By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Slate inexplicably lays off Jack Shafer

Jack Shafer

Earlier this summer, Mark Lisheron called and asked if I’d like to talk with him for a profile of Slate media critic Jack Shafer that he was writing for the American Journalism Review. Well, of course. Shafer is among the very best when it comes to journalism about journalism. He’s also been kind to me over the years, so I was happy to return the favor. You can read Lisheron’s piece here.

Then, yesterday, the inexplicable happened: Slate got rid of Shafer, according to AdWeek, with editor David Plotz citing ongoing financial woes at the pioneering webzine. Erik Wemple of the Washington Post also ties the move to problems at the Washington Post Co., which owns Slate.

Shafer is a dogged reporter in a field where too many media critics would prefer to sit back and pontificate. (Yes, irony alert. I get it.) But he wore his reporting lightly in the sense that you could tell how much research he’d put into his pieces, yet he didn’t feel compelled to show his work all the time. As a small-“l” libertarian, he also brought a calm, iconoclastic perspective to a field dominated by liberals and conservatives thundering at each other about allegations of bias.

It was Shafer who popularized my two favorite descriptions of Rupert Murdoch: “rotten old bastard” and “genocidal tyrant.” Though Shafer is no admirer of Murdoch, he uses the former description more affectionately than not, and “genocidal tyrant” is actually something Murdoch himself coined. Nevertheless, I always enjoy borrowing those descriptions and crediting them to Shafer.

As for Slate, well, times are tough, and I suppose Plotz has access to website traffic numbers to justify his decision. But as far as I’m concerned, Shafer is pretty much the only reason to look at Slate, and it’s hard to imagine I’ll even bother with it anymore other than for exceptional articles someone flags on Twitter.

Shafer, I suspect, will soon surface in a better job than he’s got now. Still, this is a bitter day.

Photo via the Missouri School of Journalism.

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  1. Many years ago I worked at the Daily News Tonight, the tabloid’s short-lived foray into afternoon newspapering. That glorious effort was helmed by the late Clay Felker, who numbered among his many obsession news from and about the advertising biz. Clay wasn’t the most casual guy in the world to approach, but once you caught his attention he was very easy to talk with. Just after deadline one day I saw my opening and asked Clay why he was so fixated on advertising news. Simple, he said. If you could impress the cold-hearted souls who ran the agencies with hustle and insight, it could do nothing but help your publication. Clay made it clear that this wasn’t an exercise in mutual back scratching. Rather it was an important sliver of what was then quaintly known as building and maintaining a reputation: branding in MBA speak. I think media reporting and criticism could be similarly classified. There are junkies — such as the readers of this blog — who follow writing on media and the press as an end in and of itself. But general readers and people in public life take away from media coverage a sense of a publication’s values and standards. In this regard the brass at Slate have shot themselves in the foot. They were too short sighted to see the immense value that flowed to Slate from Jack Schafer’s irreplaceable work.

  2. tobe berkovitz

    Wow, underwhelming response on the lay off of Jack Shafer. Shafer was one of the bright lights of press criticism. The lack of media criticism in the MSM and new media is part of the reason for the pathetic state of journalism and information media in the U.S. of A. No accountability. Where are the watch dogs watching the watch dogs?

  3. Rachel Alembakis

    Wow, I missed that one; I just presumed Shafer was on summer holidays. That’s a real shame. Not trying to kiss up or anything, but Jack Shafer and you are the only two media critics I can read.

  4. john stewart

    Howie Kurtz inteviewed Jack Shafer in a piece that aired Sunday, Shafer returned the favor by lobbying on-air for Kurtz’s job!

    heres an online extra

    In an earlier segment, Kurtz lobs a question at Eleanor Clift with the cliched “I ask you, Eleanor Clift”

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