Brief reports and tidbits from the Info-Sphere

Slate rejoins the Web - "Felicity" points to the Web - Blurred lines in Times' Amazon story - Tabloid sues Florida citrus growers over talking ham sandwich! - Gassie: Microsoft's full of Be-S


Salon Tech Writers
February 9, 1999 1:00AM (UTC)

Slate rejoins the Web

Welcome back, Slate! Last March, Slate, Microsoft's Web magazine of politics and culture, decided to start charging a subscription fee for most of its content, closing its doors to the rest of the Web. As I wrote at the time, it seemed that Slate was doomed to be Microsoft's guinea pig in the company's effort to test online business models: Would Web users be willing to pay a small fee for high-quality content, even if that meant cutting Slate's pages off from the rest of the Web, blocking links from other sites to its well-written and carefully edited articles?

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Microsoft had to know, and it now has its answer: Though Slate is alive and kicking, the pig, plainly, is dead. Web users today may pay for specialized information and for adult material, but they're not going to pay for general-interest punditry -- not Slate's particular Washington-heavy and policy-laden mix, at any rate, and not as long as so much is available free elsewhere on the Web. Henceforth Microsoft will continue to charge Slate users if they wish to access Slate's archives, participate in Slate's interactive area or use Slate's e-mail services, but the magazine's daily content will be available to all comers.

In a letter to subscribers, the magazine's new publisher, Scott Moore, wrote, "Two key developments caused us to reevaluate our business model. First, the advertising market on the Web has continued to expand at a remarkable pace ... Second, paid subscriptions for content (other than smut and investments) simply have not grown as expected. When Slate made the decision to go paid, neither of the two conditions described above were known."

Actually, in spring 1998, virtually every industry observer agreed that A) Web advertising was headed for a boom, and B) subscriptions were unlikely to sell. Moore's final passive locution can only leave one wondering: Exactly who was it at Slate who remained in the dark?

What's clear is that Slate never got the subscription base it hoped for. It claims close to 30,000 subscribers now, which means its annual subscription revenue was under $600,000 -- roughly a 10th of what analysts guess publishing the magazine probably costs. Meanwhile, as editor Michael Kinsley admits in a column explaining the new strategy, the closed-gate approach had literally throttled Slate's traffic, making it impossible for the site to raise much money from advertising sales.

That Slate chose to make its announcement on arguably the biggest news day in eons, as the Senate took its roll call vote on impeachment, suggests the magazine hopes to prevent its about-face from making too many headlines. It also reminds us that the year during which Slate closed its doors was the year in which presidential and prosecutorial scandals finally put the Web on the map as a news-breaking medium -- a process Slate's business strategy prevented it from participating in. Now that Slate has rejoined the Web press, its success or failure will be judged by the same measures as any other site: How many loyal readers can it attract, how much noise can it make and how much ad space can it sell?
-- Scott Rosenberg

SALON | Feb. 12, 1999

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"Felicity" points to the Web

The WB drama "Felicity" has been fooling around with Internet angles for some time now. But the lines between the TV show, the Web and reality became even more blurred Tuesday night.

Late in that night's episode, Felicity interrupts her boyfriend, Noel, and a would-be stalker who are hovering over Noel's iMac. One of the characters tells Felicity that they're laughing at a great Web page, which he offhandedly identifies only as "the contemptuous sardonic ..." (He's interrupted before he can finish.)

The casual mention was a direct reference to a real-life Web site -- the "Contemptuous Sardonic Felicity Watchers Society," a site that's "dedicated to improving lives (and vocabularies) through 'Felicity.'" Besides a weekly "Felicity Sweater Count," the tongue-in-cheek site posts a one-line summary of the latest episode's "moral" and features excerpts of dialogue with big words. The site apparently knew in advance about its upcoming on-screen mention -- a message encouraged visitors to watch the Feb. 9 episode.

This TV-to-Web nod is nothing new for the drama. In at least three episodes to date, the title character's resident advisor (who's also her boyfriend) has mentioned his Web site's address at noelcrane.com. The URL points to an actual site -- an elaborate (but now mostly stale) personal Web page complete with pop-up windows and Javascript-reliant pages. Recently updated to include a mock advertisement splash page, it invites probes into "creator" and RA Noel Crane's design portfolio, risumi and residence hall calendar.

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None of the content is framed outright as being related to the show -- in fact, it sounds authentic, at least until you find mentions of the University of New York, the fictional setting of the drama. The show's creators have even danced around the topic of ownership of the site, preferring fans to believe, on some level, that the site is actually that of the fictional character. Does suspension of disbelief work on the Web? Tune in next week.
-- Andy Dehnart

SALON | Feb. 12, 1999

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Blurred lines in Times' Amazon story

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A front-page New York Times story Monday revealed to the world that Amazon.com, the pioneer online bookstore, was taking big payments from book publishers to promote new releases on its Web site in a variety of ways, including reviewing them and listing them as ""New and Notable" or "Destined for Greatness."

