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Slate clean of subscription fees

Microsoft's online magazine shelves its plans to charge readers subscription fees starting in February, saying it will do so eventually.

Microsoft's online magazine, Slate, today abandoned plans to charge readers subscription fees starting in February.

Rogers Weed, Slate's publisher, said the magazine eventually will charge a subscription fee, but he just didn't know when.

Slate had been planning for months to begin asking readers to pay $19.95 a year for a magazine they had been receiving online for free over the past six months.

Like many Web businesses launched in the days when charging a fee would have been like jumping off a virtual bridge, Slate is trying to figure out how to make some money from its investments.

Some, such as the Wall Street Journal, have been able to convert from free to paid services. Others have found that customers don't want to pay for goods they've been getting gratis.

Many businesses are modeled around making money from the growing sectors of online advertising and commerce.

Slate is currently supported by a combination of the deep pockets at Microsoft as well as online advertising. It still plans to charge $70 annually for a subscription to a paper weekly version of Slate.

Weed said the holidays gave Slate staffers a chance to reflect on their imminent decision to begin charging online. They came to the conclusion that charging subscriptions now could lock out too many potential readers who have yet to log onto the Net.

"Our primary goal is to create a strong brand in the area of opinion journalism on the Internet," Weed said. "The Internet is still approximately doubling in size every year. Consumer behavior patterns are still emerging. It just seemed that in light of that and how in flux the whole medium still is, the smarter thing would be to stay free, focus on building readership, and extending that momentum until things settle down a little more."

Right now, Weed estimates that regular readership of the online magazine is from 30,000 to 40,000. And he pointed to a recent readership survey of 3,600 respondents, half of whom gave Slate an overall eight, nine, or ten on a scale of one to ten. About 60 percent of the respondents said they had been reading Slate for at least three months.

"We were seeing very reasonable numbers there," he said. "We said, 'What do we have to gain by doing this?' On balance, we felt it was a smarter business decision to stay free for right now."