Slate's brief, unfortunate period as a paid magazine began in February. We figured that readers accustomed to subscribing to paper magazines would readily fork over $19.95 for a year of Slate (and the premium of a Seattle-suitable Slate umbrella). Michael Kinsley gamely tried to persuade readers that paying for Slate was the right, even patriotic, thing to do: "One of Slate's main goals is to demonstrate, if we can, that the economics 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," Kinsley wrote in his "Readme" column. "If the Web can make serious journalism more easily self-supporting, that is a great gift from technology to democracy."
Given how early we were in the development of the medium, signing up more than 20,000 subscribers was hardly a defeat. But do the math—it barely covered our latte bills. And authors who had been reaching a growing and enthusiastic audience suddenly found themselves performing for a tiny circle of readers. Many of us bit our tongues—or didn't—while waiting for the experiment to be pronounced a failure.
The other excitement was the Monica Lewinsky scandal—nicknamed "Flytrap" by Slate. Timothy Noah inherited "Chatterbox," a funny, idiosyncratic political column. Several authors collaborated to produce a serialized e-mail novel. Titled Reply All, it was very ambitious, and somewhat less successful. We launched "The Explainer," which became our most popular regular column. And we tweaked the corporate masters with daily coverage of the Microsoft antitrust trial. The dispatches gleefully mocked the stumbling lawyers and implausible executives sent to defend the company. (This tweaking did not seem to bother the big boss: Bill Gates wrote a weeklong "Diary" for us that spring.)
Our experiment as a paid site ended abjectly on Valentine's Day, less than a year after it had begun. Wry political analysis, it turned out, was different from porn. A few would pay for it, but not enough to cover our costs. Slate's new publisher, Scott Moore, brought us a new business plan: No subscriptions = more readers. More readers = more advertisers. More advertisers = more revenue.
One of our signal achievements of 1999 wasn't recognized at the time. Slatestarted running Mickey Kaus' musings and linkings under the rubric "Kausfiles." There was as yet no name for what Mickey was writing—a casual, first-person, frequently updated, obsessive, link-heavy journal. Only several years later was it recognized that Mickey had been writing what was probably the first political blog. Our favorite Canadian arrived, too: Dahlia Lithwick began covering the Supreme Court, and her hilarious, eagle-eyed dispatches soon became required reading for every lawyer in Washington—and many elsewhere around the country.
Regular contributor Herb Stein died in September. And in what would become a regular pattern, the New York Times started poaching Slate writers. Paul Krugman was the first to go, lured away with an op-ed column. The Times soon nabbed Virginia Heffernan, Judith Shulevitz, and Jodi Kantor as well.
The year began with a pointless, mean-spirited, and highly enjoyable spat with Salon, which had made a public stock offering and dramatically expanded its staff. Slate's rather different response to the Internet bubble involved hunkering down and controlling costs. The competition culminated with Michael Kinsley and Salon editor David Talbot slinging insults at each other. Talbot charged that Kinsley was "not the sexiest guy in the world." Kinsley responded by gleefully dissecting Salon's dismal balance sheet. Slate's traffic surged around our 2000 election coverage. We also made news by flouting two silly election-year conventions. During presidential primaries, we posted leaked exit-poll results that other publications were withholding until they were prepared to declare a winner. And just before Election Day, more than 40 Slate staffers disclosed who they were voting for and why. (Gore trounced Bush at Slate, for all the good it did him.) The eventual winner gave Slate a great present. Jacob Weisberg began tracking George W. Bush's malapropisms and publishing them as "Bushisms," which also became a series of popular books.