Nothing Stale About This Parody
By Suzan Revah
It's an inexorable media law: What is hyped up must be knocked down.
Suzan Revah is a former AJR associate editor.
And so Slate, the much-ballyhooed online magazine bearing the Microsoft moniker and edited by celebrity journalist Michael Kinsley, was officially taken down a notch on August 9 with the debut of Stale, a wickedly inspired parody of Bill Gates' much-touted attempt to bring civilized and intellectual journalism to the Web.
Created by journalists Daniel Radosh and Michael Tritter, Stale bears an uncanny resemblance to Slate from a graphic point of view. From a literary point of view, however, Stale is everything Slate is not: entertaining, accessible and irreverent as hell.
"Stale is not the first 'Webzine,' but it is the first that feels the need to put words like 'Webzine' in quotes," Stale reads, by way of introduction. The teaser for Stale's version of Slate's "Readme" column promises "not to be as solipsistic in future issues," while promising that future issues will "invariably contain words like solipsistic." Stale also promises not to "shy away from condemnations of Microsoft any more than NBC would hesistate to run hard-hitting exposés on nuclear power." In a sendup of Slate's magazine review section, Stale acknowledges that its readers probably already read the magazines being reviewed, but asks for their indulgence nevertheless because, "for those of us stranded here in flannel land, rewriting stories that originated from the East Coast gives us a much-needed sense of importance."
The idea for Stale (www.stale.com) occurred to Radosh, 27, when he saw a quote in just one of the hundreds of articles about the debut of Micro-soft's online magazine saying that Stale happened to be an anagram for Slate. After reading the article, Radosh immediately called his cyber-savvy friend Tritter, 26, to see if Stale was already a registered domain name. When Tritter called Radosh back to report that it was not, the two immediately plunged into their parody.
The art of parody is second nature to Radosh, a freelance journalist who was once a contributor to Spy magazine. And he says that Slate's pompous attitude, which he feels is unjustified by the quality and scope of the publication, made it "ripe for skewering."
"It wasn't too hard to put Stale together," Radosh says. "Slate doesn't try to do anything wildly creative with Web technology, because that's not what they're about, so that made it fairly easy to imitate."
In fact, Radosh says the biggest problem he and Tritter encountered while creating their parody was deciding whether to improve on Slate's design, or to sacrifice aesthetics and user-friendliness for the sake of staying true to the original. In the end they opted to stick with what Stale's press release refers to as Slate's "dull, arrogant and technically inept" style.
Radosh and Tritter, friends from their college days at Ohio's Oberlin College, where they worked together on a satirical magazine started by Radosh, spent only about two-and-a-half weeks developing Stale. They say they felt pressured to complete the project before someone else beat them to the punch, so they quickly brought in about 10 of their friends--one who was once a writer for David Letterman's "Late Show"--to help. The entire process was paperless, conducted over the Internet and pieced together digitally from contributors in all corners of the country.
Tritter, whose day job is producing Web sites for Warner Bros. movies, says he knew from the beginning that if the parody was going to work it had to be done all the way, including every section and every feature found in Slate (www.slate.com). Judging from the almost Slate-like buzz that greeted Stale, including a mention in Newsweek only a few days after its launch, the meticulousness paid off.
Editor Kinsley, who takes a beating in Stale in an editorial authored by Radosh but bylined Michael Kindling, says he is flattered that Radosh and Tritter went to all the trouble of replicating Slate so perfectly. Asked if he was surprised to find himself the object of a stinging parody, Kinsley says, "I wasn't flabbergasted with surprise, but I was surprised by how thorough it was and how much effort it must have taken."
Radosh and Tritter say that there's actually a lot to like about Slate. Both say that they have huge respect for Kinsley's writing and editing and that they were relieved to find he had taken the parody in the spirit it was intended. Mostly, say Radosh and Tritter, they were out to take a shot at Microsoft's efforts to dominate the Internet, an effort of which they see Slate as just one part.
"If Slate were as dull and pointless as 98 percent of the stuff on the Web it wouldn't even deserve a parody," says Radosh. "But their very uninformed opinion at Slate is that they are the only people doing [quality journalism on the Web], that everything else is childish and badly written. There's certainly a lot of that, but there's plenty that's as good as or better than Slate."
And there's plenty of good journalism on the Web, Radosh and Tritter point out, that doesn't cost $19.95 a year. Stale makes more than a few snide references to Slate's subscription rate.
"Most magazines like Stale depend on someone's generosity or vanity or misplaced optimism to pay the bills," writes Stale's Michael Kindling. "Ours depends only on a huge corporation's calculation that having a prestige project to enhance its image as a purveyor of serious journalism will allow it to deflect criticism when said corporation moves to join the media-communications oligopoly."
A little bitter, perhaps, but an accurate reflection of Slate's reception in the cyberspace community. Radosh points out that Slate's subscription rate, along with the fact that its print version is sold in the Microsoft of the coffee world, Starbucks, sum up the superiority complex that made the magazine so offensive to him in the first place. "Slate is the Starbucks of Web-zines," he says. "The coffee is good, but it's overpriced, sterile and unnecessary."
Kinsley takes issue with this jab. He says $19.95 isn't too much to ask for Slate-caliber journalism, and adds that Slate never claimed it was single-handedly civilizing the Web. He says the reaction to Slate has been mostly favorable, barring "the complaints of a few sourpusses who don't like anything Microsoft does."
Fortunately for Kinsley, however, Stale is a one-shot deal. Radosh and Tritter say they've made their point and don't want Stale to get stale by repeating it. "We didn't expect this much attention, but I guess that's what happens when you poke fun at that big a target," says Tritter, who admits that when he first read Stale copy he was afraid it might be too harsh.
But apparently it wasn't harsh enough for Kinsley, who exhibits the thick skin and gift for getting in the last word that made him famous on CNN's "Crossfire." "I didn't find [Stale] that brutal," he says. "I could have done something more brutal than that."###