Summary:

In its 17 years, Slate has distinguished itself as a publishing innovator and a home for well-written news and ideas. But, until recently, it has been hampered by a lack of technology and a business model. Is that about to change?

Jacob Weisberg
photo: Slate

Slate started life as as a scrappy web pioneer under Microsoft in 1996. Since then, it has gone on to carve out an enviable perch in the liberal media establishment as part of the Washington Post Company. Now, as Slate enters its 17th year — a fine run for any publication, digital or otherwise –- the online magazine wants to reinvent itself one more time.

Slate’s latest incarnation is as a data-driven social-media beast.  The site thinks it can use viral wizardry to spray smart writing around the internet and, at the same time, finally earn a profit from being perspicuous. The money question has become pressing because Slate, despite its years as a high-brow conversation starter, has yet to show it can survive without the largesse of a corporate mothership.

So will Slate’s third act pan out? Here’s a look at how its brain trust is approaching data, technology and the evolving ethics of advertising.

Top drawer or traffic whore? Stats and story selection

On a cold January afternoon, I met editor-in-chief of the Slate Group, Jacob Weisberg, and Slate editor David Plotz in the former’s airy corner office on Morton Street in New York’s West Village. The office has large windows and shelves of hardcovers, including Weisberg’s exposition “The Bush Tragedy.”

The men were busy. Weisberg was en route to Davos, while Plotz had ducked out from answering questions on the online discussion forum Reddit. But both wanted to make the case that Slate has what it takes to survive in the age of analytics. “We rely on data, not intuition” said Weisberg. “The big cultural change at Slate is that it’s moved from being a site driven by instinct to a site driven by evidence.”

The remark comes as a rebuttal to earlier observations that Slate relied on creaky technology even as its competitors shot by it with state-of-the-art tools. The New York Observer in 2010, for instance, talked to members of Slate’s staff and concluded that the site’s tech was “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.”

Weisberg says those days are done and that technology is at the center of the editorial operation. He points to a new Silicon Valley-style product team and a doubling in the amount of “sideways” readers from social media in the last year as proof that Slate has gotten religion on the analytics front.

Woman, temptress, prostituteWeisberg says Nick Denton of Gawker and Jonah Peretti of BuzzFeed have been inspirations in the push for better analytics. The two viral media evangelists have shaken up publishing by using social media metrics to judge what stories to promote. (Peretti will be speaking at paidContent Live in April.)

But if Slate turns to audience activity to inform its story choice, does this also mean pandering? “We have written traffic-whorey stories here David Plotz Slateand there,” admits Plotz. But these efforts haven’t been particularly successful, he says. Instead, he credits editorial initiatives like “Bad Astronomy” (a feature for science nerds) with drawing new regular readers to Slate.

In this regard, Slate is like other high-minded publications navigating a tough, even contradictory mission. On one hand, they promise smart and independent ideas; on the other, they’re heeding social media metrics that could tug them to the lowest common denominator. While news sites like BuzzFeed cut their teeth on silly cat photos only to climb up the intellectual and media food chain, it’s unclear whether this process can work in the opposite direction.

So far, Slate appears to be threading the needle by growing its readership, while also publishing thought-provoking pieces (like this one about Palestinian versus Israeli textbooks). Slate says December 2012 unique visitors increased 33% percent from a year ago; meanwhile, comScore stats show Slate is faring well against other ideas publications. Here’s a chart that shows how they compare (note QZ and theAtlanticWire are part of the theAtlantic.com) :

screenshot for slate comscore numbers

Paywalls and pettifogging

The buoyant numbers are good news, of course, but do they mean Slate is finally in a position to make money? In 2010, Plotz admitted that Slate was not profitable. Like nearly every other digital publication, Slate had discovered the hard way that great writing and a loyal readership are not the same as a business plan.

Since then, many publishers have followed the lead of the New York Times and begun to charge for access to all or portions of their digital content. These so-called paywalls have gained acceptance after being a contentious issue for years — in part because an early effort by Slate to implement one in 1998 didn’t work out.

