When Slate launched on June 24, 1996, it looked a lot more like a print magazine that happened to be published on the Web than a product created specifically for the new medium (although the New Republic never played a Fats Waller tune when you opened it, as the early Slate did).
The first home page featured a traditional table of contents—complete with page numbers. Rather than surfing, or whatever the verb du jour was, readers were expected to "flip through" the stories, page by page.
Ten years on, it's hard to remember how strange and novel online publishing seemed back then. Founding Editor Michael Kinsley spent four paragraphs of his introductory piece instructing readers on how to navigate the Web site (and advising anxious visitors who "don't like reading on a computer screen" about all the ways they could print out Slate and read it on paper).
The original design was elegant and spare—and packed with white space. One reason is that we hadn't sold much advertising—we intended to cover our costs by charging $19.95 per year for access. These days most Web sites are designed to cram in as many ads as possible.
In February 1997, we unleashed our first redesign. We were publishing about 20 stories per week, which seemed like a lot at the time. (That's about one day's worth in 2006.) The problem was that our Table of Contents–simply a long list of stories—was too long and not very enticing.
So, we added this entry page, known as "the front porch." It featured an illustration and four or five tantalizing cover lines. Attractive and alluring—or so we hoped. The problem was that readers had to make an extra click to get to the full list of stories—and to the banner ads that appeared with them. Users didn't like the extra step, and neither did our (few) advertisers.
Ah, 1998, the year of our brief and ultimately unsuccessful dalliance with paid subscriptions. After March 9 of that year, most of our content was accessible only to subscribers. The annual rate was $19.95 (charter subscribers received a Slateumbrella or a piece of Microsoft software as a mark of our appreciation for their good taste and early support). We still have a few leftover umbrellas around the office.
Charging for Slate was a noble experiment but a doomed one. Even in the pre-blog, pre-Google era, it quickly became clear that if other sites couldn't link to our stories, Slate would be left out of the national debate. We watched our traffic, and our influence, fall.
To attract new subscribers, we offered a few free stories each day. Every afternoon a few articles were painstakingly moved to the free side of the subscription wall, only to be painstakingly returned to the corral the next day. (As you may divine from my resentful tone, shifting stories between free and paid access was a royal pain.)
On Feb. 14, 1999, our experiment with subscriptions ended. Fifteen people were visiting our free areas every month for every paying subscriber. We hated to turn away readers, and with the boom in online advertising, we realized that was a better business model. (Back then, the phrase "business model" was heard even more often than "Paris Hilton" is today.)
In May 1999, we introduced our first complete redesign since the launch in 1996. We let readers choose between two home-page options: They could see everything we'd published over the course of the previous week, or they could just look at the pieces that were new that day.
The front porch disappeared, and for the first time we used a graphic image at the top of the home page. Back then we mostly used illustrations—these days, a mix of illustrations and photographs are used.
In fall 2001, we added much-needed promotional space to the top of the home page, allowing us to run bigger cover images and to highlight more stories. We were publishing so many pieces that we wanted to call out the most compelling ones.
By November 2003, we'd found the style that we've stuck with since. A large graphic at the top of the page—which goes by the mysterious in-house name "TAP 1"—highlights one particularly interesting story (or sometimes more). We also added four smaller promotional spaces to the right—called "TAP 3"—and underneath, the "News Fix," where we offer quick links to our most frequently updated departments. (Don't worry, there is a TAP 2—for when another story is promoted along with or below TAP 1.)
On June 26, Slate will introduce a new look to usher in our second decade. Among the many changes is this brand new logo—bigger and bolder than before. We've also tweaked the home page to take advantage of increases in monitor size, improved our navigation throughout the site, and added a host of new features. Check back to see our latest redesign for yourself.
In the 10 years since Slate launched, we've gone through several home-page redesigns.
Click here to see a slide show of some of our successes and failures..