Kinsley Looks Back at 10 Years of 'Slate'

The online magazine Slate celebrates its 10th anniversary this month. Founding editor Michael Kinsley talks with Alex Chadwick about the history of the opinion journal and its future. Slate contributors are frequently heard on Day to Day.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY, I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

I'm Alex Chadwick with this recent DAY TO DAY email from a listener at Yale University. Why are all your commentators from Slate? Are you plugging the magazine? Should I just read Slate instead?

BRAND: What's wrong with the Yalies? Don't they listen to the whole show? First of all, not all our commentators are from Slate. But we do talk with some Slate writer nearly every day. As we note a couple of times each hour, DAY TO DAY is produced with contributions from Slate.com.

CHADWICK: Slate helped invent the idea of online magazines. It now gets five or six million visitors a month. In New York tonight there's a gathering to celebrate Slate's tenth anniversary. Earlier I spoke with founding editor Michael Kinsley. Slate, he recalled, now owned by the Washington Post, was originally developed with Microsoft.

Mr. MICHAEL KINSLEY (Founding Editor, Slate): I actually thought that we were going to be putting out something which people would go to once a week and send to their printer and have something looking like a normal magazine only stapled together. And that was a total misunderstanding of the nature of the Web, of course, and it was only a month into it before our plans had changed, and when we actually started publishing, which was about six months after I got to Microsoft, we were well beyond that point. But it shows how completely out of it I was.

CHADWICK: Well, it shows how completely out of it we all were, or perhaps how much things have changed in ten years, at least in part because of Slate. You figure out that publishing online really is actually not like publishing a paper magazine. It's not like anything we had figured out because it hadn't been done before.

Mr. KINSLEY: Well, thank you, Alex, I hope that's true. And one of the reasons I had such a retrograde idea was that I was reacting against the sort of fashionable futurism of the Web, which was already strong back then, and which Slate, I think to its credit, has always continued to do throughout its now lengthy ten year history, which is to be skeptical about the Web enthusiasts who are saying that it changes the nature of all human life, or the bloggers at present who are saying that it changes the nature of politics and makes normal politics irrelevant. The Web is a great thing and Slate is a very good thing but, you know, they're just one more new thing and history will bring on other new things.

CHADWICK: Here's a criticism of Slate that I think is fair. Aside from personal experiential kinds of writing and reporting, it doesn't really do much reporting, much real reporting. The rival online publication, Salon, does more, I think. Slate more often writes...

Mr. KINSLEY: Salon? Whatever happened to them?

CHADWICK: There still there somewhere.

Mr. KINSLEY: First reference I've heard to Salon in years.

CHADWICK: All right. Well, Slate more often writes analysis and opinion than what we think of reportage.

Mr. KINSLEY: Well, I would say to that two things. First of all, we do what we do. Nobody does everything, and I think we do what we do pretty well, and the traffic would indicate that others agree with me. Second of all, there is one limitation of online journalism that we never figured out a way to overcome and I don't think anyone else did either, which is length. The kind of long essay or long reportorial piece that's in the Atlantic or the New Yorker, we haven't found a way to duplicate that on the Web.

CHADWICK: Let us say that one of your possible stepchildren is the blog. I think in some ways Slate has encouraged blogging. Is this a cursed legacy? Is it a legacy you even accept?

Mr. KINSLEY: Oh, yes, I think we do deserve credit for it. We started sometime in the '90s, long before the term blog even existed, running, giving individuals - it started with Nicky Couse(ph), who's out there in Los Angeles, and Tim Noah has taken over it, a feature called Chatter Box which, which one person with an interesting mind simply wrote his or her comments about what was interesting in the papers that day or on the Web and had links, and that was a blog, although we didn't call it that. And it was one of the first, if, if - I wouldn't claim it was the first.

As for the legacy, I think a lot of bloggers are a little bit full of themselves, but you know, that will pass too, and the technology is great and I do think it enhances journalism. It's changing things in ways we don't quite know yet. People at newspapers in particular who say that any change in the form or nature of the way we do business is intolerable and lowering standards and the end of the world are foolish. And I think that, you know, things will evolve and there will always be a demand for accuracy and competition will guarantee that there will be accuracy.

CHADWICK: In the current magazine that's up this week, several people write, and this is funny that you see this on the lead of Slate, What I hate about Slate. And they are writers who have been critical of the magazine in the past, raising objections to it. One, Jonah Goldberg, raises the very contrarian nature of the magazine. He says it's kind of a pose that Slate is so contrary to conventional wisdom.

Mr. KINSLEY: Other publications I worked for have suffered the same accusation of being a knee jerk iconoclast, is the term you sometimes hear. Jonah Goldberg is just trying to play that game a little bit better. He's a knee jerk iconoclast who tries to jerk his knee sort of on top of yours, if that isn't too confused a metaphor. So - and it seems to me it's good journalism to look around the world and say, what here is not the way people perceive it, and write about that. There's no point in writing about, you know this thing that you look at and you think it's this way, well you're absolutely right, that's what it is.

CHADWICK: Do you need more different journalists in order to carry that out? I hear criticisms of Slate: these are all the same kinds of people writing about very interesting things, but they're all Ivy League, smart, very verbal, very white.

Mr. KINSLEY: I think there is more diversity in Slate than it gets credit for. On the other hand, in the end, you know, as I say, you are what you are, and one great thing about the Internet is, anyone who wants to try it can go ahead and do it. So I don't think you have to, you have to be terribly guilty about being, being what you are and offering it up there and seeing if anybody wants it.

CHADWICK: Where does Slate make a difference? Or maybe that's not what you were setting out to do when you created the magazine.

Mr. KINSLEY: I have to say in thirty years of opinion journalism I've had a great time and I think I've entertained some other people. I don't really feel I've made much of a difference and I think trying to make a difference can be a bit of a preening obsession. You try to write what's interesting and what's true, and I think that is enough of a difference for me in the end. And if you actually change the course of events in some dramatic way, that's gravy.

CHADWICK: We'll end there. Michael Kinsley, founding Editor of Slate magazine. Thank you and congratulations on ten years.

Mr. KINSLEY: Thank you, Alex.

CHADWICK: And let us note Michael is no longer the over-all editor. He's now a writer for Slate, but still writing for them.

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