Slate Fare

Playful, Wise, and Endlessly Curious

Julia Turner’s predecessors on the outgoing editor in chief. Plus: Turner’s goodbye to Slate.

David Plotz, Julia Turner, and Jacob Weisberg.
Photo illustration by Slate. Illustrations by Charlie Powell.

David Plotz:

There are only a handful of life decisions that truly matter: if you marry, who you marry, where you live, what your first job is, if you have kids. And mostly you know when you are making one of those decisions. I had a pretty good sense when I proposed to Hanna Rosin that the River Plotz would never flow the same way again.

But occasionally a consequential decision sneaks up on you, and you don’t realize you made it till years later. When I offered Julia Turner a job at Slate back in the Mesozoic, I figured she’d be a solid editorial assistant. She knew a lot about magazines for someone so young, and she seemed both calm and bright-eyed. Her predecessor had been quite short, so the main thing that struck me at the time was that she was extremely tall.

From that quiet beginning blossomed the most important partnership of my working life. Even as a junior colleague, Julia distinguished herself by possessing in vast quantities three wonderful traits that most of us have only in trace amounts. She was utterly competent, which allowed her to execute almost any task better than anyone else could. She was profoundly strategic (even as a stripling), which allowed her to point Slate toward big opportunities. And she was massively decent, which allowed her to help other people deal with their mishegas (without going batshit herself). When I became editor of Slate in 2008, the first and easiest decision I made was to ask Julia to be deputy editor. And holy cow! She was still so young, but was so incredibly wise.

(Here: a brief digression on the question of whether Julia is an old soul. Because she is wise and calm, that would be the easy conclusion to draw. But no! She is fully carbonated! My mental GIF of Julia is her summer-strutting through Manhattan, probably listening to Lizzo.)

For the next six years, I didn’t make a major decision without Julia’s say-so. Most of the best ideas we had about who to hire and what to cover began with her, and she made my little ideas bigger and smarter. Julia understands digital media—and print media, for that matter—as well as anyone I’ve ever met, and every day she made the Slate we were editing together slier and fresher and more fun. She was my wise owl, and I tried to be hers. When it came time for me to leave Slate, that departure was easy, because I knew I was handing the job on to the best possible editor in chief. She has proved that over the past four years, making a Slate that is smarter, wiser, funnier, and more ambitious than it’s ever been.

For the past few years, I have been commuting weekly to a job in New York. I couch-surf among friends and in-laws, so I’ve had the joy of spending a night or so every month with the Turnersteins. This has given me the chance to hang out with her delightful boys and her delightful Ben and to eat a lot of takeout Italian dinners with Julia, often contemplating the future of media and always gossiping.

Goodbye, J.T.! I’m going to miss you so terribly that don’t be surprised if I go full Kato Kaelin and move into your guest bedroom in L.A.

Jacob Weisberg:

When David Plotz decided to step down as editor of Slate in 2014, two thoughts detonated in my head almost simultaneously: Oh, crap! and Julia! The selection process for the next editor took about a microsecond. There could be no one more qualified, talented, or better suited to the role. I didn’t even need to make a list of names or interview candidates. I just needed to get Julia to agree. Which she did, in the garden of St. Luke’s Church, by our old office on Morton Street. It was one of my best days at work.

Working alongside David Plotz, Julia was already editing the magazine nearly as much as he was. (I think he would admit that.) Neither of us would do anything significant without her advice. Often asking her “advice” was just a pretext for wandering down the hall to gab and gossip with her. Julia was the ideal Slatester: She embodied the place as a writer, editor, and podcaster. And as everyone who works with Julia knows, she is an exemplary human being, with the rare combination of being playful and wise.

Julia epitomizes the sense of smart frivolity, calculated naughtiness, and analytical acuity that makes Slate pleasurable and vital in equal measures. That’s what you hear in the Culture Gabfest. And what you see in the gorgeous Slate redesign she led to universal acclaim. And in Human Interest, the whole new section of Slate she helped bring to life. Julia is an eternal student, endlessly curious about everything. She has utterly persuasive opinions about Taylor Swift, Middlemarch, and subway signage, though I can’t tell you what all of them are. (It must be said that on the Culture Gabfest, she swears in the most shocking way. I think Andy Bowers had to record the explicit language warning basically because of Julia.)

Julia also knows that journalism involves high stakes and cares deeply about getting it right. She shoulders as much responsibility as anyone I know; it’s stressful just thinking about how much she does. She is rooted in principle, defends her writers, and won’t ever compromise when it comes to the independence or integrity of their work. On those occasions when we disagree, Julia usually prevails, because she’s strong and persuasive—and usually right. I’ve been Julia’s boss, but in many ways, she’s been a mentor to me.

