Microsoft Slate: Much Ado About Nothing
by Gilles d'Aymery

March 22, 1998

Slate, the on-line magazine published by the Microsoft corporation, debuted on the Web in the Spring of 1996. On March 9, 1998, it became a restricted site, limited to its subscribers. In spite of 18 months of marketing and editorial blitz, millions of dollars expanded and repeated self promotions, only 17,000 out of the alleged 140,000 readers/visitors of the site accepted to pay a fee to continue reading/visiting what had been hailed by the Cyber pundits as the medium of the future. 17,000 subscriptions at $19.95 each make a grand total of $339,150, not even enough to pay the yearly salary and benefits of its cherubic editor, Michael Kinsley.

Is there some explanation to such a debacle? Let us review the chronology of events and advance a few answers.

Microsoft, thanks to its deep pockets, recruited Michael Kinsley, a Washington insider (Crossfire, New Republic, Washington Monthly, etc.), and hordes of talented writers and contributing pundits whose name recognition gave an immediate pure-bred status to the newly-born. Slate was launched through an orchestrated advertising blitz in the "main" media with the expressed goal to start charging a fee for accessing its on-line contents within a few months under the rationale that only a self-supporting magazine could survive in the long term with a guarantee of quality and editorial independence.

They also offered a free weekly e-mail delivery of the on-line magazine, Slate on Paper, formatted with Microsoft's own word-processing application, Word (you could download for free from the Microsoft's site a Word Viewer if you did not already own a copy of the program).

The site carried advertisements, essentially for Microsoft's own products and a few other hi-tech companies and proponents of E-Commerce.

The intention was to start charging by the Fall of 1996. The date was delayed due to serious resistance from the magazine's readers. Instead, in November 1996, Slate sent a reader survey to its subscribers with a series of 31 questions -- mostly usual questions (demographic, income, etc.) except four that asked what Operating System, browser, modem and Internet Service Provider the reader used. In addition, the survey announced that "beginning in February 1997 Slate will charge visitors to the site an annual fee of $19.95." The survey went on to ask: "What are your intentions at that time: -- I will subscribe; -x- I will not subscribe, -- I am not sure."

We checked the "I will not subscribe" line. And to the very last question of the survey, "Please list any other ideas you have that would make SLATE more valuable to you. (use space below)," we answered: "You're doing great for the money! When you start charging and I stop reading you may want to consider lowering the decibels of the Bill Gates and other Microsoft jokes. They don't ring true. However, and since I am receiving Slate for free, my best idea is to say: Thank you!" (You can read this survey -- and our answers -- here.)

Michael Kinsley, in his weekly column Read Me assured the readers that they would publish the results of the survey. By February 1997 no results had been published. However, the same Michael Kinsley advised the readers that the subscription fee was indefinitely postponed.

In August 1997, Slate offered to its readers "Today's Papers", a free short daily e-mail compilation of the front page of five national newspapers (New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times and USA Today). It was amazing to see how much free stuff we could get from people and their corporate sponsors who were so openly frank about their desire to suck in our money and live a rich and happy life forever after!

By November of 1997, Slate sent a second survey to its readers that was almost identical to the earlier one. This time around the question about subscribers' intentions was worded slightly differently:

"SLATE will soon be charging visitors to the site an annual fee of $20 to $30. What are your intentions at that time? ____ I will subscribe _x__ I will not subscribe ____ I'm not sure." (You can read the full survey -- and our answers -- here.)

Like the year earlier, results from the survey were not published but we were told by the editor that Slate had over 140,000 readers, a cause for rejoice.

The day of reckoning was fast approaching.

On February 20, 1998, we received a long e-mail from Rogers Weed, Slate's Publisher, to "extend to [us] -- as a loyal reader -- this lifetime Charter Subscriber Invitation...."of $19.95 per year ($10 off the regular price] and the choice of a free Slate umbrella "(a $20 value)" or a copy of Microsoft Encarta Virtual Globe "(estimated retail price $54)" as well as "a two-week free trial to examine everything the magazine has to offer." Why we would need a free trial if we were already a loyal reader was left unexplained. But a week later on February 26 came a second e-mail, this time signed by Michael Kinsley, and finally a third one from Linda Leste, the Circulation Manager, hit our e-mail box on March 3. (You can read the three e-mails here. Beware, they are long though quite entertaining.)

