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So What Do You Do, David Plotz, Editor of Slate?

The prolific online mag editor on motivating writers, the pursuit of financial success, and respecting 'no sacred cows'

By Betsy Rothstein - September 29, 2010
One morning a year ago, Slate editor David Plotz came into his office, a stone's throw from the DuPont Circle neighborhood of Washington, and discovered a 50-foot-high billboard of an attractive, Michelle-Obama-looking woman hanging off the side of the SEIU building, directly out his window. "This gigantic woman appeared to be staring directly into my office. It spooked me," Plotz said. "I felt like I was being watched all the time by gigantic Michelle Obama. I had to lower my shades, and kept them lowered until they removed the billboard a few months ago."

Such are the minor hauntings of working at a place like Slate where old-school journalists are thought to be doing serious, intellectual, higher brow journalism. Plotz is so open about Slate's political consciousness (or lack thereof) that writers' votes are regularly posted on the site for all to see. Having a political opinion isn't necessary, he says, but it is never denied or avoided.

What Plotz likes about his job: "Amazingly intelligent and decent and funny colleagues, a magazine I am always proud to be working on." What he dislikes: "Almost no time to write."

Name: David Plotz
Position: Editor,
Resume: Before joining the magazine in 1996, Plotz was senior editor and staff writer for Washington City Paper. Plotz has written for a variety of publications, including NYT Magazine, Harper's, Rolling Stone, GQ, The New Republic, and the Washington Post. He's the author of The Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank and, most recently, Good Book: The Bizarre, Hilarious, Disturbing, Marvelous, and Inspiring Things I Learned When I Read Every Single Word of the Bible, based on his "Blogging the Bible" series for Slate.
Birthday: Jan. 31, 1970
Hometown: Washington, D.C.
Education: BA from Harvard
Marital status: Married to Hanna Rosin of The Atlantic Monthly and DoubleX. Three kids.
First section of the Sunday Times: Book Review, Styles, KenKen
Favorite TV show: Friday Night Lights, Barclays Premier League Review Show
Guilty pleasure: "Bubble tea from Teaism every day"
Last book read: The Master Switch by Tim Wu
Twitter handle: @davidplotz

How do you keep your employees motivated, or do you not worry about such a thing?
I worry about it a huge amount. I'm neither a fear-based nor a charismatic Vince Lombardi motivator. Not Tony Robbins either, I'm not tall enough, and my teeth are quite small. Slate has always been a writer-driven place and it's pretty collegial. My goal is to make people feel as much as possible that they control the health and prosperity of the magazine by working together, by keeping an eye out for each other and depending on each other. I feel that with the sense of group solidarity that we all hang together and that it's not only true, but is a motivator. I hope nobody at Slate writes stories out of fear, or sucking up. My goal, my hope, is people are doing the work they are doing because they sense that they will benefit all of us and Slate as a whole.

On the other hand, you can't pretend that we don't need to create traffic. That's one of the reasons we do these Fresca projects [in-depth field reporting in which the writer takes a month off to complete a project]. One thing to motivate people is to structure their job so that it gives them wonderful, delightful time. Give them a special time each year, give them a whole month to work on something that is ambitious that can turn into something marvelous. It creates great journalism for Slate and delights readers, but it makes people feel good about working here, I hope.

Where does Slate fall ideologically and politically?
Slate doesn't have a party line, an ideological platform or positions on anything. We never feel any obligation to cover an issue a particular way or to stake out a position or to serve some higher public good. Our view is the public good is served when we are honest and journalistically ambitious. If that means we are savaging something the right loves, fantastic. There is no intentional political activism at Slate. One thing we've done during the past few elections is everyone on staff says how they've voted. We publish it. It's cool. It speaks well for our transparency so people can look and say that our work stands and falls based on its truth and integrity and consistency.

There is no effort to do political activism. We want to be engaged, but if we decide we write about health care, it is not to get it passed, but because Americans need to know about it. As long as the stories are smart and new and fresh, it doesn't matter where they fall.

"Our view is the public good is served when we are honest and journalistically ambitious. If that means we are savaging something the right loves, fantastic."