She’s also been my office wife. Together we leased Slate offices in the West Village and Metrotech, chose the design for the Slate Plus mug, and debated paint colors for the walls and the color palette for the website. We sat around the table and pondered Slate’s future. Often, it was the dead of winter and she was drinking iced coffee from a reusable transparent cup. Julia is one of the least weird people ever to work at Slate. That iced coffee thing might be her strangest habit.

In his famed “marshmallow experiment,” the psychologist Walter Mischel put 4-year-olds in a room with a marshmallow or cookie to see how much willpower they had and how it would affect their future lives. I’ll shorthand it for you: Those who can’t wait to eat the cookie grow up to be losers. Those who are able to delay gratification run the world. A delicious-looking chocolate chip cookie can sit out on Julia’s desk for five hours before she gets around to taking a bite out of it, if she even eats it at all. Her self-discipline is insane.

Who Slate’s next editor should be is obvious. It should be the next best person after Julia Turner.

Julia Turner:

When I applied to work at Slate nearly 16 years ago, David Plotz, then the D.C. bureau chief, asked me to critique one of the magazine’s features. I wrote an ode to Slate’s Movie Club, the rollicking annual roundtable that lets critics swap theories about the year in film. “Here’s why I think the format works,” I began. “Listening to people argue is the best way to form your own opinion.”

I knew hardly anything about Slate then. I was a reader, but a relatively recent one, and part of the fun of Plotz’s assignment was trying to untangle from afar what made the magazine’s voice so lively and appealing. But the notion that argument—joyful, raucous, riotous argument—is the best way to forge an understanding of the world—that was a pretty solid assessment of the Slate ethos, then and now.

Lots has changed—at Slate, on the internet, and in the world—since I began here in 2003 and since I took over as editor in chief four years ago. Since I took the reins, we’ve grown the Slate Podcast Network from 3 to 14 million downloads a month, making it one of the industry’s biggest and best. We’ve grown our membership program, Slate Plus, tenfold. We’ve posted record readership numbers. We’ve invested in reporting on technology and found new ways to cover parenting and modern life. (For one thing, we no longer put parenting coverage in the women’s section. We also no longer have a women’s section.) We launched the world’s first redesign that was universally liked. Through all of these changes, our staff has grown—and grown more diverse. And together we’ve figured out how to adapt the Slate sensibility to the moment we’re living in.

That moment is a tough one. The news seems to arrive with increasing speed and to suggest ever darker things about the state of our democracy and our planet. It is harder than ever to track everything that happens and to figure out what to think about it all. I feel incredibly lucky to have spent the past few years in the Slate newsroom, where, each day, we set out to excavate the facts and argue about what they mean and share our findings and debates with the rest of you. This approach helped Slate identify—early and clearly—the racialist nature of Trump’s appeal, his troubling history of misogyny, his peculiar coziness with Russia.

I’ve come to see Slate as a rolling conversation, one that helps forge an understanding of the truth. For me, joining Slate has also been a way to forge a self and a life. I remember arriving at the magazine back in 2003 and being astounded by my colleagues, who were smart, kind, brave, and funny—and always game for a debate. Every conversation felt fortifying, like a level-up in a video game: I left with a bloop of additional know-how or insight. I found mentors who taught me and friends who understood me and inspired me. I got to watch as journalism transformed and figure out how Slate should transform with it. And I met a writer who was so smart, kind, brave, and funny that I married him and had two kids.

Despite the transformations in the industry and the world during the years since, it’s striking how much of Slate’s original sensibility remains. The magazine Michael Kinsley founded in 1996 was skeptical, contrarian, impish, nonpartisan, and truth-telling. Those of us who’ve followed in his footsteps as editor in chief—Jacob Weisberg, David Plotz, and me—have all fiddled the dials on each of those impulses, but each one remains fundamental to what we do.

And now we’ll get to see a new interpretation of Slate. This is my last day as the magazine’s editor in chief. I’m headed next to the Los Angeles Times, where I’ll be digging into a new journalistic mission and convening my family, which had been splitting time between New York and L.A., under one roof. (I’ll also still be podcasting for Slate, so rest easy, Culture Gabfest listeners.)

Slate will scale its next mountain under the leadership of Lowen Liu, until now our deputy editor, an extraordinary journalist and person who has Slate’s trademark mix of rigor, mischief, and humanity in his bones. I’ll be counting on him, and the rest of Slate’s extraordinary team, to help me figure out what I think for the rest of my days.