How Closely Do the Aims of 'Slate' Match Its Medium?

We've moved quickly from guessing which online pioneer will become the Internet's Edward R. Murrow to who will become its savior. Such grand allusions and excessive metaphors increasingly used to describe cyberspace distract from the more fundamental questions of what's on the Web, who's using it, and which models seem to be working.With these questions in mind, I headed for the real-world offices of Slate magazine, arguably the best-funded, best-publicized, and best-written site on the Web.It's been a year since Michael Kinsley rode into town as Slate editor-elect. No one ever doubted that Kinsley could string together a weekly series of first-rate news and analysis. The question is whether or not topnotch editorial content (and its providers) can support itself on the Web. Despite its advantages, Slate has already radically revised its business plan and updated its mission statement. While Web zines have proliferated, and a few have stood out -- besides Slate, there's Salon, Feed, and Hotwired -- none has stumbled onto a formula for success, and some of the less endowed are beginning to fold. Kinsley came to Microsoft with fanfare and a rÚsumÚ full of multimedia promise: editor of Harper's and The New Republic, host of CNN's Crossfire, moderator for public television's Firing Line. If traditional media cast Kinsley as a missionary to rescue cyberspace from juvenile sex chats and indulgent writing, his rhetoric, at least, didn't disappoint. Kinsley even seemed to go out of his way to antagonize the online world. "I'm too old to go whoring after twentysomethings," he told Ken Auletta in The New Yorker last May. "There is a deadening conformity in the hipness of cyberspace culture in which we don't intend to participate," he elaborated in Slate's inaugural issue. "Part of our mission at Slate will be trying to bring cyberspace down to earth." Then Kinsley drew a line in the sand that would separate his project from others: Slate would charge its readers $19.95 per year. Auletta's New Yorker profile ended with a raised eyebrow at Kinsley's claims that Slate would delay charging readers for a few weeks, until Microsoft perfected its billing software. Last month, after numerous further delays, Kinsley announced that Slate will not, for the indefinite future, charge for subscribers. While few tasteful Web sites charge browsers, Kinsley's hand was forced by the spirit of populism in cyberspace he had sworn to resist.Slate headquarters occupy a handful of cube-shaped offices lining the second floor of Building E on Microsoft's Red West campus. Kinsley's office sits at an intersection in the maze of gray-carpet hallways. Outside his door, a whiteboard shows next week's headlines: "Gore-in" refers to a dispatch from inside the Clinton inaugural by Slate intern and vice presidential daughter Karenna Gore. On the opposite wall are posted results from Slate's readership survey: 82 percent male, median age 40, average net worth $250,000. The numbers roughly track with Slate's print counterparts, included for comparison on the memo, except that Slate's readers are a little younger and more male -- there are, of course, far fewer of them (30,000-40,000, by Slate's own best guess). In the memo, Slate is sized against The New Republic, The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, and The Economist, a list indicative of Kinsley's standards and the company he believes Slate should keep. It's also notable that he doesn't list other Web sites for comparison, evidence that Kinsley's clearly thinking "print."Inside Kinsley's office, the first thing you notice is a framed red poster: "'I never read The Economist' -- Management trainee. Aged 42." Another office features Dole/Kemp campaign posters defaced with a "Role/Hemp" bumper sticker. These well reflect Slate's editorial slant: contrarian, winkingly self-conscious, sharper-than-thou.Kinsley himself is famously bespectacled and pallid. In person, he comes off considerably less animated than his television persona. Walking into the cafeteria at Red West, a few heads turn (whispers: "Is that Michael Kinsley?"). At 46, Kinsley is a dozen years older than the average Microsoft employee. Over caesar salad and panini, the editor explains his turnaround on subscriptions: "My position was that I'd rather eat crow than make a terrible mistake." When it finally became technically feasible to bill subscribers, Kinsley, Slate publisher Rogers Weed, and other Microsoft executives decided that subscriber revenues generated from $20 per reader would not cover inevitable losses in circulation that drive the magazine's other major revenue stream, ad sales. (The Wall Street Journal Web site lost 93 percent of its readers when it began charging readers in September.) "Depending on how you play with the numbers, you lose more than $20 for the 20 you got. In the end, it seemed like something we were doing as a point of principle rather than as a good business decision. . . . "What really put it over the top was a memo from Nathan Myhrvold [Microsoft's chief technology officer]." From the outset, Myhrvold believed charging for subscribers wouldn't work. Slate is not "owned" (Microsoft parlance for managerial oversight) by Myhrvold, even though he's a division VP and generally considered the company's in-house visionary for online ventures. He has, however, been a consistent adviser and contributor to the magazine.In September, the cybersage offered up his own Web metaphor, arguing that the medium demands free distribution, no matter what a site's hype, financial status, or quality of content. "To understand the challenge of getting people to pay for Internet content," Myhrvold wrote in Slate, "imagine trying to sell subscriptions to HBO back in the 1950s." Back then, he says, television captured public fascination purely by the spectacle of its medium. "They clustered around their primitive sets to watch the damnedest things." The logic goes that before subscribers will pay for premium programming, they must first become addicted to the medium and bored by their options.To further explain the decision not to charge readers, Kinsley draws parallels to other late-blooming media successes. Television news, for example, took 50 years to mature from talking heads reciting news copy like radio-readers into Bernard Shaw's live on-the-scene Gulf War coverage for CNN. Moreover, Kinsley reminds, magazines very rarely make money in their first years.If Slate's challenge to conventional online business has so far yielded to market pressures, Kinsley's editorial integrity remains largely intact. Looking at the site, the magazine metaphor is purposefully reinforced. There's a table of contents, a "back of the book" section, page numbers, and so on. To say Kinsley avoids multimedia may be an overstatement since the site features sound