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Sept. 23, 2016, 12:27 p.m.
Business Models

Slate, now 20 years old, reflects on the value of taking the long view and not chasing digital media trends

“One of the things you’ve seen across the marketplace for the last five years is a lot of companies are chasing the same kind of traffic from the same social distribution mechanisms…It’s not a recipe for producing a distinctive media brand.”

Being contrarian sometimes pays off. Online magazine Slate is now 20 years old, and while its strong takes are stronger than ever and its contrarianism as contrarian as ever, it’s also more self-aware — and far past its pimply, tumultuous teenage years, thanks in part to its well-positioned audio sibling Panoply.

Its membership program Slate Plus, which unlocks extra podcasts and online content as well as discounts on live events, is now more than 16,000 superfans strong and growing steadily each year, according to Slate’s editor-in-chief Julia Turner [Update: Slate reached out after this post was published to say that membership is over 17,000.]. After a quietly dismantled effort to implement a metered paywall for international readers, it’s reset course after hiring Keith Hernandez, who became Slate Group’s president after a stint at BuzzFeed, leading sales teams across North America and Australia. And true to its Slate-y ways, it’s currently partnering with VoteCastr to project real-time results from the presidential race before polls close on Election Day, a practice anathema to many mainstream media outlets.

I spoke with Turner and Hernandez the evening before Slate’s 20th anniversary celebration about how Slate got to where it is now, its reluctance to embrace distributed platforms and video “whole hog,” and where it intends to go from here. What follows is a lightly edited and condensed transcript of our conversation.

Shan Wang: Through Slate’s history, can you point to specific decisions where it’s chosen to invest heavily in something (or not) that have influenced where the publication stands now?

Julia Turner: One of the real through lines at Slate over the last 20 years is this combination of a willingness and a nimbleness and excitement around experimentation and then a real independence and ruthlessness about deciding which experiments to end and which to continue and making sure those things are Slate-y, that they really align with our goal of being the smartest, funnest place to figure out how to think about the world in any digital platform or medium.

The obvious example there is podcasting. Our experiment with podcasting was basically a total accident. It came out of a different experiment, which is that we had a partnership with NPR to help reinvent the midday show, to jazz it up, give it a little bit more voice. We hired an audio ace who had NPR experience. We had a lovely time, they were lovely people. It didn’t quite come together, and we ended up pulling back.

But we still had that audio ace on staff, who then said: There’s this thing called podcasts. He said, I want to do this. He kept lurking in closets, skulking around like a weirdo, reading our stories out loud into a microphone, telling us about this great podcast he was building.

Most of us at the time didn’t even know how to listen to them yet. Or we did, but didn’t really have the right app. Or you still had to plug something into the computer. We definitely did podcasts before I ever listened to any of them. Eventually, we caught on, and we ironed out that reading stories out loud was a fine experience, but it was much better to convey the flavor of a Slate editorial meeting — the loose, candid, off-the-cuff conversation among journalists — and was an efficient and fun information delivery mechanism. So we put mics in front of some of our brilliant political commentators and launched the Slate Political Gabfest, and that became the template for a bunch of our shows around politics, culture, sports.

That came together in ’05, ’06, ’07, when some of our competitors were getting into podcasting and then got right back out because there was just not a revenue model for it. But we could just see that this innovation and form was so up our alley. With podcasting, we were able to add like 12 hours of additional time you could spend in the company of Slate voices, and get their perspective on what they think of latest events. The kind of engagement we saw off of that was really intense.

So we stuck with it for probably like seven years before we began to see the first inklings of a real revenue stream. Obviously, in the last couple of years there’s been a huge podcast boom that we were really well positioned to take advantage of. But that ability to take the long view and when a particular opportunity really aligns with what you care about, to bet on that — that’s been a key for us, at various points.

Wang: So why, even without any promise of a revenue model, did you push through? Those weren’t easy years for the business, and seven years is a pretty long time. And what are the instances of when you’ve dropped things, either after a long time, or pretty quickly?

