Court, William Saletan on business scandals, and Melinda Henneberger on her priest, an alleged child abuser. “It was like kismet,” he said of Henneberger’s unsolicited entry. “The piece was in my inbox one day, and it was our cover story that night.”

Aside from tapping the “speed and spontaneity” of the Web to produce Slate‘s trademark news analysis, Weisberg wants Slate to offer more interactive features, which he says will not be “just bells and whistles for the sake of bells and whistles.” Thus, Plotz is working on a game board to explain the latest crop of business scandals. And through hyperlinks, readers can now watch the ad or listen to the CD under review. Food and wine features are in the offing, and by September, Slate will debut a 10-day travel feature for which the writer will file daily dispatches and digital photos in real time. One likely destination: Kashmir.

Being editor of Slate has one downside for Weisberg—he hasn’t published anything since taking the job. Asked about the book he is ghostwriting with former treasury secretary Robert Rubin, he said, “I’m going to spend my vacation in August working on it,” adding, “Thankfully, the end is in sight.” After that, his future at Slate stretches out like an endless summer.