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In Web years, Kinsley is nearly a veteran now

By Published on .

At one point earlier this year, Michael Kinsley, editor of the much-discussed Web zine Slate, feared that all of his efforts might be evaporating on the ethereal Internet.

But during a trip to New York, he was heartened when strangers stopped him on the street to congratulate him and say how much they enjoyed reading his publication.

"It was good to hear," he said. "Even I suffer some of these cyberspace doubts."

Indeed, Mr. Kinsley, now more than four months into his editorship of Slate, has many questions about publishing on the Internet. And not many of the answers are coming quickly.

INITIAL DOUBTS

In separate interviews with Mr. Kinsley, conducted two months apart, his mercurial attitude toward the cyber world is evident. While at first he expressed doubts about the ability of his publication to measure usership and generate advertising revenue, in a later interview he insisted that the publication is ahead of schedule and the ad inventory is sold out.

The former wunderkind of the magazine world as a baby-faced editor for The New Republic, Mr. Kinsley said that he took the job with Microsoft Corp. to prove that publishers can operate profitable Internet-based magazines.

He said he believes it will be two or three years before he and Microsoft even know if it's possible to make money from their Web zine, which focuses on politics and culture.

"This will be a continual beta for many years," Mr. Kinsley said.

WANTS TO MOVE FORWARD

He is anxious to move the publication forward as quickly as possible, however. In particular, he expressed disappointment with Slate's progress selling advertising.

"We don't have as many ads as we would like," he said in an interview in August.

He added that the publication needs to make "an organized push" to sell more ads, referring to the disruption caused by the departure in July of its original publisher, John Williams. Mr. Wil-liams, who left to take a job with Starbucks Coffee Co., was replaced in August by Rogers Weed, formerly a group product manager at Microsoft.

Also, Microsoft earlier this year mysteriously dropped its relationship with the James G. Elliott Co., the Los Angles rep firm it hired to help sell advertising on Slate.

(In a subsequent interview last month, both Mr. Kinsley and Mr. Weed said that the publication is "ahead of plan" and has sold out its inventory of advertising through November.)

TOUGH TO ASSESS

The Internet's yet-to-be-established methods for measuring readership have also made it difficult for Mr. Kinsley to assess his success so far. He said Microsoft estimates that 10,000 readers visit the site each day, a number derived from recordings of around 700,000 hits per day.

"That's a whole world of bull----," Mr. Kinsley said, expressing his frustration with Slate's inability to provide accurate circulation figures.

Slate's readership will become clearer as the publication converts to a paid subscription model. But even that has suffered a setback. The subscription system, which would have charged users $19.95 per year, was scheduled to kick in Nov. 1, but was rolled back to organize billing logistics and a marketing push, Mr. Weed said.

He added that Slate is looking at several subscription options, including a paid model for all content, or a few variations of a split free/paid content approach.

In announcing the decision to push back subscriptions, Mr. Weed said Slate was reaching about 35,000 readers per week.

REACHING DEMOGRAPHIC

Mr. Kinsley said he thinks his publication is reaching its predicted demographic of older, more affluent and better educated readers--judging by the e-mails he receives and the origin of the servers that access the site.

But he worries that prevailing download speeds tend to discourage some site visitors from becoming regulars. To improve Slate's speed, the publication streamlined graphics and combined the contents and cover pages in early August.

Slate is also conducting focus groups in the fourth quarter to get a more precise take on readers.

Slate hasn't been without its victories. Mr. Kinsley recently enjoyed an editorial coup, hiring Jake Weisberg, the former national political correspondent for New York Magazine. Mr. Weisberg joins a crack team of editors and writers, many of whom had worked with Mr. Kinsley in past lives.

But despite the quality of the journalism, more than a few industry observers smell blood at Slate and predict that Mr. Kinsley is not long for the wired world. But he said he is committed to "multiple years" there, though he is not under contract.

`SOUR PUSSES'

He called critics of Slate "sour pusses," noting that no one else has found the answer to successful Web publishing, either.

Mr. Kinsley said every day he faces hundreds of little decisions about how to conduct publishing on the evolving Web, such as developing guidelines for separating advertising from editorial content and structuring writers' contracts for material which will exist "in perpetuity."

"I'm still getting used to this idea every time you open the same page a new ad pops up," he said.

But even with the burdens of pioneering a new medium, the power of the Internet and digital technology inspire Mr. Kinsley. He finds the Internet's ability to deliver information as quickly as broadcast media but without geographical limitations "incredibly liberating."

QUICK RESPONSE

He waxed enthusiastic recalling an e-mail from a reader in Germany which he received less than two days after an article went to press.

He also relishes the bottom-line benefits of publishing on the Net. Though the challenges are many, Mr. Kinsley said Slate has a better chance of surviving than a traditional magazine because it doesn't incur printing or mailing costs.

"Basically, anyone can publish a Web magazine," he said. "It looks like the era of the pamphleteer is coming back with a vengeance." c

Copyright November 1996, Crain Communications Inc.

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