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Wiping the Slate clean

Editor in Chief Michael Kinsley looks back on his six-year stewardship of the online magazine and the unexpected role he played as a new-media pioneer.

Call it the six-year itch.

Michael Kinsley, founder and visionary of online magazine Slate, resigned as editor in chief of the Microsoft-owned publication this week, ending a glamorous marriage that catapulted the high-profile journalist into the role of new-media pioneer in 1996.

Considered the soul of Slate, Kinsley was hired by Microsoft founder Bill Gates after stints as co-host of the CNN show "Crossfire" and editor at both The New Republic and Harper's Magazine. When Kinsley made the much-publicized jump from the world of traditional media, his pedigree served as validation for a medium that was then still largely unformed.

Kinsley, who announced in December that he's suffered from Parkinson's disease for the past eight years, plans to continue writing for the Web site. But the editing burden will no longer be on his shoulders. Two Slate editors are now vying with each other for the top job.

CNET News.com interviewed Kinsley, who talked about lessons learned from online publishing, his vision for the future of the medium, and the importance of reading in the john.

Q: Why did you decide to step down as editor in chief at Slate?
A: Over the course of my career, like many other journalists, I've changed jobs every few years. I'm not sure why it's even so remarkable that I should be getting a little bit itchy--and I'm not actually leaving Slate. But after six, seven years, I felt I wasn't as fresh as I had been, and it's important to me that the magazine continue to be fresh. And I thought a fresh person in the chair would be a better guarantee of that. Then the Parkinson's disease was a factor as well.

How did your illness play a role?
Bill G. is pleased with Slate--proud of it as an owner, likes it as a reader. Well, it's not that I couldn't do the job. (But) you have an incentive not to procrastinate. If, for reasons having nothing to do with a medical condition, if I feel like a change, it's counter-veiled by the thought that every year counts.

What has it been like to be a pioneer in Web publishing?
Well, I like that New York Times headline about being a pioneer, but I think that's a little melodramatic. I do think that Slate, like CNET, like many publications that started early on--we've been inventing paper and ink. Print publications have conventions and procedures and technology that is essentially so established that you don't even think about it.

But we and other Web publications of the last half of the '90s had to start from square one in a way that I never imagined in print. We didn't discuss in any magazine I ever worked for whether the page numbers should run forwards or backwards. The very concept of a page and what's on it, or that you had a table of contents at the beginning of your publications--navigation or the whole concept of navigation, which people on the Web still haven't really figured out and we all spend time brooding about, thinking about, and trying to innovate about--doesn't even arise in print because how you navigate a book or magazine is just absolutely standard.

So it's been fun to be at the beginning of that and watch some of these conventions develop. And it was certainly fun during the era when everyone was scared to death of the Internet and thought that Slate was going to put Time and Newsweek out of business, and every little company was suddenly worth hundreds of millions of dollars. It was certainly fun to be part of that excitement. And it was a little bit of fun to be part of the downturn, the backlash, in the sense it's certainly been part of the history of the Internet. Also, (there's) a certain feeling that we had done the right thing in order to survive.

For instance?
An approach that I think has been vindicated is, stay lean, stay small, stay cheap.

People say that the only reason you're still around...is that you're bankrolled by Microsoft. Certainly it's been very good to work for Microsoft. They are a fantastic, really perfect owner of this media property. (But) if we had lost as much as some of these other content sites, Microsoft would have shut us down years ago. On the other hand, if these places had been losing as little as us, they'd still have most of their venture-capital nest eggs left.

People at Microsoft have said that you're the soul of Slate. Do you think Microsoft will continue its commitment to the publication?
I naturally inquired about that before I made this move. Nobody gets rock-hard guarantees. But I got all the right noises. Bill G. is pleased with Slate--proud of it as an owner, likes it as a reader. We are 2.8 million unique users on Jupiter Media Metrix, which is not something you would laughably throw away in any event. So I feel pretty comfortable about that.

You were hired as the star of Slate. Will it continue to keep its profile without you at the helm?
Starting in the fall there are going to be the Tablet PCs, which will answer the key question of, How can I read this in the john? First of all, I'm hoping the new editor will be energized and fresh and do a better job of coming up with smart ideas than I feel in the mood to do. Secondly, whatever PR value I can bring, I hope I am still going to be bringing--and maybe even have more time for promotional efforts that I couldn't do when I was slaving away in front of my word processor.

Third of all, I think Slate as a brand is one thing we've clearly succeeded at. We have not succeeded yet financially, and whether we've succeeded editorially is a matter of opinion. I think we have, but I can't prove it. One thing I think is just about provably true is that Slate is a recognizable media brand. People come up to me who recognize me from TV, and they used to say, "Whatever happened to you, you used to be on TV." Now they say, "I really like reading Slate," and that's great.

What do you see as the future of online content? When, if ever, do you think people will start to pay for content?
It's a cliche, but I think convergence is basically going to happen and that the delivery mechanism and the content will become entirely different issues. Five years from now, you won't think of an online magazine vs. an offline magazine. Starting in the fall there are going to be the Tablet PCs, which will answer the key question of, How can I read this in the john? That's the biggest complaint I've gotten over the years, is that I love Slate, but I don't like reading in front of a computer screen. The tablet screen will go a long way to alleviating that problem, which isn't the screen but the fact that you have to sit in front of a terminal.

At that point the difference between an online magazine and a non-online magazine will start to disappear, so I think the premise of the question will evaporate. In terms of payment, I think, yes, it's just a matter of time and the development of easy micropayments, which is a puzzle to me why that's been so slow in developing. I would have thought five years ago it was a few years off. Yet we still don't have it. I mean, it exists; it's just not standard.

I was at the Times (online) archives today and I wanted a piece, and it probably would have cost a dollar or two, which I happily would have paid, but I just didn't want to horse around with signing up for it. Once they solve that problem, the resistance to payment (will go down).

Already, the whole notion that it's immoral for anything to cost money on the Internet, which was quite powerful five, six years ago--information wants to be free and all that--has disappeared. And also, people's total unfamiliarity with paying on the Internet and worry about their credit cards has almost disappeared. So there's only the third element, which is inconvenience standing in the way of people paying money.

I also think that the ad model for content is more than viable. It's just a question of time before that bounces back too.

Is Slate profitable?
No. It's never been closer to profitability than it is now. In other words, the curve is pointing in the right direction. It just hasn't gotten there yet.

Why did you stick around at Slate so long, when some time ago you had almost accepted a job at Conde Nast?
I was offered the editorship of The New Yorker. Well, I wasn't feeling itchy back then, and also, I saw that at that point, if I left, Slate may not have been kept going. Our traffic (in 1997) was about 200,000 to 300,000 (unique visitors), and it's now 2 or 3 million, so that makes a big difference.

What's the barrier to entry for a Web publisher entering the market today?
There is virtually no barrier to entry. The blogs are just a wonderful thing about the Web--you know, individual people just starting up their own Web sites. Doing it in a big way, the biggest return was the whole backlash of the Internet frenzy of a couple of years ago. Inside.com and The Industry Standard are the most famous examples of the drain, and that made people skeptical, but that will change too.