The Great Debate: Salon vs. Slate
Greece or Rome? Jordin or Blake? Star Wars or Lord of the Rings?
It’s hard to resist comparing two obvious rivals, and Internet-based publications Salon and Slate are no exception. To be fair, these two online magazines are close cousins, both offering a mix of politics, culture, the arts and some blogging. In addition, they both feature lively writing that goes heavy on the irony. But Salon is the better magazine.
The simple reason is that Salon, even in its currently anemic state, still does more heavy lifting, digging up new information and revealing it to readers. Check out Mark Benjamin’s story about the death of a suspected terrorist in CIA custody, for example. Also, Salon also has more of an edge, a sense of outrage. The website still offers a link to a complete file of Abu Ghraib photos and reporting as if to say: we have not forgotten. That kind of commitment to the important issues of the day is what journalism is supposed to offer. In addition, I’d be remiss not to give Salon props for having a female editor and a highly readable blog about women’s news and issues called the Broadsheet. On a related note, don’t forget that back in Salon’s halcyon days, the magazine gave birth to a feature called Mothers Who Think. MWT launched a whole new way of writing about motherhood, offering a welcome alternative to slick and predictable parenting magazines. As for premium content, I wish you didn’t have to go through the home-page ad to get to Salon’s articles, but it’s well worth the few seconds delay.
What of Slate, then? It’s all cleverness, no real sincerity and not enough real reporting, relying a little too much instead on that tired old staple, commentary. And while there’s nothing wrong with wise-guy writing that blithely disses President Bush, Paul Wolfowitz and the like, it’s not compelling in comparison to the prospect of learning fresh new information. As for Slate’s propensity for explaining things, let’s just say that if I needed more background information I’d go to Wikipedia. Finally, some of Slate’s stuff is supposed to be clever but it doesn’t work for me. Case in point, the multiple choice quiz on Jose Padilla, headlined "Padillapalooza". This kind of goofball format would work on, say, Scooter Libby, but not on a life-and-death matter. Bottom line: Not funny. Of course, Slate is known for playing around with creative formats. One that I especially like is when they have one person write a letter and another responds. And on that note….
It is indeed hard to resist comparing two rivals. It's been happening recently in media circles up here in Canada, where our two biggest newspapers, The Toronto Star and The Globe and Mail have both debuted redesigns in the last month. The early winner, in my opinion, is The Star -- ironic since it looks a lot like the old Globe.
But we're here to talk about Slate and Salon and I'm supposed to defend the former and slay the latter. Before we get to that, let me just point out that I think both websites are at times entertaining, insightful, well-written, frustrating, and most of all, innovative, or at least, good at stealing all the best ideas from other places and using them for their own purposes.
Slate, though, is the better online magazine -- and not for the classic journalistic reasons you've pegged your Salon case on. You're right in pointing out that Slate doesn't do much original reporting, but I don't think that's ever been a part of their mission. Breaking stories is a job for the folks at the New York Times, Washington Post, big-time print magazines like The New Yorker and all those citizen journalist types on the web. Slate's goal is different: help people make sense of the overload of information dumped on us everyday -- a very important task in our media-saturated societies. To equate Slate's organized, witty, and smart explanatory journalism to Wikipedia is akin to equating a classic novel with the Coles Notes version. You lose the soul.
As you mentioned, Slate's become known for playing around with creative formats and here I think they shine much brighter than Salon. From David Plotz's wonderful Blogging the Bible feature to the delightful TV and Book Clubs to the What's in Other Magazines and Today's Papers round-ups, Slate has made itself into a one-stop shopping destination for media consumers. Combine these with the untouchable layout (it's almost shocking that their model hasn't been adapted by every newspaper and magazine on the continent) and flawless display writing (today's cover story: "The Great American Beer Crisis" -- come on!), and you've got one of hell of a magazine.
I don't have much to attack Salon with. The layout isn't as nice to look at or intuitive to use. There's not as much content. No Jack Shafer. No Christopher Hitchens (or is that a good thing?) But I like it for the most part -- that is, whenever I stick with it. I think you've totally underplayed that whole premium content/front page ad thing. It's an awful online model and more often than not, discourages me from bothering with the magazine at all.