When we hired Scott Shuger back in 1997 to try his hand at a new Slate feature called “Today’s Papers,” we thought we were doing him a favor. Scott, who died Saturday at the age of 50 in a scuba diving accident, had been a casual friend of several of us from the small world of Washington journalism, and the even smaller world of alumni of the Washington Monthly. Scott at that time was a respected free-lance writer and was having some success moving into television. For a while he was under contract to develop stories for 20/20 on ABC. Scott was doing OK.
But he was not having the blistering career that he, among others, felt he deserved. One reason may be that he did not suffer fools—an essential tolerance for someone who needs to be in good favor with several editors and TV producers at the same time. Also, he had lovingly followed his wife, Debora, out to Los Angeles when UCLA offered her a professorship in medieval literature. Scott enjoyed L.A.—for the convenience of pursuing his passion for diving, among other reasons—but it was not the best place from which to peddle meaty articles about government policy. Scott could be cynical or playful, in life as well as in his writing, but an intense—patriotic, really—earnestness about defective weapons or intelligence reform or homeless policy was one of Scott’s endearing characteristics.
We asked Scott to do Today’s Papers for two banal reasons: He was available, and he lived in the Pacific time zone. The job, we imagined, was a fairly straightforward one of reading the new editions of the five national newspapers as they were posted on the Internet throughout the night and summarizing them for Slate readers by early the next morning. Someone on the West Coast, we figured, could achieve this by staying up very late rather than getting up very early—which most journalists would regard as a big advantage.
It turned out that the favor we were doing by hiring Scott was for ourselves. “Today’s Papers” quickly became our most popular feature. The idea (from the staff member who is now Slate’s editor, Jacob Weisberg) was a good one, but the execution was brilliant. Like a cook who knows instinctively just how much spice to put in a stew, Scott turned out to be a natural at knowing exactly the right balance between telling it straight and adding his own insights. He developed a style and a set of conventions that allowed him to deliver a tremendous amount of information in few words, without making the result seem like a deadly summary.
Some of Scott’s best insights were about the press itself. TP, as we call it, became a daily course in how the media think, what they get right and wrong, all illustrated by the day’s news. He used the different ways the five papers covered (or didn’t cover) the same story as a controlled experiment in journalistic practice. Scott actually stopped writing TP last September, in order to become Slate’s principal writer about the war on terrorism, but Scott’s style and method were stamped so strongly on the feature that many readers thought Scott was still writing it.
It didn’t take us long to realize we had a huge hit. In fact, it took less than 24 hours. The first day Today’s Papers appeared, we got a message from Bill Gates asking when we were planning to make it available by e-mail. We had been planning to do this within a year or so, if possible, given our limited resources and other priorities and technical difficulties and so on. Miraculously, following the chairman’s inquiry, we had e-mail delivery going within barely a week. Soon hundreds of thousands were getting Today’s Papers by e-mail, and similar numbers were reading it on the Web. William F. Buckley e-mailed, distraught and begging for reinstatement, when his e-mail delivery was accidentally canceled.
One night early on Scott posted a notice, in place of the column, that he had a terrible cold and was too sick to write. By the next morning there were dozens of alarmed e-mails from loyal readers inquiring nervously about his health. The concern was human but also practical: They had come to depend on Scott to introduce the world to them each morning. One e-mail came to the editor (me, at the time) from Bill Gates Sr., the chairman’s father, who spoke of “Scott in Los Angeles” with such personal affection that I thought at first that he was referring to another of his children, not to a Slate writer he had never met.
Scott Shuger was, in a way, the first complete Internet journalist, in that the Internet was essential to both his input and his output, and the result was something new and useful that couldn’t be done before. Without the Internet, Scott couldn’t have read five newspapers from across the country—and done it before the paper editions were even available. With the Internet, Scott could even write the column—about the day’s major American newspapers, remember—from Berlin, where Debora Shuger had a visiting fellowship in 2000-2001. Scott used to say that the best place to write Today’s Papers from would be Hawaii, where, he claimed, it would almost be a normal 9-5 job.
Having gathered his material from the Web (with the help, as it became popular and influential, of faxes and phone calls from the various papers’ newsrooms), Scott would push a few buttons that would essentially publish his column to our Web site, where it could be read within seconds all over the world, and send it out by e-mail automatically. This is in the middle of the night, mind you, when editors and technicians prefer to be asleep.
(One rival claimant to the crown of first pure Internet journalist might be blog and scandal pioneer Matt Drudge. As it happens, Drudge first came to national attention in a Los Angeles Times story written by Scott Shuger shortly before he came to Slate.)
Scott became a regular visitor to Seattle, a friend of all his Slate colleagues, and a close friend of several, including me. A fitness buff, a master of judo and karate, an experienced scuba diver, he enthusiastically added the local sports of hiking and rafting to his repertoire and shared memorable adventures with several of us. On these outings he would delight in talk and argument as only a writer who ordinarily works alone all day can.
One subject that often came up was that of risk. Scott was an odd combination of macho daredevil and supercautious worrywart. (On one hike he carried a full-sized chair several miles up the side of a mountain, along with a heavy pack—an impressive feat of strength in service of a fastidious desire not to sit on the ground.) He was obsessed with personal security, carried various weapons (not firearms) for self-protection, and loved any opportunity to train women to repel attackers.
But he also was an explicit and adamant believer that experiencing life vividly is worth taking risks. Pending an autopsy, we do not yet know exactly what happened yesterday afternoon. I would be very surprised if this tragic accident were the result of some negligence or failure on Scott’s part. At the same time, he was about as realistic as any human being can be—not all that realistic, I suppose, but still … about the unavoidable dangers of his avocations. He was not a gratuitous risk-taker, but he knew what he was doing and had thought intelligently about the potential cost.
Scott might not have enjoyed growing old. He treasured his good health and mental acuity and would have disliked watching them slip away even more than most of us will. He was in a good place in his life. He loved his job. He brimmed with pride in his daughter, Dale, who graduated from Harvard last year. He looked forward to a new period when he and Debora (who were married for 29 years) could adventure together, unfettered by child-rearing and tuition bills. He certainly wouldn’t have chosen a sudden exit yesterday. But all of us who shared Slate editorial meetings with him can well imagine Scott—puckishly, tentatively at first, but perhaps even adamantly as he got swept up in his argument—making the case.