Keith Hernandez: Podcasting felt like such a natural extension to what was happening on The way the team was working and thinking and developing — it just felt right to continue developing, whether there was revenue or not. Which is a much better way to make a business decision: we are what we stand for vs. can we monetize super quickly? When you go with that second option, you’re just a chop shop that’s trying to figure out the fads and trends. You don’t have a distinct voice in the market.

There’s people right now going full hog on video, hiring a lot of people. But if they don’t really have that commitment, if it’s not really part of their DNA, they’re not going to last. It’s about making sure you separate fad from the future of what matters to your business, and allowing those things to breathe and not pulling them off the table when it’s too soon.

Turner: Like everybody, we’ve tried a bunch of things — partner platforms, we’ve run experiments on Pinterest. This is good for highly visual sites. We didn’t find we were particularly good for that. Another platform we were never particularly interested in was Tumblr, which was another ecosystem that didn’t feel like a great fit for our audience.

These are not revolutionary, shocking decisions. Often our approach is to dip our toe in the water and get a sense of things.

Wang: Without naming names, there are other online-only outlets, about the same age, that are perhaps struggling in different ways, or haven’t found the right voice and business strategy that allows them to start making money again…

Turner: This may sound hokey, and I’m curious about your perspective as well…I see, you’re trying to get me to throw some shade?

A lot of people built businesses over the last few years under the theory of, “Wheeeee, distribution is free now! Hooray! It’s cheap to amass an audience.” In the history of media, distribution has almost never been free, and it will not be free again in the future. The work that it takes to get your stuff to the right people, whatever that mechanism is, there’s always effort there. And I think a lot of people made investments in businesses in under the assumption that we live in this glorious new era of free distribution, and Slate took a longer view there.

Hernandez: There’s something to the sweet spot of where we currently are and the nature of the purposeful growth that happened to get to where we are. We could’ve doubled down and done those trips that everyone was doing to get that 40, 50, 60 million unique visitor audience, but for what reason? In the moment, we’re at now, being number one in total unique visitors matters way less than having a distinct, very strong point of view that could help a marketer out. The biggest investment that we’re making now on the business side is the notion that we have the right audience.

Wang: That right audience is?

Hernandez: The right audience is, we have 23 million uniques, 53 percent of them are 25-54, half of them make a household income of over $100,000, and close to half of them are at least college educated with a bachelors degree, decision makers in the business that they’re in.

Advertising in its essence is really just the power of persuasion. I have this product. I’m trying to convince you it’s worth your time. There are similarities to that in editorial, in journalism. I have an argument, I want to convince you of the other side. It’s hard for advertisers to find a way to do that to a really loyal, smart, audience. And that’s where we can come in and say, we can show you the ropes of what to do.

Wang: Is Slate profitable right now?

Hernandez: We’re in a growth round right now. We’re hiring close to 100 people overall. [Update: Slate reached out after this post was published to say Slate and Panoply will be adding several dozen employees this year, not 100.]

So we’re deliberately not profitable. This year we decided to hire way more people than we’ve ever hired to grow and build out the infrastructure.

Wang: And how about the Slate Plus membership program? How many members, how is it doing?

Turner: We’ve got more than 16,000 members now, and I’m excited about that number, but I’m most excited about the growth trajectory there. Launching the program, we feel lucky to have had superfans who we knew would sign up in the first month or two, but after those months, after that first impulse rah-rah purchase, we weren’t sure we’d be able to build something that had persistent value for a broad and growing set of people.

Our model is essentially to take the innovations we’ve seen in the education space around MOOCs and online courses and adapt that for journalism in what we call academies, a kind of journalistic approach to evergreen content. Slate Academies are around slavery, classic books, popular music.

Between those, bonus segments on our podcasts, and other innovations, the growth rate year over year has been constant. To me that’s the biggest achievement. We are consistently adding people month by month as opposed to having an initial burst of people.

