A magazine that’s printed on computers is more like a magazine than it is like a computer program. That was the verdict handed down on Dec. 21 by Microsoft and the Washington Post Company, as the software behemoth announced that it was selling its Web-based Slate magazine to the ink-on-paper-ware empire.
The new-media startup that drew founding editor Michael Kinsley to the rain-soaked wilds of Washington State back in the pioneer era of 1996 will be based-click map to recenter!-in the old-media capital of midtown.
“Arguably, it has been for a while anyway,” said Slate’s current editor, Jacob Weisberg. Taking advantage of the placelessness of online publishing, Mr. Weisberg has been running editorial operations from Manhattan offices-currently on Sixth Avenue-since he took over the top spot in 2002.
But in January, the official headquarters in Redmond, Wash., will shut down, and Slate’s Pacific Northwest editorial staff-save for a handful of work-from-home copy editors-plans to join Mr. Weisberg in the Newsweek building on 57th Street.
“We’re hoping they will find us a cozy corner in the building,” Mr. Weisberg said.
Cozy feelings seemed to be uppermost on Tuesday-the long-rumored Microsoft-Post deal treated less as a business transaction than as a loving pet adoption. “Microsoft has been a terrific home for us editorially,” Mr. Weisberg said. “But we’re very small, and they’re very big.”
Slate’s new home, the theory goes, should be amenable to the magazine’s needs. Unlike certain other media companies, which lately are putting their brand-name stamp on every new platform they acquire (Discovery-Times Channel, anyone?), the Post has declared its intention not to turn the magazine into Slate.Washingtonpost.com.
“Various publications owned by the Post Company operate independently,” Mr. Weisberg said. ” … I don’t think it’s going to [produce] any changes on the editorial side anytime soon.”
But changes will be coming on the business side. And there, the news highlights a potential difference between Slate and its print-media peers: The Washington Post Company thinks Slate is going to turn a nice profit.
“We see great potential for Slate,” said Cliff Sloan, general counsel of Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive and Slate’s new publisher. Mr. Sloan, on the phone from Arlington, Va., said the company looks forward to cashing in on the online magazine’s “influential and educated audience.”
Despite the famous pajama’d legions giving content away for free, online publishing has ceased to be a money-burning proposition. Through the first nine months of 2004, Mr. Sloan said, the Post Company’s online display-advertising revenues are up 59 percent. “Online advertising has tremendous advantages and benefits,” Mr. Sloan said. “That’s become an accepted proposition.”
“I certainly don’t find it hard to believe that it was a hard-nosed business decision,” Michael Kinsley said.
Mr. Kinsley added that he, Mr. Weisberg and the rest of the early Slate brain trust “have a good I-told-you-so coming.” The publication has evolved considerably from his original conception; in the planning stage, Mr. Kinsley recalled, he thought Web publishing meant the magazine would be “downloaded and printed out once a week.” But his essential belief was that the magazine would be able to pay for itself.
“The last time I looked at the books,” Mr. Kinsley said, ” … by the most honest accounting it was basically break-even.”
Some of the particulars of the online-publishing economy were good to have been wrong about. Rather than downloading the contents for a weekly read, for instance, the Slate audience is checking the site repeatedly onscreen, at work-where people are out of the reach of most other advertising media.
“It’s a very effective way for advertisers to reach their audience,” Mr. Sloan said.
Slate editor-at-large Jack Shafer said that the magazine’s early theories about readership volume had also proven too modest. “To exceed the readership of The New Republic, we would have considered ourself a great success,” Mr. Shafer said. That estimate-at the time, somewhere in the neighborhood of 100,000, according to Mr. Shafer-was off by an order of magnitude. For November, the Nielsen/Netratings put Slate’s unique-user count at five million, Mr. Sloan said.
In part, according to Mr. Shafer, that’s because the magazine had underestimated the importance of having a strong distribution network. ” Slate really benefited from having a sort of pole position in [Microsoft's] MSN network,” Mr. Shafer said.
That relationship, with other sites in the MSN network carrying links to Slate stories, will be preserved under the Post’s ownership. But instead of MSN’s mass-market ad-sales operation, Slate ads will be sold by the Post’s niche-targeting online ad staff. “The Post is equipped to go after the defense contractors and people with business in Washington,” Mr. Kinsley said.
The centralized moneymaking operation- Slate’s business operations will be handled by the Post’s existing Arlington staff-essentially inverts one popular early online-business model, in which print outlets slapped existing content on the Web and then charged their online divisions with finding a way to make a profit off it.
Paid Web subscriptions, then-an early, abandoned approach at Slate-are gone for good, according to Mr. Sloan. “Advertising revenue will be the core of the business proposition going forward,” Mr. Sloan said.
Slate’s move into the print-media camp also reunites Mr. Weisberg with Mr. Sloan-“my boss in the first job I ever had, when I was 15,” the editor said. The teenage Mr. Weisberg was a Congressional page for Democrat Sidney Yates of Chicago’s North Side, under the supervision of Mr. Sloan.
