But first, a disclaimer: I love Slate. Everyone I know loves Slate. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were editors out there who used a writer’s opinion of Slate as a litmus test for employment. Working in online media demands awareness of the gotten patriarch of web writing (hell—City Paper plugs Slate in every other morning roundup).
But what happens when the zenith of the media community’s collective aspirations—a semi-viable (if heavily subsidized), super-popular, web-only news outlet—starts showing its age?
Not sure what I mean? Check out two of yesterday’s top slots: “The Derivative’s Market is Worth More than the World’s Total Wealth,” and “Since When is Fail a Noun?” Two great stories that are very, very late. The stuff about the derivatives market has been floating around econ blogs and non-mainstream political blogs since before the Lehman Bros. bankruptcy broke. And “Fail”? Jesus H. Christ, don’t get me started on “Fail.” Gamers started using it as a noun years ago. The real Slate would have covered the re-appropriation of “Fail” when the word jumped from World of Warcraft chats to troll forums, or when it first showed up in web comics and on various lol/humor sites. The bailout is a great news peg, but waiting for a financial crisis to study something that’s been newsworthy in and of itself for at least a year is no excuse for showing up to the party just as the rest of us are getting ready to head to the after party. (And don’t get me started on your choice of “fail” over “pwnd.”)
“But—” you might argue, “Slate is best at taking that obscure Internet flotsam and jetsam and making it accessible to the rest of us.” Correction: Slate was best at it, but it’s no longer the only game in town. Looking for a counter-intuitive discussion of a news story? Take your pick of a slew of great blogs, from the Freakonomics blog, to Healthfactsandfears.com, to Bloggingheads.tv. How about the web equivalent to a glossy magazine? There’s a new one in town and it’s garnering a lot of (mixed) buzz. Layperson-friendly tech writing? I’ve a list a mile long (Slashdot, Ars Technica, Gizmoto, 10 Zen Monkeys, for starters). In short, aggregating specialized knowledge means keeping pace with specialized developments and writing about them when they’re still fresh. After all, online audiences are grasping new concepts quicker than before, and Slate is no longer an alternative to print, but rather one more option in an online world.
And I gotta say, “obscure” news isn’t the only category in which Slate has proved deficient. Sarah Palin coverage at Slate started on Sept. 4, and proceeded full steam ahead with piece after piece focusing on the more contentious (and shallow) angles: Who birthed Trig? Can a special needs baby survive in the White House? Blah, blah, blah. But what were the rest of us talking about? We were talking about the GILF, the NILF, the hottie from Wasilla. Even people who thought Palin was unattractive (and/or that the rest of us were sexist pigs) spent more time debating her looks than the odds that she hid daughter Bristol’s pregnancy. And how long did it take Slate to get around to unpacking Palin as a Goddess/Whore archetype? Over three weeks.
I’m not suggesting that Slate is obsolete (which would be an especially hard thing to prove, as obsolesence isn’t measured by readership, or rather, a lack thereof), but if we visualize an immediacy continuum with sites hosting user-generated content, indie blogs, and wikis on one end, and newspapers and network television on the other, Slate falls closer now to its parent outlet, the Washington Post—at least in terms of how quickly it reacts to news—than it did in 1996. In an age where the best journalism clarifies more than it informs, perhaps this is a good thing. But what if Slate readers, suffering a multi-platform barrage of continuous news, have lost interest in Palin’s sexiness by the time Slate gets around to extrapolating on, well, Palin’s sexiness?