One of my jobs as Slate’s editor in chief is describing the magazine’s voice. “Oh, we’re smart, omnivorous, impish,” I say. “We have a contrarian streak, and a playful one”; “We’re serious and curious but not sober or smug.” I’ve used sentences like these to describe Slate countless times. But in the weeks since Jacob Weisberg announced that he’s stepping down as our chairman after 22 years here, I’ve realized that in describing Slate, I’ve also been describing him.
Jacob has served Slate in every possible way since our founding editor Michael Kinsley hired him in 1996. First, he confounded his fellow reporters on the ’96 campaign trail by consistently beating them to publication—print couldn’t keep up with Jacob. He’s written dazzling, agenda-setting pieces for us on politics and culture ever since. As Slate’s second editor in chief, he broadened the magazine’s coverage of culture, brought more women onto our staff and into our pages, and found Slate excellent new owners in the Washington Post Co. (now Graham Holdings). And as chairman and editor in chief of The Slate Group, Jacob has helped Slate chart a course both fearless and judicious through the turbulent waters of digital media, encouraging us to launch a membership program and lean into podcasting while avoiding overinvestment in mediums and platforms that suit our work less well. So much of what makes Slate strong today has its roots in the work Jacob has done.
But the most enduring piece of Jacob’s legacy at Slate will be his voice. So much of our approach to journalism echoes Jacob’s approach to the world. There’s no one more fun to kibitz with about the news, and the sense Slate fans have when they come to our site or listen to our podcasts that they are joining a fascinating, illuminating, in-the-know conversation—that’s Jacob. Jacob also has an irritating habit of being right fast, about the news, the culture, the world. (Check out his forceful, influential, far-sighted advocacy of The Wire and e-book readers, two modern classics that he spotted before many of us.) Slate’s knack for speedy analysis of enduring value—that’s Jacob. We also strive to be as game and gracious as Jacob when we are wrong. Jacob has a fearlessness and a spirit of adventure and experimentation that has been core to Slate from the beginning. Part of the fun of working online is demonstrating a willingness to try new things, some of which fail and some of which succeed. Our nimbleness, our gameness, our sense of mischief—these are Jacob too.
These qualities will persist in Slate even after Jacob’s departure, and so Slate’s voice will help make up for the fact that Jacob’s voice will no longer be in our offices and earbuds every day. But we’ll miss him very much, and we wish him the best on his next big experiment. I can’t wait to hear all about it.
Jacob has been a colleague, boss, mentor, and friend for 22 years. If I tried to catalog everything he’s taught me about journalism, editing, media, and business, I’d be writing all night. So I’ll limit myself to one story and one compliment.
Soon after Jacob and I started at Slate in 1996, I visited the tiny Slate Manhattan office, housed on the top floor of a creepy office tower on Madison Square Park. For reasons known only to his accountant, the landlord hadn’t bothered to rehab the valuable, elegant 20-story building, instead letting the space decay and leasing it out at below-market rates. Jacob, whose true genius may be for the NYC real estate bargain, had found Slate a spacious office with mammoth, copper-framed windows overlooking the park. Soon after I arrived, I asked Jacob where the bathroom was. He offered to show me. He walked me out into the hall, and around a corner, and then actually followed me into the bathroom, which honestly seemed kind of weird, since this was only the second time we’d ever met. There we were, standing in the bathroom together. He gestured toward a urinal and said, “Look.” Above the urinal was a window, and out the window was the world’s best view of the Flatiron Building, the iconic, straight-at-the-arrowhead sightline of the building. I was young, and had barely spent any time in New York, so it took me years to realize that most Manhattan office bathrooms a) don’t have windows, and b) definitely don’t have windows with one of the most famous views in the world. Still, what stuck with me was something extremely Weisbergian: Jacob’s joy in the view, and his joy at sharing this peculiar little marvel with me. No one is as gleeful—and as generously gleeful—as Jacob.
The bathroom with a view also reminds me of one of Jacob’s excellent qualities in a colleague, which is his talent for finding opportunity in dingy moments. After Henry Blodget tumbled from his perch as Wall Street tech analyst, Jacob recognized he’d be a wonderful journalist and invited him to cover the Martha Stewart trial for Slate. When Eliot Spitzer resigned as New York governor, Jacob brought him back to public life by offering him a Slate column. Dave Weigel had lost a job at the Washington Post in the ludicrous JournoList email “scandal”; Jacob encouraged me to hire him at Slate, one of the best decisions I made as editor. For Jacob, there is always a pony in there.
In 1996, in the midst of the dullest presidential campaign in recent memory, Slate’s founder Michael Kinsley invited me to help invent a new kind of journalism on the internet. We succeeded beyond our imaginings.
There could be an amusing compendium of Slate’s failed early experiments, which included a digital art gallery and a parody website for a town called Blorple Falls. But in those early years, when Slate was part of Microsoft, we also pioneered news aggregation in Today’s Papers, explanatory journalism in the Explainer, blogging, and podcasting. More than any other digital publication, Slate created the personal, conversational voice that defines digital journalism. These days, I probably spend as many hours listening to Slate podcasts as I do reading Slate articles. In both forms, I still hear that distinctive style—blunt, funny, one intelligent person talking to another intelligent person—that emerged out of the interaction of our original group of writers and the new technology.
After relocating us to the Washington Post Co. and handing off the editorship to David Plotz, I shifted my main focus to making Slate work as a business. This led to the launch of new sites, including the Root, with Henry Louis Gates Jr., in 2008, and a partnership to launch Slate France in 2009. Two moves, probably more than any others, leave Slate in a strong position today. One was the creation of our membership program, Slate Plus, which has matured into a significant source of reader and listener support. The other was sticking with podcasting, which I fell in love with to such degree that I eventually demanded to host my own show, Trumpcast.
I never expected to stay at one company for a decade, let alone two of them. But Slate remained the place to develop young talent, to take intellectual risks, and to make trouble in an interesting way. It was also the family of writers I loved and admired. For a long time, I thought the question was when Slate and Panoply, the podcasting spinoff Andy Bowers and I launched in 2015, would no longer require my assistance. Honestly, though, that’s probably been the case for a while. What it ultimately took to get rid of me was another creative opportunity as exciting as Slate in the early years. That idea is Pushkin, an audio publishing company I’m launching with my friend Malcolm Gladwell.
For 22 years, committed owners have protected Slate’s integrity and given it the freedom to innovate. The stakes around our work have risen lately: Donald Trump’s war on honest journalism and Facebook’s negligent damage to the news business have made running a magazine more challenging. But they’ve also created a greater sense of urgency and consequence around our daily work. Slate matters today in a way I don’t think it did back in the early days.
Slate’s diversified revenue model and its nimbleness in adapting to change both position it for continued success. As do the people running the place. Julia Turner has one of the most dazzling editorial brains I have ever come across, and is a magnet for young talent. Dan Check has brought a new level of creativity and energy to Slate’s business and technology sides. The team they’ve both assembled, and the work that team does, is the envy of the industry. I’m counting on all of them to take Slate to greater heights in the decades ahead.