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July 22, 2019, 7 a.m.
Audience & Social

Can’t read just one: Slate’s daily advice columns are strange, funny, deep, and increasingly a major traffic driver for the site

“We probably won’t do twincest again.”

Twincest, “I am bothered that the dog now has my daughter’s name,” did I cause a woman to get hit by a car, how do I stop my 4-year-old son from playing with my nipples, my dying friend’s husband is sexting me, my husband and I blew through $3 million and now we’re broke, a creepy kid stares at my baby all the time, my wife drinks too much in front of the kids, my sons keep complaining about “the brown kid” in their daycare, “I’m finding myself embarrassed of my husband the way a teenager would be embarrassed of their dad,” my daughter-in-law won’t let me in the delivery room even though I used to be a nurse!

Once you start reading Slate’s advice columns, it’s hard to stop. Unlike in newspapers of old, where you had to wait for the next week’s column to come out, you can binge on Slate’s online archives. (I am also a person who used to pore over Best of Ann Landers and Wake Up and Smell the Coffee!) That’s why Slate tends to see its advice columns take off once they have a sufficient archive to support binge-reading. New ones are published almost daily.

Slate now has four advice columns — Care and Feeding, for parenting advice; Dear Prudence, for general relationship/being-a-human questions; How to Do It, for sex advice; and Beast Mode, for advice about pets. Care and Feeding has four rotating columnists (Rumaan Alam, Nicole Cliffe, Michelle Herman, and Jamilah Lemieux), How to Do It has two (Rich Juzwiak, and Stoya), Beast Mode is written by Nick Greene, and Dear Prudence is written by Daniel Mallory Ortberg, the cofounder (with Cliffe) of The Toast. The columnists vary in race, gender, sexuality, and geographical location, representing a break with the traditional advice columnist as white cisgendered woman. Dear Prudence, at 22, is Slate’s oldest advice column. Ortberg was preceded by Emily Yoffe and, before her, Margo Howard (the daughter of Eppie Lederer, aka Ann Landers). Care and Feeding launched at the beginning of 2018, and How to Do It is new this year.

“From an audience development perspective, the advice columns are a dream,” said Bill Carey, Slate’s senior director of strategy. “We’ll see loyalty build within the advice column, and then they start reading more of Slate as a whole” — and then, hopefully, becoming members of Slate’s membership program, Slate Plus. People who read Dear Prudence, for instance, also tend to read Slate’s politics content; people who read Care and Feeding will likely then head to Slate’s other parenting content. Across the advice category as a whole, Slate’s unique visitors are up 85 percent over this time last year, with pageviews up 48 percent. Individually, Dear Prudence’s unique readership is up 43 percent over last year, while Care and Feeding’s is up 64 percent.

“Obviously, one thing that makes advice columns readable is the insane questions,” said Dan Kois, a senior writer and editor at Slate who oversees Care and Feeding. (Emily Yoffe’s advice to Daniel Ortberg when he took over: “If you didn’t know already, this job will teach you that humans have an almost infinite capacity to get themselves in unbelievable situations.”)

“Before I had any editorial involvement in Slate’s advice columns, I mostly thought of them as repositories for the bananas, twincest-type howlers that make everyone click because you have to see what that crazy question is and how Prudie will deal with it. Editing Care and Feeding has been a real education for me, in the art of making even the answers to quote-unquote ‘boring’ questions useful and often moving, and that’s something all the columnists are really good at.

“I think that what makes people come back over and over again to these columns is knowing that, whether or not that question has anything to do with your life, whether that question is extremely tweetable because the person who sent it in is off their rocker or, more often, not, there’s gotta be some good writing or nugget of wisdom or thing that makes you think a little bit differently about your life embedded in that answer. That’s hard for a writer to do, and doing it consistently — as long as Emily [Yoffe] did it, as long as Danny has now done it, and as long as I hope the Care and Feeding columnists will do it — is really pretty remarkable.”

The company has worked to expand the text-only advice columns into other products. Dear Prudence has its own podcast and live chats and this year went on tour, with Ortberg doing live events in San Francisco, New York, and other cities. Each episode of Slate’s parenting podcast, Mom and Dad Are Fighting, features an advice question, and advice columnist Lemieux is joining the podcast as a cohost, which helps create a sense of continuity between the advice column and Slate’s other parenting content.

“We view parenting as something that even experts are not really experts on,” Kois said. “We’re all figuring it out together. Even those giving you advice are likely to be screwing up just as much as you are. All of our Care and Feeding columnists’ advice comes out of that perspective, often directly from mistakes they have made themselves.” It’s perhaps that non-expert vibe that keeps readers coming back to Care and Feeding: Nobody wants to be bossed around by somebody who sees themselves as the authoritative voice on parenting, but coming to a diverse group of parents for help feels different — more like being part of a community.

There are a lot of online advice column logistics. For Care and Feeding and How to Do It, all of the questions come via email aliases; for How to Do It, editor Jeffrey Bloomer helps Stoya and Rich select questions. For Care and Feeding, the four columnists all have access to the email inbox and note which questions they’re going to answer in a Google spreadsheet, working to balance out more serious questions with lighter ones. For Dear Prudence, the majority of questions for the column, live chats, and podcast come in via a Google form, with the rest going to an email alias; a team helps to sort them, and Ortberg then decides which ones he’ll answer and in which format.

“We probably won’t do twincest again,” Kois said. “And in Care and Feeding, Nicole is no longer taking questions about ‘is it okay that my brother-in-law stole the name I was going to give my kid for their kid.’ She’s declared that’s not a real problem and no one can ask that question anymore. Also, thanks to a beautiful column by Carvell [Wallace], we will no longer take the Halloween-themed question, ‘is it okay for my white kid to wear a costume that is a black person even if I don’t use blackface?’ We are no longer accepting that question.“

A previous version of this story omitted Slate’s fourth advice column, Beast Mode.

Photo of envelopes by Randall McRoberts used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     July 22, 2019, 7 a.m.
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