When David Plotz was initially hired at the online magazine Slate in 1996, he had never really been on the Web before. He used email at the time, but this was the early days of public use of the Internet, and he hadn’t visited a website yet.
“Just using the Web was something people did as an everyday matter in 1996,” said Plotz, who started out as a staff writer but is now Slate’s top editor.
At the time, Plotz had only worked for one journalism outlet, a print publication called the Washington City Paper. Shortly after graduating from Harvard University in 1992, he sent out 93 letters to news outlets around the country. Only two responded, a newspaper in Winston-Salem, North Carolina and the City Paper. The job at the City Paper was attractive because Plotz had written his college thesis about former D.C. Mayor (and now current Council Member) Marion Barry, who was in the midst of a political comeback in the early 1990s.
“I ended up falling into journalism because of Marion Barry basically,” Plotz said.
Plotz was happy at the City Paper. He wouldn’t have left his job at the alternative weekly to work for something like a big newspaper, which even in 1996 felt “troubled” to him. But Slate’s founding editor, Michael Kinsley, was one of Plotz’s journalistic heroes. He might not have known much about what was happening online, but Plotz knew he wanted to work with Kinsley.
Getting in on digital journalism from the ground floor means that Plotz has been witness to the almost the entire evolution of online news. Slate started with readers that numbered in the thousands. Now, the publication has an audience of approximately $15 million, said Plotz.
“While the medium has changed, and while how we go about doing our business has changed, while all the different formats have changed, the basic DNA of Slate hasn’t really changed at all, which is that it’s skeptical. It’s funny. It’s analytical. It’s counterintuitive,” he said.
In this interview, Plotz discusses a variety of digital journalism issues and Slate-specific topics including:
- The patience of investors, including The Washington Post Company, who continued to back Slate for several years even though the publication wasn’t profitable.
- How Slate has used data to increase traffic on the online magazine’s website.
- How an online publication like Slate builds community. (Hint: Podcasts play a huge role.)
- Slate’s controversial headlines, which have been criticized for being “click bait”. (Our own headline today is supposed to be a written in the style of a Slate headline.)
- The sale of The Washington Post to Jeff Bezos. The Washington Post Company owns Slate, but the online magazine was not bundled with the newspaper and other products in the sale to Bezos.
- Possibly moving Slate to a membership model, where certain benefits — free entry to live events for example — would be offered to people who pay a membership fee.