And subscribers don't really pay for print magazines: Even very successful glossy magazines often don't get enough from subscribers to cover the cost of finding them (through junk mail) and signing them up. The reason they bother to extract money from people is to persuade advertisers that these people really want the magazine and therefore are likely to actually read it. On the Web, you don't have to do that indirectly: You know exactly how many people have clicked their way onto a page. That makes the whole system of soliciting and charging subscribers unnecessary. There will probably be a small role for subscriber-paid journalism on the Web, but not a large one. And Slate is unlikely to be at the head of the pack. Been there, done that.
The magazine I dreamed of starting was a newsmagazine. On paper, on the Web, painted on the walls of caves—I didn't care. My theory was that Time and Newsweek had basically abandoned their mission. They responded to every crisis of identity for the past half-century in exactly the wrong way. From television to the Internet, the newsmags always assumed that new developments were making their central function of intelligently summarizing the news obsolete. So, for half a century or more they have been in retreat from that true function into features, consumerism, photographs, investigative reporting, health, sex—anything but telling and trying to explain what is going on in the world at the moment.
In fact (or so I theorize), the explosion of information, analysis, and opinion between 1950 and today makes a smart summarizing function more necessary, not less so. And that is what I thought Slate could provide, occupying the ground abandoned by its betters. Happily, the Web is made for this kind of thing. With links backward to the original story, or forward to a report due out next Tuesday, easy-to-use charts and graphs and photos, etc., the Web could perform "intelligent synthesis" on the world and the news a lot better than the traditional newsmagazines could. Or that was my theory. For 10 years, Slate has tried to do that and—especially under the current editor, Jacob Weisberg—a lot more.
Has Slate succeeded? Recently I was out of town and out of touch for about a week. Coming home, I read Time and Newsweek on the plane, then spent about 45 minutes with Slate when I got to a computer. So, which would I pick if I had to choose just one to bring me up to speed? Although I've had nothing to do with Slate's management now for almost half its existence, I suppose my objectivity may still be suspect. I say only that the answer made me very, very happy.
This article is adapted from the introduction to The Best of Slate: A 10th Anniversary Anthology. Click here to buy the book.