The Hackathlon

Fred Barnes, the Washington commentator, is (we think) the original source of a profound insight on the nature of journalism–indeed, on human nature. “The most important quality any piece of writing can have,” he says, “is doneness.” (A related remark is attributed to Gloria Steinem: “I don’t like writing. I like having written.”)

It is in this spirit that Slate this week kicks off its first annual “Hackathlon.” The Hackathlon will be officiated by Deputy Editor Jack Shafer, who apparently feels there isn’t enough bad writing in Slate. Four self-proclaimed hacks (insert earnest demurral here: Oh, no, they’re actually extremely talented, etc., etc., etc.) will compete in trying to produce a piece in a hurry. Readers will vote on whose work comes closest to resembling a respectable work of journalism. Since true hackability is fearless and fungible, the contestants will be tested in a variety of journalistic genres.

This year’s hackathletes are: Malcolm Gladwell of The New Yorker, Michael Specter of the New York Times, Hanna Rosin of the New Republic, and Geoffrey Wheatcroft of British publications too numerous to mention. The Hackathlon is a world-class event: Gladwell will be filing from New York City; Specter from Moscow; Rosin from Washington, D.C.; and Wheatcroft from Bath, England. Shafer will officiate from Redmond, Wash. Here are Shafer’s instructions to the players:

“Each Saturday, I will e-mail each hack a Hackathlon topic, a cheat sheet (notes, quotes, and facts), and the name of a specific publication whose style each hack is expected to ape. The hacks will have two hours to complete the assignment and e-mail me at Hack Central. If any hack takes longer than two hours to complete his/her assignment, we will report this transgression on the page with his/her copy.

“The four events: a New York Times Op-Ed (maximum length, 750 words); a New Yorker “Talk of the Town” (maximum length, 750 words); the First 1,000 Words of a Vanity Fair profile; a Breaking News Story.

“Don’t write parody. As one accomplished hack put it, the essence of hackery is ‘adjusting to a minimum of information to produce the maximum journalistic effect.’ Actually, he went on a little longer to fill the available space. I’ve taken the liberty of truncating his remarks.

“The collected hackwork will be posted on Slate on four successive Tuesdays, beginning Nov. 11. Readers will be invited to vote for the best hackwork in each event. The hack who collects the most votes will be declared victor and be invited to return next year to face challengers. The cheat sheets will be published for readers’ inspection.

“Prepare yourselves.”

Reader Survey, Round 2

While the hacks are hacking away, we’ve got homework for you as well. But it will take a lot less than two hours. We’d be grateful if you took a few minutes to fill out our second annual online reader survey. It will be on our site for two weeks, beginning Friday, Nov. 7. All the questions are easy: “What is the capital of North Dakota?” “Who is the chairman of the Microsoft Corp.?” “What is your credit-card number?” That sort of thing. E-mail Slate readers will get the survey by e-mail. Last year almost 4,000 Slate readers answered our survey. They seemed to enjoy it, and it was extremely helpful to us. Thanks.

Correction, Sort Of

Michael Lewis’ “Millionerds” column, as originally posted, stated that his subject this week–T.J. Rodgers, CEO of Cypress Semiconducter–despises Gil Amelio, former CEO of Apple Computer, because of Amelio’s support for President Clinton. The article was posted Tuesday evening (Nov. 4), and by Wednesday morning we had received half a dozen e-mail messages from various readers establishing beyond question, with supportive documentation, that Amelio supported George Bush in 1992 and Bob Dole in 1996. So, in keeping with our policy, the article was amended. But Rodgers did tell Lewis that he despises Amelio because Amelio supported Clinton, so it is Rodgers’ mistake, not our author’s, that we are correcting.

–Michael Kinsley