Dahlia Lithwick is Ben Bradlee’s kind of woman. She’s got the Yale undergrad and Stanford law degrees, the talent to pen brassy features about the Supreme Court, a sense of humor, and an eye for the jugular. Back in his day, Bradlee might have roped her into a beat on the Washington Post Style section alongside Sally Quinn.
Lithwick doesn’t write for Style—you have to read Slate, the Washington Post Company’s online magazine. Covering legal affairs since 1999 and now also writing a serialized chick-lit novel, Lithwick is a Don Graham kind of woman.
The Post Company head adores Slate. The Post in print is his albatross, a newspaper that loses millions; Slate represents his digital dream, with the potential to do great journalism and make a profit.
“Slate itself is now a good business,” says Jacob Weisberg, the New York–based chief of the Slate Group. No one will provide proof, but word is that the magazine will make money this year.
Slate is also a good place for Grahams to work. Washingtonian has learned that Laura Graham, 32, one of Don and Mary Graham’s four children, has been hired as director of product development and strategy. She will work out of Slate’s Arlington office. She becomes the second member of the third generation of Grahams to work at a Washington Post publication. Her cousin, Katharine Weymouth, is Post publisher and head of Washington Post Media.
Graham saw Slate's potential in 2004 when Weisberg and Michael Kinsley put Microsoft’s Slate on the market. Kinsley had been at Slate since 1996, when Bill Gates lured him from Washington and the New Republic. Kinsley brought in Weisberg to run the New York office and David Plotz as Washington bureau chief.
Weisberg became Slate’s editor in 2002. He says, “We had potential to grow, but only if we could be part of a media company.”
Weisberg phoned Graham expecting to leave a message. Don picked up.
“I love Slate,” he said, according to Weisberg. “If we can work out a price, I would do it.”
Slate moved east, to Dupont Circle and Manhattan’s West Village. Weisberg reports to Graham rather than to Weymouth.
“Don is engaged in exactly the right way,” says Weisberg. “He doesn’t meddle, and he pays a lot of attention.”
Some of that attention goes to writers like Lithwick, through Graham’s e-mail attaboys and links from his Facebook page. A 42-year-old native of Ottawa, she has become perhaps the poster girl for Slate writers.
After Stanford, Lithwick worked at a family law firm in Nevada but hated it. She was crashing on a friend’s futon in DC in 1999 when Kinsley was calling around for someone to cover the Microsoft trial. She gave it a whirl.
“I was unemployed in the right city on the right futon,” she says. Her coverage struck the right chords of fact and whimsy; Slate hired her.
Now she’s also writing fiction for Slate. “I had never tried it,” she says. “It was a flier with a high disaster potential.”
Lithwick asks readers for plot twists and has 1,600 Facebook collaborators. Slate tries to be at one with its readers, digitally.
They’re a well-educated, wealthy lot. As Plotz puts it: “Planet Slate.”
It seems a profitable planet.
“Slate has managed to attract an educated, affluent audience,” says the magazine’s publisher, John Alderman. “It’s similar to Forbes and the New York Times but a little bit younger and more tech-savvy.”
Planet Slate also can come off as a cozy little universe where Yalies and other Ivy Leaguers who live in the West Village, Upper West Side, Brooklyn, and Dupont Circle come to share. It seems at times like a Web site where young, upper-class twits who Twitter come to play online.
Take “Freaky Fortnight,” a diary on the trials and tribulations two Slate writers suffer while swapping job locations. Susan Burton has worked at home for a decade and cared for the two kids; her husband, Michael Agger has commuted to Slate’s swank new digs in the West Village. They swap roles, and places, and obsess online. Oh, Burton’s nettlesome commute! Oh, Agger has to shower second! Oh, how will the kids adjust? Just fine.
And more than 10 percent of Americans can’t find a job.
Jack Shafer, the resident curmudgeon covering the media, is usually brutal and spot on, but his September 30 essay on the evils of nonprofit journalism was wishy-washy and left out two crucial facts. After wagging his finger at news operations funded by rich people and foundations, he notes the “good work” produced by a few. He neglects to mention that Bill Gates forked over millions to start Slate, with little expectation of a profit. And Don Graham is still waiting to turn a profit from Slate. Without Gates and Graham playing angels, Shafer might still be writing for alternative weeklies.
Readers go to the site for news bites, for essays about war and fashion and business, for advice from Dear Prudence (Emily Yoffe), for dish about Mad Men, for foreign-affairs reports by Anne Applebaum, for Eliot Spitzer, born again as an essayist writing about Wall Street. “Eliot is a joy to edit,” Plotz says.
Slate has also become a bit of a playground for the intelligentsia. Don Graham got together with Henry Louis Gates to launch The Root, a digital site for upper-class African-Americans. The women of Slate created Double X, for and about women and parental units. Graham was able to get former Post national editor Susan Glasser by buying Foreign Policy and folding it into the Slate Group.
The Slate Group isn’t in the black, and Slate itself might make money one day. It will never rake in the kind of profits that would impress Wall Street, but with Don Graham’s love it has a future.