Politics and Culture

Politics and Culture

Politics and Culture

Policy made plain.
July 19 1998 3:30 AM

Politics and Culture

Slate progress report.

Slate Progress Report

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When Slate became a paid-subscription site in March, we steeled ourselves for an inevitable drop in our audience. We're delighted to report that it hasn't happened. We had more visitors in June than in any month since we began publishing two years ago. According to Media Metrix, the leading Internet audience measurement service, Slate had a "reach" of 0.6 in June. Reach is defined as the percentage of the total World Wide Web audience in America that visited your site at least once during the month. Out of a Web audience Media Metrix estimates as 40.4 million, a reach of 0.6 works out to 240,000 individual visitors. That doesn't include visitors outside the United States--at least 10 percent of our audience, as best we can estimate. It also doesn't include subscribers who read Slate exclusively through e-mail delivery or subscribers to Slate on Paper.

Paid subscribers now number 23,000--up 35 percent from the 17,000 subscribers we had the day we went paid. That's an encouraging rate of growth. But how can we have 10 times as many visitors as we have subscribers? Answer: People are coming to our "front porch"--the small sample of Slate's contents that is made available to nonsubscribers--and they are taking advantage of our free month's trial offer. Naturally, we hope these nibbles of Slate's splendors will persuade visitors to purchase the full meal. And that appears to be happening.

Among magazines on the Web, Slate's reach of 0.6 is lower than that of Pathfinder (the site shared by all Time Inc. magazines) and Hotwired, and higher than that of U.S. News, Salon, and the Economist. All these other sites except the Economist are free. The New Yorker has no Web site to speak of.

Politics and Culture

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Jacob Weisberg, Slate's chief political correspondent, looked around him a few months ago and saw nothing but squalor. This is not a reference to Slate's New York bureau, where Jacob hangs his laptop. Those offices actually are quite snazzy, in an ever-so-faintly seedy downtown sort of way, inciting no small amount of envy in those of us who labor in the bland corporate vineyards of Redmond, Wash. No, what struck Jacob as oppressively squalid was the subject matter he was forced to contemplate week after week: fleeting, age-inappropriate sexual liaisons in the Oval Office; the seep of money into every cranny of the political system; Trent Lott; Newt Gingrich. It was more than a sensitive soul could bear.

"Where is beauty?" Jacob wailed. "Where is art? Man does not live by Social Security privatization alone." And he pleaded to the editor, "Take me away from here, to a realm of high thoughts and charmed vistas, where I may contemplate matters more lovely than special prosecutors and nuclear proliferation. Where aesthetic considerations are paramount and base motives are unknown."

And the editor heard Jacob's plea. And he said, "Arise, Jacob, and put aside politics for a few months. Go forth and cover culture and the arts. There, among the intellectuals and book people and artsy-fartsies generally, you will find nothing but wholesomeness. Beauty is in their hearts and beauty is on their minds. Dwell among them and let their purity wash away the filth of politics with which you are encrusted after lo! these many columns and articles on the subject."

But Jacob was pierced by shafts of doubt. "Are you sure," he asked the editor, "that the world of culture is actually so wonderful and that the people who dwell therein are actually so pure? If so, what will I write about? Goodness and purity maketh not much of a column. What will I impugn, if not motives?"

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"Fear not, Jacob," the editor replied. "You will think of something. And, come to think of it, the world of culture may not be as pure as all that after all. There is squalor aplenty. But at least it will be a different kind of squalor." And the editor decreed that Jacob's first culture column should be called "The Browser." And he decreed that Jacob's first Browser column should appear Wednesday, July 22.

And it was good. (Or it had better be.)

Musical Chairs

Meanwhile, though, who would cover politics while Jacob dwelt in the land of the artsy-fartsies? Using several top executive search firms, as well as experimental talent sorting software from Nathan Myhrvold's research labs here at Microsoft, we scientifically ranked everyone in the entire world on the basis of their qualifications to cover American politics for an online magazine. By a miraculous and money-saving coincidence, No. 1 turned out to be Slate Senior Writer David Plotz, whose first "Strange Bedfellow" column was posted yesterday.

Complainer

Slate's Explainer is complaining about the quality of the questions he is receiving. Explainer stands ready to explain items in the day's news that are confusing or vague or seemingly contradictory or otherwise inadequately explained by the conventional media. But many of the questions he receives, he says, are "tendentious." They don't really seek information or understanding. Questions such as "Why is Rep. John Kasich such a jerk?" are essentially unanswerable. They begin from a debatable premise and go on to raise profound metaphysical questions that are beyond the scope of this Slate feature. Questions such as "How big a jerk is Rep. John Kasich?" are no better. The answer is inherently subjective. (Many people believe, in all sincerity, that he is a very small jerk. Nor does the question allow for the possibility, however slight, that he is not a jerk at all.) "Why doesn't my computer work?" is another category of questions Explainer is not prepared to answer. Questions about life and love should go to "Dear Prudence." But if there's something that truly puzzles you in the paper this morning, Explainer is eager to straighten you out.

--Michael Kinsley