Policy made plain.
Feb. 14 1999 3:30 AM

Slate Goes Free


Almost a year ago, Slate began charging a subscription fee for access to most of our contents and services. Effective today, all current editorial content will be free. E-mail deliveries, our weekly print-out edition, "The Fray," and "The Compost" (the Slate archive) will still be available to subscribers only, and we will be adding new subscriber benefits. Current subscribers will get a special offer for continuing under the new arrangement. If you're not satisfied with it, we will happily refund the balance of your subscription. Well, happily is an exaggeration. But we do appreciate the folks who've put their $19.95 on the line, and we don't want anyone to feel cheated or abused by this new subscription policy.


Q: "New subscription policy" my Aunt Sally. Who are you trying to kid? You're obviously backing down.

A: No, no, you see there's always been a mix of free and paid stuff ... we're just changing the mix ... OK, OK, sure: We're backing down.


Q: Why?

A: In a nutshell, it now looks as if it's going to be easier to sell ads but harder to sell subscriptions than we thought a year ago. Ten to 15 people visit our free areas every month for each one paying subscriber. (That's counting a reader just once no matter how often he or she visits.) It's painful to think of turning away so many Slate readers from so much of our content--not to mention the potential readers who don't come in the first place. The spreadsheet wizards figure that ad revenue from the increased traffic will more than compensate for the lost subscriptions.

Q: Well, duh! Everybody said you can't charge for content on the Internet. Information wants to be free! Unless it's about sex or stocks. But oh no, you knew better. You'd show the world. You'd charge for news digests, for political analysis, for cultural discussions, for poetry f'r Chrissake. Don't you feel like jerks?

A: Not really. OK, maybe a bit. But look: This is terra incognita. We never claimed to have found the one true path. We tried one thing, now we're trying something else, and we'll keep trying until we figure it out. Although we are owned by a rich company, becoming financially self-sustaining remains a crucial goal. And it's not as if anyone else has figured it out either. Let him or her with a Webzine that's breaking even cast the first stone. (And "going to break even next year" doesn't count. Every money-losing magazine in history is going to break even next year.)


Q: But clearly, at least in hindsight, you got something wrong. What was it?

Clearly, yes. It may just have been that we were too early. There is too much free stuff out there, the process of paying and accessing what you paid for is too clumsy and unfamiliar, and so on. Some of this may change. But we also may have missed a couple of more fundamental truths about the Web. One concerns readers and one concerns advertisers.

Web readers surf. They go quickly from site to site. If they really like a particular site, they may visit it often, but they are unlikely to devote a continuous half-hour or more to any one site the way you might read a traditional paper magazine in one sitting. This appears to be in the nature of the Web and not something that is likely to change. And it makes paying for access to any particular site a bigger practical and psychological hurdle.

Web advertisers, meanwhile, don't seem to place any special value on reaching paying subscribers. That was a bit surprising, since traditional magazine advertisers usually require paying subscribers. Even profitable magazines often spend more money finding and signing up subscribers than those subscribers will ever pay. But if they just gave the magazine away, advertisers would lose interest.


Why doesn't this apply on the Web? Probably because Web advertisers pay on the basis of ads served. If you buy an ad in a print magazine with a 500,000 circulation, you have no way of knowing how many of those readers actually saw your ad. But if they paid for the magazine, you at least have some assurance that they picked it up. On the Web, that assurance is unnecessary. If you buy 500,000 ad impressions on Slate, you know that your ad has been put on someone's computer screen 500,000 times. This is a great selling point for Web advertising, but it radically changes the economics of charging for subscriptions.

Q: Isn't this change a sign that you're getting desperate, that Microsoft is losing interest, that you're about to fold, that the end is nigh, strange and dreadful diseases are about to ravage the population, the stock market is going to tank, Linda Tripp will get her own TV talk show, and so on?

A: For heaven's sake, you made the same sort of dire predictions when we started charging for content a year ago. We have had nothing but support from the company, both in general and for every stage of our ongoing experiment. One benefit of making our current content free is that Slate will be able to participate more fully in the new Microsoft "portal" site, msn.com.

Q: Do you promise this is the last big change in Slate that you'll put us through?


A: Absolutely not. This is an adventure. Thanks for joining us on it.

Q: One final question. What does Bill have to say about this?

A: It's true we approached the CEO with some trepidation, and his initial reaction was not encouraging. He turned to his guard dogs and said, "Neukom! Herbold! Kill!" But then he said, "Wait. What will happen to that Emily Yoffe who writes the column about the tabloids?" She'll get many new readers, we explained. "And 'Dear Prudence,' and Edelstein's movie reviews, and all those e-mail back-and-forths?" Ditto, ditto, ditto, we replied.

"OK," he said, turning to his canine physiotherapist, "Ballmer, call off the dogs. Give them some print magazine to eat instead. They just love the Economist."