Slate has laid off longtime media columnist Jack Shafer as well as other staffers and contractors. The news, first reported by AdWeek, prompted a quick and dumbfounded reaction on journo-infested Twitter.
Preposterous, sure, when considering that Shafer is among the country’s leading writers on media, a favorite of anyone who values original, uncorrupted thinking on how journalists and news outlets operate.
Not so preposterous when considering that Shafer occupies a senior post at a magazine whose owner, The Washington Post Co., recently announced a bad quarterly earnings report that included a 13 percent drop in online publishing revenues, a basket that includes the flagship newspaper’s Web site as well as Slate.
When asked about the reasons behind Slate’s cost reductions, Editor David Plotz handled the question in the manner of many newsroom executives over the past decade. “We made several cuts to our full-time staff as well as to contractors. It was painful and we think that Slate has to be a flexible place and has worked to be an agile and innovative Web magazine. These are not cuts that we want to make,” says Plotz.
As for Shafer, well, his beat prepared him for this day. “Everybody in our business has to see this coming,” he says, noting that journalists should be “looking both ways when they cross the street.”
What did Slate’s bosses tell him? “What they told me was that they needed to economize and got rid of several positions,” he says and points out that he has “no reason to distrust” that rationale.
Slate, it appears, just couldn’t afford its well-regarded editor-at-large. “It was a decision made for financial and editorial future reasons,”says Plotz. “Jack is obviously a brilliant journalist.”
The journalism, says Shafer, wasn’t an issue with his supervisors. “There were no tensions about my performance and my [publishing] frequency,” says Shafer. Asked about his exit package, Shafer said he was “delighted with the way they treated me.” He’ll be writing for the magazine on a freelance basis.
Which leaves a gap in the magazine’s day-to-day coverage of the media. Plotz didn’t respond to a question about plans to fill that slot, and Shafer had no information either. “When you’re given your walking papers, you’re not asking a lot of questions about what the publication is going to be after you leave,” he says.
Slate has lived a privileged existence as a media property, a place where newsmaking layoffs are covered, not experienced. The property launched with a small staff in 1996 under the leadership of Michael Kinsley. First under the ownership of Microsoft and under The Washington Post Co. starting in late 2004, Slate has followed a steady growth curve on ambition, topical breadth and staffing. The magazine’s “Who We Are” page now lists about 70 contributors and full-timers. Plotz declined to address staffing history and other corporate matters.
Again, like any editor called upon to account for cutbacks, Plotz contends that the present changes are designed to “strengthen us in the long run.” If that means improving upon the brand of media coverage supplied by Shafer, Slate readers will be elated.
Shafer’s departure from Slate is more than an industry story; it’s a personal one as well. Shafer was editor of the Washington City Paper in 1993 when he hired David Plotz onto his staff. Plotz had written a paper on Marion Barry at Harvard University, an opus that impressed Shafer, who solicited unconventional clips from job applicants.
Plotz didn’t disappoint, producing a number of excellent news and feature pieces before moving on to an editing position. With each edition of the alt-weekly, Plotz learned a bit more about the Shafer doctrine, including how not to get spun by sources and public officials; how to use muscular, transitive verbs in your copy; how to use concepts to toy with the news; how to delete vast fields of copy in the editing process.
The Shafer-Plotz relationship at City Paper was memorialized in this Shafer piece from December 1994, which recounts how linguistics guru Deborah Tannen had evaluated the interactions between the two men. Tannen drilled in on a stunted exchange between Plotz and Shafer over the functionality of the former’s computer. Plotz complained that the machine was inadequate:
Plotz: I--’Cause it doesn’t--
Shafer: Why, it’s slow?
Plotz: No, it’s not that. It’s just like there are all sorts of keys that don’t work and stuff.
Shafer: What do you mean keys that don’t work?
Plotz: Like the caps lock doesn’t work.
Shafer: It can. You want it to?
Plotz: No, it doesn’t.
Shafer: You want it to?
Shafer: All right. What else would you like?
Plotz: Um, I don’t know. It was just sort of--
Shafer: No no no, come on.
Plotz: Like I can’t turn it off because--
Shafer: You would like--you’d like to be able to turn it off? Why? ‘Cause it bothers you?
Plotz: And it’s--it’s frozen up on me like three times.
Shafer: Like is there a pattern?
Plotz: No, I mean maybe there is, I haven’t noticed it. I--I don’t know. It hasn’t done it for about a week or so, so don’t worry. I’m just griping. I’m just griping. I’ve never--I’ve got no particular complaints because it--all I need to--I’m not--I’m not a computer junkie so I don’t really care.
Shafer: So if you want your caps-lock key to work, there’s no problem. I can come in and do that.
Plotz: No, I don’t really need a caps lock.
Shafer: It’ll take me twenty-five seconds.
Aside from shedding light on how newsies speak to each other, the piece conveyed the mutual respect between boss and up-and-coming journalist. Shafer writes in the piece: “Plotz is among the proudly computer illiterate. But that’s OK with me. I pay him because he knows how to write great stories on deadline, not because he knows when to give his computer the three-finger salute when he flummoxes it.” (Both Plotz and Shafer edited my work when I contributed to City Paper, and I consider both of them friends.)
Both editors took separate paths to Slate, where Shafer vied for a repeat term as Plotz’s top boss. He and Jacob Weisberg competed in the legendary “bake-off,” wherein the two took turns editing Slate in a bid to succeed founding editor Kinsley. Shafer lost that contest after publishing a fictitious 2001 story on fishing for monkeys.
A role reversal occurred when Plotz subsequently became Shafer’s editor. One easy way to get both of these fellows to shut up is to ask them to talk about all their years bossing each other around.
Plotz says that Shafer has been a “great colleague and great friend over many years” but clams up when probed for something more. And Shafer says that he was “happy for David to be my boss, and he’s been a good boss” but clams up when probed for something more.
Neither is much for sentimentality. Perhaps that explains why there won’t be one of those “so long” pieces when Shafer finishes up at Slate on Sept. 2. “Farewell columns are bush league,” he says.