readme: Policy made plain.

Scott ShugerA pioneer of Internet journalism.


Scott Shuger

When we hired Scott Shuger back in 1997 to try his hand at a new Slate feature called "Today's Papers," we thought we were doing him a favor. Scott, who died Saturday at the age of 50 in a scuba diving accident, had been a casual friend of several of us from the small world of Washington journalism, and the even smaller world of alumni of the Washington Monthly. Scott at that time was a respected free-lance writer and was having some success moving into television. For a while he was under contract to develop stories for 20/20 on ABC. Scott was doing OK.

But he was not having the blistering career that he, among others, felt he deserved. One reason may be that he did not suffer fools—an essential tolerance for someone who needs to be in good favor with several editors and TV producers at the same time. Also, he had lovingly followed his wife, Debora, out to Los Angeles when UCLA offered her a professorship in medieval literature. Scott enjoyed L.A.—for the convenience of pursuing his passion for diving, among other reasons—but it was not the best place from which to peddle meaty articles about government policy. Scott could be cynical or playful, in life as well as in his writing, but an intense—patriotic, really—earnestness about defective weapons or intelligence reform or homeless policy was one of Scott's endearing characteristics.

We asked Scott to do Today's Papers for two banal reasons: He was available, and he lived in the Pacific time zone. The job, we imagined, was a fairly straightforward one of reading the new editions of the five national newspapers as they were posted on the Internet throughout the night and summarizing them for Slate readers by early the next morning. Someone on the West Coast, we figured, could achieve this by staying up very late rather than getting up very early—which most journalists would regard as a big advantage.

It turned out that the favor we were doing by hiring Scott was for ourselves. "Today's Papers" quickly became our most popular feature. The idea (from the staff member who is now Slate's editor, Jacob Weisberg) was a good one, but the execution was brilliant. Like a cook who knows instinctively just how much spice to put in a stew, Scott turned out to be a natural at knowing exactly the right balance between telling it straight and adding his own insights. He developed a style and a set of conventions that allowed him to deliver a tremendous amount of information in few words, without making the result seem like a deadly summary.

Some of Scott's best insights were about the press itself. TP, as we call it, became a daily course in how the media think, what they get right and wrong, all illustrated by the day's news. He used the different ways the five papers covered (or didn't cover) the same story as a controlled experiment in journalistic practice. Scott actually stopped writing TP last September, in order to become Slate's principal writer about the war on terrorism, but Scott's style and method were stamped so strongly on the feature that many readers thought Scott was still writing it.

It didn't take us long to realize we had a huge hit. In fact, it took less than 24 hours. The first day Today's Papers appeared, we got a message from Bill Gates asking when we were planning to make it available by e-mail. We had been planning to do this within a year or so, if possible, given our limited resources and other priorities and technical difficulties and so on. Miraculously, following the chairman's inquiry, we had e-mail delivery going within barely a week. Soon hundreds of thousands were getting Today's Papers by e-mail, and similar numbers were reading it on the Web. William F. Buckley e-mailed, distraught and begging for reinstatement, when his e-mail delivery was accidentally canceled.

One night early on Scott posted a notice, in place of the column, that he had a terrible cold and was too sick to write. By the next morning there were dozens of alarmed e-mails from loyal readers inquiring nervously about his health. The concern was human but also practical: They had come to depend on Scott to introduce the world to them each morning. One e-mail came to the editor (me, at the time) from Bill Gates Sr., the chairman's father, who spoke of "Scott in Los Angeles" with such personal affection that I thought at first that he was referring to another of his children, not to a Slate writer he had never met.

Scott Shuger was, in a way, the first complete Internet journalist, in that the Internet was essential to both his input and his output, and the result was something new and useful that couldn't be done before. Without the Internet, Scott couldn't have read five newspapers from across the country—and done it before the paper editions were even available. With the Internet, Scott could even write the column—about the day's major American newspapers, remember—from Berlin, where Debora Shuger had a visiting fellowship in 2000-2001. Scott used to say that the best place to write Today's Papers from would be Hawaii, where, he claimed, it would almost be a normal 9-5 job.

Having gathered his material from the Web (with the help, as it became popular and influential, of faxes and phone calls from the various papers' newsrooms), Scott would push a few buttons that would essentially publish his column to our Web site, where it could be read within seconds all over the world, and send it out by e-mail automatically. This is in the middle of the night, mind you, when editors and technicians prefer to be asleep.

(One rival claimant to the crown of first pure Internet journalist might be blog and scandal pioneer Matt Drudge. As it happens, Drudge first came to national attention in a Los Angeles Times story written by Scott Shuger shortly before he came to Slate.)

Scott became a regular visitor to Seattle, a friend of all his Slate colleagues, and a close friend of several, including me. A fitness buff, a master of judo and karate, an experienced scuba diver, he enthusiastically added the local sports of hiking and rafting to his repertoire and shared memorable adventures with several of us. On these outings he would delight in talk and argument as only a writer who ordinarily works alone all day can.

