Slate’s EIC on Why Real-Time Election Projections Will ‘Help Equalize the Playing Field’

Our FishbowlDC interview with Julia Turner.

You can’t expect Slate, originator of the #slatepitch, to do anything but its own thing. For Slate editor in chief Julia Turner, that applies not only to the “surprising argument or surprising new perspective on the world” that Slate is known for, but also to its decision not to slavishly follow the business model fashions of the times. “In the current media landscape you surprise audience by not following the dictates of social distribution and by opting to do things that have their own internal logic rather than responding to the logic of the economics of the business,” she told FishbowlDC.

Consider what it took to even get online back in 1996, the year Slate was born as a digital only publication: a free phone line, a dial-up modem slower than even your worst malfunctioning router, an AOL account where you rationed the hours that came with your free trial.

And as the years and decades passed and internet life changed, Slate persevered, and more than that, it remained itself. The story Turner told of the 20-year organization, which celebrated its anniversary in September, was one of consistency. “There’s really a spirit and sensibility to Slate that it remains consistent, I think in part, because of the continuity of our staff,” she told FishbowlDC.

But don’t confuse continuity with a resistance to change. “It’s just extraordinary how many big trends in internet journalism Slate has really helped start and was there at the dawn of,” she said, citing among them aggregation and innovations in blogging and podcasting.

On Tuesday, Slate will give another one a test run when it partners with VoteCastr to report out real-time projections throughout Election Day. To do it, Turner will be breaking with tradition, not Slate’s but the media en masse, which has in general refrained from reporting on polling results until after the polls close.

The move is intended not as a ploy to be first to call winners, but to end what Turner called a “paternalistic” practice that “puts journalists in the awkward and unfamiliar position of concealing information from their readers,” as she described in a post announcing the partnership in September.

We spoke to Turner about Slate’s Election Day project, the publication’s legacy, and what’s next.

FBDC: In terms of Slate’s general influence on digital media through the years—where do you see it most and what do you feel are the biggest components of that influence?

Turner: I think probably Slate’s biggest influence on journalism has just been in the voice of journalism. Slate recognized very early on that when you are writing digitally it made sense to let go of the formality that marked print publications and to really adopt a voice that was essentially your smart friend watching the world with you, so it was colloquial, witty, funny, loose, full of conviction and interesting points but made in a very personable way. And so, Slate’s voice has really been over the years a collection of voices—our specific writers who cover the world in particular ways and really sound like themselves doing so as opposed to adopting some kind of uniform house style. As a mode of journalism, that’s everywhere now. The kind of colloquial nature of the web is something we all take for granted but it’s really something that Slate pioneered.

FBDC: How do you feel about the #slatepitch being such a recognizable part of Slate’s identity?

Turner: I love the #slatepitch. I think it’s a real badge of honor for us to have spawned an actual, organic meme online that isn’t the product of an ill-conceived marketing campaign. When people use the hashtag #slatepitch on Twitter, they sometimes mean it as derogatory. I think the worst possible version of it is the idea of provocation for provocation’s sake without any intellectual honesty or rigor. I think that’s a caricature and not an accurate reflection of what we do. I think we try to make surprising arguments and try to expose those readers to new ideas and unexpected experiences, because that’s what makes a publication interesting. We’re committed to doing that, but to doing it with real analytic rigor and intellectual honesty, so I think the #slatepitch meme is one that recognizes that impulse in our work.

FBDC: How did you decide to partner with VoteCastr on real-time projections?

Turner: We started talking about this at the Democratic convention, and our interest was piqued in particular because of Sasha Issenberg’s involvement. He’s a former columnist for Slate and someone whose thinking about data and technology around campaigns we are familiar with and respect a lot. As we looked at the project we became very excited about pursuing it. It fits in with ideas that have been prevalent around Slate for our whole existence. When Michael Kinsley was editor we published exit polls in 2000. Under Jacob [Weisberg] we published exit polls in 2004, and I think Slate has a tradition of challenging the notion that Election Day should be an information-free zone. I think the technology that VoteCastr proposes to bring to Election Day is more sophisticated than the classic exit polling methodology and will be a useful change in the way that journalists cover elections.

