Slate Struggles to Find Its Identity, and Profit
In early January, two days after an abrupt announcement that the top editor of Slate was stepping down, the publication’s staff signed into a Zoom meeting with the company’s chief executive and a consultant for Graham Holdings, the publication’s owner.
Slate was not profitable, the consultant, Ann McDaniel, told them. She had been brought in to suggest ways to improve the publication and shore up its business, she said, according to five staff members at the meeting.
When asked about what needed to be fixed, Ms. McDaniel pointed to Slate’s website, saying it was unattractive and suggesting that more resources needed to be put into the design team, according to the people.
Ms. McDaniel’s comments came as a surprise, said the people at the meeting. But it was not the only indication to the staff that Slate was in a tough spot.
Making money from an online publication continues to be a tricky business, even for established brands like Slate. Many digital media companies have merged in recent years, hoping that by joining forces they can compete with the likes of Google and Facebook for online advertising dollars.
Slate made its first move to build revenue through subscriptions instead of relying on advertising in 2014, with a membership program called Slate Plus. The company plans to soon double the cost of renewing subscriptions to Slate Plus to $119, from $59.
Navigating the fast-changing digital media landscape has left Slate struggling to define its identity, said three of the staff members who were at the meeting, who requested anonymity out of fear of reprisals. Slate once stood out as a home for contrarian takes and intellectual debate, but that distinction has faded in recent years, they said.
The questions about its mission have increased after several high-level departures this year, the people said. The departure of Jared Hohlt, who had been the editor in chief since 2019, was followed a couple weeks later by Allison Benedikt, a longtime staff member who was the newsroom’s second in command. Other departures last month included Gabriel Roth, the head of podcasts; Laura Bennett, the editorial director; and William Saletan, a writer who had worked for Slate for 25 years.
Dan Check, Slate’s chief executive, acknowledged in an interview that there was work to be done on figuring out Slate’s editorial vision, but added: “We are definitely not in any kind of a crisis.”
“Right now we’re kind of taking a breath and taking a look at what it is that we’re doing — taking stock,” Mr. Check said.
Slate, which was started in 1996 by Microsoft, was one of the original digital-only media outlets. The publication quickly became known for smart analysis, interesting debate and top-tier journalistic talent. (Jacob Weisberg, a former Slate editor in chief, described Slate in 2013 as having “the brain of The New York Times and the body of BuzzFeed.”)
In 2004, Microsoft sold Slate to The Washington Post Company. After Jeff Bezos bought the firm’s flagship newspaper in 2013, the parent company was renamed Graham Holdings.
In recent years, Slate invested in starting podcasts and found success with some, including the acclaimed “Slow Burn.” And it remains known for its reporting on the Supreme Court, long an area of specialty. But it has struggled to otherwise break through in the conversation.
Confusion over exactly what Slate stands for has grown among staff, sometimes bleeding into public comments. An internal debate last year over race resulted in Mike Pesca, a well-known podcast host, leaving the company. Mr. Pesca, who is white, had argued with colleagues that there were certain contexts in which people who were not Black should be allowed to quote a racial slur. He was suspended in February last year and Slate started an investigation after the discussion.
Mr. Pesca left Slate in September and took the podcast “The Gist” with him. Last month, he told Tablet Magazine that Slate’s staff had criticized him because “their politics were different from mine and because their definition of the value of dissent differed from mine.”
Mr. Saletan, in his last article for Slate, wrote that “at Slate and many other publications, the range of political perspectives has shifted in ways that exacerbate our echo chamber problem.”
Mr. Saletan described a shift in both political parties toward the fringes and away from the middle, and he said it had meant partisans rarely engaged with opposing views. He declined to comment for this article.
Mr. Check said the publication wanted to “make sure that we have a range of viewpoints on the site going forward.” He added: “Slate is straight up more diverse than it ever has been before.”
Mr. Check said he already had promoted some staff members into leadership positions. The search for an editor in chief was continuing, he said.
Mr. Check said he had asked Graham Holdings for help strengthening Slate’s business, which had led to Ms. McDaniel’s involvement as an adviser.
Several staff members said Ms. McDaniel had been blunt in her assessment of Slate, which some found refreshing. Her criticism of the design of the website offended some in the art department, but she also suggested that more resources should be put into it, the people said. Slate hasn’t had an art director for the past couple of years, the people said.
Mr. Check said that Slate had seen “really strong growth” in its membership program in the last two years. A Slate spokeswoman said that subscriptions to Slate Plus, which allows users to access ad-free versions of its podcasts and to read an unlimited number of articles on Slate.com, were up 16 percent in 2021 from the previous year.
“We’re a digital media company and we know that that’s a difficult business,” Mr. Check said. He said the focus this year would be on growing revenue from subscriptions and from podcast advertising.
“We’re not particularly far away from getting to a sustainable point,” he said, “but we still have some work to do to get there.”