At Long Last, A Review of Slate.com
My dad has a pile of unread issues of The New York Times near his chair in his living room. Occasionally, there is also a pile in the adjacent room by the door, on the other side of the wall. They don’t remain unread for long, there’s just not always time to go through them on the day they come out, but go through them he does, eventually, every one. He gets them free from work, but some people pay for the daily paper, either on a daily basis or through a subscription. I once subscribed to magazines (Nickelodeon, Lego, Playbill), but not anymore. I don’t like physical magazines or newspapers. I tried to. In college, they were available in the dorms for free, and I would take The New York Times up to my room on a regular basis, with the intent to read it, and end up with piles like my dad’s, but never to be read. I started reading the Timesonline on a regular basis my third year of college, as I got more and more into following the news, but soon my dad showed me an online-only publication he thought I would like very much. And now, after three years about writing about everything I have read except this one thing, I will review Slate.com.
As most people reading this, who came to it by way of our facebook friendship, will know, I post a lot of stuff from Slate on facebook. It started during the holiday season of 2008, with an article called “Putting St. Joseph back in the picture.” Slate was running a number of quirky Christmas-themed articles (with the occasional nod to Jewish traditions of the season, and not always Chanukah), and I thought it would be fun to “decorate” my facebook wall with Christmas articles for the season. Up to that point, I had only put up New York Times theatre reviews, something I have stopped doing since I’ve become a member of the New York theatre community, and I know people who might not want to see reviews of shows they are in posted on facebook. After Christmas, I started sharing culture articles from Slate, mostly about movies. It was also the beginning of Barack Obama’s presidency, which had me excited, so I shared Slate articles about that. I’ve calmed down, but it got to the point where I was sharing nearly everything published on Slate. Granted, I got more “thank yous” than complaints, and I think I’m responsible for a small but meaningful fraction of Slate’s readership, but it feels good to not share so much, to have some control over my enthusiasm.
So yes, this is a positive review of Slate. I don’t think it walks on water or can do no wrong, I’ll address some faults later, but generally I would say I read most of it and share a lot of what I read. And it’s not just culture and politics. I’ve learned more about weather and space from Phil Plait and Eric Holthaus than I did in school (I wasn’t the best science student, but they make me understand it). I understand more about international affairs courtesy of Joshua Keating, and Dear Prudence, previously Emily Yoffe, now Mallory Ortberg, has made me a better advice giver when people come to me with problems. Yoffe also wrote one of the best, most controversial, and most important articles I have seen on Slate, about how the college binge drinking culture contributes to campus rape. I’ve watched the rise of some of my favourite culture writers (Aisha Harris is the last word on movies for me, and Katy Waldman is my reading and writing guru), and said goodbye to writers who seemed to leave too soon after I had arrived at the party (Dave Weigel was my first real political news source).
One reason my dad turned me toward Slate was Christopher Hitchens’s weekly column. I had recently gotten into Hitchens’s books, and the rise of atheist books, including his, had me very interested in religion, which he usually managed to get into what he wrote. But I wouldn’t have stayed if it were just about him. In Slate, I saw articles that made me curious. Where a more traditional news source would have a story about what happened, Slate always seemed to go into why it had happened. If a traditional news source was celebrating, Slate had a sobering reminder. If a traditional news source was panicking, Slate had a chill pill. I started paying attention to unemployment numbers, but even though they were usually the first thing I heard about on the news the first Friday morning of each month, I didn’t feel I had been informed until I read Slate’s take on what they meant.
Then there are the podcasts. The only podcast I wanted to listen to until 2013 was WTF with Marc Maron. Podcasts as a form held little interest for me. I always saw the links on Slate about this or that gabfest, but the word “gabfest” was a turn off, and the listing of three topics made it look like I would be going into something unfocused. I don’t know why I ultimately started listening to the three major gabfests (Culture, DoubleX, and Political), but they are now a regular part of my week, as are Mom and Dad are Fighting, Whistlestop, You Must Remember This, The Moment, and occasionally others. I usually give podcasts a few listens when they’re new, and Slate debuts a lot of new podcasts on its Panoply network, many of which don’t last (come back, Podcast for America). I love discussion, and while Slate will often publish a rebuttal to one writer’s piece by another writer on the staff (they went back and forth and back and forth after Yoffe’s binge drinking piece), it’s not the same as hearing David Plotz and Emily Bazelon go at it on the Political Gabfest on Friday mornings. I don’t always agree with the things I read or hear in Slate, but if it seems important I read or listen to it and consider myself better informed and prepared to argue my own opinion.
