Slate is celebrating its tenth birthday this month with a retrospective book, The Best of Slate. The online magazine also convened a debate last night at the New York Public Library between three contentious media stars with wildly different ideas about the future of online and traditional journalism.
Slate is an electronic publication designed for readers who are ambivalent about the internet. It’s named after a physical writing surface, and its masthead has always been crowded with comforting names from print journalism (including its brave founder, Michael Kinsley, previously of the New Republic). Not surprisingly, the solid new book feels more appealing than the sometimes ad-strewn web presence. It’s packed with one well-written piece after another, all of them blessedly short, from Paul Berman’s The Cult of Che in 1997 to Josh Levin’s quite funny Rappers and Bloggers in 2005, which argues that hiphop hustlers and online self-promoters share much in common:
For starters, both groups share a love of loose-fitting, pajama-style apparel. Still not satisfied? Bloggers and rappers are equally obsessed with social networking. Every rapper rolls with his entourage; every blogger rolls with his blog roll. Women can’t win an audience in either profession without raunching it up like Lil’ Kim or Wonkette.
However, the Slate-sponsored media summit last night in the Celeste Bartos room at the New York Public Library featured a woman blogger with the lordly confidence of a Jay-Z or a Dr. Dre, rather than the publicity hungry raunch of Lil’ Kim. Arianna Huffington has recently rocked the political blog world with her immensely popular Huffington Post. Like Slate, the Huffington Post features well-known writers from offline media in an online format, but unlike Slate it adopts a straight-up bloggy style, proudly ignoring the grandiose traditions of old-world journalism. This has worked out well for the Huffington Post. Personally, I check this dynamic and unpredictable site several times a week, and I only go to Slate if somebody tells me to. I suspect many other readers have similar habits.
Slate had chosen Arianna Huffington to represent the brash world of blog-based journalism in last night’s panel, and reached to the far extreme for her opposition, former Wall Street Journal and Time Inc. Editor-in-Chief Norman Pearlstine (Slate’s Michael Kinsley and Jacob Weisberg staked moderate positions on this panel, and essayist Malcolm Gladwell played the designated wisecracker). The panel was clearly designed to turn into a yell-fest, and the only question was how much restraint each of the parties would display, and who would score the best shots.
Pearlstine opened with a dramatic thesis. Magazines would transform themselves and survive the onslaught of online journalism, the former magazine and newspaper magnate said, but newspapers probably would not. Are we facing a future without newspapers? This topic consumed the first half-hour of the debate, with Malcolm Gladwell drawing big applause for his suggestion that, if newspapers had been invented after the internet they would be seen as a fascinating technical trend (tactile, flexible texts that can be carried anywhere) and would generate massive hype and venture capital investment. Norm Pearlstine waited for the applause to die down before tamping out Gladwell’s brief fire with a dull observation that the business model for this hypothetical new printed paper device would not be profitable enough to attract serious investment.
Arianna Huffington had the best take on the rather tired print-vs.-blog fracas. “This whole debate is incredibly old-fashioned and irrelevant,” she said. “It’s Ginger vs. Maryann. This is 2006, let’s have a three-way.” Huffington tried to undercut the idea that print and blog formats could not co-exist, instead portraying the journalistic spectrum from print to broadcast to online as a single ecosystem. She’s undoubtedly right, and Malcolm Gladwell seemed to agree, pointing out that “bloggers would have nothing to write about” if the New York Times ceased to exist (I think he’s exaggerating, though it would certainly free up my Sundays).
At this point Huffington had the crowd behind her and she began badgering Norm Pearlstine, who seemed quite willing to play the heavy. She had called for increased interaction between online and offline formats, but she could still have fun railing at old media. “Online is OCD, print is ADD” she said (this is clearly a rehearsed line, but it got big applause anyway). She also remarked that the print/broadcast old media failed to do enough to expose the flawed logic behind George Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq, which prompted Norm Pearlstine to sonorously drone his one attempted joke of the evening (“I’m sorry the Huffington Post wasn’t there to stop the Iraq war”).
By the time the debate ended and many of us convened upstairs for a star-studded reception featuring trays of papaya and tandoori chicken on skewers, Huffington had emerged as the victor. Malcolm Gladwell still held the title for best haircut, and Norm Pearlstine seemed bored and eager to leave.