Slate goes free again

Doug Henwood dhenwood at
Fri Feb 12 08:59:11 PST 1999

For some reason, I paid for a Slate subscription which I've almost never used. Just got an email announcing that they're going free again. An excerpt from the email shows Microsoft trying to be whimsical:

>Q: "New subscription policy" my Aunt Sally. Who are you trying to
>kid? You're obviously backing down.
>A: No, no, you see there's always been a mix of free and paid stuff
>... we're just changing the mix .... OK, OK, sure: We're backing
>Q: Why?
>A: In a nutshell, it now looks as if it's going to be easier
>to sell ads but harder to sell subscriptions than we thought a year
>ago. Ten to 15 people visit our free areas every month for each one
>paying subscriber. (That's counting a reader just once no matter how
>often he or she visits.) It's painful to think of turning away so
>many SLATE readers from so much of our content--not to mention the
>potential readers who don't come in the first place. The spreadsheet
>wizards figure that ad revenue from the increased traffic will more
>than compensate for the lost subscriptions.
>Q: Well, duh! Everybody said you can't charge for content on the
>Internet. Information wants to be free! Unless it's about sex or
>stocks. But oh no, you knew better. You'd show the world. You'd
>charge for news digests, for political analysis, for cultural
>discussions, for poetry f'r Chrissake. Don't you feel like jerks?
>A: Not really. OK, maybe a bit. But look: This is terra incognita. We
>never claimed to have found the one true path. We tried one thing,
>now we're trying something else, and we'll keep trying until we
>figure it out. Although we are owned by a rich company, becoming
>financially self-sustaining remains a crucial goal. And it's not as
>if anyone else has figured it out either. Let him or her with a
>Webzine that's breaking even cast the first stone. (And "going to
>break even next year" doesn't count. Every money-losing magazine in
>history is going to break even next year.)
>Q: But clearly, at least in hindsight, you got something wrong. What
>was it?
>A: Clearly, yes. It may just have been that we were too early. There is
>too much free stuff out there, the process of paying and accessing
>what you paid for is too clumsy and unfamiliar, and so on. Some of
>this may change. But we also may have missed a couple of more
>fundamental truths about the Web. One concerns readers and one
>concerns advertisers. Web readers surf. They go quickly from site to
>site. If they really like a particular site, they may visit it often,
>but they are unlikely to devote a continuous half-hour or more to any
>one site the way you might read a traditional paper magazine in one
>sitting. This appears to be in the nature of the Web and not something
>that is likely to change. And it makes paying for access to any
>particular site a bigger practical and psychological hurdle. Web
>advertisers, meanwhile, don't seem to place any special value on
>reaching paying subscribers. That was a bit surprising, since
>traditional magazine advertisers usually require paying subscribers.
>Even profitable magazines often spend more money finding and signing
>up subscribers than those subscribers will ever pay. But if they just
>gave the magazine away, advertisers would lose interest. Why doesn't
>this apply on the Web? Probably because Web advertisers pay on the
>basis of ads served. If you buy an ad in a print magazine with a
>500,000 circulation, you have no way of knowing how many of those
>readers actually saw your ad. But if they paid for the magazine, you
>at least have some assurance that they picked it up. On the Web, that
>assurance is unnecessary. If you buy 500,000 ad impressions on SLATE,
>you know that your ad has been put on someone's computer screen
>500,000 times. This is a great selling point for Web advertising, but
>it radically changes the economics of charging for subscriptions.
>Q: Isn't this change a sign that you're getting desperate, that
>Microsoft is losing interest, that you're about to fold, that the end
>is nigh, strange and dreadful diseases are about to ravage the
>population, the stock market is going to tank, Linda Tripp will get
>her own TV talk show, and so on?
>A: For heaven's sake, you made the same sort of dire predictions when
>we started charging for content a year ago. We have had nothing but
>support from the company, both in general and for every stage of our
>ongoing experiment. One benefit of making our current content free is
>that SLATE will be able to participate more fully in the new Microsoft
>"portal" site,
>Q: Do you promise this is the last big change in SLATE that you'll put
>us through?
>A: Absolutely not. This is an adventure. Thanks for joining us on it.
>Q: One final question. What does Bill have to say about this?
>A: It's true we approached the CEO with some trepidation, and his
>initial reaction was not encouraging. He turned to his guard dogs and
>said, "Neukom! Herbold! Kill!" But then he said, "Wait. What will
>happen to that Emily Yoffe who writes the column about the tabloids?"
>She'll get many new readers, we explained. "And 'Dear Prudence,' and
>Edelstein's movie reviews, and all those e-mail back-and-forths?"
>Ditto, ditto, ditto, we replied. "OK," he said, turning to his canine
>physiotherapist, "Ballmer, call off the dogs. Give them some print
>magazine to eat instead. They just love the Economist."
>P.S. Don't forget that we will still be selling subscriptions--and if
>you want services like "Today's Papers" by e-mail, you'll need to have
>one. In fact, if you're not a subscriber, now would be a good time to
>sign up. Any subscribers who join us before the end of March will be
>eligible for the special bonus we're offering current subscribers.
>Go to for details.
>Quality Assurance Code
>For Slate Use Only: 574251

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