“Jacob was a remarkable page, because he very quickly decided that unlike the other pages, he did not particularly want to spend his time delivering the messages around the Hill,” Mr. Sloan recalled. So Mr. Weisberg contrived to get himself assigned office work, doing research and answering constituent mail. (“He was my editor,” Mr. Weisberg said, adding that Mr. Sloan had to “tone down the responses” his young charge was composing.)
At one point, Mr. Sloan said, Mr. Weisberg happened upon a trove of original bills, some dating back to the 1800’s, that were bound for the incinerator. The page raised the alarm about the potential loss, and the Speaker of the House stepped in to spare the old paperwork from the flames.
“Jacob saved a piece of history,” Mr. Sloan said.
After careful consideration, Off the Record is pleased to announce that it has selected Time magazine’s selection of George W. Bush as Person of the Year as Thing-of-the-Year of the Year for 2004.
Mr. Bush’s selection beats out a formidable roster of 2004’s other things-of-the-year: Blender’s Woman of the Year, Gwen Stefani; Hispanic Magazine’s Entrepreneur of the Year, Victoria Varela Negrete; Electronic Products Magazine’s Product of the Year, the Kopin CyberLite gallium nitride L.E.D.
But Time’s Person of the Year selection-and its attendant publicity frenzy-stand alone. Reached on the phone at his office the day after the announcement, editor Jim Kelly said it was “fun to go to Google News” and watch word of the selection spread-to papers in the Netherlands, the Times of India, and on around the globe. That day, one had to click back through 58 pages of Time-themed Google News results to find the next “magazine’s * of the year”: World Soccer Magazine’s selection of Ronaldinho as Player of the Year.
Mr. Bush’s principal rival was the Chrysler 300, Motor Trend’s choice for Car of the Year. The Chrysler 300 is a “square-shouldered” car that’s something of a throwback, said Motor Trend executive editor Matt Stone-“a return to rear drive at an affordable price point.”
Motor Trend has been in the selection business since 1949-a long time, but not as long as Time. Time got into the Person of the Year ( née Man of the Year) business in 1927, with Charles Lindbergh (in his role as heroic aviator, not as Philip Roth’s counterfactual American Nazi president).
Mr. Stone confessed that his magazine can even compete with Time’s famous missteps. Gen. and Mme. Chang Kai-Shek, meet the 1963 Rambler Ambassador and the ’71 Chevy Vega! And like Time’s pick, Motor Trend’s gets a place on the Today show. “We did a walk-around with Matt and Katie,” Mr. Stone said.
But Mr. Kelly did Today twice-and Charlie Rose, and a Person of the Year announcement special on CNN. The key to Time’s dominance is the magazine’s ability to turn the editorial deliberations over its announcement into a whole separate news event.
Mr. Kelly dates the surge in anticipatory coverage to 2001, when he mentioned to the Orange County Register that Osama bin Laden might be a strong candidate. That caught the attention of the rest of the media-and then, when the magazine picked Rudy Giuliani instead, it discovered it had basically hired a full-time pitch man (sorry: pitch person!) for Person of the Year.
“Giuliani became our own best publicity person,” Mr. Kelly said. “…He appeared on all the talk shows.” Even The New York Times-which Mr. Kelly said “famously does not mention Person of the Year”-was forced to acknowledge Mr. Giuliani’s selection.
“It just shows you what a viral society we live in,” Mr. Kelly said.
New York Times spokesperson Catherine Mathis wrote in an e-mail that the paper has no formal rule against covering Person of the Year. “It’s not a matter of ‘official policy,'” Ms. Mathis wrote. ” Time magazine’s selection of the Man of the Year is a publicity event, not a news event.”
Mr. Kelly said that the interest may stem from the persistent belief that the Person of the Year award is an “accolade” rather than a title given to the most profoundly important newsmaker, for good or ill. But asked to come up with a recent example along the lines of Hitler or Stalin, Mr. Kelly had to reach back to 1979, when Time made the feel-bad selection of the Ayatollah Khomeini.
“‘The American Soldier’ last year was not exactly putting me in the red-hot center of controversy,” Mr. Kelly said.
There was a whiff of potential controversy this year, when rumors had Time’s selection going to Mr. Bush’s campaign mastermind, Karl Rove. The Daily Standard went so far as to denounce the pick in advance as an insult to the President.
And the New York Post ran with a Page Six item on Saturday hinting that Mr. Rove would be the choice. Or was that Dick Gephardt?
Page Six chief Richard Johnson shrugged off the red herring. “How can you be wrong when you’re making a guess?” Mr. Johnson said. “I should have realized that they’d pussy out again. They should have gone with Osama bin Laden in 2001.”
Still, Mr. Johnson said he had no regrets about helping Mr. Kelly hype his announcement. “It’s a good way to fill space as the slow holiday season approaches,” he said.