And on March 9, as announced, darkness fell upon us! No more free access to the site, no more weekly Slate on Paper and no more daily "Today's Papers"

On March 14, on what Slate now calls the front porch of the site -- that is, the free area that hopefully will have visitors be tempted to eventually subscribe -- Michael Kinsley was truly rejoicing. He wrote: "About 17,000 people had signed up for Slate by the middle of this week, a day or so after we became a paid-access site." "...We're very pleased with that number. Thanks, and welcome to all our members."

With his perpetual optimism and famously humble wit, he went on: "Keep in mind that in America, you get what you pay for. The version of this column available only to subscribers is not the rather perfunctory sales pitch you see before you. It is an extravaganza of witty jokes, brilliant political insights, the startling confessions of five women who claim to have slept with President Clinton in the past week (three of whom say they also slept with Special Prosecutor Ken Starr, one simultaneously), the details of Microsoft's plans to incorporate Puerto Rico into the next generation of its Internet browser, a sonnet in memory of Lloyd Bridges, a special offer for laundry detergent, and a secret password that will get you into the hidden pages of any sadomasochistic site on the Web (with the exception of Subscribers will confirm that it's heaven on this side of the wall: The sun always shines, all people are beautiful and kind, there is rice pudding for dessert-and seconds! So please do join us."

A week later, as of this writing, the site keeps advertising the $19.95 rate instead of the regular $29.95 and offering the choice between the free umbrella and Microsoft Bookshelf (that has replaced Encarta). Note in passing the twist of the so-called regular rate. How can it be regular if it has never been charged?

So when will Bill Gates pull the plug on the venture?

The magazine never really managed to give a sense of purpose except for its obvious goal to make money. It was unable to offer a service that was much different from many other offerings on the Web. Its editorial contents kept giving a sense that it did not stand for much either politically, socially or economically and it definitely showed no independence whatsoever. It also underestimated the resistance of Web Surfers to pay for the kind of information -- or, indeed, non-information or infotainment -- it provided. Finally it resorted to marketing techniques better suited toward the print media with little or no innovative efforts to develop a web-centric marketing strategy. Incidentally, the reasons advanced to legitimate its acknowledged goal of financial independence were and remain intrinsically flawed.

Slate's content was in perpetual evolution, growing trendier until eventually following the main media organizations in the selling frenzy of Monicagate and the likes. It treated and reported the news with a semi-libertarian angle made of sleek humor and irreverence without ever seriously attacking the powers in place and certainly not its corporate sponsor. The repetitive Bill Gates jokes sounded hollow, coming from an editor who looked increasingly despaired by a bottom line all written in red. Somehow, the magazine became more gossipy, ending up having more in common with online tabloids such as the "Drudge Report" than with reputable on-line publications. Amusing? Certainly. Relevant? Yawn...

We subscribe to the New York Times, paying over $500 a year to have a copy, weekend included, delivered to our door step everyday. It may look expensive but when examined more closely it turns out to be cheaper than the Slate's yearly $20. Paradoxical? Well, just compare the amount of information, the reading time (not the waiting time to see a page with its commercials painstakingly slowly download), and the access to the Web sites of both publications... It's a no-brainer. As for editorial independence and contents, except if you believe in some Jewish conspiracy in the press, poor Michael has a long way to go before stepping out of his sponsor's grip on Slate (the magazine actually published Bill's diary surrounding his trip to Washington last month). And you do not need a computer and Microsoft software to read the New York Times!

In America, Michael reminds us, you only get what you pay for. He is undoubtedly correct. Indeed, in America, only the market is free! Then why resort to used-car dealers' marketing? If the average Slate readers are savvy and well educated individuals (according to its editor) what does Slate's marketing push tell us? A "free gift", please!

The IBM CEO estimates that E-Commerce will reach $200 billion by the year 2,000. So, obviously, we could be wrong, as wrong as the 120,000 other readers who did not subscribe to Slate. But, there is one little detail we wish Bill Gates and Michael Kinsley would clarify for us. How are they going to attract subscribers if their site cannot be accessed freely?

Published March 22, 1998
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