The First 20

Yesterday’s Papers

Slate’s first hit feature invented the modern web, kind of.

newspaper 20.

Photo illustration by Slate. Images via New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post.

Its name suggests a slower-moving past, when much still depended on the morning thump of fresh-printed broadsheets landing on doorsteps. Its concept presaged a lightning-quick future, when much of what we read is attitude-laced summary of someone else’s work. It was Slate’s first smash-hit feature and, for better or worse, its most influential. “Today’s Papers,” says Michael Kinsley, Slate’s founding editor, “deserves some tiny bit of credit for the ruination of journalism.”

It began with a mischievous notion. Back then, the newsweeklies weren’t releasing much of their content online. Kinsley figured an enterprising writer could buy Time and Newsweek the moment they appeared on East Coast newsstands, run home to quickly summarize their cover stories and other juicy articles, and then post a briefing on the web long before the physical magazines could reach Middle America’s mailboxes. “What got me excited,” remembers Kinsley, “is that people would see what was in Time or Newsweek in Slate before they saw it in Time or Newsweek. And I thought that would be cool, and also be embarrassing to Time and Newsweek.”

But Jacob Weisberg, then Slate’s political correspondent and now the chairman of The Slate Group, proffered a more ambitious idea. Back then, the daily newspapers threw the bulk of their stories online at night, while most of us were sleeping, instead of releasing them piecemeal throughout the day. Instead of summarizing the newsmagazines once a week, Weisberg theorized, we could summarize the top newspapers every morning. That enterprising writer could read the papers the moment they went online in the wee hours, summarize their lead stories and other juicy pieces, and post this briefing on Slate before the paperboys could toss physical copies onto driveways in Middle America’s cul-de-sacs.

The Today’s Papers job was first offered to Matt Drudge, then a little-known blogger who’d caught eyes with his coverage of the 1996 presidential campaign. Drudge declined but suggested a fellow Los Angeles journalist named Scott Shuger. Which is how, in June of 1997, Shuger began a unique nightly ritual.

Scott would wait until about midnight East Coast time, after the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and Los Angeles Times had all finalized their front pages. Those publications’ night editors would fax him images of front-page layouts as they were going to print. Scott would theneither by going to the papers primitive web pages or via a customized email sent to him by those same night editorsread the papers top stories, compare them, and write a short synthesis. This briefing went up on Slate before dawn and was sent out by email to Slate readers who’d awake to find it in their inboxes.

Scott had previously been in naval intelligence, preparing briefings for top brass. That skill directly translated to the new feature: Scott’s Today’s Papers entries captured the most relevant information in the most efficient manner. But Scott added something else—a sprinkling of opinion that was just enough to give the column a voice. He’d assess which paper had written a clearer lede on the biggest story of the day. He’d weigh news judgment, noting that one paper had placed a story above the fold while another had buried it on A16. Scott’s editorializing could be blunt, but it never overshadowed the functional role that the column played for busy people in need of a quick roundup. It was among the very first examples of the now-ubiquitous practice of online news aggregation.

The feature quickly became the most-read thing that Slate produced. At its height, Today’s Papers had something like 100,000 email subscribers, which was a lot for the magazine in those days. Among its devotees were Bill Gates, William F. Buckley, and White House aide Dan Bartlett.

It also won some other, more surprising fans: the papers themselves. “It was as though they’d been doing ballet their whole lives,” says Weisberg, “and suddenly, for the very first time, there’s a ballet critic.” The A1 teams at the papers were delighted that a sharp critic was paying close attention to their craft. Editors would lobby Scott to mention various stories and chide him when they disagreed with his tart takes. Some papers eventually invited him to sit in on newsroom meetings so he could see their decision-making process. Kinsley had feared there’d be resistance from the papers—resentment that our deft summary was stealing their thunder. It turned out they were thrilled to get our coverage and our links.

Today’s Papers rested on some assumptions that are hard to understand 20 years on. There was the idea that five newspapers—and these five in particular—comprised everything the well-informed citizen needed to know each day. There was the notion that this information would appear all at once in the morning and then receive little updating for 24 hours. There was the certainty that placement in the top right corner of the New York Times’ front page meant a story would dominate the daily agenda. There was the significance of the physical paper making its glacial journey toward subscribers. Those assumptions have become outmoded as the obstacles of 1997 have disappeared. Anyone can open up Twitter and instantly know what the world is gabbing about from minute to minute, all day long, across thousands of electronic sources that are instantly available all over the globe.

But much of what Today’s Papers did was brand new at the time, and prescient. Scott’s method of distilling other sources’ facts and spicing them with his own opinions established the now-familiar aggregation formula that came to be known (in less thoughtful hands) as “link plus snark.” Scott’s willingness to call the papers out when they made boneheaded choices foresaw our current age of extreme media literacy, in which everybody with a Twitter account is a press critic. The fact that Scott posted his column directly to Slate’s home page and sent out his mass email with zero editorial oversight was astounding to old magazine hands back then, but it’s what we expect of the average 23-year-old editorial assistant these days. (I myself was a 23-year-old editorial assistant when Scott took his first vacation from Today’s Papers and handed me the keys for a week. I realized with a shudder that I had the power to send typos straight into Bill Gates’ inbox.)

After 9/11, Scott abandoned Today’s Papers to write the War Stories column. He entrusted his old feature to Eric Umansky, who took over for several years. Umansky was just as feisty as Scott had been, tweaking the papers’ editorial judgments, and once prompting New York Times editor Bill Keller to suggest, in a fit of pique, that Umansky should get out of his pajamas and do some real reporting. Daniel Politi took over Today’s Papers from Umansky in 2006 and ran it until Slate at last shut it down in 2009. Now our news blog, the Slatest, performs a similar function in single-story increments, multiple times a day.

Scott died in 2002, in a scuba diving accident, at the age of 50. You can read Kinsley’s eulogy for him here. The one thing Umansky, Weisberg, and Kinsley all wanted to be sure I mentioned in this piece was what a mensch Scott was, and how charming he was with his Slate colleagues. Every time I subbed in for Scott, he’d offer me earnest, supportive criticism meant to make me a better writer. When I once visited him in LA for lunch, I ended up staying over in his guest room and going diving with him the next morning off the Channel Islands. I can still hear his voice at our editorial meetings—quirky, contrarian, supremely Slate-y. Think of Scott the next time you appreciate a succinct piece of aggregation topped with just the right garnish of wisdom and wit.