Slate: Anagrams to Stale

What’s that you say? You want to read our incendiary letter to Medianews about the twee irrelevancy known as Slate? Well, here it is, converted to editorial we.

We personally don’t give a shite why it is that Slate is surviving, whether it’s “parsimony” or simply being ignored by Microsoft or whatever else. Slate is an American irrelevancy, with only the most inconsequential and begrudging integration with the true Web. (And we do not refer to the fact that redirects automatically to, itself an incriminating detail.)

Look at a couple o’ things. Check the BoilerSlate page, an opaque and twee euphemism for Masthead or Contact Us. Why is the staff list formatted as a continuous paragraph? So you can’t read it. So you can’t understand it. So you won’t be tempted to ferret out a name and bother that person. Notice anything else? Like an absolute absence of E-mail addresses? Everyone who writes for the online medium has to be willing to accept E-mail in response. Anything less is a newspaper-style sop to interactivity, a Letters to the Editor page rendered in electrons.

You see this all the time, at, for example, ZDNet: A journalist writes a story, and the rabble mutter about it in user fora, entirely ignored by the journalist and editors. (A real Web content site engages the writers with readers. [A later correction holds that ZDNet writers do occasionally join in the fray.])

We speak from experience here: It took us weeks of digging to find a fax number to contact New York editrix Judith Shulevitz with a story idea (actually, an idea for a column, which we see they have since largely adopted). A fax number. We had to ask the local Microsoft office to look it up. She turned us down in a hardcopy letter laser-printed on a plain page (no letterhead) with no telephone number listed. It’s easier to contact a spy agency, like CSIS or the CSE, than it is to reach a Slate editor.

When Slate débuted, we surfed avidly to the site, only to find it took forever to load in Netscape (an accident, shurely?!) and pretty much didn’t work at all in Lynx, and recapped print metaphors like page numbers, since remedied. But more importantly, we was appalled that milquetoast standard-bearer Michael Kinsley had managed to get away with another super-elitist magazine for upper-class twits.

You head to the site and all there is to read about are DNA tests and tissue typing of the entrails of U.S. politics. We hear a lot about integrating audio and video. Kinsley’s greatest legacy will be his magical, almost alchemic ability to translate the chattering classes to the Web. Soon Microsoft will propose chattering as a MIME type in Windows Media Player, another of its many “open” standards. You get all excited at a substantive zine with good writing, and all they want to talk about are American senators and Bill forking Clinton.

And note another detail in BoilerSlate: If you really have to contact Slate, you can send a letter by “U.S. Postal Service.” What, we have to drive to Buffalo and mail a hardcopy letter with an American stamp to communicate with a Webzine?

These conceits come up over and over again in publishing, of course. Wired once flatly turned down an article pitch because one of the chief subjects was a nonprofit organization receiving government funding. You have no idea how free-market we are here, an editrix told us. Fast Company is a plot by executives, stung by the mounting proof that downsizing did not in fact help their businesses, that “free agency” (i.e., serial unemployment) is an empowering New Economy paradigm. And of course, here in the province of Toronto, the Daily Tubby (i.e., the National Post, or National Socialist) acts as house organ for the hundred or so Christian Right–style arch-right-wingers still frustrated by their inability to secure U.S. green cards.

Slate, however, continues to get away with its manias. True, the subject-matter has expanded notably, but the site has never, ever been fun to read, and Kinsley, for all his talk of the virtues of a small team, insulates them more tightly than any political office inside the Beltway. We know why he brags about never holding launch parties: His staff would have to face their own readers.

Salon editors are spendthrifts and they’re quite dirty-minded, but there’s always something relevant and of interest on their site. Slate sets itself apart from the Web, the real world, and real readers – in all the wrong ways. To paraphrase Morrissey, if it should die, we might feel slightly sad but we won’t cry.

Sharp eyes will spot parallels with Jon Katz’s demarcation of open and closed media (NUblog passim). What do you think? E-mail is eagerly solicited.

Posted on 2000-09-01