What do you look for in hiring someone?
The baseline for Slate is that you have to be really smart; you have to be really funny. You've got to get the joke. Once you get beyond those two, it's just a huge infectious enthusiasm. That's one of the things I love about [Dave] Weigel. He's got a million ideas. He always wants to be in the game, always wanting to do the next thing. It's great watching that. For younger people, it's journalists with technical skills.

Where does opinion fit into writing?
Everyone's always had opinions. The only thing made easier is the ability to broadcast your opinions more. We're not a daily newspaper. We have a luxury that the Post doesn't have. I don't have to think about it. I don't care if my writers are objective. I don't care if they are biased. I know they are. Do they grapple with counter arguments to their point? Do they use fact in a fair and straightforward way and address facts that are counter to their thesis? As long as they are transparent about what they are doing, I think that's great.

Speaking of which, you most recently brought on Dave Weigel. Have you known him over the years? How did you come to hire him?
I had not known Dave that long. I had not met him until we interviewed him. I knew his work. He was friends with Chris Beam and he's known some of my other colleagues. When the Post dropped him, a number of people immediately within Slate said, we should talk to this guy. He just seemed to have the things we're looking for -- enthusiasm, expertise, brains -- and was plugged in to a part of politics we weren't covering heavily. [He] seemed like a great fit, and it has been fantastic. He has been a delight.

Isn't his hire just a pass off from WaPo? You both are owned by the same company, so how is WaPo sending a message that it won't tolerate biases in reporting when Slate picks him up?
I had no conversations with anyone at Post corporate until after the hire. No one said a word. After I made an offer, I called [executive editor] Marcus [Brauchli] and contacted people at corporate, and they were like, fine. I think the Post wished him well. Corporate folks were fine with it. We're editorially independent. He has explained fully to my satisfaction those Journolist emails and that stuff on Twitter. I think his explanations are aces with me. In no sense was he handed off from the Post to us. In no sense was there an attempt to get approval from the company before we did it. It was the editorially right thing for us to do at that moment.

What is the personality of Slate and its readers?
Slate is the person at the cocktail party who is standing slightly aside and having the funniest conversation. I think it aspires to be smart, irreverent, funny, and kind of respect no sacred cows, to believe that all subjects are fit for discussion whether they be extremely serious or light.

Our readers are a lot like the magazine. They are very media literate. They are very tech literate. If you look at Slate readers, they blog at an incredible rate. They are very plugged into Web culture, but I don't think they are techies. A fraction of them are. We are not a tech site in that way. They are interested in Web culture, but they are not high tech, they're not Web developers. They're probably not wildly dissimilar from The Economist, New Yorker readers, probably little bit younger than those.

What is Slate's best story of this year?
The thing I'm proudest of at the moment is Emily Bazelon's series on the Phoebe Prince case. For her Fresca project, Emily has been reporting the living daylights out of that story. The entire pop narrative of that story is wrong -- that the bullies did much less than the prosecutor accused. That the girl had previous suicide attempts before and that she herself was a bully. [Bazelon] was on the Today show three times in three weeks. She's based in New Haven.

What worries you most about the unstable newspaper business and what do you do, if anything, to ensure that Slate won't go under?
We have to make Slate a really financially successful website with a huge devoted readership. We're on the way, but we're not there yet. We're not printing money just yet. The instability of the newspaper business, there's not much that we at Slate can do about it. We share a bunch of resources with the Post. If Don Graham has ideas for us to collaborate with the Post, then we'll do it in a second. This happens in an informal way right now, meaning right now we do a bunch of collaboration -- the Sunday business and living sections pick up Slate stuff and that's awesome. [Executive editor] Marcus [Brauchli] and I have talked about certain personnel sharing that maybe we'll try. But there's not an overarching policy of how Slate and the Post should interact. We think of ideas, and we try them out.

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Betsy Rothstein is co-editor of FishbowlDC.

© WebMediaBrands Inc. 2010. All Rights Reserved.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. The foregoing is the sole property of WebMediaBrands Inc. The opinions and views expressed in the interviews and/or commentaries are solely those of the participants and are not necessarily the views of WebMediaBrands Inc., its affiliates or subsidiary companies.

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