Opinion

Keith Hernandez on Slate, ‘slow internet’ and what’s next for publishers

Keith HernandezEight months ago Keith Hernandez resigned as VP of brand strategy at Buzzfeed to become president at Slate – one of the first successful online magazines. As the publication approaches its 20th birthday, Keith sat down with Mumbrella to discuss his vision for the publication.

“The race for the biggest audience is the wrong race to be in,” declares Keith Hernandez, as we sit down in the Manhattan coffee shop he has selected for the interview.

That statement might appear somewhat surprising given the sales executive’s previous role at viral specialist Buzzfeed, but as we order our drinks he is quick to add: “Don’t get me wrong, I love the Buzzfeed folks and I marvel at what they’re doing but the reality is there’s this other group (of news websites) that shouldn’t be looking at them and trying to replicate that,” he says. 

Digital publishers looking at falling CPMs (cost per impressions) and choosing to chase scale might welcome such a statement with relief, but the president of Slate is quick to add it faces an even greater challenge in defining its unique value proposition.

A stream of sameness 

Hernandez has picked a cafe, just off 23rd Street, near Gramercy Park for our meeting and as we begin he explains that while he admires the success of viral behemoth Buzzfeed he is approaching his new role very differently to his old.

His argument is that digital publishers need find a way to stand out amid what is a large and expanding clamour of digital noise.

“I think in this world where a lot of publishers are built for Facebook optimisation and modification, you start to see this stream of sameness and this digital noise,” he explains.

“Slate has been this signal amid the noise for 20 years. It’s established itself. It has its own unique, distinct, voice that people will know what a Slate article is, whether they come to Slate.”

On the day we meet the American media is running a hot with a stream of commentary on Donald Trump’s presidential bid and the implications of the businessman becoming the presumptive Republican nominee and potentially President of the United States.

Slate’s lead story today, however, represents a different take – a more contrarian point of view – with Slate’s chief political correspondent Jamelle Bouie writing a piece headlined on the Slate homepage: “Relax, Donald Trump will not be president”.

Trump Slate

The Slate boss cites today’s Trump piece as one example of that unique voice, but notes Bouie wrote another piece back in March on the ideology ‘Trumpism‘ which also went global.

“Bouie did a piece a month ago about ‘what is Trumpism?’, covering the question of ‘how did this rise actually happen?’ and it was at the tip of everybody’s tongues,” he says. 

“That piece had more than a million views in 72 hours and the comments and the conversation was like, ‘this is the most well-researched reason and rationale for why Trump is where he currently is’. The views are great but what we care about is that type of reaction.”

A more niche, slower internet 

Hernandez argues that in the world of online news there is a fast-growing divergence among the major news publishers.

I feel like there is a general trend, at least here in the United States, where there are the big news websites – what I’m calling skyscrapers, which are BuzzFeed, Vice, and Vox – that all of us can marvel at and enjoy,” he explains. 

“Then there are certain publications like Slate that are thinking more niche and thinking more direct about who their audience is and not trying to grow for growth’s sake. I think there’s going to be this massive trend of people appreciating that.

“I jokingly call it ‘the slow internet’,” he quips.

So what exactly is the slow internet?

“No, not a dumb internet,” Hernandez explains, careful not to criticise other mass reach publishers. “But you know the slow-food movement? Especially here in the United States, there’s a slow-food movement where people are like, ‘well, is it farm-to-table, does it take a long time, is it carefully curated, organic, etc. I think people are starting to appreciate that now – with the news sites that they go to.

“They want to depend on particular websites. They have their go-tos and they have their favourites. And it’s okay for us to not have five times, 10 times growth on the traffic site because that will actually dilute our audience. If we did we wouldn’t be catering to the same people that have known and loved us for years.”

Slate’s business model 

Asked how being on the slow internet works in a business sense, Hernandez notes that like many publishers Slate is busy building multiple revenue streams.

“Everybody knows display (advertising) is eroding,” he says. “It’s not a cliff that’s just going to disappear but the cliff is eroding.

“So we have to figure out how do we diversify and how do we make sure that we’re creating things that our audience is going to pay attention to – one, and then be interested in – two. So we’re investing more into the custom world. We’re investing more into ‘what does that look like for Slate’?”

SlatePart of that strategy is about the Slate paywall, which applies to readers outside the US, and also building out its custom publishing offering.

