A failure is not a failure is not a failure. Things go bust in all kinds of ways, and the stakes are always different. Sometimes you spell the NYPD commissioner’s name with one L instead of two, and it’s embarrassing, and you get a correction and move on. Sometimes it matters more.
Slate has had plenty of both kinds.
“Our successes and failures come from the same place,” said Slate chairman Jacob Weisberg, when I called him on Sunday for a history lesson. “Failures are not a shameful thing. That said, we’ve tried some things that were just totally goofy. I tend to remember the things that were slightly bigger mistakes.”
This is not a comprehensive tour—I’m not going to revisit the Iraq war, which has been hashed out in these pages already, and Katy Waldman investigated one of the magazine’s most ridiculous failures last week. Think of it, instead, as a blooper reel—a tour of some things we tried that were just totally goofy.
Starting in 1998, we tried to get people to pay $19.95 per year to read our website. It turned out most people didn’t really want to do that. This experiment in paid online journalism—which temporarily put Slate in a category with the Wall Street Journal, Playboy, and not many others—lasted about 11 months, starting in March of 1998.
Slate’s founders always intended to charge for the site. After holding out for a couple years because “people on the Net weren’t quite ready to pay for content,” the magazine pulled the trigger. Publisher Rogers Weed was confident enough to tell a reporter he thought publications that held onto an advertising-only revenue model were doomed. “A lot of people will decide to go for subscriptions or go out of business. The economics don’t make sense,” he said.
It was a depressing time to write for the magazine, because so few people were reading it—the audience went from about 140,000 monthly readers to about 30,000 paid subscribers. In February 1999, the paywall was destroyed, and founder Michael Kinsley gave out T-shirts.
Subscribers received refunds in the mail. Because Slate is a class act, no one was required to give back his complementary Slate umbrellas or the CD-ROM copy of Microsoft Encarta he’d received with his subscription (a $65 value!).
Slate: The TV show
In October 1999, Slate announced that it would no longer be just a magazine—it would also be Microsoft’s attempt to get into the TV business. Kinsley, a veteran of political panel show Crossfire, would host, and the weekly half-hour episodes would consist of Slate writers discussing Slate-y stuff like politics and culture.
“It was Slate writers trying to dramatize their pieces,” Weisberg told me. “There was this scene of Will Saletan sweeping the pieces off a chess board in slow motion to illustrate some point.”
The show, which was supposed to be produced in partnership with a Seattle TV station, never got made. It was not until 2015 that Slate cracked the TV code, launching a successful spinoff of its popular Political Gabfest podcast, starring John Dickerson, which airs Sunday mornings on CBS.
David Plotz knew that Bill Clinton was not having an affair. He knew it because, prompted by gossip about Clinton’s infidelities, he had done the research—he had looked at the floor plans and interviewed experts on Secret Service protocols and read all the history there was to read about the mechanics of past presidential trysts. Plotz’s conclusion: An affair at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. would be a logistical nightmare to pull off, and only a deranged person would ever try it.
Plotz’s extremely persuasive piece was published on Slate on July 25, 1996, about 18 months before the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke. “Unless the president is an exhibitionist or a lunatic, liaisons in the Oval Office, bowling alley, or East Wing are unimaginable,” he wrote. Clinton had been conducting his affair with Lewinsky since the previous fall.
The heart of the piece was a series of scenarios Plotz dreamed up in which a president could attempt to maintain an illicit romance—what he would have to do to keep it a secret, who he’d have to trust, etc. He summed up: “In short, presidential adultery is just barely possible in 1996. But it would be extremely inconvenient, extremely risky, and potentially disastrous. It seems, in fact, a lot more trouble than it’s worth.”
Plotz, who later became Slate’s editor in chief, submitted this story to Slate Plus as an example of him being horribly wrong. But read that conclusion again. How wrong was he, really?
The Big Money
The timing on this standalone, Slate-branded business site is kind of unreal and key to understanding its eventual demise. The site went online the morning of Sept. 15, 2008—the same day Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy and kicked the financial crisis into high gear. From Day 1, the Big Money found itself covering the single most relevant subject area under the sun—a stroke of journalistic luck that was nullified by the impossibility of starting a new media property at a moment when advertisers were not exactly lighting dollar bills on fire.
“We thought there would be more advertising to get in finance,” Weisberg told me. “Commercial banks were going to be the advertisers, and they were suddenly in a very different position.”
The end of the Big Money was noted in a strange AOL News item, which compared the site’s failure with that of “a raft of critically well-regarded films on the Iraq War that nonetheless flopped at the box office.” “The business of bad news,” the AOL article offered in its puzzling, and profoundly inaccurate, conclusion, “remains just as unpopular as ever.”
In September 2000, just a few weeks before the presidential election that would propel George W. Bush to the White House, Will Saletan wrote a typically persuasive piece under a quintessentially confident Slate headline. Like Plotz’s Clinton essay, Saletan’s piece was extremely convincing; you read it and walked away certain that Al Gore had it in the bag.
