Slate drops subscription fees

After nearly a year of charging readers, the Microsoft-owned online magazine hopes to boost advertising and e-commerce revenues by resuming open access.

After nearly a year of experimenting with subscription-only content, the Microsoft-owned online magazine Slate is once again opening its doors to the general public.

Newly appointed publisher Scott Moore cited sluggish growth of online subscriptions and an overall boom in online advertising as the primary reasons behind Slate's decision to drop its $19.95 yearly subscription fee. Microsoft didn't anticipate either development when the magazine entered into the subscription-based model, according to Moore.

"When Slate made the decision to go paid, neither of the two conditions described above were known," Moore wrote in an email to subscribers. "Now that they are, it makes sense to change our strategy."

Current subscribers will continue to receive a number of premium services should they choose to remain members--including email deliveries, a weekly hard copy edition, "The Fray," and the magazine's archive "The Compost." Otherwise, subscribers will receive a refund.

Slate will also offer a six-month extension on top of the yearly subscription.

Slate's return to the free Web space is Microsoft's latest effort to utilize proprietary content to attract advertising and e-commerce dollars. Slate launched as a free site in 1996 with plans to go subscription-only sometime the following year. But it wasn't until last year that the magazine started charging fees.

Jupiter Communications analyst Mark Mooradian said the decision is anything but shocking, and was a necessary step for Slate to compete with its competitors in the online world, such as Salon, as well as with offline magazines.

"The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, and The Nation--all of them have a weak or non-online presence, and charging for Slate imposed a limitation that ensured that their product would not grow to the size of those competitors," he said. "They have this extreme window of opportunity that I think was curtailed by charging subscriptions."

In the past, Microsoft has taken high-profile steps into the free space since it began pushing its content offerings out from behind its then-MSN online service. Now, virtually every content site has become integrated into Microsoft's MSN.com Web portal with an MSN moniker attached to it, such as MSN Hotmail, MSN Carpoint, and MSN Expedia.

Is "MSN Slate" an option down the road? The option has not been considered yet, according to Moore. But Slate will for now be promoted as a headline on MSN.

"Clearly we're part of the MSN network, and you can get to Slate from MSN.com," Moore, a former advertising manager at Expedia, said in an interview. "The fact that we are free now makes it easier for MSN to promote us."

Moore said the response among subscribers has been positive.

"We've already gotten over 200 responses from our subscribers and they're overwhelmingly positive," he said.

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