Slate recently floated the idea of a future “membership” scheme for some readers, but Weisberg is adamant it won’t involve charging for content. The topic is sensitive enough to have produced a bizarre Twitter spectacle in which Weisberg’s Mr. Fox avatar berated a respected Forbes reporter as a “pettifogger” (and worse):

So what exactly does the membership involve? Weisberg didn’t elaborate beyond saying it won’t be unveiled until at least the end of the year and that it will be “more akin to a public radio-type membership model — you give a contribution and in return you get benefits.”

As Slate hashes out these details behind the scenes, it’s also trying to cultivate another revenue stream, in the form of an expanded events business. These include loose mixers that let readers mingle with Slate writers; Weisberg says more than 700 people recently bought tickets for one of its “gab-fests” in Washington. Slate is also hosting small, more formal events hosted by advertisers. One example is a UBS-hosted panel at which Weisberg hosted a discussion on exports with political poohbahs.Slate screen shot

Other media outlets have run into ethical challenges with custom events like this — most notably the Washington Post, which in 2009 proposed hosting private “salon events” at the publisher’s house for powerbrokers and journalists. It sparked a newsroom revolt, and the paper ditched the idea before it ever became a reality. Weisberg says Slate, which is independent but shares a corporate parent with the Washington Post, won’t run into similar problems because its events are all public and on the record.

All this still doesn’t answer the question of whether Slate is now profitable. Asked directly, Weisberg said he can’t say because of Sarbanes-Oxley disclosure rules that require companies like the Washington Post Co. to disclose material information through broad public channels.

Ads, yes – but not for the Church of Scientology

Digital publications these days need multiple revenue streams to survive, but their core remains advertising. And here Slate, which has recently built up its own sales force outside of the Post, and others face the same dilemma: an increasing amount of web traffic comes in through mobile devices (about 30% now, and 50% by 2014 is probably a safe bet) but ad rates are low and no one is sure what to do about that.

“I don’t think we’ve figured out anything other people haven’t,” says Weisberg. “You have a rapidly expanding audience but CPM’s that are much lower. The key is distinguishing how and when people are using different types of mobile devices.  Between tablet and mobile, those two will diverge rapidly over time. Tablet ads will become more valuable while handsets gravitate to a performance model.”

While publishers wait for the right mobile ad models to emerge, many are seizing on so-called “native advertising” as the secret to juicing ad prices. It’s debatable whether it’s really new but the basic idea is to produce ads that mimic the editorial content around it – ads that resemble nearby stories, tweets, pictures, etc. It may or not be novel, but for now it is clear that native advertising can go horribly wrong such as when the Atlantic printed a “story” about the Church of Scientology replete with gushing “reader” comments about the cult’s virtues.

Weisberg says the Atlantic tripped up by violating three principles: printing ad that confuse readers; tampering with the editorial process; and accepting an ad from someone the publication shouldn’t have done dealt with in the first place. “They are enemies of free speech, they are persecutors of journalists, they’re litigious. They’re a crazy cult who’s made life hell for journalists who’ve tried to do their job. Why do business with them at all?”

In terms of Slate’s own advertising, the publication says revenue in 2012 grew 26 percent from the previous year. Its advertisers include , most recently, Coke, Lexus and Samsung. As for the ad opportunities offered by aggregation tools like Flipboard, Weisberg is skeptical and says they are “too passive” and less useful now that “Twitter has cracked the news personalization process.”

Slate screenshotSlate has also built a strong lineup of videos and podcasts that Weisberg says are lucrative for the site. Slate is now producing nine separate podcasts, some of which rate highly on iTunes; one episode of the show Lexicon Valley recently notched up 650,000 downloads. Slate would not disclose how much ads, which are read by show hosts, bring in but said “advertisers pay some of the highest rates in the industry” for the podcasts.

This podcast and other non-print revenue will help determine whether Slate can join an increasingly data-driven media world while still remaining an influential liberal publication. While the verdict is still out, Slate’s confidence remains high.

“We have the brain of the New York Times and the body of BuzzFeed,” said Weisberg as he prepared to dash off to Switzerland – where he would later tweet, “Wish Pussy Riot was in Davos instead of so many Russian oligarchs & kleptocrats.”

(Images by Slate and Kletr via Shutterstock)

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