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Still standing
From editorsí bake-offs to fake diaries, Slate has had its share of woes in the last year. But itís the best online journalism out there.
BY RICHARD BYRNE

BACK IN NOVEMBER 1996, a few months after Microsoftís digital magazine Slate started publication, Advertising Age profiled the new online journal and its editor, New Republic and Crossfire veteran Michael Kinsley.

The article fairly dripped with skepticism. Slateís editor, it remarked, possessed a "mercurial attitude toward the cyber world." The article also coupled mention of an "editing coup" (hiring New York magazine political writer Jake Weisberg) by Kinsley with this tart barb: "But despite the quality of the journalism, more than a few industry observers smell blood at Slate and predict that Mr. Kinsley is not long for the wired world."

More than six years later, Slate is still standing ó bloodied by the dot-com bust, perhaps, but a far sight from the chum scattered on the shark-infested waters of online publishing. And as for Kinsleyís staying power, Slateís editor lasted for almost that entire six years before passing the torch in July 2002 to none other than ... Weisberg.

In fact, itís fair to say that Slate not only stuck around, but has had measurable influence on Web journalism ó including a seminal role in spawning the suddenly hot "blogging" phenomenon. According to both the magazine and independent survey figures from May 2002, Slate draws more than four million "unique users" every month. (The Washington Postís Web site ó one of the most successful among those of traditional media outlets ó boasts six million such visitors. Time magazine claims five million.)

But another issue raised by that decidedly unprescient Advertising Age article remains a burr in Slateís saddle: can Microsoft and Slate make online publishing profitable? Back in 1996, Kinsley said that he expected to answer that question in two or three years, but he left himself substantial wiggle room. "This will be continual beta for many years," he told Advertising Age.

As Weisberg settles into his regime, itís clear that beta time is almost up. Just as Weisberg assumed his post, Microsoft named former Slate managing editor Cyrus Krohn as the digital magís new publisher. In a series of articles published last summer, Krohn promised to push Slate toward profitability at last.

Krohn wonít put a firm date on taking Slate into the black, but his strong public pronouncements signal that the magazine is expected to reach this goal sooner rather than later. "Iím not particularly comfortable with a figure [specifying a time]," he says, "especially while the marketís still recovering." But he adds that Slate is "seeing the quality of advertising that will sustain it. More traditional marketers are looking at it again."

These strong expectations are adding pressure to whatís already been a topsy-turvy year for Slate. Weisberg came into his new job with a profile made even more prominent by the manner of his succession. He won the post in a highly public competition with thenĖdeputy editor Jack Shafer, during which each candidate took the helm for six weeks. (New York Times media writer David Carr dubbed Slateís bizarre succession ritual a "bake-off," recycling the term used by Sports Illustrated staffers for a similar public-tryout competition at that magazine in 1995.) Slateís new editor also had to cope with fallout from the second embarrassing hoax played on the magazine in less than a year, when a "Diary" purported to be written by an auto executive turned out to be a fake. (In June 2001, editors were duped by a freelance writer with an account of "monkeyfishing" in the Florida Keys.)

Thus, Slateís new leader has assumed the helm of a magazine at a crossroads. Will the profitability push ó including expanded pop-culture coverage and the addition or resuscitation of ad-friendly features on travel, tech, and automobiles ó warp Slate? Will the magazine be forced to surrender more of its real estate ó particularly in political coverage ó to the opinion-driven blogging culture that it helped to create?

Slate staffers are wrestling with both conundrums, with an eye toward keeping the big readership numbers the magazine already has, attracting more readers, and getting the books to the balance point and beyond. For his part, Krohn insists that all the content changes are coming from Weisberg ó and not from his end. "Itís the content thatís the real draw here," says Krohn. "Jake has been introducing features that benefit me on the business side. Itís easier to communicate opportunities to advertisers."

Other Slate-sters are grappling with how to feed the mass audience that visits the site while remaining distinctive. "The short answer," says Slate Washington editor David Plotz, "is that we donít do anything to pander to that mass audience. Jake has pushed us to do more cultural coverage, and cultural stuff has more of a mass-audience appeal."

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Issue Date: January 16 - 23, 2003
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