FBDC: What do you think will be some of the huge benefits in delivering real-time projections?

Turner: My main objection to the way it’s covered presently is that there’s not a strong argument for not giving users this information. The dynamic on Election Day is essentially that journalistic outlets have access to exit polling data and have a sense of how the race is going. Campaigns themselves use technology very like the technology VoteCastr will use to run their own set of turnout tracking and make their own predictions about what might happen. Voters, who are the people who are supposed to have the most power on Election Day, are the ones with the least information who are the least informed, and there just isn’t a very good argument for why they should be in the dark.

For one thing, when campaigns get information like this they often use it to make Election Day marketing decisions and say, ‘oh, we see turnout is up in one county and down in the next. Let’s move our resources around, figure out where we’re going to put our surrogates on the radio, whom we’re going to send text notifications to, ‘ so voters are actually getting marketed to during the day on Election Day, based on information that they don’t have access to. We think we have an opportunity to help equalize the playing field.

FBDC: One of the common arguments against using projections on Election Day is to point to previous and notable projection flubs. Have you thought about situations where your projection model will show something different from what it actually turns out to be?

Turner: All predictive technologies on Election Day are subject to error.

I think there are two arguments. One is the argument that if you publish information, you depress turnout. That’s an argument that’s frequently made about why not to publish information about voter turnout on election day and predictive results on Election Day, and that’s one for which there’s not really any scientific backing. The other argument you’re making, which is predictions don’t always turn out to be 100 percent accurate–that’s true.

I think what we’re proposing to do here is use the methodology that campaigns have found to be the most useful to them as they’re making tactical decisions on Election Day, to be very transparent with our audience about the methodology we’re using, why we think it’s sound and what we think it does show and what it doesn’t. And we’ll be very curious to see how we come down. We’ll certainly be postmortem-ing after the fact.

FBDC: In terms of future plans for Slate, what would you really like to focus on?

Turner: We’ve been focusing much more on our loyal audience. We’ve switched our internal traffic targets to be entirely around that loyal audience, rather than focusing extensively on scale, and I should say that we had our highest ever comScore UV [unique visitor] number in August at 23 million, so I don’t think that overall audience growth is incompatible with a focus on loyalty. But we found that looking at what kinds of stories and podcasts and videos are most attractive to the people who care about Slate most and love it best and come back most often and spend the most time with us is a benevolent editorial imperative and an exciting one for staff.

FBDC: Speaking of a loyal audience, what have you learned about Slate Plus as a revenue model?

Turner: On the subject of Plus, I think that really connects to the loyalty initiative. What we’re hoping to do is really understand and enlarge the group of people who count on Slate in various ways. All of those groups of people—[including] people who are fans of our Dear Prudence column, fans of our News Quiz and fans of commenting on our site—are more likely to subscribe to Slate Plus than a person who comes in the door once from Facebook and isn’t quite sure where she is.

So, we’ve been creating editorial projects that live on Slate Plus, purely for Slate Plus members, and pushing them toward people who have shown that they’re loyal to Slate in other ways. And we’re having great success there. I think when you launch a loyalty program like this you can easily see a big spike in the beginning and then a long, skinny tail of people signing up, but instead we’ve seen really steady growth, so we think there’s plenty of upside ahead on Plus.

FBDC: Thinking about that in terms of talking about how you don’t want to be beholden to distribution on social media, which makes sense, especially when companies like Facebook upend its rules, but it’s this kind of paradox because so many people are getting their stuff through social.

Turner: Facebook is absolutely an incredibly useful part of the media ecosystem these days, I don’t mean to slag it. I think of Facebook more like a lead generator, like someone who comes to you from Facebook is someone who could become part of your audience. They’re not your audience yet. So the sort of work we do around showing those readers who we are, driving them from the story they came for to the next one and introducing them to the other things that we do that they might be excited about and want to become repeat visitors to is something we’re thinking a lot about.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.