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Slate.Com: Origins

APRIL 24, 2010


Slate was founded by Bill Gates at Microsoft in the mid nineties. Gates wanted to prove that a first rate newsmagazine could exist solely on the Internet with no print equivalent.

    His first step was to hire Michael Kinsley as our editor- in- chief. Mike had been editor of The New Republic and is best known for his run on CNN’s crossfire opposite Pat Buchanan. Mike assembled an outstanding staff from The New Republic, the Washington Post and jeez, half the Harvard alumni that I’d have to do actual research to list. The following tale is how I remember it unfolding in the spring and summer of 1996:

Patricia Bradbury was the art director who started it all so I’ll just quote her:

  “In 1995 I was hired by Microsoft to go to work on MSN, the fledgling online news service. I'd gotten Newsweek Online up and running, so I was hired to work as a contractor on MSN. After close to 9 years at Newsweek, and 20 years in NYC, I was ready for a change, to head back to Seattle where my family still lived, and lots of friends still lived, and to work on something entirely different.
    I was working in my office, and one day this guy moved in across the hall from me who looked very familiar, but I wasn't quite sure who he was. After some phone calls to Mickey Kaus, I found out it was indeed the famous Michael Kinsley, and that he was starting an online magazine for Microsoft. I immediately went in to ask Michael if I could work on it with him. I proposed that I help get the thing going, along with some other Microsoft art directors and designers. They had me gather a group of illustrators to choose from, and knowing how great and how fast your work was, I pitched you, Mark Stamaty, and Philip Burke as prime illustrators for Slate. I don't remember why Philip didn't get a contract, but I was really happy that you and Mark got to work on Slate. I was a believer, but I really wanted them to not be idiots, and to do it right. They did.”

     Meanwhile, I,  (Neubecker) was working in watercolor and pen, but I’d been experimenting with bare bones brush and ink drawings as a personal project. Living in lower Manhattan, I hung around with some of the political artists from COLAB like Becky Howland and Kiki Smith. I got interested in exploring the relationship between political cartooning, illustration, and political art. I started by stripping drawing down to it’s most basic elements, using fat, ruined brushes on watercolor paper and then illustrating a single concept or idea. I collected overheard phrases, song lyrics and headlines and drew them, then hung them together in big batches.  I showed some of these in the East Village with Gracie Mansion.

    Patricia bought a few of these drawings and, when they were developing a look for Slate, showed them to Mike and the Slate editors. The idea was to use simple black and white drawings that could download quickly on the old, slow, dial up modems. I had newspaper experience, and had worked extensively with Patricia when she was design director at Newsweek, so she knew that I could produce on short deadlines. So far so good. But, then the Microsoft people suggested, why couldn’t we just hire a high school kid who could draw, pay him peanuts, and come up with our own cartoons? (ain’t that cute?)

   Patricia went to bat for me then and all summer long. First, I said, go ahead and get the kid. I’ll work for two weeks, and if you like the kid better, hire him and you don’t have to pay me. The kid disappeared. She then hired Mark Alan Stammaty and myself as Slate’s first illustrators, in the spring of 96.

I’ll quote Patricia again: “The great thing was that finally I got Microsoft and MK to agree that the kid just wasn't up to it, and that they did need someone like you and Mark to help give Slate the look it needed to have to be taken seriously.” And I’ll add; wow, they coulda’ had Burke too?

    The next hurdle was the contract. It was about what you’d expect from Microsoft, without the stock options. I based my fees on The Wall Street Journal because there were no comparables at the time. I worked all summer without a contract or a paycheck while Patricia patiently, persistently moved the contract from WFH to the normal one time usage, artist copyright, that is the ethical norm. I got a Microsoft shirt in June and the big joke around the studio was that that was my pay… but I believed completely in the project and was willing to show up on faith that Patricia would work it out. And she did. We ended up with a contract for two drawings a week, and I’ve done it ever since, wow, fourteen years and counting.

   I worked with Ian Adelman on the day to day illustrations for a few years. I did the drawings big, xeroxed them, and faxed them. We liked the graininess. Ian went out on his own and was replaced by Kathleen Kincaid as AD and Lori Johnson as assistant. Over this period, the technology improved, and I began scanning and e-mailing artwork. I put in for a raise and Kathleen said, “Sure, but can you work in color?” well, of course. The website continued to improve with technology, becoming more interactive with live links all over the cover. This really junked it up, to my horror, but I’ve gotten used to it now. In the old days it had a very elegant, spare cover…, that I’ll try to find a screen grab of if I can only find a zip drive…

  Microsoft sold Slate to the Washington Post in 2005 and the offices moved to New York. I miss the thoughtful retreats that Microsoft used to throw for the staff at Cascade Mountain resorts… It was great meeting everyone that I have worked with- something illustrators rarely do today. I was pretty tongue tied around Mike Kinsley but I’m used to reporters and I nearly drowned our Supreme Court correspondent, Dalia Lithwick , on the rafting trip. She went after me with a super soaker and I retaliated with a bilge pump. On another retreat, I was driving a rental car with contributors Robert Wright, Emily Yoffe, her husband John of the Washington Post and their seven year old daughter. The conversation was so interesting that I missed the turn to the mountains, drove on for hours, and ended up in Canada.

   It is such a pleasure to work with these people. Mike stepped down in 2002 when Jacob Weisberg took over as editor. Jake is best known (among us low brows) as the originator of the “Bushism” series of  W.’s linguistic atrocities. It runs many volumes.

   Slate has continued to evolve, adding Nina Frankel and Charlie Powell to the regular illustrators, and Rob Donnelly doing animation. Other illustrators contribute as well.

   One of the big questions we all have as illustrators are where will we be in ten years? I see more and more illustration being used on the web. There was an explosion of illustration being used online in ’99 and ’00 before the tech bubble burst. This is gradually coming back and with the advent of the I-Pad and similar devices I expect this to open up more. Long columns of grey type is always boring- even in the New Yorker, bless them. Photos all look alike after a while. I have two web illustration jobs on now, series of drawings.  One of the nicest jobs I did last year was a web animation I did for a pharma company. I teamed up with Rob Donnally from Slate who made the drawings move. I expect to see much more of that as time goes on. And print, like radio, I don’t think will ever go away. They say video killed the radio star. Tell that to Howard Stern.



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