Wang: I seem to remember there was one point where you guys had a paywall for international readers, and then those people became Slate Plus members? That paywall came down and I missed it, or…

Turner: We ran an experiment around that last year with an international paywall where we launched it, got some signups, but decided that the overall business there wasn’t what we wanted to pursue, and also we brought Keith on board as publisher, and he has a lot of experience with international sales, and part of the theory behind the international paywall was a function of our focusing more on domestic ad sales. For a couple of reasons for some of the folks who signed up for that paywall, we gave them a year of Slate Plus.

Hernandez: A paywall is a metered limit on the amount you can read on the site. Slate Plus is: I am such a voracious, intense fan of Slate that I want to know everything about these people. It’s just more compelling for our most loyal readers and fans.

Wang: Are you thinking about growing internationally in the next year? Slate Germany? Slate Japan?

Hernandez: International revenue is absolutely something we’re thinking about and want to continue to grow. The reality is the Internet is not domestic. The wall that has been created there was a false barrier.

I helped open up international expansion in other places. It’s never the same country by country, company by company. You have to make sure you’re doing what’s right for you, and where you’re starting is correct for you, so that you’re not just trying to be a derivative of your U.S. site. Nobody wants to be just a version of the U.S., they need their own distinct voice and flavor.

We’re thinking about it. It’s not yet in motion. We can’t announce anything. But it’s something that’s on the horizon.

Turner: We have Slate France, and that’s been around for a little while, since 2009, started by a group of journalists, and we collaborate and they’ve been partners in covering some events there over the last couple of years. We’re in the first steps of exploring internationally.

Wang: So where are you going next? I don’t mean geographically — where do you see the next opportunities, whether it’s an underexplored platform, or maybe it is video after all, or it’s something you think could be the next podcasting for you?

Turner: Slate has very strong political coverage at its core, particularly this year, and our team is very strong. I think we run the best general interest culture magazine out there. I think we’ll be expanding business and technology coverage as well. I also think our parenting coverage is very distinctive and that’s an underserved market editorially. So much of that ecosystem is dependent on the blogosphere and excellent professional journalism that’s in keeping with the way people actually parent now is scarce. So I think there’s an opportunity we’re curious about.

In terms of format, podcasting is something we will continue to expand on. Video is something we’re going to be more strategic and practical about. We’re cultivating a couple of ideas on the video front that I think we’ll be investing in next year.

Hernandez: You hear stories that attention spans are shorter and shorter and that people can’t even watch three seconds of video on Facebook before scrolling on. But time spent on our articles continues to go up. Our bet is smart interesting angles on difficult, dense stories. The mobile phone is the first screen, and people are spending 5, 10, 15 minutes reading an article that matters to them.

We’re at an inflection point now, with the chaos with the streams on Facebook and Twitter, and people will want to slow down a little bit. That’s where podcasting has taken off. People want to detach from the screen and do something else. People also look for deeper analysis.

Turner: One of the things you’ve seen across the marketplace for the last five years is a lot of companies are chasing the same kind of traffic from the same social distribution mechanisms, and their coverage tends to be the same. It’s not a recipe for producing a distinctive media brand, a magazine or site with a specific voice that people count on and come back for.

We’ve been looking a lot at ways to deepen our relationship with our loyal audience and be producing more distinct work on a more regular basis. Under David Plotz, we started the Fresca fellowships, one of our early forays into longform. The idea there was that folks would take time away from day-to-day blogging to dig into passion projects, which produced some great work there. When I took over, I thought that worked great but was a little too separated from the news cycle. We would run three in April, and then none until September, none until January. It was a little erratic.

We’ve taken a page out of the playbook of print magazine and reinstated the cover story. We’ve run interactives, oral histories, interactives. The idea is to plant the flag every Sunday night and start a conversation that forces the rest of the Internet to respond. The purpose of which is to create and foster that specific and valuable relationship with our audience so they know to come back to us for that perspective.

I still think of this as a magazine, but I think it’s a useful conceit to think of it as a magazine. A magazine is about a sensibility, offering an interpretation of the world, as opposed to a news site or a content platform.

Photo of the Slate Political Gabfest drinking game rules at a live event by Steve McFarland, used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Sept. 23, 2016, 12:27 p.m.
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