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From AJR,   March 1999  issue

Slate: Free at Last   


By Carol Guensburg & Chris Harvey
Carol Guensburg (carol.guensburg@verizon.net) is senior editor for the Journalism Center on Children & Families, a University of Maryland professional program - and a nonprofit. It receives primary support from the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Guensburg spent 14 years as an editor and reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel after working for three other papers.      Harvey, a former AJR managing editor and a former associate editor at washingtonpost.com, teaches Web writing and publishing at the University of Maryland.     

Slate, the online magazine launched in June 1996 under the Microsoft banner, has bowed to the inevitabilities of the Internet, returning to all-free Web content after a year's trial of paid subscriptions.

As part of its evolution, the magazine also will unveil a redesign this spring that Editor Michael Kinsley says will make the site easier to navigate. Where its redesign may fall short, some critics say, is with interactivity--an element some view as key to the Web's prevailing egalitarian spirit.

While Slate invites letters and reader response at the end of every article (via The Fray bulletin boards), it doesn't do live chats. As New York bureau editor Judith Shulevitz explains, "It's not a call-in show."

Jon Katz, online columnist for the Freedom Forum, says that's an understatement. "Slate is about as interactive as a concrete pillar," he says. The 'zine, despite leadership by "one of the smartest people in the media," as he calls Kinsley, "is simply grafted onto the Web. But it's in no way a part of it."

New media watchers could have predicted last month's move back to free Web access. (Some special services, such as e-mail and archives, will still be offered for a fee.) Paul Grabowicz, coordinator of the New Media Program at the University of California-Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, says few sites have managed to "charge for information without their access falling through the floor."

A regular Slate visitor until its subscription drive last year, Grabowicz says he couldn't understand why the magazine would charge for information that other reputable sites give away. He contrasted Slate with MSNBC, Microsoft's foray with NBC into cable television: "What if that was pay-per-view? Where would it be now?"

A year ago, when Slate (www.slate.com) instituted a $19.95 annual subscription fee for much of its Web content, it saw its monthly procession of "unique visitors," or users, drop off from about 500,000 to about 400,000, Publisher Scott Moore says. Many visited the site through a free sampler (which included a daily digest of national newspapers and three or four other features) and 30-day trials. But the magazine's paid base, reports circulation manager Linda Leste, was in the "high 20s"--a far cry from the 100,000 predicted by a former Microsoft online manager in a May 1996 New Yorker profile of Kinsley.

Moore agrees the growth of subscribers "had not met expectations." But he says the move back to free Web content was also made because the online advertising market "is growing faster than we thought it would." He adds, "This is more about continually defining and evolving the business model, and figuring out what works.... Economically, it's a better choice. We gain more in terms of advertising revenue than we'll give up in subscriptions."

Several new ad positions on Slate's Web pages are expected to be sold to businesses, Moore says, with the hope of turning a profit in two or three years. "Many magazines, as you know, take nine, 10 years," Kinsley says, citing Vanity Fair and Sports Illustrated.

The editor, who in his traditional media life edited The New Republic and Harper's magazines, cares a lot about revenue. "I think the only serious measure [of success] is whether you're self-supporting," he says. "This business about traffic and reach and all this other stuff is irrelevant."

The redesign might have been predicted as well. With Slate readers becoming more cyber savvy, the conventional table of contents and page numbers began to appear antiquated, outmoded.

The editorial content that has earned the magazine a reputation for high standards will remain. It includes bright dispatches (including evenhanded coverage of its parent company's antitrust trial), intelligent commentary (try Walter Shapiro on Monica as patriot), and buff, snappy writing, from Scott Shuger's distillation of the morning papers to its Chatterbox of political dirt to movie criticism and advice columns. Kinsley says he's considering adding a roundup of financial publications.

Already, copy is being shuffled and tweaked. It's being reorganized into three sections: news summaries; traditional magazine features and columns; and "e-mail journalism" and dialogues between staff and guest writers.

New York bureau editor Shulevitz, who's in charge of the last category, says it will be called "24/7": "It's a TV term, broadcasting 24 hours a day, seven days a week." Her diary and debate correspondents--who include journalists and sometimes novelists, poets or architects--will continue to come online by invitation. "We don't have readers participate... because I want the intimacy of two or three," Shulevitz says. "It's more of an interview or documentary."

Kinsley says he's looking to enhance interactivity with The Fray, the bulletin board system that enables readers to peruse or contribute to various threads of discussion. The Fray is being wrapped into the new paid special services package, which Moore says will cost $19.95 a year.

Not on the list of planned improvements is live chat. "Chat is crap," Kinsley says, "a step backward from the telephone and radio. Bulletin boards are like e-mail: You stop to think before you write."

Slate's latest changes are part of its continuing metamorphosis. It moved away from the long-form, New York Times Magazine-style pieces of its first months for economical reads better suited to an office chair. It claimed a niche as observer and guide.

"We compress and distill the essence" of publications and punditry, Deputy Editor Jack Shafer explains, "for people who want to keep up." Strong reporting remains, Shafer says, citing David Plotz's coverage of the impeachment trial, among other things.

But while Slate is redesigning, observers have a few suggestions. Larry Pryor, who directs the online journalism program at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication and is executive editor of the Online Journalism Review (www.ojr.edu), urges including photos of Slate's writers. He says Slate's visuals in general are boring. "Here's this new medium and it has all this extra value to it, in terms of graphics and multimedia," Pryor says. Yet Slate doesn't "care about it."

Kinsley disagrees: "I don't know of any technological whiz-bangery that other sites have that we don't."

Pryor also recommends covering new media: "Here it is a major sort of intellectual center in cyberspace, and yet it has little discussion of what's happening in cyberspace."

Staci D. Kramer, a freelance journalist and enthusiastic Slate subscriber in suburban St. Louis, wants acknowledgement of the territory between Washington, D.C., and New York and Slate's home on the Microsoft campus in Redmond, near Seattle. "I think it would be important if people at Slate who go between the coasts sometimes stop somewhere in the middle," she says.

Kinsley, a Detroit native, says Slate covers a boundless terrain of issues pertinent to readers worldwide. ("Ten to 20 percent of our subscriptions are foreign, though that includes Canada," he says.) The Web and Slate's New York and D.C. bureaus compensate for the "slight disadvantage" of operating from the other Washington, he says. "We're at the heart of the technology culture, where you're constantly confronted with new ideas."