One subject that often came up was that of risk. Scott was an odd combination of macho daredevil and supercautious worrywart. (On one hike he carried a full-sized chair several miles up the side of a mountain, along with a heavy pack—an impressive feat of strength in service of a fastidious desire not to sit on the ground.) He was obsessed with personal security, carried various weapons (not firearms) for self-protection, and loved any opportunity to train women to repel attackers.

But he also was an explicit and adamant believer that experiencing life vividly is worth taking risks. Pending an autopsy, we do not yet know exactly what happened yesterday afternoon. I would be very surprised if this tragic accident were the result of some negligence or failure on Scott's part. At the same time, he was about as realistic as any human being can be—not all that realistic, I suppose, but still ... about the unavoidable dangers of his avocations. He was not a gratuitous risk-taker, but he knew what he was doing and had thought intelligently about the potential cost.

Scott might not have enjoyed growing old. He treasured his good health and mental acuity and would have disliked watching them slip away even more than most of us will. He was in a good place in his life. He loved his job. He brimmed with pride in his daughter, Dale, who graduated from Harvard last year. He looked forward to a new period when he and Debora (who were married for 29 years) could adventure together, unfettered by child-rearing and tuition bills. He certainly wouldn't have chosen a sudden exit yesterday. But all of us who shared Slate editorial meetings with him can well imagine Scott—puckishly, tentatively at first, but perhaps even adamantly as he got swept up in his argument—making the case.

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Michael Kinsley is a columnist for Time and the founding editor of Slate.
Photograph of Scott Shuger courtesy of Michele Botwin.
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Scott Shuger and The Fray

Scott was a great Fray combatant: getting down and dirty and exchanging insults with the best of them. He loved getting involved, and he never held back. So it's not surprising that there are pages of tributes to him in this Fray. Scott was the only Slate writer who would have discussed his salary with posters, the only one to call readers 'pus nuts,' and certainly the only one who (when the insult became widely used) would want the credit: he wanted it firmly established that it was he who introduced it to the Fray. It seems fitting that one of Scott's old enemies, lilmcg, posted this tribute to him, and got his first checkmark with it: Scott would have liked that. Scott kept up with his Frays, and was always interested, always asking questions and making suggestions, he knew and respected his regular posters. He may have been handy with insults, but he was always the kindest, politest, and most generous of colleagues.

Thanks to History Guy for pulling up this list of some of Scott's inimitable Fray posts. And to Mangar (below): of course Scott was smiling.


Fray Tributes to Scott Shuger


Condolences to Mr. Shuger's family and friends. It sounds as if he was a terrific guy to be around. I appreciated his work in Slate even when I disagreed because he did not appear to me to be an axe-grinder who let his preferred conclusion to cloud his analysis. This is a journalistic quality that is somewhat rarer than might be imagined. He will be missed.

--Will Allen

(To find or answer this post, click here.)


Although I sometimes heartily supported Mr. Shuger's conclusions and sometimes thought he missed the mark completely, I always respected his willingness to take a stand. His articles often produced big and lively Frays precisely because he gave us something to agree/disagree with. It must be daunting for any writer to function in a format that allow immediate, and sometimes damning, reviews of his work but Mr. Shuger deserves special recognition for his willingness to state his opinions as exactly that and without apologies. He was a Slate writer that I consistently read and I am personally very sorry to learn that his voice has been silenced prematurely.

--The Bell

(To find or answer this post, click here.)


Unique among the Slate writers, he was willing to engage the Fray on its own terms. He thanked respondents for insightful posts from time to time, and added further thoughts on the issues he raised. He also responded to insults with more creative insults, and occasionally responded to legitimate criticisms with well-turned insults as well. It didn't advance debate, but it was fun. His tactics were effective in increasing interest in the Frays where he participated, and a powerful insult from Shuger became a badge of honor for the Frayster targets. His Fray contributions as well as his journalism will be missed.

--History Guy

(To find or answer this post, click here.)


To Scott from kibble-for-brains, a.k.a. "Moron", etc.
…I have a few "badges of honor" in the form of insults from Scott.

I have to admit, they really got to me at first. However, it was just at the end of last week when I relaxed a little and came to see that, more significant than the name-calling, Scott was taking the time to interact with his readers on a fairly regular basis. He may, perhaps, have even been paying me the respect of seeking out my posts. Was he as vehement as he sounded, or was he wearing a smile at the keyboard as he tossed about for new epithets? I still don't know, but I was beginning to suspect the latter.

I wish we'd ended on a better note. I think that many Fraysters feel the same. In the end, though, I'd rather Scott come into the Fray and call me names than ignore his critics. And I'd suffer far worse than "Kibble for Brains" for the opportunity to hear from him again.

Goodbye, Scott.

--Mangar

(To find or answer this post, click here.)

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