“We have our paywall internationally and we have an opt-in subscription, which is a limited-ad experience. It’s not an ‘ad-free experience’ but what we’ve found is that this is five figures right now in terms of the amount of people that are subscribing.

“So it’s not an enormous audience but it’s a very loyal audience that loves Slate so much that they want to give fifty dollars a year to support great journalism and they get invited to special events. They get to meet our authors and they have a real reciprocal relationship with our editorial team.

And another big thing is for us is around custom (publishing) and this is a different philosophy than a lot of places have but we’re not creating an in-house creative agency.

“We’re not trying to take that work away from the creative agency. What we’re doing – where we’ve been creative great digital journalism for 20 years – we’re a digital publisher with you. We’re helping brands become digital publishers. We see it less as ‘come to us as a creative shop and we will create whatever you want’, and more as what matters to our audience; let us share with you how you can create a great story for them.

“It’s a nuance that might not appear to be that big of a differentiator but it matters to say, ‘we’re not just going to slap your logo on something’. We’re going to tell you exactly what our audience cares about and we’re going to share with you the dos and don’ts of tapping into our audience.”

Slate’s 20th anniversary and what’s next for publishers? 

Slate was one of the first online magazines and as it approaches the 20 year mark I’m curious about how Hernandez views the milestone.

“The anniversary is interesting,” he explains, with a laugh. “When Slate started out, the first week that it was published, it was paginated, because what we thought at that time was people were going to print out this digital magazine and bring it on the subway or bring it on the train, and obviously we found that that was not correct.

“We are definitely looking back – our editorial team is going to [republish selections of our original article back catalogue] for the back-half of this year. Not as a navel-gazing experience but to talk about the great work that we’ve done. We had Paul Krugman, Michael Lewis, Malcolm Gladwell, Farhad Manjoo, etc. These are all names that started at Slate and have built out these massive international profiles.

“But rather than look back at what they’re doing, we’re asking them to look forward into what’s happening in business journalism, tech journalism, political journalism.

His comment on pagination is interesting. Would Slate ever look at some print product, or as a digital publisher does he need to be looking for the next online innovation?

Hernandez has strong views on the publishing industry’s obsession with what he terms “technical wizardry”, but he does say, regarding my the print question, that other digital publishers in the US have taken up print offerings.

“It’s funny because Digiday here is creating a quarterly print compendium that you can either get via PDF or you can have mailed to you so, I see this circle coming back,” he says. 

“More broadly, there was this digital, technical wizardry that was happening in the last five to 10 years. I liken it to movies. You look at a Michael Bay movie and it’s explosions for explosions sake. I think a lot of publishers were doing all these technical things that were massively interesting and cool but they didn’t push forward the storytelling at all.

I think we’re starting to see that now, too, where all media companies, all publishing companies are tech first. They’re thinking about their tech, they’re thinking about their products but ultimately the ones that are going to be successful are the ones that look at that and ask, ‘how does this make it easier for our readers to enjoy the story?’ That’s our priority. 

Hernandez cites the media industry’s attempts to grapple with virtual reality (VR) with the likes of the Guardian and New York Times investing heavily in the technology, and says that Slate is also playing with the technology.

“The key with VR is not just to do it to wow people – okay, maybe it is to wow them at first – but the key is to expand on the story that you were trying to tell,” Hernandez says.

“In the same way that we went from print to radio to TV to digital, we might be going into VR, we shouldn’t be telling the stories that we would tell on our website in VR. It should be a new medium. We should be experimenting with in that way.”

As we wrap up there is one question I’ve been dying to ask Hernandez and that’s about his time as an account executive working on the satirical website The Onion.

OnionHow do you sell satirical news to advertisers and, in particular, what did he learn from the experience?

“Yeah. It’s funny, I’m on the advertising side because I am a big champion of journalism and I’m a big champion of creativity,” Hernandez says in a way that makes you think he gets asked about the experience a bit.

“I’ve always been fascinated with how stories get told and I, like all good advertising executives, fell into it by accident. But what attracted to me to The Onion is the same thing that attracted me to Buzzfeed, the same thing that attracted me to Slate.

“It was a unique voice, a unique proposition and it was an editorially-driven company that I could help bring in revenue in to; bring more creativity and innovation to.”

Keith Hernandez is delivering the opening keynote at this year’s Publish Conference in Sydney on September 15. Early bird tickets are available here. 

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