A Headless Slate Awaits the Other Shoe
The site has lost five of its top editorial leaders since New Year’s — including its editor-in-chief, two editorial directors, and an executive editor — while management has begun a push for profitability
The first six weeks of 2022 have been bewildering and unsettling for the editorial staff of Slate, the long-running online opinion outlet. “Trust me, we’ve all been wondering why does it feel like someone at the top is leaving every other week?” said staff writer Mark Joseph Stern. The string of high-level departures started soon after New Year’s with the January 5 announcement that editor-in-chief Jared Hohlt’s final day would be two days later. His sudden exit was quickly followed by executive editor Allison Benedikt’s own announcement on January 21 that she’d decided to, as she put it in a tweet, “take a little break, visit family, think about what I want to do next.” The following week, on January 28, William Saletan, who’s written for Slate since shortly after it was founded in 1996 — as long as some of Slate’s younger staff have been alive — announced he was leaving to write for the Never Trumper opinion site The Bulwark. Then the week after that, on February 8, Gabriel Roth, the editorial director of Slate Podcasts, announced he’d taken a new job with the Freakonomics Radio Network. Two days later, Slate editorial director Laura Bennett announced that she would be joining The Atlantic as a senior editor. “There’s a little bit of existential uncertainty about the fact that the editor-in-chief left and the head of podcasts left, and the editorial director left and the executive editor left,” Stern said. “That definitely makes you think for a second, ‘Wait a minute, what’s going on here?’ But the other shoe hasn’t dropped. We don’t appear to be in crisis. I’ve asked directly, ‘Do you anticipate layoffs in the future?’ And the answer has been no, at least not in the foreseeable future.”
For now, deputy editor Lowen Liu, who was previously appointed acting editor-in-chief after Julia Turner stepped down in 2018 and before Hohlt was brought on, has taken the lead on Slate’s text side. Alicia Montgomery, executive editor of podcasts, is leading the audio operation. “We have an experienced and skilled editorial management team running the newsroom day-to-day,” Slate spokesperson Katie Rayford told The Fine Print. “We are in the process of hiring a new editor-in-chief, in addition to a number of other positions, as we continue to invest in our editorial operation.” But the staff has been left to pick through corporate tea leaves to guess at what exactly that editorial operation will look like beyond the foreseeable future. “There’s been, as far as I’m aware, a black box at the top with this editor-in-chief search,” Stern said.
Neither Slate nor Hohlt, who declined comment, has been very forthcoming about his departure. An email to staff signed by Slate Group CEO Dan Check framed it as “we both decided this move was the best way forward.” Two days later, as first reported in The New York Times, Slate staff met with Ann McDaniel, an executive who has been brought in to consult on plotting a next chapter for the site. McDaniel is close with the Graham family that owns Slate. Over 31 years, she held various roles at The Washington Post Co., rising from a Newsweekcorrespondent to a senior vice president who worked with CEO Donald Graham when he sold The Washington Post to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos in 2013. She’s since played a prominent role with Graham Holdings Co., the umbrella entity for the family’s far-flung investments, including Slate, car dealerships, a hospice care company, a screw jack manufacturer, and Foreign Policy magazine, of which McDaniel is CEO. In her meeting with Slate staff, employees told The Fine Print, McDaniel emphasized, as Check had earlier communicated, that Slate was not profitable — the last time Slate publicly reported a profit was in 2013 — and it was important that it soon get on a path to profitability.
Some staffers suspected that the drive for profitability at Slate and the inability to reach it speedily was the cause for Hohlt’s departure. “We were all feeling kind of destabilized and sad about him leaving,” said senior writer Christina Cauterucci. But the ideas proferred and promises made in the meeting, which, according to a staff member, included a proposal to narrow the site’s focus to do a few things really well instead of trying to cover everything and a promise that there would still be room for ambitious longform projects, alleviated some concerns. “After that meeting, and after talking it through, I think people have settled on a feeling of cautious optimism,” Cauterucci said. However, memories of layoffs at Slate in 2017 are still fresh. A couple of weeks after Hohlt’s departure, the Slate Union announced it had signed a new contract that included improved terms in the event of staff cuts. Their new collective bargaining agreement calls for a minimum of 20 days of severance pay (up from 14) and two months of COBRA health insurance payments (up from zero).
Slate would not be McDaniel’s first editorial turnaround project for the Grahams. In 2017, she took over as CEO of Foreign Policy, initially on an interim basis, following the ouster of editor and CEO David Rothkopf. On her LinkedIn profile, McDaniel described her mission in sweeping terms, writing that she was “rebuilding a storied brand with previous management and financial troubles.” Foreign Policy was started as a quarterly academic journal by Samuel Huntington and Warren Demian Manshel in 1970, but after it was relaunched as a bi-monthly glossy in 2000, it started racking up National Magazine Awards and was acquired by The Washington Post Co. in 2008. Since McDaniel took over, the magazine has closed its foreign bureaus and begun to emphasize services for foreign policy professionals who can afford expensive subscriptions instead of simply targeting curious generalists. In August 2018, Foreign Policy’s subscription page offered just two options: a digital-only plan at $8.99 a month or $99 a year and a plan that included the print subscription for $14.99 a month or $149 a year. Today, the page shows no digital-only subscription, a $19.99 monthly subscription, a $199.99 annual subscription, and a $450 annual “Insider” membership, which is “designed exclusively for global affairs professionals.”