clips, hyperlinks, and other multimedia where appropriate. Stories in Slate are crisper, shorter, and less exhaustive than they were in the beginning -- showing some adjustment to the medium -- but recent issues feature truly fresh writing. Highlights include Harry Shearer's running diary from the O.J. civil trial, a challenge to "the world's biggest bookstore", and an overdue dissection of self-appointed new-media prophet Jon Katz.Last month, Kinsley announced another sterling addition to his already impressive stable of writers, New York Times Magazine business columnist Michael Lewis. While Lewis spent last year chasing the Clinton and Dole campaigns -- keeping an addictive, clever, and absurdly revealing weekly journal for The New Republic -- his contributions to Slate will primarily be serial installments from an upcoming novel set in DC, plus an occasional art critique or book review. (Slate's Beltway beat belongs to Jacob Weisberg, yet another New Republic alum.)"The editorial product is terrific. Michael Kinsley has proven, once again, that he's a brilliant editor," says Ken Auletta now. "Did he have inflated expectations? Sure . . . but the most important thing in journalism is content. He hasn't achieved the readers yet, but the editorial product is a small miracle."Slate critics who make their living on the Web don't bother paying compliments to the pedigreed editor. Scott Rosenberg, a media critic and senior editor for the Web zine Salon (voted best on the Net by Time and probably Slate's closest competitor on the Web), writes by e-mail, "I think Slate's unmet circulation expectations are probably the result of having set expectations too high to begin with and having chosen an editorial mix that's surprisingly narrowly focused on 'inside-the-Beltway' material and writers."Despite weaker-than-expected circulation and a delay on subscriptions, publisher Rogers Weed says Slate is on goal for ad revenue -- but like most in the online publishing world, he won't divulge exact figures. Published prices for a banner ad on Slate are 6.5 cents per page viewed, called an "impression." Earlier this month, Slate was serving four advertisers: Toyota, LA Times, Atlantic Monthly, and Microsoft.According to representatives from each advertiser: The Atlantic pays nothing for its banners, but trades links from its Web site to Slate; the Times and Toyota advertise on a group of Microsoft Web titles, including Slate, at a discounted rate; and Microsoft pays a "competitive" price for banners promoting other in-house products. Microsoft's group manager for ad strategy, Steve Goldberg, adds that Slate's banner sales continue to grow. Nonetheless, some advertisers may shy away from Slate and the premium prices it charges for access to its select readers (and to subsidize its expensive content). For one, Toyota's interactive media manager Jim Pisz says banners on popular search engines, like Yahoo, are cheaper and far more effective ad vehicles than sites like Slate: "The absolute critical part of our Internet strategy is the volume of traffic driven to our Toyota site." While Microsoft's Goldberg points out that Slate's potential subscribers will be richer, more thorough readers, he's unsure whether they will be more desirable to advertisers. Corroborating Pisz, he says, "The demography of the Web is pretty high-end anyway. I don't think there's more value to an advertiser in subscribers, but we'll see."Slate will seek subscriber revenue some day, insist Weed and Kinsley, who still argue that it's the only way to be self-supporting on the Web. Weed would not reveal Slate's goal for number of subscribers, except to say that he expected "something less than 40,000 subscribers" by this date. He will say, however, that Slate will soon launch a marketing campaign with ads in print and other online publications to boost its readership.If Slate watchers are abuzz about Kinsley giving in to Web realities by keeping his magazine free, what will they think of his doing the unthinkable, putting Slate into print? As part of the marketing campaign, Slate plans to publish a complete weekly print edition, called Slate on Paper (replacing a monthly highlight paper edition distributed at Starbucks). Kinsley downplays the apparent concession to print. "We were, from the beginning, committed to the idea that this is a controlled experiment of how people want to read this stuff and then offering as many different options as people wanted." Indeed, Slate from early on was available in various modes: via e-mail, off-line but on-screen (a downloadable version to avoid metered fees of Internet service providers), and at Starbucks."The point is that we're offering [Slate on Paper], we're not pushing it," says Kinsley. "We're out to establish a brand, but we want people to read this online, ideally. . . . Look, if thousands and thousands of people sign up for this, and thousands and thousands don't go to the Web site, we may say that what we have here is a paper magazine. But it's not part of my game plan," he interjects. "Don't make it sound like it's part of our strategy. If Martians land on Earth, we'll adapt to that reality too." The paper edition will be nearly identical to Slate's Web site, as it appears Friday afternoons. At $70/year Kinsley expects to print, staple, fold, and mail Slate to readers without added cost, or revenue. Furthermore, he confirms what many have already speculated: that Slate on Paper is, in part, an effort to get Slate read by unwired Beltway policymakers. "I don't want to sound like a Microsoftie, but they are a bit behind."The paper edition begs the question of whether or not Slate is ideally suited for the Web. "I'd be reading it cover to cover," says Michael Lewis, "if it came in paper form." Kinsley himself is even downright romantic when talking about Slate on Paper: "I like the look; non-glossy paper seems honest somehow."Nowhere is Kinsley's resistance to the Web's apparent advantages more apparent than in his tepidness toward "interactive" reader feedback. "There's a reason why some people get paid to be writers and others don't," he told Auletta last year. "I don't want to go to a restaurant and be told, 'This is a community restaurant, and the guy at the table next is cooking for you.'" Slate does, however, host a reader forum called the Fray. And while Kinsley says he visits the Fray twice weekly, he considers the feature an obligation, a requirement of "Web etiquette."Kinsley insists that he's on the Web to take advantage of its speed, ease, and economy of distribution. But in the end, the reason why Slate is on the Web ironically comes back to Kinsley's personality -- one that so many feel ill-fits the medium. "I'm having the time of my life," he says with believable candor. "Someone's going to figure this out, why not be a part of it?"

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