The Times article said: "Some [publishers] are reluctant to discuss the blurring line between editorial and advertising. Others view the practice as an exciting opportunity that is no different from the terrestrial custom of selling display space in bookstore chains and supermarkets."

In the wake of the report, Amazon Tuesday announced that it would offer refunds to any customers unhappy with the purchase of a book the site had recommended. Also, Amazon said it will henceforth identify paid placements on its site as such.

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That's certainly a smart and fast reaction, and it will help better orient Amazon's customers in the virtual aisles. But something's a little askew here: Amazon is, after all, primarily and essentially a bookstore. We hope to find a "line between editorial and advertising" in newspapers and magazines, but since when did we expect to find it at a store?

And in choosing to highlight Amazon's practice so prominently, right below stories of the Clinton impeachment trial, the Times might have seen fit to mention its own complex interest in the rivalry between Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com. Barnesandnoble.com happens to be the "exclusive bookseller" for the Times' Web site (as it is for the site you are now reading). Surely this little fact deserved a brief mention in a major negative story about Barnesandnoble.com's chief competitor.

Or could that line between editorial and business be blurred in other places besides Amazon?
-- Scott Rosenberg

SALON | Feb. 10, 1999

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Tabloid sues Florida citrus growers over talking ham sandwich!

It sounds exactly like the kind of story that the trashy news-and-comedy site Tabloid.net might invent as a prank -- a Web site suing the Florida Department of Citrus over a purloined, smart-alecky talking ham sandwich! But believe it or not, the story appears to be true. A lawsuit filed Monday by Tabloid.net claims that their leftover sandwich was used as the spokesmeal in a $12 million national TV ad campaign for orange juice.

Tabloid.net created their talking (and, incidentally, psychic) ham sandwich in August 1997 as a minor character in a bizarre fictional noir serial called Vodka City. Almost exactly a year later, they claim, a similar wisecracking ham sandwich -- complete with olives for eyes -- appeared in a Florida Orange Juice TV commercial, giving running commentary to a boy who opens a refrigerator.

But beyond the striking similarity of the characters, the editors of Tabloid.net believe they have proof of the rip-off: Their log files show that employees of the Richards Group, the Dallas advertising agency that created the orange juice commercial, visited Tabloid.net's Web site several times between May and August of 1998.

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As Tabloid.net editor Charles Hornberger explained their feelings in a statement: "We're just a small publishing company trying to make a good magazine for the Web. We're not in the business of making advertising campaigns for huge companies to rip off. Stealing a completely unique character from our original, illustrated fiction is a shameful way for an advertising agency to make its millions of dollars." (The Richards Group did not return phone calls about the suit.)

So Tabloid.net is suing both the Richards Group and the Florida Department of Citrus, and has carefully documented its side of the dispute on its Web site. Tabloid.net's demands? "Actual damages and the defendants' profits from the wrongful use of copyrighted material belonging exclusively to Tabloid News Services." Considering how much orange juice has likely been consumed in the five months since the juice commercial was released, those profits could pay for a lot of ham sandwiches.
-- Janelle Brown

SALON | Feb. 9, 1999

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Gassie: Microsoft's full of Be-S

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Microsoft's antitrust battle with the Justice Department has left the company strangely enamored of small upstart competitors like Linux and, now, Be -- whose competition it can cite as proof that it holds no monopoly. Last Monday in the antitrust trial, Microsoft senior vice president James Allchin cited Be as an example of another operating system that, like Windows 98, features a "fully integrated" browser.

Trouble is, Jean-Louis Gassie, Be's founder, says that's nonsense. He wrote last week in Be's newsletter: "Our browser is an application, just like a word processor, and it is removed just as easily. I recall us jokingly referring to it in one of our press releases as 'DOJ-approved.'"

According to Gassie, if you remove Be's Netpositive browser, "All you lose is the ability to read HTML documents locally or on the Web. One might object that other applications, such as a mail client, are affected. If you remove NetPositive, clicking on a URL no longer takes you 'there.' Right. If you remove the printer, the word processor no longer prints. This doesn't mean the printer or the driver is 'integrated' in the OS in the sense that removing Explorer would cripple Windows 98."

As for the notion that Be is a credible threat to Microsoft, Gassie calls that a "DOJ bedtime story": "We would feel validated, as we say in California, if we didn't have to wonder why a minuscule company like ours is held in such high regard by the giant."

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