Monday, May 18, 2009

An Empty Slate

I used to really enjoy reading, but over the last few months it seems to have lost some of its luster. If pressed, I don't think that a few days ago I could have pinpointed what it was that has caused my disappointment. All I had was just a vague feeling of not-so-freshness. When I came across this post from Matthew Yglesias though, it brought a focus to my previously hazy notion.

The quality of the writing from a wide variety of perspectives on an even wider range of topics, was what made Slate a great site. Politics, policy, television, books, music, architecture, shopping, business, the environment, Slate covered it all and in ways that were never dull and often often unexpected. It is this range that, of late, has been missing and I think I know why. Slate has developed too many new spin-off websites devoted to narrow interests and in the process starved the original Slate of the variety and quality that made it special.

The recent past has given us the new sites The Big Money, The Root, Foreign Policy, and now DoubleX. All brought to you by something called Washington Post.Newsweek Interactive, LLC. Who knew that limited liability may also limit your ability to be entertaining and informative.

It's as if the leadership at Slate looked at the mortgage backed securities debacle and decided that was a great business model for new media. They had a depth and breadth of content bundled together at one terrific site, Slate. A site where not every piece was a home run, or appealed to every reader, but that was its strength; it would bend, but not break. Someone visits the site because they like the advice column, but they stay and read Fred Kaplan on Pakistan. Instead of imitating that bundled structure, Slate has chosen to slice it up, just like those mortgage backed securities. So rather than a Slate characterized by variety, we now have tranches of content scattered across other sites.

As I've argued before, the slicers have a habit of keeping the weakest tranche for themselves. Now I am not saying the content at any of these spin-offs surpasses the original Slate, yet. But can a Slate site featuring Jack Shafer and Seth Stevenson on the media be far off? I suppose we'll always have Hitchens, but then what? A site dominated by reviews of gangsta rap or Hollywood's latest attempt to gin up some cash by appealing to our most debased tastes is not a site I'm interested in, no matter how well written.

Channeling your content into narrow fields not only leaves the original site weaker, but creates a new site that is weak on two counts. First, the new site is devoted to a single topic. What happened to reading across the curriculum? Second, the new site is largely dominated by a single way of thinking about that single topic. The DoubleX site is dedicated to women's issues, and run by women that have many ties to the original Slate. This results in a site with an editorial worldview that is a mix of post-feminist girl power and limousine liberal. While this particular brand of fusion punditry may have a broad appeal to mostly urban, college educated women, did we really need another entire website dedicated to promoting it? I don't think so.

By splintering their content, Slate is running the risk of splintering their audience as well. At a time when so much of the old media seem on the verge of non-existence, it's a little bit sad to see one of the veterans of the new media diminish, no matter how slightly. Emptying Slate of what made it great would be a mistake.


Alan M said...

Thanks for a great post. So much media commentary now seems to focus on the niche, on JJarvis's "do what you do best & link to the rest." While I understand the logic, I think there still is a role for the sort of Slate you describe -- a place where you come for the advice column & read about Pakistan.

Anonymous said...

but... Slate has lost essentially zero content to the new sites, and has actually a bunch from them. Which parts of Slate, in particular (which writers, which kinds of content) are now gone from Slate, but appearing on one of the new sites? You don't give a single example of what you're asserting here, just a vague feeling that you don't like Slate as much as you used to, followed by a conclusion that it must be for a reason that is demonstrably false.

All the new sites have their own own editorial teams and stables of writers. Slate still does, too, but now it also features content from the other sites as well.

Sorry, but this is a lot of nonsense that you pulled out of the sky without taking even 10 minutes to come up with just a couple of examples backing up your argument -- because there really are none to cite.

Anonymous said...

sorry. first sentence above should be "has actually *gained* a bunch from them."