Slate staffers have been told of no similar plan to narrow its audience or overhaul its existing Slate Plus subscription offering (though its annual price is due to increase from $59 to $119). It may be that its new strategy is still to be worked out. While the hanging question of what changes are in store in the push for profitability has put additional pressure on Slate staff, according to the current and former employees who spoke with The Fine Print, their understanding is that the reasons for the recent departures have been varied and not all directly related to the overall business strategy. “I wish I could give you a grand theory of these departures, but each departing staffer has been pretty honest and clear about their reasons for leaving,” Stern said. “It’s very clear to us, because we know those people and they’re our friends, that it’s not a situation where Slate’s in massive decline and people are leaving because it’s going terribly, or they’re all being fired by Dan Check. That’s not what’s happening,” Cauterucci said. “Once we sort of established that, I think people started feeling a lot calmer.” However, some staff pushed back on decoupling these developments entirely from Slate’s financial realities. “As for the recent departures,” said Benjamin Frisch, a senior producer on Slate’s Decoder Ring podcast, “much of the reporting on Slate’s situation has been told from outsider perspectives around issues of ‘culture’ when these are mostly due to Slate’s business situation.”
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Back when Saletan joined Slate in 1996, Microsoft owned it, and its founding editor, Michael Kinsley, had famously decamped the Beltway, where he had edited The New Republic, to be a “cybereditor” in the tech giant’s headquarters in Seattle. The staff at that time largely conformed to the demographic breakdowns familiar at Ivy League campus publications and the D.C. establishment. The old Slate culture persisted at least through 2012 when Stern first arrived as an intern. “People really wanted to impress each other with how super smart and cool they were, and show off their intellectual bona fides,” he said. “That was a culture dominated by over-educated straight white men who had never faced real adversity.” It also became an insular, self-replicating culture, as the editors who followed Kinsley were drawn from the ranks of Slate’s staff.
Hohlt, who had been at New York magazine for 18 years before he was named editor-in-chief in 2019, was the first outside hire for the top editorial position in Slate’s history. But even then, there was a Slate connection: One of his first jobs was as the editorial assistant in Slate’s New York office. Diversification of the staff was a priority under Hohlt. “Jared came in, and we immediately identified as one of our primary concerns to him, we being members of the union,” Cauterucci recalled, “that it was hard for us to even make certain arguments or report on certain things or get certain sources to trust us if they don’t feel like they’re represented in Slate’s coverage.” She noted that the company was not yet as diverse as the country, and there is more work to be done on that front.
A pioneer of publishing quality editorial on the web, Slate has had to change to keep up as the internet has evolved. Saletan had long toyed with the idea of leaving. “If you work at a place for 25 years, you’ve thought about it many times,” he said. He had dismissed The Bulwark’s initial offer out of hand when he was first approached last November. He gave them one more chance to win him over at a lunch in December, and the meeting got him thinking about how his role had changed at Slate over the years to where he occupied the right-wing edge of its still fairly centrist liberal bounds. By going over to the conservative site, he could take on the role of a “from the left” talking head that Kinsley had occupied on the CNN debate show Crossfire. “Within 48 hours of that, I was like, ‘It really is time for me to go,’” he said. He was unaware at the time that Hohlt was also departing, and the post-holiday announcement had a silver lining for Saletan. “I was bracing for the pain of telling Jared, who I really like as a person, that I would be leaving,” he said.
While media news, like everything else these days, tends to get grafted onto cultural politics storylines — Saletan’s already been called out on Twitter as a victim of woke culture — the other departures seem to have been less ideologically driven. Benedikt declined to comment for this article, but her colleagues chalk up her leaving to a pandemic-induced life reevaluation. “She was one of the hardest-working people I knew and she’s got three kids, three wonderful, very active kids,” Stern said. “I think she just decided it was time to hit the pause button and take a step back.” Bennett did not respond to a request for comment, but a colleague described her shift to The Atlantic as being driven by a desire to cut back on the managerial aspects of her job and focus on editing. Roth too declined to comment but said in a tweet that he was “pretty psyched” about his new job at Freakonomics.
Some of the remaining staff have stayed in part because of how Slate has changed. “Slate has mellowed a bit in its culture,” Stern said, “and I think that’s a good thing.” There are points of cultural continuity. “I can see how it looks like maybe the end of an era at Slate. But the heart of Slate is not any one contributor,” Cauterucci said. “Slate’s really small and scrappy, and that has contributed to a feeling of real loyalty, caring for each other. It’s still a workplace, I’m not trying to say it’s a family, because it’s not a family, but I think people really want each other to succeed. It’s not like a sharp-elbowed workplace where we’re all jockeying for the best assignment. People are insanely supportive of each other.”
Despite the looming uncertainty and even though he’s moved on, Saletan remains optimistic about Slate’s future. “There have been so many eras of internet journalism where meteors flew through the solar system and knocked out this publication and that publication, and other outlets were hit and died, or withered and died, and Slate survived,” he said. “It survived for a reason: It is a resilient place. Part of the resilience is, I think, it is aware when it has shortcomings, and it tries to fix them. And I believe that is what is happening now.”