I first met Michael Kinsley in July 1996 at Bill Gates Hood Canal vacation home on one of Puget Sounds many inlets. Gates had summoned about a dozen top technology journalists in the hope of currying favor. At the time, noted journalist and CNN personality Kinsley was one of Gates newest employees.
In an interview last week at Agenda 2002, Kinsley remarked what a strange encounter it was, having just been hired by Gates as editor in chief of Slate, a new online public affairs newsletter. Indeed, the event started on a macabre note. On the first night, as we mingled with Gates, Paul Allen, Craig McCaw and Kinsley, TWA 800 exploded and plunged into Long Island Sound.
Kinsley now says he was unsure why he was there and had only met boss Bill once before. Welcome to the world of high-tech schmooze fests. We, of course, had assumed they were fast friends and had been conspiring for some time.
Slate, now 5 years old, has surprised everyone. For starters, its lasted longer than any sane handicapper would have wagered at the Hood Canal affair. The expectation was that the high-profile mouthpiece for Microsoft could never survive Gates and companys heavy-handed control.
Insufficient evidence exists to support that that happened. Gates, says Kinsley, has left him alone, and Microsoft has been the best steward hes had as a top editor.
“I have been an editor under three different arrangements [New Republic and co-host of CNNs Crossfire]. Theres a lot more conflict if you bump up against a big media company,” he now says.
Dont look to Slate for hard-hitting coverage of its employer, though. You wont find it. A search of “Microsoft” turned up 1,185 hits, but the majority seemed to be letters to the editor. “DOJ” only turned up 186 and “Penfield-Jackson” 75. You get my drift.
Kinsley says he written about Microsofts battles with the Feds, but searching under his byline turns up very little on the topic.
Granted, hes probably written more about Microsoft than I have about Ziff Davis Media, my employer, which bolsters his point about media companies. But face it. Microsoft is arguably the most interesting business story of the past 25 years and could be for just as long into the future.
For its part, Slate has stuck to its staple–appealing to inquiring intellectual minds. On Tuesday, the home page headlines were:
- “Can the U.S. Torture Bin Ladens Associates?”
- “Is Islam Peaceful?”
- “Mendelssohns Hee Haw: And other hidden jokes in classical music”
Its fair to say that just because Microsoft owns it doesnt mean Slate shouldnt exist. By some measures, its done quite well. As a “general news site,” the number of unique visitors from August and to eventful September doubled to 4.7 million, according to Mediametrix.
However, who younger than 60 can recall a busier news month than this past September? The spike in traffic for the top 15 news sites jumped anywhere from 29 percent (WSJ.com, one of the only major sites to charge for content, where yours truly used to be a columnist) to 315 percent (Time.com). Slate was in the middle of the pack, along for Septembers wild ride.
Speaking of charging for content, Slate used to do that, and therein lies one of the biggest lessons Kinsley has learned.
“People wont pay for [online] content except when it comes to money and sex,” he says. He credits WSJ.com on the money side. Sites selling sex are too numerous to name and often too raunchy. During the brief time it charged $19.95 a year, Slate peaked with 30,000 subscribers. Do that math, and you might be able to afford Kinsley and an occasional freelancer.
Of course, none of this answers the central business question: Does Slate make money or at least pay its own way?
“I thought wed be making money about six months ago,” he says, acknowledging that the economys downturn precluded that. The site, which is part of MSN.com and is supported by advertising, might break even for the calendar year, he says.
Slate, its incredible sugar daddy not withstanding, has proven a gritty survivor. Americas thirst for opinion and public affairs is unquenchable given the events of Sept. 11. And you cant beat the price.
“If the world is going completely to hell, then Slate doesnt matter. If the world isnt going to hell, then Slate is in a good position,” says Kinsley.