A Lesson From the Granddaddy of Digital Publishing

Aug 28, 2012

Long before I was in the business of writing about digital content, I was a big fan of digital content. More specifically, I was a fan of Slate. Founded in 1996, the “daily magazine on the web” is practically the grandfather of digital publishing. Backed by The Washington Post Co., Slate has long incorporated the best of traditional journalism with more bloglike sensibilities. From long-form, investigative journalism to quick, breaking news blurbs to Dear Prudie—Slate’s answer to Dear Abby—the site seamlessly blends the more familiar aspects of your local newspaper with new media.

For quite some time now, it’s really embraced the podcast form—and more recently, video. From the Gabfests to the book club, to the digital manners podcast, Slate has its writers discussing a wide array of topics for all the world to hear. I love these podcasts. I often listen to the book club in my car and let the Slate writers explain Infinite Jest: A Novel to me. So I was confused—and even a little amused—when I stumbled across a reader comment that read, “Oh my god, Slate, STOP WITH THE PODCASTS ALREADY. Or at least step up the transcripts. This is a magazine, and yet there’s more and more material that can’t be read.”

Is this guy serious?

As much as we talk about using the web’s multimedia capabilities to engage users on all levels, there still seem to be some holdouts—those people who can’t accept that audio, video, and maybe even something as simple as great graphic content play a role in the newspapers and magazines of the digital age. This is baffling to me. Even if you don’t want to listen to the podcasts, is it really worth getting hot under the collar about?

For its part, Slate responded thoughtfully. Andy Bowers, the executive producer of Slate’s podcasts noted: “We’ve been producing the Audio Book Club for seven years. It’s as much a part of the magazine as anything else in Slate. The vast majority of Slate’s content is print, but we also have a loyal and large audience that likes being able to listen to our podcasts. I hope you’ll be willing to give the book club a try when it comes out, but if audio isn’t the medium for you, I hope you won’t begrudge others something they’ve enjoyed for many years. After all, it’s making use of multiple media that distinguishes an online magazine from its print counterparts.”

Somewhere, I’m sure this same Slate reader is lamenting the popularity of ebooks … and don’t even get him started on enhanced ebooks.

Part of me wonders why someone who seems to dislike podcasts is even reading an online magazine. I mean, who would want to read the transcript of a discussion (which is not exactly easy to follow) rather than just listen to the discussion? It’s sort of like reading a script instead of just watching the TV show.

But what struck me, even more than what seemed like misplaced crankiness, was just how long Slate had been in the business of being a digital-only publication. One with a pretty extensive stable of writers who (get this!) it pays. Its content runs the gamut from everything I’ve already mentioned here to serious stories about the Supreme Court and a fun how-to guide about lasagna. In other words, Slate has managed to be successful, not by serving a niche, but providing the breadth of content that offers a little something for everyone—just like the daily newspapers that show up every morning on doorsteps across the country.

Slate has benefited from the best of both worlds and has delivered the same to its readers. It benefits from the experience and backing of The Washington Post Co., while not being weighed down by the trappings of print media. So it delivers the quality reporting we expect, along with live chats and videos from Dear Prudie. Some 16 years on, I think it’s safe to say Slate has found a formula that works.

If you’re going to take anything away from this column, let it be from that last sentence in Bowers’ reply to his disgruntled reader. In many ways, he invoked the golden rule of digital publishing—which is basically that it is your duty to use all the tools that the web puts at your disposal. Because while you’ll always have your traditionalists who just can’t bear the sound of a podcast, to grab the audience of the future you’re going to need more than just words on a screen.