“Yes, in principle, Bush could win,” Saletan wrote. “The stock market could crash. Gore could be caught shagging an intern. Bush could electrify the country with the greatest performance in the history of presidential debates. But barring such a grossly unlikely event, there is no reason to think Bush will recover. Ultimately, reasons drive elections.”
Two months later, while the results of the election were still up in the air, Saletan issued a searching mea culpa. “Most of us pundits suspect we’re no better at predicting election results than the average intelligent person is,” he wrote. “In my case, there’s now proof.”
In 2016, a year during which Slate ran a piece headlined “Donald Trump Isn’t Going to Be President,” “Toast” feels like an ominous reminder of the perils of overconfidence. For years after the piece was published, it was an inside joke around the office: There was even an informal rule never to call anyone “toast.” In 2004, Saletan wrote that John Kerry was looking pretty good, and that at the very least, it was his race to lose. The headline was “Warm Bread.”
The Klingler affair
In the winter of 2001, an editor at Slate reached out to a potential contributor—a man named Rob Klingler who had posted a funny comment on the site’s early comments section, the Fray. Klingler had identified himself as the North American head of BMW; the combination of this impressive status and the game tone of his Fray comment made him an attractive candidate to write a Diary—a since-discontinued feature that comprised five days of personal reflections from someone outside the magazine. When an editor asked if he’d like to contribute, the man who called himself Klingler replied, “Good lord, yes. I’d be flattered.”
The pieces came out in March 2002, and some readers were evidently made curious enough to look up Klingler’s name. What they found sounded alarms at Slate that should have rung before publication: There did not seem to be a Rob Klingler who worked anywhere in the automobile industry.
Slate took down the Diary entries and apologized in a Press Box column headed “Slate Gets Duped.”
Another site might have left it at that. But Press Box columnist and deputy editor Jack Shafer undertook an investigation into who exactly “Rob Klingler” really was. His conclusion, which he hedged with admirable rigor, was that Slate had probably been had by a strange serial scammer named Ravi Desai.
After interviewing Desai’s estranged wife, Shafer found articles about his past exploits—for instance, tricking the University of Washington into throwing him a $10,000 party by promising to donate $2 million to its poetry program—and was horrified to discover that in 1997 he had written, under his own name, a Diary from the perspective of a Silicon Valley executive.
Publishing the Klingler Diary pieces is undoubtedly a black mark on the magazine’s history, and it belongs right next to the equally notorious “monkeyfishing” debacle. Still, it’s telling that the Klingler hoax seems to have been perpetrated by someone—whoever he was—motivated primarily by being a Slate fan.
Slate had fun with the 43rd president of the United States—a guy whose savant-level talent for malapropisms provided routine comic relief from the very serious problems he was causing as commander-in-chief. Weisberg started collecting “Bushisms” for Slate in October 1999—“The important question is, how many hands have I shaked?” was the first—and the feature proved popular enough to spawn a lucrative series of books.
So you can’t really blame us for trying to recreate the magic with Bush’s challenger in 2004. Alas, “Kerryisms” never took off in the same way. In our defense, the joke was different and maybe more subtle: Whereas Bush gave us unintentionally hilarious word-scrambles, Kerry’s chief sin was verbosity—a trait that proved harder to turn into comedy.
The format of the new Kerry column, as established by Saletan, was to publish Kerry’s quotes with annotations that drew attention to all the unnecessary clauses he included, and offer readers a cleaned-up version that communicated the same amount of meaning in far fewer words. It was pretty high-concept—so much so that we felt compelled to link to a set of “instructions on how to read a Kerryism” at the top of each post. (Those instructions are now lost to history.)
“With Kerryisms, we were trying to poke fun at John Kerry’s overdone loquaciousness, to show how he used $4 words when he could get by with 75-cent words, and how he would go on for four paragraphs when a sentence would suffice,” said Slate senior editor Rachael Larimore in an email. “It didn’t have the same impact. … We kept it up for a couple of months during the 2004 election, but like Kerry himself, it wasn’t the world-beater so many had hoped it would be.”
The news biz is all about branding, and in a crowded marketplace, you have to be creative. That’s why, in the thick of the uproar over Clinton’s relationship with Lewinsky, Slate decided to distinguish itself by coining its very own nickname for the scandal: Flytrap.
You all remember Flytrap, right? The biggest political scandal of the ’90s? No? Hmm.
Timothy Noah, a longtime senior editor at Slate, suggested in an email that this particular failure wasn’t entirely the magazine’s fault. “For all its power, the press—or anyway, individual press outlets—seldom see much success in imposing nicknames on political scandals,” he said. “Before ‘Flytrap’ there was ‘Iranamok,’ the New Republic’s very clever and apt name for the Iran-contra scandal. But despite the inherent clunkiness of the phrase ‘the Iran-contra’ scandal, ‘Iran-contra’ is what we call it today.”
Noah added: “Ultimately the question of why some nicknames stick and others don’t is a mysterious thing. You’d think a really clever nickname (like, arguably, ‘Flytrap’) would stick. But it doesn’t work that way.”