Thursday, March 13, 2008

Editor of Slate at Columbia J-School

Jacob Weisberg, who edits Slate, the award-winning general interest web magazine, has a more than passing resemblance to Jon Stewart of The Daily Show. He is at Columbia University's Journalism School on 6 March, delivering the latest of the Delacorte Lectures on magazine journalism.

Weisberg has been with Slate since its founding in 1996, serving as political correspondent and columnist before becoming editor. Before Slate he wrote for the New Republic, Newsweek, New York Magazine, Vanity Fair and the New York Times Magazine. He co-authored with former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin the 2003 book In an Uncertain World. He also wrote the 1996 book In Defense of Government, the 2000 eBook The Road to Chadville, and several books on Bushisms.

Among Weisberg's many credits, says moderator Victor Navasky, is that at Yale he declined an invitation (from John Kerry) to join the Skull and Crossbones secret society -- on the grounds that it would not admit women. His brother "wrote a book about the CIA;" and his mother was also "a literary figure." Navasky does not expand on that, but googling later I find that Weisberg's mother, Lois, was a major arts and culture figure in Chicago, whose 1999 profile in The New Yorker began: "She's a grandmother, she lives in a big house in Chicago, and you've never heard of her. Does she run the world?" Brother Joseph Weisberg is a former CIA agent who wrote the critically acclaimed novel An Ordinary Spy (December 2007).

Weisberg begins the lecture by calling up on the screen behind him a computer-generated image of Slate. Founded in 1996 as a web publication. From the beginning it has been "a native speaker of web." That was a distinct advantage over print magazines struggling to adapt. Web style is different from print. It is less formal, more personal, a "cross between an expository print essay and e-mail;" there's humor in it, a certain intimacy with the reader; online readers treat writers like people they know. At Slate some readers have an established presence; one specializes in finding mistakes; "he's the only fact-checking we have. "Post-publication fact-checking."

The online medium is not friendly to long articles; if you have a long piece it must be broken up. But short pieces add up. Slate "puts out the equivalent of a short book every week." The medium does allow innovations like group blogs; links within an article can nest a a great deal of information, different perspectives. The medium is addictive. Slate's daily report on what's in the newspapers is an addictive element; so are its videos, offering crisp, short, humorous takes on stories, always with a point. One on Hilary was downloaded 400,000 times.

Journalists of the future will be able to write articles and code, work with developers to convey information in new and innovative ways. Slate staffer Chad Wilson produced a new feature: "Map the Candidates," using Google Maps. Weisberg calls it up on the screen. You can also map correspondents, know where they are, where they've been. Some reporters now file "twitters" from cell phones, each fewer than 140 words. There's a strange haiku affect, but the story gets through. News about Fox anchor Bill O'Reilly misbehaving at an Obama event came through first as a twitter. The New York Times has labeled it "micro journalism."

There is constant innovation online. An example is The Root, a new launch that allows readers to input genealogical data, and see where it leads. One tool on the site allows African Americans to input DNA information and "reverse the middle passage" -- find out where in Africa their ancestors came from.

Answering a question about the ideal length of web articles, Weisberg says short is better; but "long form journalism" is not excluded; it has to be presented in shorter bits. There's been an extended dialog on Slate about the HBO series The Wire; probably 25,000 words by now. Another book-length effort is "Blogging the Bible," which intends to cover every chapter and verse.

Questions about the model for successful online magazines brings some obvious responses -- no printing costs, all the money can go towards content and design -- and unearths some unexpected revelations: "investigative journalism doesn't fit closely with what we do." News gathering is very expensive, and it is not something Slate has contemplated. In the beginning -- 1997 -- Slate was available only to subscribers. It had 20,000 readers. It is now owned by the Washington Post Company and offered free to a much larger readership. Advertising pays for it. Slate makes money.

Who reads Slate? About 85 per cent of readership is within the United States; the rest is mostly expatriate American or other native English speakers. The number of readers ranges from 500k to 1.5 million a day. There are about 10 to 11 million unique users per month.

After the presentation I go up and ask Weisberg if Slate tries to put a frame on the world as print magazines seek to do. He seems momentarily nonplussed, so I explain. Do you try to make sense of the world for your readers? Define what is important? Foreign news? He still seems puzzled, so I get really concrete. Does Slate, for instance, try to cover Africa? Oh yes. We have a Foreign Editor. We've had quite a few articles on Africa.

I checked for foreign content in Slate all week. There was little. Maybe because of all the excitement generated by Geraldine Ferraro's novel insight into the role of race in presidential politics, or the crash and burn of Governor Spitzer's political career.

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