Slate: Stepping boldly into the year 2000

Why,” you may ask, “are you so damn quiet about Plastic?” The reference, of course, is to the newfangled group Weblog from automatic Media (NUblog passim) that makes the existing Weblog A-list look like steerage class on a prewar ocean liner.

Well, weeks of negotiations with Automatic Media potentates have resulted in an accord to answer one question at a go by snatchmail, with a promise of extensive delays. We are experiencing the first such delay. Welcome to Internet time.

What’s the issue? Famous people acting like established Internet concepts are their own idea.

More on Plastic in due course. We have another example to look at.

Twee milquetoast house organ Slate (NUblog passim) has embarked on a grand Experiment in Longform Cyberjournalism.

The brutal fact is that for nonessential reading, people for some reason still prefer curling up with paper and ink to sitting upright in front of a computer screen.... Being on a computer screen is actually an advantage in attracting readers at work, who seem to prefer not to be seen curled up with a paper magazine – whatever their preference in the privacy of their own homes.

Well, which is it? People prefer to read for pleasure on paper or onscreen? (Both, clearly. That’s why even we offer printable versions.)

One form of magazine journalism seems especially resistant to the Web. That is the long, reportorial piece like those published in the New Yorker, the Atlantic, and the New York Times Magazine. If people are reluctant to read a 1,200-word article on a computer screen, expecting them to read 5,000 or 12,000 words on a screen seems especially hopeless.And arbitrarily chopping a long article into shorter “pages,” as many sites do, isn’t much of an improvement.

Oh, this is rich!

Those of us who’ve been online longer than the advertising executives who received their first porno spam way back in 1998 will of course recall Slate’s original design, which divvied up articles into chunks navigable by page numbers. Yes, page numbers, so help us God, with no table of contents, no subtitles for the resulting jump pages (as they’re known in the print biz) so you’d know which section was next, no nothin’. It was such a wholesale recapitulation of the print medium – which of course was all the twee milquetoast organ could possibly relate to – that even Jakob Nielsen dissed it.

Can you say revisionism?

And anyway, it is untrue that people won’t read long articles online. We’ve explained already how to present such texts in a readable manner, and have even refuted the complaints of a site’s unreadability posted by its own editor. One way is indeed to break things up. Another is to provide a printable version, which itself is usually easier to read onscreen (fewer ads, simpler layout, easier to futz with font sizes). Guess what? Slate does both.

It gets better. The New Yorker’s long-delayed Web site is forthcoming in weeks, apparently. Two of the august periodical’s star writers, Malcolm Gladwell and Rebecca Mead, run their own Web sites featuring longform “content.” The Atlantic is online. So is theTimes Book Review.

Which part of all this isn’t working, again?

Instead of doing all his reporting and then composing a long article, [some writer] will file dispatches, which we will post immediately, as he goes about his research. The readers will be able to follow the reporter as he gathers and analyzes his material, and we have no more idea than you do about where the story will lead him or how it will come out. When he is done, if it works, the entire article will be published as an E-book. In fact,we hope that readers will actually help put the story together by supplying information... and by engaging and helping the author to refine his arguments. Call it “transparent journalism.”

Or, better yet, impatiently mutter “It’sbeen done.”

We will commend Slate for doing one thing right: Listening to readers. A typical newspaper mistake is to post an article and encourage the rabble to talk about it in that magical panacea of community-building, “discussion boards” (NUblog passim). Problem? The author of the story rarely, if ever, joins in the fray, and whatever discussion takes place on the “boards” is completely ignored by the publication, except of course if you swear or utter a remark that offends the sensibilities.

Here Slate intends to use readers as sources, which they are anyway. It’s nice to have everything upfront. Indeed, Slate is all chuffed at its bravery, as though it were some kind of high-school student in 1980 who dares to wear a pink triangle to school.

Would even the most scrupulous and fair-minded reporter... want his sources to know his thoughts, strategies, hopes, tentative conclusions before he even talked with them, or indeed before they even have decided whether to cooperate? [...] Would the typical source want the journalist/interviewer to be able to read his or her mind? Would either party in any transaction, commercial or emotional or any other sort, not feel disadvantaged by having his or her thoughts one-sidedly exposed on the Web?

[Sigh] Is there some kind of satellite delay up in Redmond? Opening yourself up is what the Internet makes you do. It is quite simply impossible to keep secrets online – if you have any kind of presence at all, that is. (If you merely own an E-mail address but don’t run homepages, that’s a different story. Then again, if your address is, how many secrets are you managing to keep?)

Online media force you to express things you would never express any other medium. Back in 1994 (nineteen ninety-four, OK?), we wrote about this in theToronto Star:

In the winsome 1992 film The Waterdance, Eric Stoltz portrays a writer recovering from a paralyzing spinal injury. His girlfriend, played by Elizabeth Dennehy, is married to another man. She visits Stoltz in the hospital one day armed with an (ancient) Macintosh Portable, ostensibly so he can keep writing while recuperating. Immediately he types out:

– how often do you fuck him when you see him?

She’s a bit surprised, but Stoltz eggs her on and she types back,

– Every hour on the hour.

– so there are problems in the bedroom.

– Why are you pursuing this?

– because, before, you said you were going to leave him.

– It’s not so simple.

– now, you mean.

– Then. And now. I love you both.

– bullshit. you can’t love two people at once.

– I do.

– well make up your fucking mind.

This little scene cannily illustrates how rules governing what you can and cannot say – rules at play in human discourse even if we’re not conscious of them – are apt to change when the computer is the medium of communication. Stoltz and Dennehy would never have spoken the words they typed out. At the same time, the immediacy of the computer transforms the written word into a form of dialogue that postal letters couldn’t emulate. The computer gave the words emotional distance, but that distance, ironically enough, encouraged them to use emotional words.

Journalists are not special. The vaunted distance between Unbiased Sojourner of Truth and mere “sources” can and will vanish to zero. We know this ourselves: We will shortly be the subject of a profile in the Atlantic (too long for twee Slate milquetoasts to read online?) and are having to tread carefully about what we write on various sites, since it is now subject to immediate copy-and-paste into a personal profile in a storied journal. Sources of all kinds can now rebut anything found in conventional journalism by posting their own Web pages; the heavily co-opted medium of the letters-to-editors column is quite passé.

This is where Slate is doing something gutsy. Participatory, even Weblog-style reportage. We’re strongly infavour of it. The exercise is, however, critically handicapped by the particular subject-matter – genius sperm donors – which could not interest us less. Actually, even by Slate standards it plumbs new depths in irrelevancy and uselessness. And what the hell are average readers gonna be able to tell a journalist about genius sperm donors?

Posted on 2001-01-12