- America's lone voice on the web

Virtually the US's sole web-only news magazine, has become the leading current affairs comment site. Edward Helmore reports
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The Independent Online

Under Weisberg's direction, Slate has become the most widely visited online magazine and the only one that claims to be even semi-financially self-sufficient. Established nearly a decade ago, under the protective arm of Microsoft, and now owned by the Washington Post, it once competed directly with and Salon, but it now stands virtually alone as a commercial web-only publication with a small staff of journalists with ambition to provide unique commentary on current affairs.

"In a way, it's a disappointment we don't have more competition," says Weisberg, who thinks of Slate as a daily magazine with the tone and sensibility of a British newspaper. But while there are similarities, there is one essential difference between published newspapers and Slate - the online publication does not seek to set the agenda but to comment on it. "We're a magazine for people who already have some familiarity with the news. We are a place that summarises, explains and analyses."

The editor has learnt that readers expect Slate to weigh in, whatever the subject. This was the lesson learnt after Diana, Princess of Wales, was killed, when Slate was slow to offer any response, not sure it had anything to say on the subject. It was duly deluged with complaints from readers saying they wanted to know what to think. After that, Weisberg says, Slate has always made a big effort to add something to any big news story.

And it does. Among dozens of other reports last week, the publication commented (after two shark attacks in Florida) on whether it helps to punch a shark that has you in its jaws (answer: don't know, but it can't hurt); why Scientologists can't stand psychiatrists; if popping the US property bubble would be good for the economy, by Slate's star economics writer, Daniel Gross; and who will speak for Piglet now voice-over actor John Fiedler is dead.

Weisberg, who joined Slate as its Washington correspondent in 1996, asked in his column if the Blair-Geldof-Bono war on African poverty will repeat the mistakes of Lyndon Johnson's 1964 war on poverty which, he holds, undermined liberalism instead of abolishing poverty.

"These well-meaning British pols and their singing Irish counterparts seem determined to repeat all the mistakes of old-school American liberals, only on a global scale," he wrote.

This same question, rearranged, can also be asked of Weisberg. Old-school American liberalism of the kind generally supported by the New York intelligentsia currently appears helpless against Bush and the organised and innovative religious right. Slate, along with The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Atlantic, Harper's and, to a lesser extent, the New Republic, are the natural leaders of any gathering resistance, but often seem more interested in reservations at Nobu.

Slate, he says, should no longer be considered a liberal publication: "Slate has always included a big range of opinion and our writers start with a contrarian instinct - from the position of wanting to think that what our readers think is likely to be wrong." For the contrarian view, Weisberg need only lift the receiver to columnist Christopher Hitchens. "However you might describe him, the one thing he's not is liberal."

Liberal is a dirty word in America and it's one the media are wary of. Even if Slate were thinking of coming out as a member of the left-leaning media, it would be supporting the losing team and no one wants to do that. While Slate seeks to be contrary, and acts in some ways as an international beacon of reasonable thought. Weisberg sees the trend in American journalism "to follow rather than lead public opinion".

Right now, America may not yet be ready for a revival of the left. Clinton, he says, was just a pause in the decline of American liberalism. "It's been in crisis of one form or another since Reagan was elected, and the Democratic Party is in every kind of disarray." Still, for a journalist who came of age professionally cresting on the wave of saxophone-honking, Clinton-era exuberance, invited to all the parties, even co-authoring the memoirs of Clinton's treasury secretary Robert E Rubin, these are lean years.

" This White House has shut out the media, often including media organisations well-disposed toward it. And there are advantages to being the uninvited. "Lack of access to the people running the country can be liberating, because there's no longer any need to colour or compromise published views in the hope you might get closer to the source of power."

Meanwhile, he's editor of a collection of Bush-isms - the mangled sayings of the President - and a keen observer of the ways of the media. Weisberg detects that the US media has become schizophrenic: hypersensitive about how it is perceived, while simultaneously engaged in fits of self-examination.

Newsweek's recent publication of apparently mistaken allegations of Koran abuse at Guantanamo triggered the familiar ritual. "The news business feels under siege and increasingly unpopular. Any misstep becomes an occasion for self-scrutiny, self-flagellation and airing of concern that the public doesn't like or support what we do." At almost the same time, the unmasking of Deep Throat triggered days of media-on-media stories - equally unappreciated. "Everyone in my world assumed it was the most fascinating thing that ever happened, but outside of the New York-Washington media corridor there didn't seem too much interest in it."

These, then, are strange times for this, the high-functioning end of the New York media establishment. It's a good time to be a media magpie such as Slate, finding and pecking at things that glitter.

Weisberg says Slate's role is clear. As AJ Liebling once remarked, the goal is to be better than everyone who's faster, and faster than everyone who's better. "We don't deliver the perfect New Yorker story two weeks after the fact, and we're not an instant wire service story - we want to be somewhere in between."