Slate to charge subscription fee

After delaying the move for a year, Microsoft's online magazine Slate will start charging a subscription fee in 1998.

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After delaying the move for a year, Microsoft's online magazine Slate will bite the bullet and start charging a subscription fee in the new year, publisher Rogers Weed said today.

Weed said Slate will start the plan in the first quarter of 1998 after January. Slate had not yet ironed out the details, such as how much readers will be charged or how it will affect deals that the magazine has struck with online services America Online or Microsoft Network.

When Slate launched in June 1996, the ambitious plan was to put out a weekly online magazine that would be sold to subscribers for $19.95 per year starting last February.

Then, it abandoned those plans, saying that people on the Net weren't quite ready to pay for content. Now, Slate is counting on them being ready.

"We've been discussing it off and on since we delayed last February," Weed said. "I think we just feel that it's time to move to the next phase for the magazine, which is asking our readers for help."

The move is sure to be closely watched not only because of Slate's high profile, but also because online efforts in general are looking for the right combination of free and for-fee content and services to become viable business operations.

In the past year, Slate has added several features and refined the magazine to fit the Web. When it launched, Slate read a lot like a paper magazine translated into bytes. But now it is more tailored to the Net: Stories are shorter, the writing is less formal, and articles tend to be more information-dense.

Clearly, Slate is hoping the improvements it has made will entice its 140,000 monthly readers to pay for the product they have been getting for free.

All along, Slate has said that it would not be able to support itself through advertising alone.

While Web products have had trouble asking readers to pay up when there are so many freebies out there, some have been slowly starting to implement fees. Sites such as the Wall Street Journal and Playboy have been the exceptions to the no-fee rule. But now others, such as Money magazine, are adding subscription-based services.

Weed noted that those who stick with the advertising-only model may get left in the dust. "A lot of people will decide to go for subscriptions or go out of business. The economics don't make sense."