Welcome to SLATE

Policy made plain.
June 25 1996 3:30 AM

Welcome to SLATE

An introduction and apologia.

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The name? It means nothing, or practically nothing. We chose it as an empty vessel into which we can pour meaning. We hope SLATE will come to mean good original journalism in this new medium. Beyond that, who knows? Good magazines are exercises in serendipity. Credit--or blame--for the name "SLATE," by the way, goes to David Weld, then of Microsoft, now of Cognisoft Corp.

A Seattle cyberwag says that the name "SLATE" is appropriate, because whenever he asks anyone from Microsoft, "How's your project coming along?" the answer he usually gets is, "'s late." SLATE, in fact, has been reasonably prompt. Less than six months ago, it was a four-page memorandum and a single Internet naif. SLATE is not the first "webzine," but everyone in this nascent business is still struggling with some pretty basic issues. Starting an online magazine is like starting a traditional paper magazine by asking: "OK, you chop down the trees. Then what?"

To be honest, we are running late on a few things. For the reader--you--there is good news and bad news here. The good news is that our billing system isn't ready yet. We intend to charge $19.95 a year for SLATE. That is far less than the cost of equivalent print magazines, because there's no paper, printing, or postage. But $19.95 ($34.95 for two years) is more than zero, which is what Web readers are used to paying. We believe that expecting readers to share the cost, as they do in print, is the only way serious journalism on the Web can be self-supporting. Depending completely on advertisers would not be healthy even if it were possible.

And we want to be self-supporting. Indeed one of SLATE's main goals is to demonstrate, if we can, that the economies of cyberspace make it easier for our kind of journalism to pay for itself. Most magazines like SLATE depend on someone's generosity or vanity or misplaced optimism to pay the bills. But self-supporting journalism is freer journalism. (As A.J. Liebling said, freedom of the press is for those who own one.) If the Web can make serious journalism more easily self-supporting, that is a great gift from technology to democracy.

For the moment, though, SLATE is yours for free. So enjoy. We expect to start requiring registration in a few weeks, and to require payment beginning Nov. 1.

The bad news for readers is that some features aren't quite ready yet. Prime among them is "The Fray," our reader-discussion forum. Meanwhile, though, please e-mail any comments you may have to slate@msn.com. We'll be publishing a traditional "Letters to the Editor" page until The Fray is up and running in a few weeks.

We especially need, and appreciate, your comments in these early weeks. Every new magazine is a "beta" version for a while, especially a new magazine in a new medium. SLATE has gotten enormous hype--some of it, to be sure, self-induced, but much of it not. We appreciate the attention. But of course, it also makes us nervous. We have a smaller budget and staff than most well-known magazines--even smaller than some webzines. We don't claim to have all the answers. But, with your help, we plan to have all the answers by Christmas. 

So What's in It?

First, let me urge you to read a special page called Consider Your Options. This page explains and executes the various ways you can receive and read SLATE. If you don't like reading on a computer screen, for example, there's a special version of SLATE that you can print out in its entirety, reformatted like a traditional print magazine. If you don't mind reading on a screen but hate waiting for pages to download--and hate running up those online charges from your Internet provider--you will soon be able to download the whole magazine at once and read it offline.

Also on the Consider Your Options page, you can order SLATE to be delivered to your computer by e-mail. (Caution: This may not work with your e-mail system.) We'll even send you SLATEon Paper, a monthly compilation of highlights from SLATE, through the U.S. Mail. (The cost is $29 a year. Call 800-555-4995 to order.)

Individual copies of SLATEon Paper will be available exclusively at Starbucks. And selected articles from SLATE will also appear in Time magazine.

While you're on the Consider Your Options page, please read about how to navigate around SLATE. We use page numbers, like a traditional print magazine, and have tried to make it as easy as possible either to "flip through" the magazine or to and from the Table of Contents.

OK, But What's in It??

SLATE is basically a weekly: Most articles will appear for a week. But there will be something new to read almost every day. Some elements will change constantly. Other elements will appear and be removed throughout the week. Every article will indicate when it was "posted" and when it will be "composted." As a general rule the Back of the Book, containing cultural reviews and commentary, will be posted Mondays and Tuesdays, the longer Features will be posted Wednesdays and Thursdays, and the front-of-the-book Briefing section will be posted Fridays. If you miss something, you can easily call it up from our archive, "The Compost."

Let me try to describe a typical issue of SLATE.

The Readme column will not always be as solipsistic as this one. It will usually be a commentary on public affairs by one of SLATE's editors.

Several regular departments in the Briefing section are attempts at "meta-news": the news about the news, a sense of how the week's big stories are being played and perceived. The Week/The Spin takes a dozen or so topics, from this week's election-campaign developments to the latest big book from Knopf, and analyses, as objectively as possible, the spin they're getting, the sub-angles that are emerging, and so on. In Other Magazines uses the covers and contents of Time, Newsweek, etc., as a handy measure of what the culture considers important. (We aim to have these magazines in SLATE even before they reach the newsstands or your mailbox.) The Horse Race tracks the presidential candidates like stocks, as priced by the opinion polls, the pundits, and a genuine market in political candidates run out of the University of Iowa. Our man William Saletan will compute and analyze changes in the pundits index.

The Gist, by contrast, is SLATE's effort to provide a quick education on some current issue in a form as free of spin as possible. Also free of quotes, anecdotes, and other paraphernalia. The only 1,000 words you'll have to read when you might rather read nothing at all.

