21st: Let's Get This Straight: As Slate goes, so goes ... Slate

By Scott Rosenberg

Published March 19, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

The punditry has been flying thick and fast over Slate's move last week to close its doors to all but paying subscribers. In this week's Time, for instance, Richard Zoglin asks, "Is Slate Worth Paying For?" Business Week's Steve Hamm had previously asked an almost identical question: "Would You Pay to Read Slate?"

It sounds like a reasonable enough query, but it largely misses the point. Most people feel like they're already paying for Slate, the Microsoft-funded magazine edited by Michael Kinsley -- along with the rest of what they read online. Journalists, ensconced in offices with fast Net connections paid for by their companies, too easily forget that most of the general public is forking over at least $20 a month -- and in many areas, considerably more -- for Internet access.

The additional $20 a year that Slate now demands is hardly a budget-breaking amount. But if you feel that you're already spending $240 annually for the Net, you might not be eager to start piling up surcharges.

The subscription drive that preceded Slate's March 9 gate-closing netted the magazine 17,000 subscribers -- not bad at all. But at $20 a head, that's only a drop in the bucket toward meeting what an analyst in Business Week estimated to be a $5 million annual budget.

Meanwhile, by "closing the gate" Slate has decimated its circulation, making it almost impossible to earn revenue from advertising (unsurprisingly, everywhere you look in Slate today, the ads are from Microsoft itself). Even Bill Gates, the man who is ultimately footing the Slate bill, spoke skeptically about the magazine's prospects earlier this month: "I love Slate, but everyone who's going to subscriptions has had a very tough time," Gates said in a talk at the New York Public Library, as reported in the Netly News.

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So why would any sane businessperson make such a move? The answer seems clear, though none of the pundits has spelled it out: Microsoft is using Slate as a guinea pig in a Web-business experiment. Gates and company have no particularly deep-seated need to publish a thoughtful magazine with long articles on tax policy, dialogues on NATO expansion and the occasional poem. But as a software company interested in making money on the Internet, Microsoft is very interested in trying out Internet business models.

From the earliest pre-launch coverage of Slate two years ago, Microsoft made clear that the magazine was going to test the hypothesis that people would pay for "premium content" on the Web. It took a little longer to start the test than originally planned. But if Slate didn't begin charging sooner or later, Microsoft would never get the results of that R&D experiment.

The trouble is, Slate's public-policy-heavy contents and polished prose are hardly representative of most Web sites -- yet its high profile has made it a bellwether for the fate of online publishing. If Slate fails at any time in the coming years to make its business model work, pundits will surely trumpet, once more, the "death of Web content."

For a taste of what we're in for, look at the latest article from ABCNews.com's technology columnist, Fred Moody. Moody is the author of "I Sing the Body Electronic," a solid book about multimedia development at Microsoft. But in a piece titled "Will Literati Inherit Web?" he offers some of the most addled thinking imaginable on the subject of Slate.

Moody begins with a double-barreled dismissal of the idea that "advertising can subsidize the cost of publishing on the Net": Never mind that commercial Web publishing is all of maybe 3 years old; its fate is sealed! Trying to sell advertising, according to Moody, is "loony." But wait a minute -- charging for subscriptions is even "loonier." (In both cases Moody adopts the pejorative verb "subsidize," as if to equate magazine subscriptions and advertising with some sort of unholy bailout boondoggle.) I guess this means that ABCNews.com -- like Salon and all the other loonies online -- might as well just pack it in now.

Moody goes on to state that Slate "stands virtually alone on the Web as a cyberspace-only publisher of quality prose and thought that seldom has anything to do with the computer industry." OK, I'll admit it, it hurts to be left out. But it's where Moody's argument is heading that's really painful: He declares that Slate's fate will be a "mandate on the medium" -- a test to see whether the Net can succeed in reaching beyond geeks to a wider audience.

"Kinsley and Microsoft," he writes, "are trying to prove the proposition, long held by evangelists for the personal computer, that the literate will inherit cyberspace from the numerate. To root for them ... is not so much to root for Slate and its staff as it is to root for the computer and the Net as a viable vehicle for real discourse and entertainment, taken in by real people. If Slate proves a bust, you can forget about the computer's pretension to mass acceptance as an information-and-entertainment medium."

One barely knows where to begin to unravel the misinformation and mistaken assumptions bundled into these sentences. To pit the "literate" against the "numerate" is ludicrous, for one thing -- as though expressing oneself in English and understanding the relatively simple HTML language for making up Web pages were somehow mutually exclusive. Two or three years ago it might have made sense to argue that computer professionals and hobbyists make up "90 percent" of the Web audience (a number Moody seems to have pulled out of a hat). Today's Web is bustling with the entire range of human behavior and experience: People use the Web (and the Internet that it is built upon) to buy and sell things, to do business, to meet other like-minded people, to get news and information and then argue about what they've learned.

In 1998 the Internet already is "a viable vehicle for real discourse and entertainment taken in by real people" -- and it would still be one even had Slate never been a gleam in Bill Gates' eye. Furthermore, Slate's success or failure with its pay-to-read-plan provides no clue of any kind as to the "mass acceptance" of this new medium. On a Web filled with celebrity fan sites and sports information repositories and pornographic fleshpots, how could anyone mistake Slate for a "mass" product?

Like Moody, I'm rooting for Slate. The more outlets for serious writing, the better. But "if Slate proves a bust," I'm not going to sing a dirge for the Web. If anything, the magazine's decision to start charging for access to nearly all of its content constitutes a kind of secession from the Web. This is a connective medium: Unlike so much computer jargon, the name "Web" isn't an acronym but a valid metaphor. In "closing the gate" to non-paying readers, Slate has also cut itself off from the rest of the Web, making it pointless for other sites to link to its articles and pages.

For Slate, the Web is now simply a physical distribution network rather than a social environment. For better or worse, Slate is now on its own. Smart move or big mistake? We'll know in a year or two. Either way, though, don't believe pundits who tell you that as Slate goes, so goes the medium. They need to get out more -- on the Web.

Scott Rosenberg

Salon co-founder Scott Rosenberg is director of MediaBugs.org. He is the author of "Say Everything" and Dreaming in Code and blogs at Wordyard.com.

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