An Interview With Jack Shafer

Slate columnist talks about being laid off, and his future

Slate media critic and Press Box columnist Jack Shafer lost his job on Wednesday. He was, along with three others, part of a round of layoffs at the online news magazine. The news was met with much consternation. Just that day, an article praising Shafer as a "fearless media critic" was published on the website of the American Journalism Review, and that praise was echoed by his readers and peers, who turned to Twitter to express shock, dismay, and a little outrage. Adweek spoke with Shafer shortly after the news broke and found him in good spirits.

Adweek: How are you doing?

Shafer: I’m picking ‘em up and laying ‘em down.

You’ve got a lot of support on Twitter right now.

I tweeted out that it was a bit like reading short and kind obituaries, and that being dead has never felt so good. So I’m grateful for the reaction, obviously.

But I have to imagine you’re not dead. Do you have something else in mind?

I was thinking of becoming an alcoholic. Because one of the things I’ve always prided myself in, in these first 59 years of my life, is being a controlled drinker. I think now is the time to throw off the training wheels and see if maybe in the last decade and a half of my life, I can be an accomplished, functional alcoholic. And that’s starting tonight.

What are you drinking?

I’m just drinking some cheap red. Some cheap, Argentinian Malbec. Because it’s one thing to be an alcoholic; it’s another thing to be a bankrupt alcoholic. So you have to drink the cheap stuff.

But you’re going to keep contributing to Slate?

Yes, Slate is paying me a severance and has kindly asked me to continue writing for them, and I’ve accepted.

And will it be Press Box?

No, it won’t be press coverage. I’ll stir up the press animals in another venue.

Do you know what that venue might be?

No, because the news was only made public today, so I haven’t approached anybody. I haven’t phoned up Rupert Murdoch and asked him if he wants another columnist at The Wall Street Journal.

I’m sure there’d be a lot of people who would take you, based on what your colleagues in media are saying on Twitter.

They’re all great Americans.

So what happened at Slate?

The best guys to ask that question would be [chairman] Jake [Weisberg] and [editor] David [Plotz]. Since I’ve not been a manager, which is practically a decade now, I’ve not been privy to the real hard-core financials. I’m not the only one who has been let go by Slate. Slate has expanded ambitiously, and right now it’s responding to the industry-wide recession in a sensible fashion by cutting some costs—and I’m one of those costs.

But based on the response to this news, I’d say you’re an incredible asset to Slate.

I’m flattered. But that’s somebody else’s call. That’s not mine to make.

So if you won’t be writing about media for Slate, what are you going to turn your attention to?

I don’t have any preconceived notions. I’ve only known this week that I’m being let go. So I haven’t done a lot of thinking about what columns I’m going to write and what topics I’m going to attack. It’s a long way of saying, “I don’t know.” I’m just recently among the unemployed. I’ll probably have a better idea once my column starts.

Are you confident about what happens next? Are you at all concerned or worried, given the climate we’re in?

I’m simultaneously never worried and always concerned, as everybody in our business should be. You are moments from being fired—or from being hired by The New York Times to replace David Carr. That is just the state of our business.

I’m a great fan of journalistic history. It doesn’t matter where you drop the plumb line in the time line, you find these upheavals in journalism all the time. I don’t think that these times are completely unique. So . . . this is the wine talking. I’ve lost my train of thought.

There was a piece about you in the American Journalism Review today, describing how you write for everyone, not just the guy in the next cubicle. Do you agree with that portrayal?

I got into the press criticism racket because as the editor of Washington City Paper in 1985, I couldn’t get anybody to write press criticism. As strange as this may seem, in 1985 everyone was worried that if they wrote negatively about The Washington Post and The New York Times and Time and Newsweek and the dominant publications of that time, that they’d screw themselves out of a job. I think what the writer of the AJR piece accurately described was that I started writing about the press and continued to write about the press as if I have no career—that I shouldn’t worry, and that no one should worry if they’re writing about the press. They should write about the press the same way they write about GE, or President Obama, or the New York Yankees. They shouldn’t be thinking about their next job.

The piece was very flattering. It was my ambition to write that way, but I leave it to the readers of the piece and you and others to decide whether I’ve accomplished that. You know, when you read a flattering piece about yourself . . . I mean, have you ever read a flattering piece about yourself?

I got a good report card once.

I got a report card in first grade that said, “Jack excels in his studies and really enjoys math and English, but he starts fights on the playground that he brings back into the classroom.” I’ve tried to make that my operating premise: Let’s start some fights and see who wins.

I assume that won’t go away.

Not if I survive this first bout of alcoholism.

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