Slate Scales. But Is It Too Late to the Game?

Online news magazine hits traffic milestone

Since Slate launched in 1996, there’s always been the question of whether an online news magazine can attract enough advertising to support high-quality original content without a companion print product. Signs were pointing to “no” last year when Slate laid off four people including Jack Shafer, one of its best-known writers, and while the site won’t say, it’s believed to be marginally profitable at best.

Slate maintained that it could make a profit with the traffic it had (around 6.5 million uniques). But since then, it’s made a concerted effort to grow traffic. In October, Slate topped 10 million uniques for the first time (comScore), a number that could help it compete for ads with top news sites like CNN and The New York Times.

“This is a conscious effort to say, ‘This is not for an elite,’” said David Plotz, editor of Slate. “We launched in 1996 and have maintained an incredible reputation for quality and wit. Perhaps what we didn’t do that we should have is said, this is a magazine that should reach lots and lots of people.”

Election coverage has certainly been a factor in the growth, but Slate has also stepped up attention to areas that have shown to be popular with readers. Those included culture, technology, science and, surprisingly, language. (“When we cover language, usage, readers go nuts for it,” Plotz said.) To increase the chances of getting viral hits, Slate doubled the number of daily posts by cranking out more items, helped by the addition of bloggers like Matt Yglesias, Sasha Issenberg, Phil Plait and Alyssa Rosenberg. Slate has also seen a huge traffic increase from its video and podcasts.

With Slate churning out more content and content across more platforms, a challenge will be keeping its voice consistent. Capitalizing on that traffic is another. To that end, Slate hired Matt Turck as its first dedicated publisher, and he’s stepped up the focus on native (and premium-priced) advertising. “This is going to become an important source of revenue,” he said. Turck has pumped up its business-side employees to 17, and revenue is ahead 28 percent this year through October, helped by clients like IBM, Lexus and Boeing.

Slate has survived as long as it has by virtue of its Washington Post Co. parentage, but the Post Co. is looking to cut costs anywhere it can these days. Outsell analyst Ken Doctor said that with traditional ad rates dropping, the challenge for Slate will be to make more lucrative video and custom ads a bigger part of the mix.

“They’re a surviving, native digital magazine,” Doctor said. “Can they do it profitably and at a level that’ll sustain the level of journalism they’ve wanted to do?” 

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