In a weekly department called Varnish Remover, political consultant Robert Shrum will deconstruct a 30-second TV spot from the election campaign. You can download a video or audio clip of the spot itself. "Assessment" will be a short, judgmental profile of some figure in the news. (Coming up soon: James Fallows on Wired magazine's godfather, Nicholas Negroponte.)

Stanford economist Paul Krugman writes The Dismal Scientist, a once-a-month column on economic policy. (See his debut essay in this issue, about the economic war within the Clinton administration.) University of Rochester economist Steven Landsburg writes monthly on "Everyday Economics," using economic analysis to illuminate everyday life. (His first column, in our next issue, will explain how sexual promiscuity can actually reduce the spread of AIDS.)

"The Earthling" will be a monthly column by Robert Wright, contributor to the New Republic and Time, and author of the acclaimed book on evolutionary psychology, The Moral Animal. Other regular Briefing features will include a Press column by our deputy editor, Jack Shafer.

Doodlennium is our weekly cartoon strip by Mark Alan Stamaty, whose "Washingtoon" appeared for many years in the Washington Post and Time. Our SLATE Diary will be an actual daily diary, written and posted every weekday by someone with an interesting mind. Our first diarist is David O. Russell, writer and director of Flirting With Disaster. Our second diarist will be novelist Muriel Spark.

Can There Possibly be More?

Our Features section begins each week with the Committee of Correspondence, our e-mail discussion group. The committee is run by Herbert Stein, a former chairman of the president's Council of Economic Advisers best-known now for his witty columns in the Wall Street Journal. We have great hopes for e-mail as a medium of debate that can combine the immediacy of talk-television with the intellectual discipline of the written word. We hope for something halfway between The McLaughlin Group and the correspondence page of the New York Review of Books. Will it work? Check out our first attempt--Does Microsoft Play Fair?--and let us know what you think.

The Features section is also where we run longer articles and occasional humor pieces (that is, pieces that are intentionally, or at least aspirationally, humorous). This week in The Temptation of Bob Dole, SLATE's Washington editor, Jodie Allen, cruelly analyzes the arguments for a tax cut. Social critic Nicholas Lemann writes on Jews in Second Place, about what happens to American Jews as Asians replace them at the top of the meritocracy. And the legendary recluse Henry David Thoreau emerges to give SLATE readers an exclusive peek at his new Web page.

In SLATE Gallery, we have a continuous exhibition of computer-based art. You may like or dislike this stuff (we'll have plenty of linked commentary to help you decide). What appeals to us about computer art is that SLATE can show you not reproductions, but the actual art itself. We start with an offering by Jenny Holzer.

This week's reviews include Ann Hulbert's book review of Miss Manners' latest encyclical; Sarah Kerr's television review of the changing fashions in season finales; Larissa MacFarquhar's High Concept column, about how managed care could improve psychotherapy; and Cullen Murphy's The Good Word, about the difference between "Jesuitical" and "Talmudic."

In general, SLATE's Back of the Book will contain a weekly book review, alternating television and movie reviews, and a rotating menu of columns on music (classical and popular), sports, web sites, and other topics. Jeffrey Steingarten will be writing monthly on food ("In the Soup"), Anne Hollander on fashion ("Clothes Sense"), and Margaret Talbot on "Men and Women." Audio and video clips will be offered where appropriate.

Every issue will have a poem, read aloud by the author, with text. In this issue is a new poem by Seamus Heaney.

And coming up soon, two additional Back of the Book features: an interactive acrostic puzzle, and a stock-market contest.

Does SLATE Have a Slant?

SLATE is owned by Microsoft Corp., and that bothers some people. Can a giant software company put out a magazine that is free to think for itself? All we can say is that Microsoft has made all the right noises on this subject, and we look forward to putting the company's hands-off commitment to the test. But the concern strikes me as misplaced. In a day of media conglomerates with myriad daily conflicts of interest--Time Warner, Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., Disney-ABC--how can it be a bad thing for a new company to begin competing in the media business? A journalist who worries about Microsoft putting out a magazine is a journalist with a steady job.

Readers may also wonder whether SLATE will have a particular political flavor. The answer is that we do not set out with any ideological mission or agenda. On the other hand, we are not committed to any artificial balance of views. We will publish articles from various perspectives, but we will not agonize if the mix averages out to be somewhere other than dead center.

A good magazine, though, does develop a personality, an attitude, and some prejudices--even crotchets. A few of SLATE's are already becoming clear. In discussing current events, we have a preference for policy over politics. We'd rather discuss the effect of Bob Dole's tax-cut proposal on the economy than its effect on Bill Clinton. Within the policy arena, we seem to have a special fondness for economics. This was not planned; it's one of those serendipitous developments I mentioned. Whether it reflects good luck or bad luck is a matter of taste (yours).

Finally, we intend to take a fairly skeptical stance toward the romance and rapidly escalating vanity of cyberspace. We do not start out with the smug assumption that the Internet changes the nature of human thought, or that all the restraints that society imposes on individuals in "real life" must melt away in cyberia. There is a deadening conformity in the hipness of cyberspace culture in which we don't intend to participate. Part of our mission at SLATE will be trying to bring cyberspace down to earth.

Should be fun. Thanks for joining us.

Michael Kinsley is a columnist for the Washington Post and the founding editor of Slate.

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