Slate, the pioneering web magazine, struggles to find its identity and profit
In early January, two days after an abrupt announcement of Slate’s editor-in-chief resigning, the publication’s staff signed a Zoom meeting with the company’s chief executive and a consultant from Graham Holdings, the publication’s owner.
The slate wasn’t profitable, consultant Ann McDaniel told them. She had been brought in to suggest ways to improve the publication and consolidate its business, she said, according to five staff members at the meeting.
Asked what needed to be fixed, Ms McDaniel pointed to Slate’s website, saying it was unattractive and suggesting that more resources needed to be invested in the design team, according to people.
Ms McDaniel’s comments came as a surprise, those present at the meeting said. But that wasn’t the only indication to the staff that Slate was in trouble.
Making money from an online publication continues to be tricky business, even for established brands like Slate. Many digital media companies have merged in recent years, hoping that by joining forces they can compete with Google and Facebook for online advertising dollars.
Slate took its first step to generating revenue through subscriptions instead of relying on advertising in 2014, with a membership program called Slate Plus. The company plans to soon double the cost of renewing Slate Plus subscriptions to $119 from $59.
Navigating the rapidly changing digital media landscape has left Slate struggling to define its identity, said three of the staff members present at the meeting, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal. The slate once stood out as a place for contrarian shots and intellectual debates, but that distinction has faded in recent years, they said.
Questions about his mission have grown after several high-profile departures this year, the sources said. The departure of Jared Hohlt, who had been the editor since 2019, was followed a few weeks later by Allison Benedikt, a longtime staffer who was an editor. Other departures last month include Gabriel Roth, the head of podcasts; Laura Bennett, Editorial Director; and William Saletan, a writer who had worked for Slate for 25 years.
Dan Check, Slate’s chief executive, acknowledged in an interview that there is work to be done in defining Slate’s editorial vision, but added, “We’re definitely not in some kind of crisis.”
“Right now we’re kind of taking a breather and taking a look at what we’re doing — taking stock,” Mr. Check said.
Slate, which was launched in 1996 by Microsoft, was one of the first digital-only media. The publication quickly became known for its clever analysis, interesting debates and top-notch journalistic talent. (Jacob Weisberg, former editor of Slate, described Slate in 2013 as having “the brains of The New York Times and the body of BuzzFeed.”)
In 2004, Microsoft sold Slate to The Washington Post Company. After Jeff Bezos bought the company’s flagship newspaper in 2013, the parent company was renamed Graham Holdings.
In recent years, Slate has invested in launching podcasts and found success with some, including the famous “Slow Burn”. And he remains known for his reporting on the Supreme Court, long a specialty. But he struggled to break into the conversation otherwise.
Confusion over what exactly Slate stands for grew among the staff, sometimes bleeding into public comments. An internal debate last year over race led Mike Pesca, a well-known podcast host, to leave the company. Mr. Pesca, who is white, had argued with colleagues that there were certain contexts in which people who were not black should be allowed to quote a racial slur. He was suspended in February last year and Slate launched an investigation. A spokeswoman for Slate said at the time that the suspension was not based on Mr Pesca “making an isolated abstract argument in a Slack channel”.
Mr. Pesca left Slate in September and took “The Gist” podcast with him. Last month, he told Tablet Magazine that Slate staff criticized him because “their politics were different from mine and because their definition of the value of dissent was different from mine.”
Mr. Saletan, in his latest article for Slate, wrote that “at Slate and many other publications, the range of political perspectives has shifted in ways that exacerbate our echo chamber problem.”
Mr Saletan described a shift in both political parties towards the margins and away from the middle, and he said this meant supporters were rarely engaged in opposing viewpoints. He declined to comment for this article.
Mr Check said the publication wanted to “make sure we have a range of views on the site going forward”. He added: “The slate is simply more diverse than it has ever been before.”
Mr Check said he had already promoted some staff to senior positions. The search for an editor continues, he said.
Mr Check said he asked Graham Holdings to help him build Slate’s business, which led to Ms McDaniel becoming involved as an adviser.
Several staffers said Ms McDaniel was blunt in her assessment of Slate, which some found refreshing. Her criticism of the website’s design offended some in the art department, but she also suggested that more resources be put into it, the people said. Slate hasn’t had an art director for the past two years, the people said.
Mr Check said Slate had seen “very strong growth” in its membership program over the past two years. A spokeswoman for Slate said subscriptions to Slate Plus, which allows users to access ad-free versions of its podcasts and read unlimited articles on Slate.com, increased 16% in 2021 compared to the previous year.
“We’re a digital media company and we know it’s a tough business,” Mr. Check said. He said the focus this year would be on growing revenue from podcast subscriptions and advertising.
“We’re not particularly far from reaching a sustainable point,” he said, “but we still have some work to do to get there.”