It was originally going to be called Boot, in tribute to the protagonist of Evelyn Waugh's novel Scoop. Then someone informed Michael Kinsley that "boot" was slang for "vomit." So Kinsley picked Slate instead. In our inaugural issue, June 24, 1996, he wrote that the name "means nothing, or practically nothing. We chose it as an empty vessel into which we can pour meaning. We hope Slatewill come to mean good original journalism in this new medium. Beyond that, who knows?"
The magazine, as we all insisted on calling it, was a fortunate product of Kinsley's curiosity, Microsoft's money, and the emerging infatuation with the Internet. Tired of playing the liberal on Crossfire and of working for unprofitable journals beholden to whimsical benefactors, Kinsley approached college acquaintance Steve Ballmer in the summer of 1995 and suggested that Microsoft publish a Webzine. An online magazine, liberated from the production and mailing costs that squeezed general-interest print titles, might actually become profitable. Ballmer and Bill Gates, newly enthralled with the Internet, quickly signed up Kinsley. On Christmas Day, 1995, he moved to Seattle (occasioning a Newsweek cover for which he posed in a rain slicker, holding a salmon) and set up shop on the Microsoft campus.
When Slate launched six months later, it was both radical and conservative. Slate intended to be skeptical about its new medium, Kinsley declared in his opening essay: "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."
The early Slate was indeed earthbound. At first, Slate was essentially a weekly print magazine that happened to be published on the Web—more like a New Republic without the lead time than a revolution. Most articles were posted on Friday, and the site was not regularly updated during the week. (The first "issues" even had page numbers.) But we took baby steps toward Web-iness with e-mail debates and computer art exhibits. Perhaps the most important editorial accomplishment of our first six months was "The Slate 60," a roster of the year's most generous charitable donors. The ranking would become an annual tradition.
By year's end, Slatewas attracting 15,000 readers a day. We had offices in Seattle, New York (home base for culture editor Judith Shulevitz and political correspondent Jacob Weisberg), and Washington (a tiny bureau run by Jodie Allen). Slate lost money, of course—our only revenues were a tiny trickle from early banner ads. One creative business scheme went memorably awry. Our first publisher struck a deal with a burgeoning coffee chain called Starbucks to sell copies of a monthly Slate compendium in its outlets around the country.It was a disaster. Store managers had no idea what to do with the magazines, which mostly piled up in their storerooms under boxes of Amaretto syrup. So much for Seattle synergy.
We began the year by chickening out. Our plan had been to start charging for subscriptions to Slate in January. But our payment software was buggy, which gave us the excuse we were looking for to postpone the day of reckoning.
More notable was that Slatebegan to act less like a print magazine and more like a Web site. One prod for this was the death of Princess Diana in August. When the news broke, Web traffic spiked to record levels, and our competitors (notably Salon) crammed their sites with news stories, speculation, memorials, poems—anything to capture browsers. Slatechose not to interrupt one of its summer "skip weeks"—a tradition inherited from print magazines in which publications shut down and everyone goes to the beach. Diana's death finally made us understand that online journalism is by nature a round-the-clock business. Our publishing pace began to pick up—from weekly to daily to several times a day.
Another mark of our accelerating pace was the launch of "Today’s Papers," an early morning summary of the five national newspapers. Scott Shuger stayed up every night reading the papers on the Web, then posted the column by 6 a.m. and e-mailed it to tens of thousands of subscribers. (Matt Drudge, then an obscure Internet junkie, had been our first choice to write "Today's Papers," but he turned us down and suggested Scott.) Other beginnings: Herb Stein, our 80-year-old economics columnist—and the most rational man you could hope to meet—started writing an agony column called "Dear Prudence." Atul Gawande inaugurated the "Medical Examiner" column; James Surowiecki signed on as our first business writer; and Michael Lewis moved to Silicon Valley and started covering Internet-boom culture for us in a column called "Millionerds."