So what do I find wrong with Slate? There is only one Slate writer I do not think worthy of working there, and I will not name this person but site them (Slate says its ok to use “them” instead of “him/her” or a gender neutral “him” or “her”) as an example of what I said about reading something I don’t think I’ll enjoy if it seems important. Mostly, I ignore this person’s articles, which is easy, because there’s so much great stuff to read, but what I will say is that this person’s style seems like they read only Slate for years leading up to being hired and took away the wrong lessons about tone. Slate also occasionally publishes a real head scratcher, like the article by the reformed atheist internet troll who’s self-congratulatory personal blog post about not being a jerk on the internet anymore somehow warranted being published on the website that used to feature the great Hitchens, who was an atheist, and could be blunt, but was never anything approaching a troll.
Slate’s recent waterfall of praise for and coverage of the musical Hamilton was completely warranted, but it annoyed me because it highlighted the biggest hole in Slate’s coverage, the world of theatre. I understand, Slate is a national publication, and theatre coverage is seen as mostly coastal, but I think Slate has ignored some major theatre related news stories because they didn’t concern musicals that came to Broadway with a splash (Hamilton, The Book of Mormon) or a splat (Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark). There has been nothing about one of the most important playwrights and all around writers in American history, Arthur Miller, in this his centennial year, and last fall, while Donald Trump was talking about keeping Muslims out of this country and rounding up Mexicans already here, there was no mention of George Takei’s musical about when policies like that were more than just presidential primary talk, Allegiance. I also don’t particularly like the way Slate talks about Slate Plus members as its most devoted readers. It annoyed me when I was a non-member who felt real affection for the site and promoted it probably more than most Slate Plus members, but didn’t feel like I could spend the extra money for extra content that I didn’t really want (who wants ad free podcasts when the way the hosts do the ads is so amusing?), and it does now even though I am a member. Why am I a member? They finally offered me something I really wanted: the opportunity to pitch articles directly to the editors. And while I didn’t win that round, my idea did peak the interest of Dan Kois, which was one of the most exciting things to happen to me in my writing life.
So now I have a paid subscription to a news source, and while it’s online-only, I usually have the equivalent of my dad’s piles of newspapers, as it is rare that I have zero Slate story tabs open on my web browser, waiting to be read. My laptop’s new feature that allows me to bring back every window and tab I had had open even if I have to force quit Safari has saved me so much frustration, and maybe even some hair. I read a lot of Slate, because even though it is not perfect, I love it. I don’t have the stats on how many articles or words I read, or whether I favor male, female, or other writers on the site, like I do with the books that I read and write about, but books are so much easier to keep track of.
I have often thought, could I break my addiction to Slate? I read things from other sources, but the sources themselves don’t grab me like Slate does. I’m still not a fan of its layout, which had a major overhaul a few years ago, but that doesn’t change the irresistible content. If I go on vacation to a place where I don’t have internet access, I don’t go back over the week’s stories when I get back online. I’m not that crazy. But I have at least looked at the title of probably 99% of Slate articles since 2008 (I originally got a Slate digest by e-mail, but quickly realized I wasn’t getting everything, and just went to the site every day), and read maybe 50% of them (some are actually quite short). And I don’t think I’ll stop. My dad has read The New York Times for decades, and I will of course continue to go there for theatre coverage *cough*, but I just don’t feel like I can properly engage with the world without Slate explaining all the things I have trouble understanding to me. Perhaps one day Slate will be interested in me explaining things that it doesn’t understand, but it owes me nothing. I think we’ve got a good thing going: Slate feeds my appetite for news and discussion; I share its content ad nauseam on social media. Who could ask for anything more?