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Clean slate for Slate

The editor of Microsoft's e-zine posts a column outlining what he has learned about Web publishing and how he is changing Slate.

In the nearly 15 months since Microsoft (MSFT) launched its online magazine, Slate, Michael Kinsley, like a lot of new Web editors, has learned some interesting lessons, as he explains in a letter posted on the company's Web site.

All the lessons seem to stem from this basic fact: A paper magazine is not a Web site and a Web site is not a paper magazine.

When Slate first appeared in June 1996, its goal was to put out a weekly online magazine that would eventually be sold to subscribers for $19.95 a year, just like a magazine. Things didn't quite work out that way.

Kinsley's comments highlight the learning curve involved in new media, where established hands in traditional print and broadcast venues find that while their skills and expertise can inform their efforts, the online environment (not to mention the Net audience) is a distinct animal that is still maturing. Not surprisingly, even the savviest managers, producers, and editors are going to take a few lumps.

First, Slate's publishers learned that selling a subscription for a Web-based product that's already free would not be as easy as they thought. In January, they shelved those plans, where they have been gathering dust ever since.

Publisher Rogers Weed said today that Slate still plans to sell its online magazine to subscribers. But, he acknowledged, "We don't have a time yet."

Most people--even Microsoft CEO Bill Gates--dislike reading long articles on a computer screen, Kinsley notes in his letter. So, he says, until "we develop screens that are light enough and portable enough to take to a comfy chair by the fire, to bed, or to the bathroom," Slate had to adapt.

"We're making our articles shorter," he states. "Magazine articles can run into many thousands of words. In Slate, we try hard to hold them to 1,000 words, max."

He adds the features will be "collections of very small, easy-to-digest morsels that still add up to a substantial meal."

Weed said they have also learned that the writing on the Web, delivered quickly and with much less editing, tends to be much less formal than that of print publications.

Aside from style, there is the question of the type of content. Entertainment is great, but like a lot of Web sites out there, Slate is learning that until everyone has speedy access to the Internet, users are going to shy away from bandwidth-intensive exercises such as downloading video and sound clips.

"We're making conscious attempts to do more news analysis and less of the long, ponderous opinions," Weed said. "You need to have more information and less entertainment these days. If you're predominantly entertainment on the Web, you have a much tougher row to hoe than if you're predominantly information."

Kinsley also acknowledges that he erred in planning according to magazine time. "My second mistake was in thinking you could publish once a week on the Web and leave it at that. A Web site is too 'alive,' compared with a printed page (and, frankly, Web readers are too antsy) to leave your site static for a week."

The folks at Slate also are learning that for an online product to be successful it has to mold itself to the medium, which includes using hyperlinks and unlimited storage capabilities, as well as keeping a site fresh.

"There's no doubt that if you read Slate on paper you're not getting as good a product as if you read Slate on the Web," Weed said. "And that's become more and more so over time."

Slate's visitors--a monthly readership of 100,000 doing 100,000 daily page turns--can expect the e-zine to adopt this mantra and become even more Web-like.