Is Slate Worth Paying For?
Microsoft's Webzine, flush with readers drawn by Monicanalysis, tries again to charge for its wares
By Richard Zoglin
(TIME, March 23) -- God bless Monica Lewinsky," began a Michael Kinsley column a few weeks ago in Slate, the Microsoft-backed online magazine he edits. Kinsley was crowing about the Webzine's jump in readership: 270,000 different visitors in January, nearly double the audience of a month earlier. The Monica-fueled boost has emboldened Slate (slate.com) to once again take a step that it tried and aborted just a year earlier: ask its audience of freeloaders to become paying subscribers.
It's a plunge into the unknown--and maybe into oblivion. As of last Monday, Slate's daily serving of features and comment on news, politics and culture was declared off limits to any Web surfer who doesn't shell out $19.95 for a yearly subscription. Kinsley, the former New Republic editor (and current TIME essayist), reports that 17,000 subscribers had signed up by midweek, a big falloff in audience but a necessary step, he argues, if the Webzine is to be a self-sustaining business. "Readership is going to plummet at first," Kinsley admits. "But you have to bite the bullet."
Or do you? The Lewinsky affair has also been a boost to Slate's chief rival among magazines written for the Web, Salon (salonmagazine.com). But Salon editor David Talbot says the San Francisco-based Webzine has no plans to start charging; he claims it will turn a profit within a year, primarily from ad revenue.
Bill Bass, an analyst for Forrester Research in Cambridge, Mass., thinks Slate is making a mistake by taking the big hit in circulation, which will reduce ad income. "As far as I'm concerned, it's an advertising-driven business," says Bass. It is certainly a tough business. Two Webzines, Word and Charged, folded last week, and others like Feed (feedmag.com) and Suck (suck.com) are staying afloat largely by operating on a shoestring.
Yet Slate's move will at least help answer a vital question facing the Webzines: Who needs them? Both Slate and Salon have provided an outlet for provocative writers (Camille Paglia, Jacob Weisberg), clever ideas (Slate's Clintometer, a running gauge of the President's chances of being forced out of office, lately replaced by the Starrometer) and the occasional scoop (Salon's report last week that a group with ties to the Rev. Jerry Falwell has paid $200,000 to people making allegations against Clinton--a charge Falwell's camp denies). But the barrage of 'zine commentary, columnizing and contrarian analyses of the latest media spins can be numbing, not to say superfluous. "We're not just a bunch of pundits shouting for attention," protests Kinsley. "We're trying to clear through and sort out the clutter." Or do they just add to it? Readers are about to render their verdict.
--With reporting by Patrick E. Cole/Los Angeles and William Tynan/New York